this is my beloved son, of whom I am so very proud

Matthew 3:13-17

Alright, so I have a question for you to consider:
why was Jesus out in the wilderness?
Maybe he went out to hear John.
Why did he go out to hear John?
It doesn’t actually say why he went.
And Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan,
and we don’t know exactly where
on the Jordan’s banks this all occurred,
but he traveled a ways—
and maybe a good long ways.
Why?

And we don’t know.
Honestly it could have been any number of reasons.
Some scholars suggest Jesus spent time with John as one of his disciples.
Luke’s gospel suggests they were family.
Whether they were some kind of cousins or not,
it’s Matthew’s gospel that gives us Jesus’ definition of kin
as those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:46-50),
so family it could have been.
Curiosity, appreciation—
we don’t know why he went out in the wilderness to hear John—
to be baptized by John,
but all sources agree that he did.
And his presence there, this is important—
whatever his reason for going out,
his presence there would have been interpreted
by the people also on the Jordan—
people who did not yet know him,
for he had not yet begun his ministry, right?
He was not yet known,
so everyone would have assumed
he was someone there just like everyone else—
one more person indicating the importance of John.

And however much the author of the gospel of Matthew
tries to undermine that, and he does—
trying to point out that it was Jesus’ plan—
did you notice the phrasing?
“then Jesus came from Galilee to John to be baptized.”
Not in any way a spontaneous, spur of the moment response to John.
This was all Jesus’ plan, obviously, even in Galilee.
And then John subordinates himself and his baptism to Jesus and Jesus’,
remember? “John would have prevented him from being baptized, saying
‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'”
And Jesus is again so obviously depicted as the one in charge
saying “let it be so now.”
And only then, did John consent to baptize him.
And yet however much this author seeks to elevate Jesus over John—
and it’s different in Mark and Luke’s accounts.
They don’t describe John recognizing Jesus.
They relay no conversation between them—
don’t identify any reluctance
or sense of inappropriateness on John’s part.
So however much this author seeks to elevate Jesus
in the way he tells the story,
the story itself leaves us with Jesus in the wilderness, one of many,
because John was important—
because what John was saying was important.

So that’s where we have to start.
Surely there had to have been something to what John was saying
or doing that was important to Jesus.
But John was preaching repentance, right?
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And he went off on some pharisees and sadducees,
who had come out to hear what he had to say
(brood of vipers, he called them!),
but the gist of what he said to them
was no different than his message to everyone else—
brood of vipers may have been specific to them,
but the rest of what he had to say
was the message from God he had to give:
“the ax is already laid to the root of the tree.
there is a fruit you are expected to produce—
an ethic you are to live,
a faithfulness—
an obedience you are to cultivate,
and a sacramental act (baptism)
to incarnate your participation
in this drama of unfolding consequence—
to manifest your commitment to manifesting God and God’s way
in and through your way.
And there are consequences to your choices in this matter.
You hear me? You live consequential lives!
Don’t ever forget that.”

John goes on: “I baptize you with water for repentance,
but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me
(this would presumably be Jesus, right?
though no one knew that there);
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His 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.”
So, “I’m preaching repentance,
and you’d better—you’d better repent,
because judgment’s coming!”
Right?

So how about the irony, don’t you think,
to these profound distinctions John’s making—
setting the one who is to come up as judge,
as powerful and mighty,
when he’s already there—
unrecognized—
not distinguished from anyone else there,
and not judging!

Then we have that exchange between John and Jesus:
“I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”—
again Matthew trying to separate Jesus from everyone
when the point the story seems to be making is that you can’t.
And Jesus answered, “let it be so for now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Okay so who talks like that?!
No one talks like that!
And so again, you think, that’s not Jesus.
That’s not anyone talking. That’s someone thinking,
we’ve got to justify this baptism.
That’s someone later putting words in his mouth.
Remember this exchange wasn’t included in Mark or Luke.

But John baptizes with water for repentance,
Jesus with the Holy Spirit and fire.
And Jesus is baptized in water, right?
That would be for repentance, right?
With water and so for repentance.

So it’s as if by the time Matthew was writing,
people had begun to wonder why someone so special
(precisely while the story presents someone just like anyone else!)—
why someone so special needed to be baptized.
Whether there was a doctrine of the sinlessness of Jesus or not,
why would Jesus have needed a baptism of repentance.
So let it be said, again,
people on the banks of the Jordan wouldn’t have been thinking
in terms of whether or not Jesus needed a baptism of repentance.
They would have assumed he did.
Right?
Why wouldn’t they have?
He’s just another guy, just like us. Right?
What a testimony to the incarnation
here at the outset of Jesus’ ministry!

Now, though irrelevant within the story,
it remains important for us to consider all this,
because Jesus’ baptism stands at the convergence
of two strands of traditional theology—
one affirming the sinlessness of Jesus,
the other affirming Jesus is able to understand everything
we feel and go through because he was just like us.

Those two not go together for anyone else but me?

If he didn’t sin, he doesn’t know—can’t understand
a whole lot about me!
And if he does know and understand what I go through,
he had to have sinned and known what that was like—
what that does to someone.
One of the two traditional affirmations has to go.
Y’all have thought this before, right?

So we’re back to the question did Jesus sin?
Did he lie to his parents about who raised the chicken
killed and set aside for dinner that one night?
On those occasions his brothers made him so very mad,
was it coincidence that they broke out in so many zits?
Did he lust after a village girl in high school?
Did he not always live up to the high standards of loving God and neighbor?
Did he sass his mom and dad?
Really not a problem for me.
My understanding of him is based on what I would name
a perfection of the whole,
not necessarily perfection in every moment.
And given those two strands of traditional theology,
I’d rather know Jesus knows me,
than separate him from some of the truth of what it means to be me.

