Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Right Thing to Do

Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of the Lord
January 12, 2014
William G. Carter

Christmas is now a memory. Here is how the grown-up Jesus begins his work:

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.’

When I was a brand-new pastor, I was taken to lunch with the venerable H. Wilson Scott of Lehighton. Scotty, as we called him, was a wise and seasoned pastor of a small town church. He was ordained as a minister at 42, after half of a career in business. And he had the demeanor of having seen it all and heard it all.

“How are the people of your congregation treating one another?” he asked. I was surprised at the bluntness of the question, but that was Scotty. I said, “Mostly they are fine, but I have a couple of people who are really cranky. They like to beat up some of the others.”

“In fact,” I said, “I’m surprised that people like that are in church.”

Scotty smiled instantly. He said, “Why are you surprised? The church is full of sinners. In fact, they are the only ones there.”

Scotty is gone on to his reward, but I have never forgotten what he said: sinners are the only ones here. No matter how well they clean up, no matter how well behaved they appear to be, no matter how well-spoken or mean-spirited they might be, sinners are the only ones here. And he said that with a smile. Do you think that’s true?

I heard about a man who didn’t think it was true. When the rest of the congregation spoke the prayer of confession, he put down the worship bulletin and crossed his arms. His daughter said, “Daddy, why do you do that?” He said, “The words in that prayer don’t apply to me. I’m a lot better than the rest of these people.”

She said, “That’s what you think”

Generally speaking, people don’t like to be reminded of how bad they are. I have known plenty of people who shrug off the weekly prayer of confession, or mumble through it, or look sideways down the aisle at somebody who is morally worse off than themselves. And generally speaking, it has become a marketing strategy for some preachers to take a different tactic for enlarging their churches.

I heard an interview with Joel Osteen, a short little preacher with a big smile and an expensive haircut. He packs in the crowds at a renovated basketball arena in Houston. “I don’t rub anybody’s noses in their sins. I speak to them of their possibilities.” He reminded me of something my mother once told me: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

I always wanted to ask: can you ever catch anything more than flies? Flies are gross, dirty, and disgusting.

Now it seems like a shameless marketing ploy anyway. If you speak to people only of their possibilities, then why isn’t the world in better shape? Why are so many people stuck in such messes, many of their own making?

All of this bears, I think, on the story of John the Baptist. John appeared out in the desert of Israel. He did not work in Jerusalem, in the center of religious ritual and tradition. He didn’t stand on the Temple steps and denounce the people who weren’t pure enough to get in. No, he went outside of it all, out into the wilds. His central message was direct and simple. God is close at hand. God’s governance is coming near.

That’s all he had to say. It was the only message people wanted to hear. God is coming. God’s Messiah is on the way. That was a message sufficient for people to change their lives, to cut their ties with evil, to decide once and for all that they were sorry for their sins, weary of their brokenness, worn out by their own repeated mistakes. So they went to the Jordan River to get close to John, who told them that God was moving close to them all. It was simply that announcement that moved them to have their sins washed away. God is coming; you don’t have to live like that anymore.

There’s a favorite scene in one of my favorite movies, “O Brother, Where Art Thou.” Three escaped criminals are making their way across Mississippi, in search of a hidden treasure. They are interrupted by people in white robes who are going down to the river to pray.

One of them, Delmar, rushes toward the river, where a preacher is dunking people under that water in baptism. He speaks quietly to Delmar, who starts talking to his accomplices as he moves back toward shore.

“Well, that’s it, boys, I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting is my reward.”

Everett says, “Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry.”

He replies, “The preacher said all my sins is washed away, including that Piggily-Wiggily that I knocked over in Yazoo.”

Everett says, “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.”

Delmar says, “Well, I was lying. And the preacher said that sin’s been washed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now.  Come in, boys, the water is fine.”

It is the unseen presence of God’s grace, announced at the river, that makes his repentance possible. Pete, one of the other crooks, is moved by this and dashes toward the preacher too. Like Delmar, he wants to get his sins washed away too. He’s been carrying them long enough. He doesn’t need to carry them any longer. It’s a beautiful moment, surrounded by people in white who have gone down to the river to pray.

Next thing you know, the two of them are back in a stolen car with Everett. Pretty soon, they are off to knock over a bank. When I saw that scene, I smiled. I smiled Scotty’s smile. And I remembered what he said: “Sinners are the only ones here.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

Well, maybe it does. Jesus showed up at the river, too. Why not? Everybody else in Israel was going out there, even the religious leaders. Jesus went too. John the Baptist looked at him, discerned the One whom he had predicted, knew Him as the Holy One from God, and said, “What are you doing here?” What are You doing here among these people? They are sinners!

