Worship ~ 5 February

Audio Recording

Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. 

Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.  Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.  

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?  Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?  If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.  

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.  For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it. 

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”  

Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  For withthe judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you receive.” 

In Confirmation class last week we began looking at the Lutheran understanding of Law and Gospel – how the very same teaching or law can both convict and comfort. Today’s readings offer good examples of that dynamic. The judgement with which you judge will be the criteria used in judging you. The measure of generosity, kindness, arrogance, anger you give out will be what comes back to you. 

Is this good news, comforting news? Or is it time for a fearless moral inventory and change?  

Judging others is inherent to our nature. It’s wired into our survival mechanism – needing to know in an instant if we should fight or flee. 

But that instinct has been exploited. Within the public political arena, judging others (dismissively, of course) is part of the game and spectacle. Judging others and how closely they align with our ideals or standards or ways is how we form friend groups and congregations. But the judgment that forms inclusion, by definition, is a move to alienate others (Law and gospel). And judgment is more often about separating sheep from goats. It might be based on racial differences, skin tone, clothing styles, body shape, sexual identification, educational level, occupations, income, visible manifestations of ideologies, gender, piercings and tattoos, what we feel is appropriate dress or behavior … the list is endless, really. The result is the assumption that for various and obvious reasons, we are better than them.

We all take part in some amount of instant judging. We can’t help it. It is a natural, seemingly innocent thing to do. Sometimes we are conscious of it, maybe enjoying the diversity of lifestyles or cultural expression evident at a big event or trip to the cities for those of us from small villages. We might call it ‘people watching.’ But I suspect we aren’t looking for the good, the kind, the Christ in them. I suspect it is the differences that catch our eye, and differences are always targets for judgment. We form an idea of an individual’s worth or a backstory based on a glance. If we were honest with our inner selves, we’d call it ‘people belittling’, not people watching. It’s not neutral. Sometimes judgments ride under the radar of awareness, but we feel them or react to them. Fear, wariness, revulsion, attraction, coveting, compassion based on what we see – while knowing nothing about the individual or group. 

Our treatment of others summarizes the human dynamics of the first law of thermodynamics: The Law of Conservation of Energy that states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but is transferred, changed from one form to another.    Behaviors, attitudes, prejudices, treatment of others don’t dissipate into a void. They land on another person, are absorbed, felt, engaged, recycled, transferred from person to person. This contributes to the systemic nature of racism, misogyny, and bigotry. The measure you give is the measure you receive… do unto others as you would have them do unto you… What goes around, comes around.

Our interactions are marked by this mutuality, this inability to disconnect; and they can contribute to the way of empire or they can contribute to the way of the kingdom of God. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” goes back a very long way in human history and in relationship to God – and it hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, it feels like it is getting worse. Judgment is quicker and more malevolent, forgiveness and compassionate curiosity hardly in the picture.

The center of this long section of Jesus’ teaching is where we find the Lord’s prayer in which we ask God for what we need to be a people who live into the ethics and ethos of God’s will and way. It asks for simple and not so simple things: daily bread, forgiveness of our debts and trespasses, a plea not to be tested or tempted, but to be delivered from the evil that lures us. We ask that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, break in to our present time, for it to be enacted, behaved here, among us.

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.(Yes! Even for you. And even for them – those despicable, untrustworthy, abusive, ignorant, judgmental ‘others’.)  Indeed, for everyone who asks, receives; and everyone who searches finds; and for everyone who knocks, the door shall be opened.’ 

     God will welcome you. God will welcome those whom you have judged. God will welcome those who have judged you!  This isthe hospitality of the kingdom of God. Everyone who searches, who seeks, who knocks at the door shall be admitted. Not because we have judged them worthy. But because God has claimed a presence, proclaimed a promise, in their lives, too, as in your life.

For is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, would instead give them a stone?  Or if the child asks for fish, would you substitute a snake?  Of course not. 

  If you then, who are … human, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!   

