“In The Water with Jesus” Matthew 3:1-17
Rev. Sean Weston
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL
January 13, 2019
John the Baptist was all about making things right in the world. Like many poor desert dwellers, then-and-now, he lived on a diet of locusts and wild honey. He wore strange clothes and he was loud and he would be glad to tell you everything you were doing wrong. In fact, he did just that when the religious leaders made the journey to see just what he was up to. “Don’t think that just because you’re from the right group that everything is fine for you. It takes more than being in the right place to be okay with God.”
John was freaking out the authority figures because he was drawing crowds of people who were very, very unhappy. They wanted change, and John had a message for them: “repent!” To repent, as the Common English Bible translates, is to change your hearts and lives. But the authorities didn’t want the people to change, because when people change other stuff starts changing too. As the crowds grew, those in power got more and more on edge. To the present day, tyrants always start sweating when crowds gather. Eventually John would pay for his preaching and baptizing with his life – executed by the government.
John knew the risks but he had a message to share: someone is coming to make things right, and you can be part of the problem or part of the solution. That someone is much greater than me. He baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. And when he makes things right, you’d better be on the right side. So repent. Change your hearts and lives. Be part of changing the world.
Then Jesus showed up, and he wasn’t exactly what John expected. Jesus asked to be baptized by John, and John just knew that wasn’t right. Why should he baptize one who is greater than him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? But Jesus insisted, saying this “this is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.” Huh?
Well, in the Bible, the word for righteousness is also the word for justice. Righteousness is doing things right and doing the right things. Righteousness is people having what they need and deserve. Righteousness is why John would have nothing to do with religious and political leaders who padded their own pockets at the expense of everyone else. And here Jesus is saying to John, “this is the right thing to do.” So John baptized Jesus, and then a dove came from heaven and a voice said, “This is my Son. I love him.”
There is a long tradition of people being uncomfortable with this story, with John baptizing Jesus. After all, to start, John was quite the character. And, his baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. If Jesus is both human and divine, that means he is without sin. Why would one without sin need repent, to change his life and heart? So there are lots of explanations and books about John the Baptist and Jesus but all that Jesus says in this story is: “this is the right thing to do. Let me get in the same water as everyone else.”
Why did Jesus get baptized by John? We’ll never know for sure. But here’s what I believe: Jesus wanted to get in the water with everybody else. After all, John was attracting quite a crowd: people who wanted to make things right in the world. And John was telling them the truth, which is that things don’t get right in the world before we work on getting things right in ourselves. The people who were attracted to John’s message were the same people Jesus wanted to surround himself with in his ministry. They were the people he wanted to work with. And because Jesus was not a lone wolf ministry, he got in the water with them. Because Jesus was no far-away God but was instead Emmanuel, God-with-us, he got in the water with them.
And so it is today, that Jesus wants to get in the water with us. No, we may not be getting into an actual river. But the water is a symbol of life. Jesus wants to be with us in all the mess of our lives and our world, rolling up his sleeves, showing us the way. Jesus wants to be at our side in the ministry we do, in our attempts to change lives and hearts and maybe even communities and nations and the whole world.
Jesus wants to get in the water with us. Which of course leads to the question: will we get in the water with Jesus? Will we look into our hearts and our lives and ask God to help us change? Will we look at our church and our communities and families and workplaces and ask God to help us change? Jesus knows that we bring a lot of mess into the water with us. But that’s the whole point of getting in to begin with. To be changed, challenged, transformed. To get closer to God and one another. To become more like God: more loving, more just, more true, more brave. To be baptized into Jesus Christ, which means not just getting baptized once but getting in the water over and over again with each other and with God.
As we look towards 2019, there will be a lot of challenging waters, in your own lives, for us as a church as we listen for God’s call forward. But Jesus does not leave us to the waters of our lives to wade alone. Jesus gets right in with us. And it turns out that the waters that challenge are the very same waters that cleanse. The baptism Jesus offers, one not just of water but of fire and the Holy Spirit, clears away the mess if we are brave enough to get close.
In the waters of baptism we are made new, over and over again. We are reminded that we were created for God’s purposes, and that we belong not to the difficulties of this life but to God and God alone.
In your bulletin, you have a piece of dissolving paper that looks like this [show.] This is a time for you to reflect on an area of your life that requires renewal, repentance, change, a new beginning. Maybe you want to reflect on something here at church, or at work, or in your family. It should be something you have some ability to influence yourself. What do you want to change? What old ways are no longer working? What new thing is God calling you to?
We will take a moment of silence to reflect and pray. If you want, you can write or draw something on the paper. Then, when you are ready, come to the font, put your paper in the water and watch it dissolve in the waters. Give thanks to God for the chance to begin again.
The water ahead of us may be scary, but it is in these waters that true change can happen. It is in these waters that we meet Jesus, who loves us as we are, and shows us the way to something better. Let us get in the water with Jesus.