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At the River

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

Baptism of the Lord

Matthew 3:13-17

January 9, 2005

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43

The New Testament begins with Jesus’ birth but then inexplicably it skips over to when he turned 30 when he put down his hammer, took off his tool belt, and hung a “Shop Closed” sign on the door of his carpenter’s shop. It was then he asked, “What does God want of me?” That’s a question that goes with us all whenever we feel the time is right to launch as we leave home.

Jesus headed down to the river where his cousin John was preaching and inviting people to repent of their sins. Jesus stood in line and waited his turn as one-by-one people waded into the river to be baptized. Imagine that … Jesus stood in line with all those like us whose lives were messy and complicated.  Joan Osborne sang these lyrics:

If God had a name what would it be?

And would you call it to his face?

If you were faced with him in all his glory

What would you ask if you had just one question?

And yeah, yeah, God he is great

Yeah, yeah, God he is good

Yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like?

And would you wanna to see

If seeing meant that

You would have to believe

In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints

And all the prophets

And yeah, yeah, God he is great

Yeah, yeah, God he is good

Yeah, yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah

Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
‘Cept the Pope maybe in Rome.[1]

To say, “Jesus stood in line to be baptized” is an incarnational frame you can hang around all the stories of Jesus’ life as a way of reflecting upon the inner world of questions that moved him and what tugged at his life.

 

After waiting his turn, Jesus waded into the water and there they stood, Jesus and John waist-deep in the slow-drifting water, where they engaged one another in a surprising discussion as to who should baptize whom. The first time we hear Jesus speak in Matthew’s gospel, he claims he needs to be baptized because he believes God is calling him to a different kind of life.

Maybe Jesus’ question should help us shift our thinking about baptism to a different level. What is it God wants us to do?

Most of us have considered baptism more a conclusion about some spiritual decision rather than the beginning of a transformed life. Perhaps you grew up in a home where someone wanted you to be baptized as a form of parental relief about your salvation. Maybe you were baptized because your best friend was and you wanted to be baptized also. I’m going to guess that most of us did not fully know what we were doing on the day we were baptized. Today, maybe it’s good we dry ourselves off and think more deeply about our baptism.

My friend Brett Younger says baptism, like most beginnings find its meaning long after the event. In and of itself, starting is in reality “not much.” Beginning is no big deal. It’s finishing that’s hard. In pre-marital counseling and planning for a wedding Brett tells a young couple bluntly: “You get no points for getting this far. On your wedding day almost every couple is capable of creating a life together filled with faith, hope, and joy, and (yet) almost every couple is (also) capable of creating something more horrifying than your worst nightmare.”

All of us know beginning is easier than finishing. The significance of any decision often takes a while to emerge. Baptism is like a prologue to a book waiting to be written. We are handed a map at our baptism, but then life demands we take the trip.[2] In our baptism, we are buried in mercy and raised by grace. We are given a name and we are given a life to live.

How is it you answer the question: What does God want me to do?

In a story called “The River,” novelist Flannery O’Connor tells about the day Bevel, a child of alcoholic and abusive parents, is taken by his babysitter, Mrs. Connin, to be baptized at the hands of a holiness preacher. After baptism in what the preacher calls “the river of the suffering son,” he tells Bevel, “You count now. You didn’t even count before.”

All of us, at one time or another, go through the search for identity. We have a deep need to know who we are, to know where we’ve come from, and to know where we are going.

In linking ourselves in solidarity with Jesus in the waters of our baptism, we come to realize who we are. It’s in our conversion that we get in touch with the identity that has been ours all our lives. But also woven into the very fabric of this story is the necessity of change. The old must pass away so the new can come.

Every conversion has a price. Something is gained, but something is lost as well and the loss may prove to be painful … The gospel not only resolves problems which trouble us; it creates problems which we never had before and which we would gladly avoid.

There’s always a price to be paid when we do what God calls us to do. The truth is we change because we must. The work of the Spirit of God is such that slowly, imperceptibly, occasionally even dramatically, our old lives are challenged by the new reality of the redemption of God. We discover because we have died with Christ and have been redeemed in the newness of life, we are changed people. We’ve been immersed under the waters of our baptism and have been plucked from the watery grave so when we rise we begin to learn to live up to our new name, “Christian.”

Marcus Borg sees this so clearly he claims Jesus had “a conversion.” It’s not a conversion is the sense of being lost and saved, but in William James’ sense of “a process, whether sudden or gradual, whereby religious impulses and energies become central to one’s life.”

The innocence of childhood is long past and the adolescent search for self has been completed, and now the young adult career has begun. Jesus turned to the ultimate quest that asked: “Who am I and what does my life mean?” His answer? “I am a child of God, and I am about God’s work.” And God approved.[3]

What is being rebirthed in you today? In what ways is God leading you to move forward and to act upon your baptism?

[1] Lyrics “One of Us,” Writers: Andersson, Benny Goran Bror / Ulvaeus, Bjoern K. / Kortnev, Aleksej Anatolevich, Copyright: Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

[2] Adapted from Brett Younger, “The First Step,” 1/9/11

[3] Adapted from Larry Bethune, “Wet Behind the Ears,” University Baptist Church, Austin, TX, 1/11/98