Message for the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday on Matthew 3:13-17 given on Jan. 8, 2023 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church
I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said to me—"oh if I came to church the roof would fall in,” or “the place would burn down”—as if they are so bad or so far from God that their very presence would cause a physical calamity. Perhaps we have the legacy of Jonathan Edwards and his 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to thank for the notion that our sins can so shock and anger God.
It’s an ego trip really – albeit a negative one, but an ego trip none-the-less--that we can be so far from God, that our sin is so bad –that God cannot love or forgive us—and that makes us extra special in the sin department.
But of course, we are here, so we are not worried about the roof falling because of our sin, or the place burning down due to our past because we showed up. But I wonder how much of ourselves we hold back from God. We come seeking, but still feel unworthy, we come hoping, but still hide part of ourselves, we come praying, but still fear rejection, we come wondering, but still holding onto to secrets, we come craving more, but are still closed off to a deeper relationship with God.
About 25 years ago a friend invited me to go with her to an Al-Anon 12-step meeting for family and friends of those with addiction problems. She thought working the 12-steps would help me deal with my own co-dependent behaviors since there was some addiction in my extended family tree (these behaviors get passed down without us realizing it!)
But I had heard about steps 4 and 5 and I was not too interested in taking a “searching and fearless moral inventory of myself.” And even if I did, there was absolutely no way, I was going to do step 5, which was to read this moral inventory to someone and "admit to God, myself and another human being, the exact nature of my wrongs.” Because I thought my sins were special and unforgiveable, and needed to remain secret, and something I would always have to hide from God and everybody else.
I hear this fear and hesitancy in John the Baptist. He has been preparing his whole life for this moment—preparing the way for the Messiah! John’s birth was foretold by an angel to his father, Zechariah in the temple! His mother gave birth in her old age, his father was mute until he was born—he has known the stories of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph about Jesus, and his job has been to get people ready. And now it begins—the culmination of his life’s work as Jesus joins him at the river of repentance. Jesus is ready to begin his ministry by entering into solidarity with the people and their journey with him through Baptism.
But John resists Jesus’ request to Baptize him: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John feels unworthy, he is too sinful, it’s all backwards: there’s too much distance in their status—John holds back, he would rather play his role with the people, to keep his place, separate from Jesus, the Messiah. John comes craving more, but even he is still closed off to this opportunity for a deeper relationship with Jesus. But, Jesus insists— “Let it be so now; it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
What feels backwards to John and to us, is indeed proper to Jesus; what feels wrong and unworthy, is in fact, fulfilling all righteousness for Jesus.
As it says later in Matthew: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20:28)
To “fulfill all righteousness” for Jesus is to be in right relationship—right relationship with John and right relationship with God. Jesus surrendered himself to the full human experience—to being by baptized by the Baptizer alongside the people he came to serve and to save. In so doing, he affirmed John’s worthiness as his servant and friend.
Imagine the actions John took in baptizing Jesus—standing in the river together, scooping up water, lifting his arms up onto Jesus’ head—Just this physical action alone invites John to open up his heart and soul to Jesus—How can he harbor secrets, and hold back his fear when he has opened up his arms and bathed Jesus in water? Then John submerges Jesus in the river, and goes further down himself with him—a foreshadowing of their future journey into death, and then rising up out of the water into resurrection. John is as soaked as Jesus is, the feelings of unworthiness, fear, and worry washed away by the water, loosened by the movement. The love that flows from Jesus to John carries no superiority or distance or judgment—just the bond of love and forgiveness that frees the tightness in John’s chest. Jesus surrenders to John’s washing, and in so doing, John becomes clean.
Right relationship with nothing held back. Open heart to open heart. Both surrendered to God’s will. Fulfilling all righteousness. That’s when the roof of heaven cracks open, and the physical world changes! From the heavens, the Holy Spirit lands on Jesus as the voice of God affirms, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Right relationship with God—a fully open, honest, transparent, surrendered relationship with God changes the physical world—people filled with the Holy Spirit, following Jesus, doing what our Lord asks—that’s what changes the world—not hanging on to sin, and not pride in how bad ours is and how unworthy we are.
So, if John can move through his resistance and distance and unworthiness to baptize Jesus himself, our Lord and Messiah, and enter into a deeper, right relationship with nothing held back, then we can, too. It took me a few years, but eventually I did go to Al Anon, and I actually wrote my 4th step, 30 pages of my life story—a searching and fearless and ugly moral inventory, and with fear and trembling, I read it aloud to the 1 person who was helping me through the steps. I waited for her to pronounce judgment on me, and she chuckled and said, “you were just a normal kid.” I felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted off me.
There’s a slip of paper you were given with your bulletin. On it, I want you to write something you have held back from God. I promise no one will ever see it—not me, not anybody. Write on it something you continue to feel guilt or shame about from the past—even your childhood. Something you can’t forgive yourself for, or a resentment you have not let go; something you would like to release that you haven’t been able to, a secret you have never shared. Write something that if you were released from this worry, this guilt, this thing, you would feel freed, or released, or relieved.
Remember that your sins are not special or unique, and that we all have them, and Jesus knows it already, that you’re just a normal human being with regular sins and issues that we all have. This is for you to join John the Baptist in the river as Jesus comes to you, to let you know that no part of your life, your story, your thoughts, or your past-- is hidden, excluded or a hindrance to a deeper, love relationship with Jesus who saves you, with the God who made you, and the Spirit who fills you.
After you write it, you can fold it so no one sees it. Then bring it forward during Communion and put it in the Baptismal water, give it stir, and let it go. I promise no one else will see what you wrote (it's dissolving paper!). We will have one line for Communion so you can have a few seconds alone at the baptism bowl, and then come to me for the bread.
Having released something to God, you will pick up a Guiding Word as a spiritual focus to fill you with something new for the coming year—they are in the side aisle after you dispose of your Communion cup. The words are face-down. Trust the Spirit to give you the right word for this time—tape it to your frig or mirror and discover why this word is a spiritual focus for you in 2023.
Churches that do this call these “star words” because they guide us during the year like the Wise Sages followed the star to find Jesus. For those watching from home—if you have given us a shoutout in the comments, we will pull a word just for you, and mail it along with a slip of this special paper for your forgiveness ritual this week.
No one’s sin is going to cause the roof to fall in, but the forgiveness in Baptism cracks open the heavens for the Holy Spirit to descend upon us! Right relationship with God changes the physical world because it changes us and frees us to be God’s messengers of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and hope! That’s why we’re a church where "spirits come alive!" So allow Jesus to free your spirit in a new way today and join John in the cleansing waters of Baptism!
Thank you to the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ for the free download of beautiful Star Words!