Thursday, April 30, 2009

Baptism Sermon

For my theological capstone class on Baptism, I was required to write a sermon. Only caveat? It had to be on baptism.

So the following text is based off of Matthew 3:13-17. Let me know what you think
He stood amongst the crowd that had gathered to listen to John, watching as they recoiled and reacted. John had always been good at this, the controversy, the bizarre appearance, the fiery words. John had already hit his favorite lines, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees vipers, the bit about Israel being a tree cut down, the brutal swipe at what it meant to be a child of Abraham. John was in good form today, pacing and frothing, fingers pointing and voice rising and falling in thunderous crescendos. The family had stopped wondering where John learned all this; the speeches, the clothing, the gaze that never looked at you but always through you. He should have been a priest; he was after all, from the line of Aaron and Abijah. He should have followed his father into the temple but had wandered out into the wilderness instead. And now…well now John was as He saw him. Wild John, the man who wore camel hair and ate bugs. And claimed to be preparing the world for something. For someone.

He stood amongst the crowd that had gathered to listen to John, watching hardened hearts break, watching the waters part and then swallow up person after person after person. This was the Jordan after all; Israel had crossed it once to enter into their new land. Why not cross it again and enter into new life? He smiled to think of his namesake: standing on the banks of the Jordan, looking back at the people of Israel as they grumbled and mumbled, telling them “Let’s go people. God is even going to part the waters for us. Again.” Poor Joshua. Joshua knew what it was like to remind people about who God was and what he’d done for the people of Israel. Joshua knew what it was like to call the people back from the crooked roads onto the straight path. And once again a man of God was standing on the river bank “Let’s go people. Repent. Let’s get on the straight road again. He’s Coming.”

He stood amongst the crowd that had gathered to listen to John, watching the people give each other confused glances, watching the people give each other alarmed looks. “Prepare the way of the Lord?” It was hard to believe that God was on any road, coming anywhere near Israel. He’d been silent for so long; he had given over Israel into the hands of her enemies. Why show up now? “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I.” Even stranger. Is there some group of wild men out in the deserts of Judea, all uniformed in camel hair and leather, staging a religious coup as we speak? Is John implying that he’s powerful? Compelling, maybe. Powerful? Who is this one he speaks about? Will we know him when we see him? He watched them as they turned to one another, “…whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” Is the one coming some sort of Lord that he can’ carry his own sandals? How low would you have to be to be unfit to carry sandals? Who is Coming? Who is he speaking about?

He stood among the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and remembered the stories they’d been told over and over and over again about the days of their birth. Angels and wise men following stars, shepherds and barren women and virgins and fleeing to Egypt. Dreams and temple dedications and Anna the prophetess and kind, old Simeon, portents of great things to come. And then the days after those stories. The normal, boring, regular days in temple and at home, in the shop with Joseph. The steady stream of typical days of family dinners and sibling squabbles and aching muscles as He learned Joseph’s trade. And then the days that had become strange again. When John had disappeared from the family gatherings, and old Aunt Elizabeth whispered mysteriously, “I always knew he would…I knew he would.” When He himself had begun to feel the burden of the future pressing down on him, when he himself began to think about what was to come and unexplainably, knew. The days when he walked around Nazareth and talked with his neighbors and knew that soon things would change, and that there would be a day when he was no longer welcomed here. The days when his mother Mary would walk into the shop and grab His hand and just stare at him. Stare at him like something was going to happen to him and she wanted to remember him forever as he was in that moment.

He stood among the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and breathed deeply. In much the same way the John had been driven out into the desert, He had been driven here. This wasn’t the first time that John had preached his fire and judgment at the Jordan. John had been preaching for days now and the discussion around the family was whether or not they should go. Elizabeth would have gone if she had been alive still, and Mary would have come if her life had not already been plagued by scandal. Joseph kept silent about it, as he did in most things. His brothers and sisters had laughed it off, regretting that cousin John had turned out to be one of those ‘crazy men’ who plagued Israel in these days. But He, He could not stay away. The Jordan called to him as it must have called to the tribes all those thousands of years ago. And after days of thinking about praying, today He had come. Expecting everything and nothing, knowing only that today something was going to happen. And that everything would change.

He stood among the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and began to move to the front of the group. He passed Pharisees and Sadducees, soldiers and publicans, priests and tax collectors, prostitutes and widows. He threaded his way through families with small children, and around rabbis with their groups of disciples. He moved through the crowd in silence, seeing all around him but hearing the ceaseless call to come forward, to see John. The water was calling. God was calling.

He came out from among the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and stood on the banks of the Jordan. And John, between impassioned cries for repentance and the condemning judgment of God, saw him. To the crowd, the silent stare shared between John and the stranger was brief. Strange, but brief. But for John and He, the moment stretched out like pulled glass – vivid and fragile and never to be recreated. In the time between sight and speech, John’s world collapsed in on him and then expanded again, realization and shock stealing his words, hope and fear throttling his breath. The words that he had been preaching had somehow manifested themselves, the road that God had been traveling on unexpectedly crossed the Jordan. John saw Him standing at the river bank. The man had an axe in his hands, ready to sever the root. No, he was holding a winnowing fork. No, he was blazing in the fire, the Shekinah Glory that only Moses had ever seen. And suddenly the visions were gone and the shock was even greater. Him. It was Jesus. And he was wading into the Jordan river towards him.

