Baptism of the Lorda, January 12, 2013

January 13, 2014

“Downtown Alley”
Matthew 3:13-17

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Today’s scripture is a brief account of a moment that has been talked about and pondered for a couple of thousand years. This is a situation that raises a handful of questions, but it answers the largest question. According to Matthew, we know that Jesus came from Galilee, but he doesn’t say what he had been up to between the time that his parents settled in the rural village of Nazareth while he was a toddler until this moment when he showed up at the Jordan River and presented himself to John for baptism.

It may be that I watch too much television, but the fact that there is this 30 year gap in the story makes me wonder about the backstory, because in the world of television they often provide hints of the previous lives of important characters. I know I was not the only person who was excited about the arrival of the first show of the new season of Downton Abbey. In fact if you haven’t been drawn in to this high class soap opera you are probably under 30 and have an actual life, or you are wired differently than the rest of us. They’ll probably do a psychological study on people like you before long.

Actually it’s just a good story that’s well cast. It’s got benevolent souls, wicked villains, and compelling situations. And as I say, every once in a while they throw in a bit of a back story about someone. Who would have thought that the head butler, Mr. Carson, who is about as stiff and formal as a human being can be was once a song-and-dance man. I’m not spoiling anything for those of you who haven’t yet gotten sucked in to this entertainment universe, but that’s a real mind stretcher, and fodder for some good human interest.

I like a good back-story – and there’s another British television show that has some powerful back-story drama. It’s also on PBS and it’s called MI-5. But that show isn’t for everyone. On Downton Abbey they only kill-off beloved characters about once a year. On MI-5 they only keep characters around long enough for you to get really attached to them and then they kill‘em. MI-5 is the British equivalent of our CIA. These agents are really sneaky people, and you think you can trust them, but honestly you never really know who anyone is working for. Just when you think you know what’s going on they flash back in time and you see that this person has a backstory that redefines everything.

Clearly I watch too much television. But there’s some good television to watch. And I’m pretty sure that my sense of morality was equally shaped by what I learned in Sunday School and what I watched on television. I’m grateful to the producers of All In The Family, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Kung Fu for providing me with some fine ethical instruction during my formative years. I may not be as spiritually refined as the Kung Fu master, Kwai Chang Caine, or as wise as Uncle Jed, but I’m no Archie Bunker! Good theater provides good instruction.

And I’m thinking that this is part of what we have in this short passage of scripture. Jesus is not just showing up for a ceremony, he’s showing what it looks like to be a person with great spiritual maturity. We don’t know the back-story of where Jesus was or what he experienced prior to his arrival at the Jordan River, but we know John knew something about Jesus, and he indicates that he didn’t feel worthy to be the one to do the baptizing. We also know that John didn’t offer to step aside in order to be polite. We know a few things about John and one of the things we know is that he was not motivated by propriety.

A big part of this story is how far John had departed from the social norms of proper Jewish society. He had rejected the façade of faith and he was calling for people to be true to the roots of their spiritual heritage. In a powerful way he was serving the role of the high priest who enabled people to experience rebirth into a new relationship with God, but he was far from the temple without the priestly garments. What he was doing was appalling and compelling. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t ignore what he was doing, but John didn’t play along with their gesture of approval.

It’s interesting to think of the contrasting way in which John reacted to the officially holy people and the authentically holy person. John was not what you would call a people person, but he did have the gift of spiritual discernment. And he exercised that gift very freely. He screamed at those who paraded their faith without actually exercising it, and he was humbled by the arrival of Jesus.

And while we don’t know what Jesus had been up to prior to his arrival at the Jordan River, John could see that Jesus was already close to God. And it’s a beautiful thing that Jesus wasn’t afraid to step in to the same place that others stood who had not come from such Godly places.

This brief verbal exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist has fueled a lot of theological debate about the nature of Jesus Christ. People who think of Jesus as being the perfect human being who’s life was always untarnished by sin can find in this passage support for their belief that Jesus was only baptized in order to carry out scriptural fulfillment. And those of us who need for Jesus to be a little bit more human can find in this story a point of connection with this emerging messiah who wanted to be washed by the living water of God. John’s reaction to Jesus indicates that he had already arrived at a holy place, but Jesus’ reaction to John shows that he didn’t see himself as being better than anyone else.

And this is such good news for us. I don’t think Jesus wanted to be seen as perfect – he wanted to be seen as someone who is not so different from who we are. I believe he was different. He had a connection with God that is probably best described as God’s beloved son, but Jesus understood that his special relationship with God wasn’t going to be a traditionally privileged relationship. It was a relationship that would cost Jesus dearly, but it would provide the rest of us with the same privilege that he had with God – the privilege of kinship.

In some ways we are all free to create whatever backstory we need for Jesus to have had that enabled him to arrive the place where he was standing when those words and that dove identified him as the one who had pleased God so well. We don’t know where he had been, but we know where he was when this happened, and he was with the people.

He was with the people who were struggling to get out of trouble and in to better lives. We don’t know any of the stories of the people who came to John to be baptized, but we know that John was reaching out to people who wanted new lives. There is no doubt that many of the people who came to him were victims of a cruel economy that thrust them in to roles that they hated. No doubt many of them had compounded their problems by making bad decisions in the midst of terrible circumstances, but these were people who had not lost their hunger for peace and joy and community.

It wasn’t just God who made an announcement on the day of Jesus’ baptism. By showing up at the Jordan River to be baptized by John, Jesus was saying that he was here to be with us and to be where we are. Jesus didn’t keep his distance from people who’s lives were a mess. He chose to be in the mess with us.

We’re all in this same sanctuary today, but we’ve all come from different places and we’re all dealing with our own set problems. I’m guessing there’s some drama in all of our lives that we wish we could turn off, but that isn’t an option. I know we would all do some rewriting of the scripts of our lives to generate a lot more of those beautiful moments where love just drips off the page or the screen, but that’s not possible, nor is it what we need.

What we need is what Jesus provided when he showed up at the Jordan to be baptized by John – he brought us the assurance that God is involved in the drama of our lives regardless of where we are. And God will be with us until the very end.

We don’t always remember that God is in the scene or on the set. It’s easy to forget this because God isn’t intrusive. We can fail to give God a role to play in our lives, but the true back-story for all of us is that we are intimately related to the ultimately main character. Ugly things happen in our lives, and we don’t always like what life seems to be dealing us, but there is always this possibility of a beautiful ending. And while the Downton Abbey’s of the world are beautiful places populated with alluring people, we are more likely to experience the presence of God in the downtown alleys of the world that are populated with the refugees of life.

John didn’t establish his operation in a nice place, but his work made it a holy place, and Jesus blessed it with his presence. Anyplace can be so holy – anyplace can be so blessed. May we all find a good role to play in the ongoing drama that we call the coming of the kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God – Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: