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Tell The Story, Part 2

Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV

3:13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

3:15 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.

3:16 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.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Is That All There Is to Our Story?

Last week we talked about our theme for 2008 —

  • Tell the story.
  • Invite others.
  • Bless the world.

And, last week we said that the story we are telling is —

  1. The story of God.
  2. Found in the Bible.
  3. Accepted by some and rejected by others.

As some of those who have accepted the story of God, we now come to the place where we find ourselves in it. Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” We know that part, but the rest of Shakespeare’s monologue goes —

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

So, that’s our story. Birth to death with a few difficult and amusing years in between. At least that’s the story the cynics and humanist philosophers would have us believe.

But can that be the story of the people of God? If the story of God is that God created everything, including us, can our story be so bleak and hopeless? Many Christians would say, “Of course not, we’re going to heaven when we die.” To which I would reply that while heaven is of great comfort to us, what about now? The only story we know is the story of now. And, the Bible is full of stories of God with the people of God now.

What Does God Expect Our Story To Be?

Our earlier reading this morning from Isaiah indicated that God is also interested in his people now —

42:1 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.

42:2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;

42:3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

42:4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it:

42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,

42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

42:8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.

42:9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

God is speaking of his servant, whom we now understand to be Jesus. But God is also speaking of God’s people. God, the creator — “who spread out earth and what comes from it, who give breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it..” — this God speaks to His people. And, God calls us to find our place in creation, to rise to the glory with which we were created, and “open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon…” God says, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.”

So, that’s our story. Created by God, but called, chosen, challenged to open blind eyes, free those imprisoned, bring light to the nations.

Sounds amazingly like the way Jesus began his earthly ministry according to Luke’s gospel. Jesus takes the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and reads, not from the passage in Isaiah 42 that I just read, but from Isaiah 61 —

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,

2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…

Jesus’ hearers in the synagogue that day at first were impressed that a hometown boy had such a grasp of the words of the great prophet Isaiah. And if Jesus had kept his mouth shut, everything would have been fine. But, he went on to talk about how God’s people had often rejected the story God was trying to tell them, and suffered the consequences. With that, the people of Nazareth, his hometown, took offense and tried to run him out of town.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Because the text for today isn’t the incident in the synagogue in Nazareth. Our story today comes earlier than that. It is the story of Jesus’ baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist. To understand it, we need to understand a little about baptism in the first century.

Baptism and John the Baptist

As Baptists, we mistakenly believe that John the Baptist was somehow doing something new by baptizing people. But many were baptized in Jewish life, usually for a couple of reasons.

  • New converts to Judaism were immersed in a mikvah, which was a ceremonial washing for ritual purification. The mikvah was usually a pool or large vessel, but could be administered in “living water” — a flowing river or stream — if the purification ritual required it.
  • Jews could also be baptized, not for conversion, but for ritual purification, and you can read the Levitical laws for those specific examples.

But, even though John’s father Zechariah was a priest, John the Baptist was not. He had no official right to baptize people. Prior to his baptisms, he preached a message of repentance — of a change of heart. Add to that the fact that John the Baptist was a different kind of guy — he dressed in the skins of animals, and ate locusts and wild honey — and he was a real wild-eyed Old Testament prophet-type.

In Matthew’s Gospel chapter two, Matthew tells us the story of Mary and Joseph and Jesus being visited by the wise men, which we talked about last week. Then, after the wise men leave and do not return to Herod to tell the king where this new “king of the Jews” is, Herod flies into a rage and orders all the children 2-years of age or younger, around Bethlehem, killed. Joseph is warned in another dream to take Mary and Jesus, and escape to Egypt. And, after that episode is over, Mary and Joseph and their son, Jesus return to Nazareth.

But between the end of Matthew 2, and the beginning of Matthew 3, possibly 25 or more years pass. The next time we see Jesus he is a grown man. Actually, we see Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist first, who is also a grown man. A preacher to be exact, preaching a message of repentance, but not in Jerusalem. John is preaching in the wilderness of Judea. Again, another prophesy fulfilled from Isaiah — “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord”

Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee to John at the Jordan, and insists that John baptize him. John protests, recognizing who Jesus is — not just his cousin, but “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But Jesus insists, and so John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River.

Then this scene which is like no other recorded in scripture —

3:16 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.

3:17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is the validation of Jesus, the inauguration of his earthly ministry, the approval of the Father. But why? Why is Jesus baptized? Certainly not for repentance, because his life even to this point has been to do the will of the Father. Luke’s account of Jesus in the Temple as a 12-year old boy, found by his frantic parents sitting among the scholars discussing scripture. To Mary and Joseph’s parental rebuke, Jesus answers, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

No, it is not the baptism of repentance that Jesus receives from John that day. Jesus is baptized for our sake. Not in our place, but for our sake. Let me explain.