    God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts, judging, forgiveness, loving, mercy, joy… are not our ways.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine,” Jesus said, “and acts on them will be like a wise one who builds their house on rock.” Where God’s will is done, where God’s ways are practiced, where the teachings of Jesus are enacted, there the kingdom of heaven draws near. The Lord’s prayer is talking about behaving more than believing the kingdom of God. And when we behave it, we begin to see it.

‘Forgive us our trespasses, Merciful God – our slanders, our arrogance, entitlement, hubris — as we forgive those who in like fashion judge us,   and grant that we may do unto those others as we would have them do unto us. Lead us not into the temptation of loving ourselves without equal regard of our neighbor, but deliver us from such evil…   Judge us, good Lord, with a lover’s compassion. For we are all … the creatures, the habitats, our neighbors, ourselves, those disenfranchised, despised … we are all all yours.

Worship ~ 22 January

Audio Recording

I don’t like the gospel of Matthew. I’ve said that before – maybe a lot? I apologize for the repetition. I find this gospel very challenging and unsettling.  This section of antithesis (You have heard it said, but I tell you…) goes on for several more topics. We’ll hear more of them next week. Near the end, Jesus says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers….   the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’

I don’t know what to do with many of the things Matthew’s Jesus says. They break sharply with the image of Jesus I carry as compassionate healer, empathetic see-er of the human condition, as the encompassing, inclusive embrace of a loving creator God. I know Jesus was edgy, but in Matthew, he is often harsh, judgmental, snarky, impossibly rigid. 

So then, I ask myself if my comforting belief is grounded in scripture, or if I’ve done the Disney thing. And, as you also probably know, there’s no conclusive answer to that. It’s true, of course, that we all favor images and sections of scripture that fit most closely with our world view, our cultural ethos, our need. And that we do that no matter what the Good Book actually says. 

And maybe — I may be well on my way to heresy at this point — maybe, it doesn’t matter. Maybe, all of the fuss is irrelevant because every image, every trajectory of faith, every attempt at knowing the nature of the divine being, is in some ways true and in some ways a false image, an idol of our mind’s making. I mean, I think that’s true. I read hours of commentaries and seminary text books every week and these experts all say something a bit different and sometimes contradictory to the last one I read. So I back up and just think…. which is what you usually get on Sunday morning, for good or ill. Mostly, I hope I cause you to think, too. We’re in this together.

But, back to the matter at hand and the beatitudes.

I’d like to do a sermon series on religious artwork, showing images created throughout the centuries on the topic of scripture. We have a preview today in the bulletin insert. I spend (perhaps waste) quite a bit of time each Saturday night finding an appropriate or pleasing image for the bulletin cover. As a result, I have seen what many artists have emphasized or brought to life for every sermon topic that we’ve covered for the past many years. 

Look at your bulletin cover. It’s beautiful, colorful……. and very American 21st century. The words are there, but Jesus is in a cloud of color, the cliff is barely accessible, and the only people are obviously physically fit. That’s not to say they aren’t mourning; they may indeed be meek, merciful, pure of heart, and peacemakers, but this image, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t ring true to scripture.

 “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

And when Jesus saw this crowd, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down and his disciples came to him, he began to teach them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed those who mourn, blessed the meek, blessed those who hunger for a righteousness they can never attain, blessed the merciful, blessed the pure, blessed the peacemakers, blessed the persecuted. He’s looking at the crowd of people he’s just healed. 

Butterflies and children scrambling up a cliff are, I hope blessed, but not quite what Jesus is saying. The painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (top right on the insert) is similarly lovely. It’s too small for you to see properly, but Jesus is in the center of the people in a pale yellow, knee length tunic. No hat, long hair looking kind of a mess, actually. A white aura encircles the crowd near him. Everyone else is dressed in 16th century Flemish finery. I’d like to learn more about the various groupings, but without knowing more, what I see is that the artist brought Jesus into his own context, his own people and time. High class people. 