According to Matthew, Jesus makes a cryptic comment. He says something obscure. “Let it happen. This will fulfill all righteousness.” Or to translate it in street language, “This is the right thing to do.”

John argues with him about this. We can be sure that Matthew tidies up their conversation and condenses it. John didn’t think Jesus had a place among the sinners. They were coming to repent, coming because they had messed up their lives. They were coming to prepare to stand before the Messiah. And here comes the Messiah to stand among them. That just seems all wrong. Let them get scrubbed up – and then they will be ready to stand in God’s presence.

Jesus says, “No, this is the right thing to do.” Here is the shape of God’s righteousness: not to wait until people who are perpetually sinful can tidy up themselves sufficiently to receive the Lord someday, but to interrupt all of that, to stand among them, the sinless Christ in the middle of sinful people.

This is the direction of his entire ministry. The first thing he does is what he will continue to do. As Dale Bruner notes about this story, “It is well-known that Jesus ended his career on a cross between penitent sinners; it deserves to be as well known that he began his ministry in a river among penitent sinners. From his baptism to his execution Jesus stays low, at our level, identifying with us at every point, becoming as completely one with us in our humanity in history as, in the church’s teaching, he was completely one with God in eternity.”[1]

He is God-with-us. Not God apart from us, nor God separate from us, but God completely with us. With us, with the likes of us. His presence among us is what pleases the Father. He is called Beloved, and he comes to declare that we, even stuck in our sin, are also the Beloved of God. And that holy love is what can free us from the otherwise endless cycle of human cruelty, pain, abuse, and other destructive tendencies. Jesus the Messiah steps in and among all of this. It is the right thing for him to do.

I have been looking through the new hymnal that will go into our pews in a month. The green songbook departs today, the blue one will be retired at the end of the month. I think a lot of you will be pleased with the new collection; not all of you, because, well, my old friend Scotty was right. But it is a good collection of songs old and new, with some capable editorial work done quietly.

I noticed, for instance, that an Advent hymn we sing most every year has had an absent verse restored. The hymn begins, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh; awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings of the King of Kings.” The last verse has been fully restored and it is a prayer: “Stretch forth your hand, our health restore, and make us rise to fall no more; O let your face upon us shine and fill the world with love divine.”[2]

That seems such an appropriate prayer following John the Baptist’s work and the baptism of Jesus: continue to heal us, O God, until your love overwhelms all its enemies. That is the ongoing work of Jesus, who is God-with-us. He takes his stand among us and will not push us away. If we resist him, he waits us out. If we are soul-sick from the disturbances and difficulties of this life, many of which we have created for ourselves, he steps into the middle of our mess and says, “Follow me.” And life, once damaged, can begin anew.

I’m still reeling from Friday night’s episode of Hawaii Five-O. Years ago, a man fled to Hawaii because he had accidentally killed a woman who had just been married. His mistake scarred him, haunted him, and he needed to start over. He married, they lived quietly with two young children, and they went to church.

Meanwhile, on the mainland, the husband of the woman who died was devastated. He was bitter, and couldn’t get over his loss. Anger possessed him, revenge consumed him. When one of his friends returned from a Hawaiian vacation with a church newsletter, he points to a picture said, “Doesn’t this look like the guy who killed your wife?” It was, so in retaliation, the widower hired hit men to kill the accidental murderer. The first man ran away from his sins, the second was so bitter that sin consumed him too. Damage creates more damage.

In the end, both of them are caught by the authorities. And while the accidental murderer is being taken away by the cops, he says, “There is a stop we need to make on the way.” The officers take him to the interrogation room of the man whose young wife he had killed. He apologizes and says, “This can’t go on any more.” The pain needs to end. We have to cancel it and start anew. I would like to think he picked up that message in church.

That’s what Christian people continue to say, with all the clarity and conviction they can muster. In Jesus of Nazareth, God in all holiness has come to stand among us, just as we are. He remains with us, even to the close of the age. He speaks, he heals, and he invites us ever more deeply into his loving, cleansing presence where we can become his new creation.

From the perspective of God, this is the right thing to do.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] F. Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Waco: Word Books, 1987) 83.
[2] Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013) 96.

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