So I moved back out of the pulpit today and preached a fairly adapted version of this sermon. In weeks to come, I plan to continue preaching out of the pulpit, which means that what I post here will be similar to what I preached but not exactly the same. Enjoy – and consider what it means for you to be a baptized follower of Jesus.
Baptism of Our Lord (Year A) – Sunday, January 12, 2014 – Matthew 3:13-17
St. Jacob’s-Spaders and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Harrisonburg, Virginia
Pastor Evan Davis
Have you all ever heard of Shane Claiborne? He’s a guy who grew up an evangelical Christian in East Tennessee, but he would tell you he really met Jesus in the alleys of the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, in the faces of the homeless men and women he would hang out with, eat with, sleep alongside in alleys and parks. He’s one of the faces of a movement within the Church that is trying to help us all remember just who we’re following, here, as we call ourselves followers of Jesus. And at the 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans, he told an old story that sticks with me:
A homeless man came into a church one day, kind of a fancy church. He just strolled right down the center aisle, carrying all his bags, wearing his dirty, smelly street clothes. He came right up front and plopped down in the front row. Naturally, people started to look at him as if he didn’t belong and so pretty soon the pastor came up to him. And the pastor said, “Sir, I don’t know if you’ve been here before, but this is the house of God. And so I want you to do something for me, I want you to go out this week and ask God what you should wear when you come to church.” And so the homeless guy left, kind of awkwardly. A week passed, and then next Sunday he came back, wearing the same thing, all he had, his street clothes, carrying all his bags behind him. He plopped down up front just like the week before, and the pastor came up and said again, “sir, did you do what I told you to do and ask God what you should wear when you come to church?” And the homeless guy said, “yes, pastor, I did. God said, ‘He didn’t know,’ because he’s never been to your church.”1
Like Shane, I love that story. I love it because it does indeed show, as Shane said, “how good we are at excluding the very people Jesus magnetized with his love.”2 But that story also shows us just how loving and gracious God is. Because even if we are the ones who would tell that homeless man to go ask God what he should wear to church, even if we are the ones who are blind to the suffering of our brothers and sisters around us, and often we are, God has been to our church. The gospel of Christmas and of Epiphany is that God has come to be with us. That God has chosen to work through us, to make us the bearers of God’s love, grace, and righteousness, no matter our sin.
When I start talking about God’s free grace, I imagine I might sound a bit like a broken record. Raise your hand if you’ve heard me talk about Baptism before. I must mention it every Sunday. So here it is, it doesn’t get any more complicated than this – in your Baptism, God has marked you with the cross of Christ and sealed you with the Holy Spirit FOREVER. Your salvation is secure. Accomplished.
But sometimes we Lutherans treat grace as if it’s prison rather than the ultimate liberation that it is. Sometimes especially us Lutheran pastors speak and act as if grace means we can’t talk about works, or how God transforms our lives, or about righteousness. But friends, the gospel is freedom. What grace means is that since we don’t have to do anything to earn our place in God’s heart, our whole lives are open, free! What are we going to do now that we don’t have to do anything? Your life is an open canvass, free for God alive in you to paint a beautiful picture of the kingdom of God.
Today we hear this strange story of Jesus getting baptized by John. And like John, we’re a little confused as to why Jesus needs to be baptized. John was baptizing people who were repenting of their sins. Jesus sure didn’t need to repent. So what was he doing? Jesus explained, convincing John that it was ok to baptize him by saying, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” All righteousness. Jesus’ Baptism, when the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and God the Father shouted down “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” fulfilled ALL righteousness.
It was done right then and there. There was nothing else Jesus had to do make his Father love him. He had it all, purely from the outpouring of love from his Father’s heart. Just like we do. That’s why whenever I get to witness a Baptism, or perform one, you can’t wipe the silly grin off my face. You see that baby, or that adult, neither of whom could possibly earn God’s favor, being washed with it, drenched in God’s love, born anew in water and the Word, filled with the Holy Spirit. It’s the greatest thing that ever happens in the Church…nothing can surpass it, but it’s not the end. It’s the beginning of a life that we get to live with the end already written.
The fulfilling of all righteousness continued through Jesus’ whole life. You see, Jesus’ Baptism happens in Matthew chapter 3 for a reason. There are 25 more chapters! And in those 25 chapters, Jesus lives out his Baptism. I’ve heard it said that Baptism is a one-time event that takes a lifetime to complete. It was true for Jesus. And it’s true for us.
Each gospel narrative has its particular gift that it offers and this year we’re hearing mostly from Matthew, and in Matthew’s telling we hear so clearly of the righteousness Jesus mentions. Righteousness, for Jesus, is not just the righteousness of his relationship with his Father, a righteousness that his Father creates, but it is also a life of righteous actions. As a teacher reminded me this week, like all the ancients, Jesus and his contemporaries did not separate the inner righteousness created by God’s grace from the outer righteousness of transformed choices and actions.3 Baptism is about both! It is both a gift and a call that will take us places we could never imagine.
Jesus lived a life that was a beautiful portrait of the life God wants us all to live – the life of the kingdom. In the coming weeks we will hear of the Jesus who sprung from the water of the Jordan River into the wilderness to resist the devil’s lies with righteous trust in his Father. We’ll hear of the Jesus who then went to Galilee where he cured every disease and sickness among the people, and then climbed a mountain and taught his disciples the most radical way to live this world has ever seen. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said. You are the light of the world, he said, so be reconciled with your accusers. Turn the other cheek, go the second mile to face evil without succumbing to it. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
This is the life of Baptism, and it isn’t about trying to set righteousness records. It’s about the intense, uncontrollable love of Jesus that takes over your whole life. A love that does not leave you as you were, no.
Springing from this bath, you are born anew, by God’s grace. In the words of St. Paul, the baptismal calling is to not be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds.4 The life of Baptism, the fulfillment of all righteousness, is not just about coming to worship, although that’s really important. It’s not just about being welcoming even to smelly, badly dressed people who may come to worship. It’s not just about giving to our neighbors in the Philippines whose homes were destroyed by the typhoon. It’s not just about donating food to the pantry and serving a meal at the soup kitchen.
All those are good things, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about the renewing of our minds, our bodies, and our spirits. It’s about believing that another world is possible. Following Jesus in our Baptisms is about every meal we eat, every dollar in our bank account, every person we greet, every skill we’ve been given, every opportunity before us. It’s about living with the courage to love the world as Jesus loves it, as Jesus loves you.
For Shane, that love meant going to jail for sleeping in a public park in solidarity with homeless people. For Mother Theresa, it meant going to touch those who were considered “untouchable.” They believed that another world is possible. And so can we. Let us love this community like Jesus does. Let us go to people and stand up for the righteousness of God in such a way that our neighbors are fascinated. And when they ask why we would possibly do such things, let us answer, “Friend, let me tell you about Jesus.” In the name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.
1Shane Claiborne, Speech at 2012 ELCA Youth Gathering, posted as “Thursday Night Dome Speaker – Shane Claiborne,” YouTube (uploaded by elcagathering), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaOzKDRF0D4 (accessed January 11, 2014).
3Roger Nam, “Baptism, Righteousness, and the War on Poverty: A 2014 Epiphany,” http://www.odysseynetworks.org/news/2014/01/06/baptism-righteousness-and-the-war-on-poverty-a-2014-epiphany-matthew-313-17 (accessed January 11, 2014).