Whether it is proper theologically or not, this is what we do, what we need to do to have Jesus speak to us. And so it is with each of the paintings I’ve selected. They speak from a specific context, they bring Jesus into the midst of their community. The Van Gogh was paired with the poem and it felt right even though it’s not intended to be about the sermon on the mount. You might want to take the insert home and look the images up on your computer to study them, and no doubt you’ll find dozens of others. I do with words what artists do with paint and brushes. With one big difference. I can quickly change images and focus and emphasis week by week, trying things on to see how they fit – artists are committed to an interpretation, a visual description of who/how they see Christ working in the world – they are putting it all out there. 

And actually, this is exactly what Matthew did. He brought the stories and traditions he knew of Jesus into the needs and issues of his community – without giving a thought to us! The author of Matthew – probably in Antioch, Syria, probably around the year 85 CE,  probably of the sect of Christian Jews, was trying to help his community find a path forward after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. As a Jew, he believed in Hebrew scripture absolutely. But he believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Torah, and that set him at odds with the Pharisees. Matthew spends the first seven chapters presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture and righteousness – which Jesus says – “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” That’s why we’re hearing so much law in this gospel when we expect to hear grace. Matthew’s community members were observant Jews contemplating this completely new thing, interpreting Jesus in light of scripture. The opening chapters of Matthew are a retelling of the themes from Exodus. Like Joseph of long ago, Jesus’ Joseph interpreted dreams and escaped with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Like the Israelites, Jesus was led out of Egypt, crossed through the water, was claimed by God, and was tested in the wilderness – for 40 days, not 40 years.  Unlike Israel, Jesus proved his faithfulness to God. Now, on a mountain, like Moses, he proves his adherence to the Law reinterpreting the commandments, exceeding their righteousness. Matthew is carefully building the structure of the story so that his people may take this image bridge to the astounding news that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.

Jesus may or may not have said the words we read quoted in Matthew. It was written 50 years after his death. But that doesn’t matter – in that Matthew is incarnating, fleshing out the various stories and documents he had available to him about Jesus in order to move the hearts and minds of his community to believe that scripture was being fulfilled in their lifetime. 

It’s an extraordinary leap. It is an extraordinary, inspired gift that the apostle Paul and Matthew and the other gospel writers were given to be able to see God in Jesus and make the connections that made sense within their own setting. It is even more incredible that throughout history and across completely divergent cultures, as shown in the few art works in the bulletin, that we are able to recognize and assimilate the gospel story finding ourselves and our times reflected there. 

The reality of people’s lives that Jesus saw that day moved him. And he saw that whatever the world might say of them, whatever they might say of themselves — poor in spirit, meek, hungry, mourning, merciful — they were, at the same time, children of God whose grace drew near and named them blessed. That, too, is something we may appropriate from these old writings for ourselves and our time. Blessed are you.

Worship ~ 15 January

Audio Recording

Matthew 3:16-4:17

16 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.  17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

1Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by ha’satan. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ 4But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” 

5Then ha’satan took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 

7Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ 10Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ 

11Then the tempter left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. 

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
15 ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
16  the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light 
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’ 

17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

The word of God…thanks be to God.

Jesus had just been anointed by God in baptism when he was led by the same Spirit to be tempted in the wilderness. Such an interesting turn of events. Very much like with Job, God allows Satan to test. And, after declining the tempter’s offers, and being waited upon by angels, Jesus hears that John the Baptist has been arrested. 

He withdraws to Galilee. Withdraws stealthily, quickly. This is the same Greek word used when Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt because of Herod, and again later from Judea to Galilee because of Archelaus, Herod’s son. The word will be used again when Jesus flees to the wilderness after John is beheaded in chapter 14. In each instance, flight is necessitated because of the threat of imperial violence.

John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas for criticizing his immoral life. The historian, Josephus, who I keep referencing, suggests that John also challenged Herod’s oppressive economic practices that dealt death to those living on the margins and he reports that John’s popularity kept growing. The empire did everything in its power to eliminate people like John and used them as examples to intimidate potential threats. Jesus would have known that John’s imprisonment was a warning that something similar was coming his way.

