GOSPEL: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
“John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him…” (Read the Whole passage)
It was just last week that we heard the story of the Magi or Wise Men following the star to find the Christ child in Bethlehem. They looked for him in the royal palace of King Herod but instead found him in the home of Mary and Jospeh… and that experience set them on a new path home, forever changed by encountering the Christ.
Today, we fast forward 30 some years and it is clear that the Christmas / Epiphany narrative is over. We had our chance to take a breath over the holidays, to stop and ponder the wonder of the incarnation, and now we are sent along to continue the story of Jesus. For many of us, the return to work and school and “regular life” mirrors this movement in our biblical texts. Both the bible and our world have this habit of moving us along to the next thing whether we are ready for it or not. The story of Jesus keeps going and our world keeps turning, no matter how much we prefer the slower paced days of Christmas.
Today, the church celebrates the Baptism of Our Lord. It the moment of Jesus’ life story that begins his ministry, that sets him onto a 3 year journey of ministry in the backwaters of Judea which eventually culminate on a cross in Jerusalem. But before we get to voices from heaven and the spirit descending like a dove, we have John the Baptist.
John the Baptist makes a cameo today, reminding us of his central role in Advent. Out of four Sundays in Advent, two are devoted to John every year. To his preaching and ministry on the banks of the river Jordan, proclaiming the coming Messiah and baptizing those who came to him.
And so even as we are shoved 30 years forward in the story of Jesus from last week to this week, Luke’s Gospel reaches back and picks up the thread from before Christmas… reminding of us just who the gathered crowds are, standing on the banks of Jordan.
They are God’s people waiting in darkness, anticipating the coming of Messiah, hoping for hope, searching for salvation of some kind, somewhere. They have come out into the wilderness looking for John the Baptist, hoping that he will give them something to hold onto.
And John does give them something, some good news to hold on to. Yet, John’s message is a little off. It doesn’t quite sound like good news. God’s promised Messiah is coming, says John, he is coming to baptize with fire, to separate the wheat from the chaff. To burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
That doesn’t sound like good news, but more like a warning. The Messiah is coming to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the right from the wrong, the faithful from the faithless, those on the inside from those on the outside…
But isn’t that the problem in the first place? A temple system in Jerusalem that arbitrarily chooses some to be righteous while most are deemed to have fallen short. The problem already is a world where salvation seems to be inaccessible for most. John is only kind of providing good news by telling of yet another who is going to separate the good from the bad.
You see, even John the Baptist, sent by God to proclaim the coming of Messiah, cannot escape the way the world, the way sin and death wants to define things, to define us. John the Baptist preaches both the coming of God’s promised saviour, but still through the flawed lenses and paradigms of our world. A world that thinks the solution to our problems is determining who is good and who is bad, who is in and who is out.
Of course, this continues to be our problem today… Like John and the crowds, we too cannot escape the inclination to see the world, and to see God, in those terms. In the terms of who is good and who is bad, who is right and who is wrong, who is saved and who is unsaved. Human beings cannot help but seeing the world this way, whether it is in our personal lives and families, in the world of politics between nations, in the world of business and economies, even in the world of sports. We are so used to seeing the world in terms of who belongs to our team and who doesn’t (says the Oilers fan in Winnipeg).
And as post-modern 21st Century Christians, we haven’t changed much from those crowds coming to the banks of the Jordan looking for salvation. Sure we are the inheritors of Church’s proclamation of faith, sure God reminds us week after week, time after time of the Gospel given for us, of the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for sinners and resurrection given to those suffering under death. Sure God reminds us that none of us is worthy of being on the inside or righteous or saved on own, but that Christ makes us worthy.
Sure we should know better… yet, Christians are often some of the worst offenders at seeing the world in terms of wheat and chaff, the world of John the Baptist’s preaching. Christians have the bad habit of wanting to condemn those on the outside, of believing that God’s mission is just for us, rather than following God’s call to take the good news with us out into the world.
But what else should we expect… we cannot help ourselves, we cannot help but be wheat and chaff people by nature… our inability to see that God’s love for us is given freely and abundantly, is precisely the reason Christ comes in flesh in the first place.
And our inability overcome our nature is also why the story doesn’t end with the John the Baptist.
It is why the story begins with him.
As the crowds are standing there on the banks of the river listening to John, they go down and wade into the muddy waters, one by one, where John baptizes them.
And out of this ordinary action of being made clean in the water, something extraordinary is about to happen. One particular, seemingly unremarkable, man is dunked in the waters… And something happens. As he comes up and out of the water, the heavens break open. The veil between heaven and earth is lifted, and the distance between God and creation is closed. And the spirit of God comes down and rests on this man.
And then, just as it rang out over the waters of creation in the beginning, God’s voice rings out again. And this time, the people of God are there to hear.
“This is my Son, the beloved. With him I am well pleased.”
Now here is something, someone new.
The Messiah that John has been foretelling and heralding is not just on the way, but is now here. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the anointed one, has been revealed to God’s people.
Here is the hope, here is the salvation, here is the one that they all have been waiting for.
Just as God began the creation of all things by thundering God’s voice over the waters, God the Father begins the salvation, the new creation of all things by thundering again over the water.
And all of sudden, the wheat and chaff, righteous and unrighteous are not the point anymore.
The good news come in flesh is now the point.
The good news being close enough to touch and feel and see and hear is now what matters.
The good news who can look us in eye, who can pick us up and carry us, who can reach out to touch and feel and see and hear us is the new reality.
The crowds have been given not just the hope they were looking for, but more than they could ever imagine being given.
And it is the same for us. Even as pervasive is the old way of seeing the world, even as we try to keep up the pretense of determining who is in and who is out… God is breaking through to us.
As we gather around the water found here, God breaks open the heavens for us too. God’s voice is heard in our midst and God’s salvation comes for us. As the water is poured over our heads the first time, and each time as a new member is joined to the Body, God is declaring that we too are God’s beloved. That we too are God’s beloved children.
And those other labels, good and bad, right and wrong, in and out, wheat and chaff… those labels, those judgments don’t matter anymore.
There is only God’s judgment of us, and there is only one thing that God judges us.
By God’s voice speaking forgiveness in this place, by the water that washes us anew in this assembly, by the bread and wine that joins us to this Body… God is declaring us Beloved… over and over and over again.
From Magi and stars, to Water and the Voice of God… today is quite the trip… but it is all to remind us again, that God the good news has come and that God has declared us God’s own children. God’s own beloved.
Image: Wikimedia commons https://goo.gl/images/VeZWdo