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Sunday, January 12, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17 & Isaiah 42:1-9
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Do you remember your baptism? At every baptism here we invite you to remember your own baptism, which is kind of a funny request since many of us were baptized long before we were able to make choices or even form concrete memories.
Baptisms take all shapes and sizes. Some churches demand full submersion of the person into a pool of water. Others sprinkle. Some expect baptism upon joining the church, regardless of whether the person had been baptized previously. Others, like Presbyterians, believe that one baptism is sufficient and that God acts and covenants in ways that surpass whether the baptism was done before. In my time, I’ve baptized a handful of adults, which is special because they can publicly affirm their faith. I’ve baptized many children, which is also truly special to see a family gathered around for the purpose of raising their child in the faith. Sometimes baptisms can even look like this Orthodox one from the country Georgia.
We’ve experienced picture-perfect baptisms, where the baby smiles and coos and the people in the pews do the little smile and wave at the child. Of course, we’ve been around some that couldn’t have gone worse. One pastor I know baptized a child who was around four, meaning the kid was old enough to be really opinionated about what was happening. As the time came for the pastor to baptize the boy, the child backed away, and as he ran out the door he shouted, “Get your darn hands off me!” except he didn’t say darn.
I’ve had the privilege of doing a few open water baptisms. This past summer six of our young people came to Lake Michigan to be baptized, which made for a wonderful church celebration at North Beach Park. A few years back I had the privilege of baptizing some from the church in Belize in a lagoon, including a young woman named Marianna. Four years later when our church mission team came to Belize, Marianna was one of our hosts. It took me a couple of days to remember, but it dawned on me that I was eating in the home of someone I baptized years earlier. What a special connection!
Today’s sermon begins with the baptism of Jesus, which also marks the launch of Jesus into public ministry. We have jumped into the future by a couple of decades. Last week the Magi were presenting their gifts to the child Jesus. This week, he’s all grown up. In the coming weeks we’ll be spending time in the gospels to look at the ministry of Jesus. Week by week I hope we can answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” particularly as we encounter him in Scripture.
So, I’m always struck by the baptism of Jesus. It’s quite a moment, but I wonder why Jesus felt he should be baptized. It is a story that is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John doesn’t have the actual baptism, but it contains many of the same elements as the other gospels. If baptism is about repentance, why would someone who is perfect need baptism? John the Baptist himself questions why Jesus would want to be baptized in verse 14, “I need to be baptized by you,” he said, “and do you come to me?” Jesus’ answer is telling. “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). So, for Jesus it’s a bit different. First of all, his humanity necessitates baptism. Later formulations present Jesus as “fully God, fully human,” but the gospel writers were still digesting who Jesus was. If Jesus is going to fully identify with our humanity, he must also subject himself to the same things that we go through – hunger, fear, fatigue, and, yes, baptism.
But there is something bigger going on for Jesus. He sees his obedience as the fulfillment of Scripture. So, John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan, probably one of several other baptisms that day, but this one is just a bit different. As John pulls Jesus up from the water, he witnesses the heavens splitting open, he sees the spirit descend like a dove on Jesus, and he hears a voice speak, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” You know, the word “Trinity” never shows up in the Bible, but the baptism of Jesus is one of those moments where the three-person nature of God is so clear.
Matthew’s gospel has echoes of Isaiah 42 throughout. It’s one of the famous “servant songs,” but Matthew sees correlation between that ancient text and Jesus. The words on God’s lips paraphrase Isaiah 42:1. Matthew 12 uses Isaiah 42 to interpret what Jesus is up to in healing people. Matthew 25 connects the ministry of Jesus’ disciples with the bringing of justice on the earth. It’s the place where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (25:40), the least of these being the sick, naked, and imprisoned. Matthew’s gospel concludes with the Great Commission, which commands disciples to go throughout the earth and make more disciples, again echoing this passage.
So, who is Jesus? Jesus is humble. Jesus is determined. Jesus is strong. Jesus is the one Isaiah wrote about:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
We like to think of strength in terms of being more like an action hero. The strong one is the one who can pound his way to victory. And, sure, that is a form of strength, but look at strength as Isaiah portrays it. “He will not cry or lift up his voice.” Jesus’ strength is quiet. “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” This is the strength of the medic on the battlefield, right? He can enter brokenness – a bruised reed – and nurse it back to health. He can enter the situation where life feels all but extinguished and sustain it. This takes strength that goes way beyond being able to bull your way through a situation. This is the strength that is in it for the long haul. Verse 4 is all about endurance. He doesn’t grow faint or weary. This is the quiet strength we saw in Mother Teresa and the sisters in her order, who faithfully ministered for decades to the untouchables. This is the quiet strength we see in the wife who makes sure her husband gets the care he needs while they battle Alzheimer’s. This is the strength that sees injustice in the world and takes the long road to change systems so they are just. Fewer press conferences and tweets, and more sustained, humble action.
As I read Isaiah 42, I was struck in particular by two words – justice and righteousness. In English we tend to think of these as separate ideas. Justice is about making things square. Righteousness is about getting personal behavior under control. In Hebrew, these terms are related, like two sides of a coin. The Hebrew word of justice is mishpat. This is law and order. An eye for an eye. Karma. If someone steals your snowblower, they owe you a snowblower. Mishpat is vital for the functioning of human society. It promotes shalom, that is wholeness and peace. We believe in justice, and for millennia the most functional of societies have had a strong sense of justice. The punishment fits the crime. Frankly, we’re seeing the struggle over mishpat a bit in the growing tensions with Iran. They did this to us, so we do that to them. An eye for an eye, but of course this leads to escalation because each side wants to prove that they’re right. Mishpat is retributive justice.
The second word, righteousness, is tzedakah in Hebrew. This is distributive justice, which is less about what one deserves and more about mirroring God’s will for the world. This is not an eye for an eye. It is grace. It is charity. It is turning the other cheek. Tzedekah partners two concepts that are opposites – charity and justice. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives this example of tzedakah. “Suppose that I give someone $100. Either he is entitled to it, or he is not. If he is, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity. In English a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedekah is therefore an unusual term, because it means both.”
Or to bring things a bit down to earth for us, in the words of one of my favorite theologians, Bono, “It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma…You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics – in physical laws – every action is met by an equal or opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that ‘As you reap, so will you sow’ stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.”
This, of course, brings me all the way back to baptism because that last sentence really captures why we need baptism. “Love interrupts the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.” Do you remember your baptism? I hope so because it’s a reminder that God’s justice for us is overwhelmed by God’s grace. But, just like Jesus, baptism is a beginning, not an end. It starts Jesus’ ministry. It is the first step for each of us in the life of discipleship. And disciples grow to imitate Jesus, who is humble, determined, and strong. He brings forth justice. Our baptism initiates us into a new way of life, a mission that ushers in God’s justice – quietly, humbly, persistently, enduringly. My friends, remember your baptism, but for the sake of the world, give your life to living out what that baptism means for you, for your family, for your community, and for the whole world.