Given the threat of arrest, it would have been reasonable for Jesus to flee to safety and avoid confronting the empire entirely. But that, too, was a temptation Jesus rejected. He has proven his loyalty and allegiance to God’s kingdom, come what may.

Matthew quotes from Isaiah 9 in introducing a messianic king who will lead people from darkness to light. Writing in the context of Assyrian occupation, Isaiah assures people that the messiah will shatter the yoke that was burdening them. He would reign on David’s throne and ensure justice and righteousness.

The Roman Empire had been subjecting people to darkness and death for generations. It made darkness and death commonplace, normalizing a peace brokered by violence and threat.  In Matthew’s choice of this prophecy, Jesus will lead people from darkness to light and destroy the power of death that Rome had come to embody. He will expose the oppressive ethos of the empire and show that darkness and death do not need to rule, are not the accepted tools of peace. This is no small task, of course. The devil tried to entice him. The empire tried to threaten him. But nothing will deter him. Jesus withdraws into Galilee but, withdraws in stealth to reappear on his own terms. At so many points of the gospel, Jesus could have taken an easier path, become a less visible target. But he’s not in favor of hiding lights under bushels. His was meant to shine for the sake of others.

How do we respond to the various guises of imperial violence or to deeds done in shadows in our realm? Do we become complicit, retreating to safety? Do we make peace with the powers that be, accepting them as business as usual? Or are there ways to confront them, to prosper the kingdom of heaven?  I mean, there are, of course there are… how are you doing?

The confirmation class girls and I are talking about the 10 commandments and how slippery they actually are. Martin Luther’s explanations widen the context. It’s not simply a matter that you should not murder, but “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger, nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” We are not to steal, but instead “we are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property, nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”  It’s painful to realize how easily we slip into complacency, how impossible it seems to extract ourselves from communal sin, from doing unintended harm, when even willful wrong can seem justified by societal norms and celebrities. It’s hard to keep the lines clear, the path on target. Small allowances or infractions seem innocent enough, but they compound. A white lie becomes a colorful lie, a small misdeed takes on large unintended consequences.  The Sunday evening zoom study is exploring how incipient racism and prejudice and oppression are in our ‘good, well-meaning’ lives. Our language choices, our lack of experience with other races or cultures, the ease of forming monocultures, and our comfort with the way things are for us, all land us in racist patterns and policies, quite possibly, without even realizing it.

It is too tempting to make peace with the empire in order to advance our economic and political interests, personally and communally. There is inevitably a cost for confronting the status quo – for stepping out of line with over-consumption, racism, violence, finger-pointing, and placidly looking the other way. But the cost of not confronting it is more telling. A church that joins hands with the empire, or remains silent in the face of it, is a contradiction in terms. “Repent”, Jesus said. “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And it still is.

The kingdom of heaven is a state of affairs that will become a reality when people change their ways and work towards making it possible. We are asked to repent not so much to receive benefits from the kingdom but to advance it for the benefit of others. We are invited to become agents of transformation.

There are various ideas about why Matthew uses the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’ rather than ‘kingdom of God’, but one effect is that it shifts the focus, if only a little bit, to the people who work to bring the kingdom to life. So, the question isn’t “what will God do to solve this problem in his kingdom?” but “how will people respond?” We are invited to discern what social or economic or political structures need to be created or ended to enable a just and dignified life for all members of society; to see all creation as precious in God’s sight and within the coming realm.

The next sentence in the gospel as chapter four continues describes Jesus calling his first disciples. They leave their families, livelihoods – apparently inspired by the mission and the man, and make a radical commitment to the message and teaching and healing they witness. The Roman empire relied on threat, coercion and enticements to recruit people into its military. The new kingdom, on the other hand, inspires participation.  Far from being the deterrent they no doubt expected, the imprisonment of John strengthened the crowds’ resolve, and the new message of Jesus inspired people from all over the region to follow him.