He waded out into the river in front of the crowd that had gathered to listen to John. And when he reached him, John’s face grew white and his voice shook. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" The crowd could no longer hear what was being said, and so they strained in closer, crowding the banks of the river, hoisting children upon their shoulders. They knew the scene had changed, the play had a new character, and they wanted to see. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" John, face to face with that which he had been so long preparing, was no longer wild. Jesus knew this John, the contemplative, devoted, God-fearing John. The John who wrestled with the pronouncements and laments of the prophets, who wept when he broke the laws, the John who prayed without ceasing. He reached out and grabbed John’s shoulder and spoke with authority that younger cousins never have. “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

He stood in the river in front of the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and waited. “Let it be so” John whispered. He knew righteousness. The difficult and beautiful road that one traveled in obedience to God. The suffocating and liberating life that fulfilled all the laws. He also knew that righteousness was absent from this world, or at best, fragmented, perverted, cast aside. John craved righteousness, craved for the return to God, craved shalom that only comes when Israel was once again in full covenant with God. “Let it be so” Jesus whispered back. His road had been leading here for so long. He had seen this river many times, stood on it’s banks for hours, recounting the stories of Joshua and Israel. He had bathed in it, played in it, crossed it countless times. But now, the Jordan was no longer the river of his childhood – the Jordan was the road that stretched out before him. The Jordan was the beginning. “Let it be so…” they whispered together. And John baptized him.

Jesus rose up out of the water in front of the crowd that had gathered to listen to John and the heavens tore themselves apart. Jesus looked up at the sound and saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and it lighted upon him. It was like new wind, the breath of a newborn child, the rushing winds of the high mountain ranges and the whispered wind currents of the low valleys. It was like fire and ice, like the deepest darkness and the brightest of flames. It was like meeting your father for the first time and then realizing you always knew him. He was frozen like a pillar of marble, eyes gazing up into the heavens, shrouded in the spirit. The crowd was panicked, standing frozen with Him, fleeing from the river banks, shouting and arguing with one another. People who desire signs never really want them. John was still touching Jesus, his hand cradling Jesus’ neck, afraid to let go of that for which he had always hoped. The tearing of the skies was almost secondary to holding on to the promised One.

And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." John’s hand dropped from Jesus and he shook, trembled in fear and joy. The crowd fell to their knees, awed by the voice that they had so long craved to hear. And Jesus wept silent tears. Tears of joy for the final confirmation, the proud announcement, the knowledge that there were no more secrets. Tears of fear for the days to come, the misunderstandings, the challenges, the tribulations and persecutions. Tears of despair for where the road ahead would take him. For the fact that Sonship was costly. Silent tears that no one saw because their gaze was either to the heavens or to the earth. “This is my Son, whom I love.” It was one thing to hear Mary say it. And another to hear Joseph, silent, righteous, Joseph say it. This, this was full and deep, terrifying and completing. “With him I am well pleased.”

Jesus stood in the river in front of the remaining crowd that had gathered to listen to John, dripping wet and full of memory. He was the earth the moment that the seas had been made. He was Noah in the ark, saved from the deluge by God’s provision. He was Israel escaping Egypt through the waters of the Red sea, following fearfully behind Moses. He was Joshua standing at the Jordan. He was Elijah when the rains finally fell again. He was Namaan, healed and rising out of the water of the “mere” Jordan river. He was the wet fleece of Gideon’s, the sign of God’s promises. He was Israel, washed clean, over and over and over throughout time. He was mankind, purified, sanctified, set apart. The waters dripped from his nose and fingertips, his soggy clothing draping wetly across his body. And John wept silent tears. Tears of joy for the faithfulness of God and his promises. Tears of fear for the days ahead not only for himself but for his cousin, his Jesus, the promised ones. Tears of despair that he was not the long awaited one and would ever point to another. For the fact that Sonship is costly. Silent tears that no one saw because their gaze was either on Jesus or on the horizon as they fled the scene.

Jesus stood in the river in front of the few remaining who had gathered to listen to John, and turned towards his cousin. This would be the last time they saw one another, though neither could know that. John, Wild John in his camel hair and leather, Jesus, the Promised Jesus, in his soaking tunic. They stood in the river with each other, in silence and all the heavens and earth looked on. The time was finally come. The long years of waiting, the long silence of God, the fear that nothing would ever change…all done. Through the triumphs and tragedies, through failed kings and false priests, through exiles and judgment, through homecoming and rebuilding, through revolution and subjugation, God had been working, plotting, maneuvering, planning. Through the cries for mercy and mocking denials, through false messiah’s and puppet rulers, through despair and hope, God had been moving. And here, in the middle of the river that ran through Israel’s memory and heart, here two men, two cousins clasped each other.

It had begun. And all the world would be changed.

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