A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
January 12, 2014
Rev. Julie Emery
Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 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.
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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Florida, my first memory of a vacation to the place where my grandparents had moved shortly after I was born. I was maybe six or seven, and by that time I was a good swimmer. I had spent every spare moment from a very young age, taking to water like a fish. It was my second home, water, in virtually any shape or form.
That day was a day we headed to the beach, to swim in the Gulf of Mexico, collect seashells and build sand castles, and of course, swim and jump in the big rolling waves that crashed upon the shoreline. It was a bit of heaven for my young and water-loving soul.
I was warned of the undertow, but felt sure of my strength, and soon I was splashing and diving through the waves to my heart’s delight.
It all happened so fast. One moment I was safe and strong, the next I felt the sand disappear a little too far beneath my toes. I shot up for air at just the wrong moment and a wave crashed upon my head. I felt my small body pulled further and further out, my strong arms not strong enough to fight the current that was pulling me out to sea. I began to fight for air, to battle the waves, to use up my energy in a fit of panic.
Just as quickly the sand was shallow again, my big brother grasping my arms and pulling me in towards shore.
It was the moment I learned the power of water and the obedience required to submit to that power; the awesomeness of an element that covers seventy percent of our earth and makes up about sixty percent of our bodies. Water is essential to our life, health and well-being, and yet it can also quickly teach us how fragile and insignificant we are. It is used for cleaning, bathing, preparing meals, for crop irrigation, industry, fishing, recreation, and transportation. It touches and brings life to everything we see.
Like the threads of water that flow throughout our world, so too water flows throughout our scriptures, most often as a sign of renewal and rebirth. Our baptismal liturgy names several of our most memorable watery stories: God’s Spirit passing over the waters of creation, God’s judgment in the flood and new covenant with Noah and his descendants, God’s salvation during the Exodus from Egypt as Moses and the Israelites escaped through the waters of the Red Sea, God’s naming and claiming Jesus as his beloved son in the waters of the Jordan River.
Each of these stories represents God’s saving grace and power. Each tells of a turning and transformation, away from chaos, sin, enslavement and towards order, joy, freedom.
That day on the beach was the first of many lessons in the life-giving and life-changing power of water. I grew up learning to sail and swim: learning to read the movement over the surface of the water that signified a rising wind; learning to understand the power of undertow and currents; to obey tides and vicious waves.
I learned: how to feel the strength of the water that surrounded me, how to float upon it, how to yield in my body to that awesome strength and frightening capacity, how to let the waves take me under, knowing that if I was patient, they would spit me back out, sometimes sputtering and and scared, but safe, and filled with the awe of life.
When Jesus comes down from Galilee to John at the Jordan River, John has been preaching a ferocious message of repentance and preparation. He has just called the religious leaders of his day a “brood of vipers,” asking, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…” John’s is a message of transformation and preparation, as he tells his followers that one is coming who will baptize them with Holy Spirit and with fire. It is a message of obedience.
When that anticipated One appears, John is shocked. This was not how he imagined it: Jesus being baptized by John? The One filled with the Holy Spirit humbling himself to the one not worthy to carry his sandals. The conversation between these two preachers is recorded only in the Gospel of Matthew. John protests the action, Jesus assures him that this is what God wants.
It is a watershed moment – a moment when John and Jesus are faced with a choice to follow God’s leading or their own. John lets go of his expectations about how it is supposed to be. Both men are obedient to the movement of the Spirit and the call of God. Both men submit, to fulfill all righteousness. Both men give over to the story and plan of God. Consenting… Obedient… They yield.
As Jan Richardson writes, “The yielding that Jesus engages in—and John, too—requires a different kind of strength, a different set of muscles than those involved in straining and striving and struggling to move forward. This yielding calls forth a courage born of recognizing the path to which we are called, and ceasing to fight against it: to give ourselves to its flow, to let it work on us, as the river does with the stone.”
Obedience is not a word we often embrace in our culture. We live in a world in which we need not be obedient to anyone but ourselves. We value freedom, autonomy, independence.
And yet it is a part of the final question asked at each and every Presbyterian baptism, and each time we re-affirm the baptismal vows of our parents. When we are confirmed, when we join a new church. Each time, we ask the baptized person or the guardian who speaks on their behalf about following Jesus. We ask them if they will turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and it’s power in the world. And then we ask them if they will obey God’s Word and show God’s love.
On the surface, these may seem like simple questions, with easy answers. And yet – by answering affirmatively we lay our whole lives before Christ, submitting everything to him. By turning away from evil and towards God, we turn away from the ways of the world, and towards the One who names us as beloved children.
This means we renounce the values of the world, asserting that only God can determine our true value and worth in the face of a culture which assesses worth by the size of our clothes or the car we drive. It means we define our success by our commitment and proximity to following the path of Christ wherever it leads, not by the amount in our bank accounts or the square feet of our house. It means we grade ourselves by how well we love our neighbor, not by the letters on our report cards or the size of our bonus check.
As we proclaim our obedience to God’s Word and our promise to show God’s love, we find that commitment may take us to uncomfortable places and difficult choices. Just as immediately following his baptism, Jesus is sent into the desert to be tempted and then begins his journey toward the cross, so too the life of faith is full of temptations and hard choices.
Obedience to the one who was born homeless and poor is not nice or easy. To show the love of Jesus who crossed boundaries of convention to welcome the outcast and the sinner means that that may just be where we follow.
Because when we begin to obey God’s word and show God’s love, then we begin to do things that don’t always make sense to the world in which we live.
We begin to welcome people who act in strange and embarrassing ways. We begin to think less of ourselves and more of our neighbor. We begin to care what happens to people who live thousands of miles away from us. We begin to fight for living wages and food security for all even when it cost us more from our own pockets. We begin to seek to understand those with whom we disagree, rather than convince them of our rightness. We begin to listen instead of to talk.
This is what it means to live out our baptismal vows every day.
The love we are born into in baptism is an active, incarnate love. It is a love enfleshed in illogical, overpowering grace. Baptism is a beginning, not an end. It is the start of something new – a watershed moment when we are immersed in God’s grace and transformed by it so we can go out into the world and show God’s love.
Each time we witness this sacrament, each time we proclaim together the baptismal affirmations, we experience this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it can’t be undone. And then, every moment after, is a honing of those muscles to yield and submit to that calling; of practicing to let go of ourselves and be transformed into God’s beloved children, obeying God’s Word and showing God’s love.
May it be so. Amen.