The warning from the gospel is that religion, too, can become an empire suppressing the freedom and joy of relationship with God beneath rituals, laws, fear and positions of privilege. The scribes and pharisees represent that in Matthew.

The good news is that the light of Christ somehow caught hold, ignited, inspired and was passed on from John to Jesus to the disciples and eventually to Matthew’s community. And it has been passed on to us. As the Church, we are invited to participate in the transformative work of the new kingdom. But we also have the task of inspiring others to join the movement. We won’t do it with coercion or threats or fear – those are not the tools of the kingdom of forgiveness and transformation. 

The question is whether and how we are able to inspire people to join the work of transforming communities. How are we succeeding? Where are we failing? What is the next step for you? For us?

Adapted from  Raj Nadella – Working Preacher commentary for 26 January 2020

Worship~ 8 January

Audio Recording

Matthew 3:1-17

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16And 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 Jesus. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Why did Jesus choose baptism?

This question takes up most of the commentaries and podcasts that cover chapter 3. Their answers vary quite a bit depending on the perspective that’s taken.  Within the gospel’s story, Jesus tells John it’s part of God’s plan. It is to ‘fulfill all righteousness’.  However, none of the commentators could explain what that means. There wasn’t an ancient category of behavior that fulfilled all righteousness. There is no scriptural mandate for the Messiah to be baptized.  And, within the story and within Christian sensibilities, Jesus had nothing of which to repent. He is the model of righteousness – the fulfillment of it in his person.

Nevertheless, Jesus seems to be saying, “Ya know, I’ve got a feeling about this… Let’s just do it.”    And then the heavens open. 

I’ve read that the kind of baptism John was enacting was unique. There were rituals of bathing for purity and spiritual cleansing – rituals for forgiveness of deeds and misdeeds, but not this once-and-for-all forgiveness of SIN. The typical rites were something one would expect to repeat as needed. John was expecting a change: a truly altered mode of living, an existential reordering as the result or consequence of his baptism. It was a prophet’s call: “The time is at hand. Change! And here’s what to do. Come down into the water, come into the river that our people crossed from wilderness into the promised land, the river that healed Namaan, the Jordan River that creates our fertile valley. Come wash and be reborn, refreshed, redone.”

Those commentators who are speaking about the gospel from outside of the story, say Matthew was connecting Old Testament expectations with New Testament promises: John, styled as a Hebrew prophet, humbles himself and submits to Jesus as the Messiah, while Jesus recognizes the authority of John to fulfill God’s word. They each highlight the work of the other. The baptism is plying those strands together.

They also say it was written this way to encourage the followers and disciples of John – who seem to be many – to join the Jesus movement which was forming at the time this gospel was written – some 50 years after Jesus’ death, 53 years after the baptism event. Unlike in Luke and Mark, Matthew gives John and Jesus the same words; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And in Matthew they both call their opponents a brood of vipers. In fact, John the Baptist’s movement was in some sense a competitor of early Christianity, offering Jews an alternative way. Christianity did emerge out of the John’s ministry, and some of Jesus’ first followers had been his.  Matthew and the other evangelists wanted to make clear the connection they saw between these two distinct calls: John’s call for repentance at the nearness of the kingdom and the call of Jesus as the Messiah within that kingdom.

After all these years of preaching and studying, I’m still surprised at how political, or strategic, or tactical, or agenda-driven the gospels were/are. They are not novels, they are not histories, they are not memoirs, they are not innocent or neutral. The gospels are highly crafted, polemic, documents of persuasion. They are meant to convince their hearers and readers of an alternate reality, a hidden realm just as real and urgent as Empire. They are meant to change lives. And John is the perfect opening act for the story they will tell.