Jesus Shows Us Our Place in God’s Story

We have just come through Advent when we were waiting and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Then, we celebrated Christmas — the birth of the Messiah, God with us, Immanuel. And we sing and read and talk about God come in human flesh, the Incarnation of God as man. And we understand this idea that God became flesh and dwelled among us and we beheld his glory, as John says in his gospel.

But, the Incarnation does not end with the physical birth of Jesus. This God-with-us continues as Jesus begins his earthly ministry among us. And so one afternoon, Jesus walks up over the hill and down to the bank of the Jordan River where John the Baptist is preaching. John sees the glory of God in Jesus, recognizes the calling of Jesus, and protests that it is he, John, who needs to be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around.

But, Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And so John baptizes Jesus. And, that baptism is confirmed by the presence of God, speaking God’s approval and identifying Jesus as God’s Son.

One day someone asked Henry Ford who his best friend was. The story goes that Ford took a napkin and wrote,

“Your best friend is the person who brings out of you the best that is within you.”

Remember the story of God? God created everything, including us. But, there was something different about humankind, we were made in the image and likeness of God. That image, that likeness, was marred when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God and go their own way. That desire that God planted in our hearts to be closer to Him and to be one with Him, became distorted into a misplaced desire to the same as God. The Isaiah passage we just read shows the futility of that —

“I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other” God says.

Not even the pinnacle of God’s creation.

Now Jesus comes, the Promised One, the Messiah, to show us again the story of God.

And so by the Jordan River that afternoon, God does what He has not done since creation — He speaks and says, “That’s good.” God approves the obedient act of this new Adam, this Son of God, who will be for the world the second Adam. Paul says, “As in the first Adam all die, so in the second Adam all are made alive.”

We’re Not Just Actors in a Play

Growing up, I loved school plays. I guess I was kind of a ham, and not shy at all, because I got cast in every school play my class did. When I got to high school, I joined the drama club, and was in every play we produced during my high school years. The faculty awarded me the Outstanding Drama Student award, our version of the Oscar for lifetime achievement, and I got a drama scholarship to attend Mississippi College.

Acting is interesting because you get to try on different characters. I played A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in the play of the same name. It was kind of a Back to the Future, before Back to the Future was made. I played a classical role in Antigone, and still do not know what the story was about. In college, I played the part of Yang Sun in Bertholt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan, and I had a part in The Music Man. My last role was a dual one — I played both a troll and monk in the story of Trudy and the Minstrel.

But, acting is just that, acting. Pretending. Being a character in a story that is not really yours, but that you study for, and practice for, and then perform, but you’re not really living. Which is why they call it acting.

Until Jesus came, we were all acting. Acting good, acting bad, acting righteous, acting pious, acting religious, but still acting. Not being who God had created us to be — the people of God. Then, Jesus came to live the story of God before us. To show us how we would find our real place in that story.

So he was baptized. Not because he needed to repent, for he did not. No, Jesus did not need a change of heart, he did not need to turn his life around, but we did. And so his baptism was to show us, this is the way, follow me, and I will lead you back to God.

Prophets in the Old Testament had preached the message of returning to God. Some like Jeremiah and Hosea had even lived out symbolically how that might happen.

But when Jesus came, he became one of us. He joined our story. But in the moment he entered the story of humankind, he began to reshape it.

In the Othodox church, the ancient eastern expression of the Christian faith, theosis, union with God, is the central doctrine of the church. One Orthodox teacher expresses it this way —

Christ came to save us from sin to participate in the life of God. In other words, we are saved from sin for theosis (unity with God) which is our great potential. Jesus came to earth to tell us:

  • You give me your time, and I will give you eternity.
  • You give me your weary body, and I will give you rest.
  • You give me your sins, and I will give you forgiveness.
  • You give me your broken heart, and I will give you healing.
  • You give me your emptiness, and I will give you My fullness.
  • You give me your humanity, and I will give you my divinity.

We are no longer actors on the stage, as Shakespeare portrayed us. We are real people living a real story, the story because the Son of God has shown us the way back to God. Our story is found in the great story of God. Our lives have meaning because we understand, we follow, we serve, we worship, we trust, we believe, we hope in, and we love God.

The story we tell is God’s story. It is a story found in the Bible. It is a story that some will accept and some reject. But it is our story, too. It is the story of the people of God who have found God again, because Jesus has come and has shown us the way. Jesus has come and lived a human life as we should live it. Jesus has come and has paid for our acts of rebellion and sin, opened our blind eyes, freed us from the prison of sin and death. This is our story. And this is the story that we will tell this year.

This story is the story of eternity, but it is the story of eternity that begins for us here and now. It is not just a story of “how to go to heaven when you die in one easy step.” It is instead the story of how God made us, of how we lost our way, but Jesus showed us the way to God, again. It is that story that is a light to the world, because there are others who also want to know how to find themselves in God’s story. We know, and we must tell them.