And when Jesus had been baptized,
just as he came up from the water,
water pouring down his head,
eyes still squinting from water,
breeze cool on his wet skin,
the heavens were opened to him—
opened to him, it reads,
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

So did anyone else see that?
The heavens opening, the dove descending, alighting on him?
And if they did, did they also hear God
when the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased.”
Or was it just Jesus who heard that?
I mean God does not directly address Jesus here.
It sounds more like an introduction:
“This is my son, the beloved, y’all,
and I’m proud of him.”
But the way it’s written,
well, we don’t know, do we?
The heavens were opened to him.

All four gospels tell a variation on this same story.
Mark, presumed to be the earliest,
tells a story of God giving Jesus a private message.
the address is direct, “You are my beloved son,”
and no one else heard (Mark 1:9-11).
Matthew, though heaven is opened to Jesus
so it’s possible to read it as a private vision,”
has that indirect address we noted, “This is my beloved son,”
implying others for whom the identification is offered.
According to Luke the heavens open
(not to Jesus, they just open), but the voice speaks
in direct address, “You are my beloved son” (Luke 3:21-23).
In the gospel of John, it’s not even Jesus,
but John the Baptist who hears the voice
and sees the dove (John 1:29-33).

So in order from presumed earliest to presumed latest,
we go from only Jesus seeing and hearing God,
to maybe others overhearing God, a more public announcement,
to John seeing and hearing God and announcing it to everyone.
As if, in time, it becomes more important to make Jesus distinctive—
more important to make him different from just one of us.
So it’s as if personal experience (God blessing Jesus) becomes public
in the attempt to justify distinctiveness—
an apt description, it occurs to me, of much social media!!
We post our personal experience
as if others seeing what we’re doing
somehow makes us more special,
and we go on line to see how many “likes” we get,
and the more, the better!

But blessing doesn’t need to be publicized
to be significant,
transformative,
powerful.
It’s what we each need to hear
for ourselves,
not what we want or need others to hear
to bring us up in their eyes or something,
but what we need to hear,
to bring ourselves up in our own eyes.

We have made the sacrament of baptism,
for the most part, in the image of John’s baptism.
Don’t you think?
A baptism for repentance.
And we reflect on the whole dying to what’s been,
and being raised to newness of life.
All good.
Powerful.
Meaningful.
Important.
But whyever Jesus went into the wilderness—
whyever he was baptized,
in his experience of baptism,
he knew himself to be named and claimed by God.
And while we tend to view the baptism of Jesus
as one more thing that separates him from us,
what if that’s exactly the wrong way to look at it?
For if the story begins with Jesus inseparable from anyone around him,
maybe it’s supposed to end that way too—
and his baptismal experience is what ours is supposed to be too—
a blessing—
being named and claimed beloved child of God of whom God is proud.

And so though it’s what John preached (“the judge is coming!”)
that’s not what God wants us to hear.
Because Jesus was there.
So the message is not I’m here raised above you to judge,
but rather, I’m here with you—right here in the middle of you
(so much like you you might never even know it’s me),
but I’m with you, not to judge, but to understand—
to know you and to love you,
and to help you recognize and to validate your recognition
that things are not as they’re supposed to be—
that the world should be different—
that you should commit to making it different.

It was one of those bad mornings in our household.
Just a whole lot of negativity.
Some screaming and yelling and crying.
Some doors slammed.
And a whole lot of blaming.
And that was just all me!
The animals were all hiding.
It was one of those bad mornings.

But it occurred to me, by the grace of God, to gather us in,
and to say, “Alright, I want everyone to hear this.
Everyone listening?
Can you hear me?”
“Yes.”
“I want you to think about something.
You going to think with me?”
“Yes.”
“You ready? Here we go.”
Yes!”
You have to irritate them enough to get them to listen,
but not enough that they give up on whatever you want to say.
It’s a fine line!
“There comes a time,” I said, “there comes a time
when it’s just not important whose fault it was anymore,
and what is important—
all that’s important—
is who’s going to work to make it better.”
And there was a moment of silence—
a moment of what, I at least like to think,
was important silence.

Could it be that Jesus was out there
in the wilderness on the Jordan’s banks
baptized by John
because people would have perceived him
as one of them—
drawn out there with all those
who knew sin gets in the way—
who knew not just that they wanted the world to be different,
but had a sense that they needed to be different in the world—
drawn out there among those
who so wanted to figure out a way of being new.
So of course Jesus was there—
not to judge, but to love.
To hold accountable, yes, but not in blame—
rather in commitment to transformative possibility.

It’s just not important whose fault it was anymore,
and what is important—
all that’s important—
is who’s going to work to make it better.

So repentance prepares the way for transformation.
It’s important. It’s true.
We have to know—deep down know
things aren’t as they should be—
that we play a part in the way things are,
and that not only do we need to be aware of playing a part,
we need to be more intentional in choosing the part we play.
We need to repent.

But Jesus comes to clarify
we do not repent in fear, but in hope,
not because of threats, but because of possibilities,
not because we are held accountable for what has been,
but because we are held
response-able to what is,
and participants in what can be—
co-creators of the new world being shaped
by the beloved children of God.

And that, my friends, is a story to sink into,
and to soak in.

Thanks be to God.

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