Another somewhat pedantic motivation for why Jesus was baptized, is that it had to begin somewhere. As Jeff read last week, the small child Jesus was moved from place to place, guided by the dreams of Joseph in order to keep him safe, and the little family settled finally in Nazareth, in Galilee. Little Jesus…

  ….  And …  a transition is needed.     “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near..”       .… and then one day Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized. And after that he went into the wilderness, led by the Spirit of God to be tempted, and when he heard that John had been arrested he went back to Galilee and moved to Capernaum, and from that time on Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It had to begin somewhere!  The evangelists needed some jumping in point.  And now we’re caught up and we learned a few things along the way.

It is interesting though, that all four gospels – even John who is the outlier – and Peter’s speech in Acts 10 – all preface Jesus’ ministry with an account of John. For some reason, they saw it necessary to begin the good news of Jesus with this prophet. The Jewish historian Josephus, after praising John’s piety and religious leadership, notes that Herod did away with him out of fear that political upheaval might result from John’s ministry. Josephus says similar things, but less actually, about Jesus.

So, the Baptizer and the baptism were essential – not simply convenient story-telling devices – essential, even if we don’t quite see it.

But then, the question shifts a bit. Why do we choose baptism? What does it mean for us?

It’s too big a question, of course, and the answers/responses could take too long. What it is, is one point we can touch on. And what it is not is another one. We’ll start there, with what it is not.

Baptism is not magic. It does not produce an indelible sign on our foreheads to be seen by the angels and archangels and cherubim and seraphim on the last day when the stars are called home — well, maybe it does that (who’s to know), but it’s not a magic marker to separate sheep from goats. I grew up believing that you had to be baptized to go to heaven. But that’s not in the Bible. I’ve checked.

The gospel of Mark, in one of the extra, non-original endings, comes the closest to a transactional relationship between baptism and salvation, saying, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved.”  I looked up the 84 citations of the word in my Greek New Testament concordance, and nowhere does it say baptism is for salvation – or even why we are to baptize or be baptized into Christ, except for the forgiveness of sin. Paul talks about the parallel to Christ’s dying and rising – if we are baptized into Christ we will also rise with Christ.  The main difference between John and Jesus’ baptisms seems to be in connection with the Holy Spirit. It’s not as noticeable as it was in Jesus’ baptism, but, especially in Acts, the Spirit of God is attracted to the water and hovers near. 

So, baptism isn’t a golden ticket. It’s not an insurance policy. And it’s not transactional.

Also, it has meant different things in different periods of history within the Christian tradition, and still does between denominations. Practices and beliefs change – and so, is one denomination correct and the others false? Or is the practice or wording or belief from one period of history correct over against another? Or, do we trust finally that baptism is God’s sign to us, God’s gift to us as a reminder of the preciousness of life and water and forgiveness and the holy, uniting Spirit for community gathered in Christ?  Can we receive it simply as gift and not try to manage the outcome?

I said it’s not magic, but it is part of the mystery of God’s incarnational love. Baptism is an elemental, sacred sign of inclusion, of welcome into a community of faith, a means of grace uniting the church of all times and places, a naming and claiming into the people of God. Church traditions, policies and doctrines have more to say about it, claim more for it and from it, have added more layers, but this is good for today.

The thing that I am clear about in my head and heart, is that we are not God, and that we are not in charge of salvation, and that we don’t really know what salvation even is. So baptism – or any other requirement that we might set up to fulfill all righteousness – is a human construct, and one that may or may not be a good idea, but is not proof of a prerequisite, or in any other way known to be what God wants of us. We truly don’t know what God wants of us, although I’m drawn to Micah’s “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” – and so we live out of whatever love and generosity of spirit and fullness of soul we can bring to the world and to our relationships. Baptism won’t automatically make you a better person. John’s cry for change, for repentance, still holds. But baptism does connect us to one another, to the faithfulness of the community, to the prayers and thoughts and love of those who gather weekly to celebrate and sorrow and praise God together. And there is healing in that. There is forgiveness in that, there is transformation in that, there is sacred love, divine love, evident in the depth and breadth of companionship we feel as Christians who gather together. And over time, that can change your life.