In our scripture today from Luke 3, Jesus’ cousin John gets his marching orders before Jesus begins his public ministry. It says that the word of God called John from what he was doing – his private life – to instead go through the region around the Jordan preaching that people should be baptized through repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.
John knew that the people could be forgiven but that they needed to show repentance. They needed to admit that they were in the wrong and that they need to be made right. They needed to recognize there were parts of their lives that were out of their control and out of order, that they needed help. They needed to recognize that there was a power greater than themselves, and that they were not living life on their own.
None of those things is easy, are they? You’re wrong, you’re not in control, your desires aren’t all that matter. Those are hard truths – but that is the message John was preaching. And the message is still true.
We want to minimize things to “mistakes,” when too often, we do exactly what we want to do even though we know we shouldn’t. That’s sin.
We want to be the boss of our own lives, whether it’s physically, emotionally, financially, etc. when we’re supposed to be turning the keys over to God.
John understands that about human nature – that’s why he’s ‘preparing the way,’ laying it all out there. But he also knows God’s nature, that God desires people to repent and turn to God.
That forgiveness is possible.
So, John is outside of society, living out in the wilderness, preaching that people should repent (turn their lives around), be baptized, and receive forgiveness. And people are coming and coming and coming to hear him.
The people that hear John preach tell other people who go to hear him. And it’s not the candy-coated “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel where everything is going to be groovy and God wants you to be “happy!” It’s tough love- hard truths – real, God-centered redemption.
Which John says is just the beginning – not the end – because it’s not enough to repent and turnaround, to be forgiven. No, John says that his listeners need to exhibit fruit and actually be different.
So the people ask what different looks like? Isn’t that the question that we always ask, sort of skeptically, about folks who make a change in their lives?
I wonder what would have happened if Charles Dickens had written the story of Ebenezer Scrooge after that Christmas morning with a different type of ending. What if Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and said, “whew, Thank God, I’m alive,” and then went back to exorbitant fees and wage garnishments? What if he chalked the appearance of the four ghosts to indigestion or anxiety or something other than actual visions from heaven?
Wouldn’t it change the whole story? Wouldn’t knowing the purpose of the ghosts (or lack thereof) change what we think about Scrooge and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol?
Of course it would! There would be no real story to tell – because it’s one of repentance and forgiveness that is made real because there is change. We expect Scrooge to shake it off – or for the effects to wear off – because we know that happens with us.
But Scrooge changes his ways to “prove” or show his repentance. He must follow through, both so that we can see how the story changed but so that his person, his character, can exhibit new life!
New life. Do we know what that looks like? Do we recognize what change looks like?
We can see a person lose weight, end a destructive relationship, give up an addiction. Those are all hard work – drastic even. But what does a new life look like?
John says, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same. And to tax collectors, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” And to soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Stuff. Power. Money. If John had targeted their politics, he’d have hit the Mount Rushmore of the Don’t-Mess-With-It-List.
How many shirts do you have?
How many of you have more than enough food?
How many of you have ever twisted a rule to financially benefit yourself, or spoken unkindly, even wrongly, against your neighbor?
How many of you are unhappy with what you get paid?
How many of you mistreat someone else because of the bad day you’re having?
John is taking his grubby, gruff, grumpy, Grinch-like finger and poking us in the chest until the skin breaks, the bones get sore, and our bleeding, pulsing heart is exposed to the world. And while he’s poking, he asks again and again, “Do you get it? Do you know God? Do you love God? Will you be different?”
Thank God that Jesus showed up at the Jordan, and got baptized next. If Jesus hadn’t come, we would still be living in a world that understood judgment and repentance but had very little room for grace.
If Jesus hadn’t come, we’d still need to be seeking the Johns of the world in the wilderness, to make our sacrifices and hope we’d be forgiven of our sins.
Thanks be to God, Jesus did come, and offer forgiveness for all who would believe. Because he was God’s one and only son, he could do that. Thankfully, God acknowledged or recognized Jesus in the moment of his baptism, as the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Thankfully, Jesus knew where he was from – and whose he was.
That sense of purpose, that clarity of history, that’s what allowed Jesus to enter his temptation in the wilderness (next week), to minister and teach for three years, and stay focused on to the cross. I wonder what would happen if we had that sense of purpose, that understanding of who we are? I wonder if we could just grasp a little of God’s greater purpose and plan for us…
The other night, we were driving through downtown Richmond and my wife encouraged me to drive by the Christmas tree outside of the James Center. It’s where I proposed fifteen years ago (fifteen years!) and where our family’s origin began in a metaphorical sense. As we slow-rolled by, because it was too cold to get out, she turned to our boys, and told them that was where their daddy had proposed. (For the record, they asked a few questions and went back to their electronic devices.)
A few days passed, and I was again driving the boys around at night. Suddenly, a voice called out from the backseat, “Look, that’s where Daddy married Mommy!” Of course, it wasn’t actually where I proposed but my three year old knew part of the story, and he understood how special it was. Even if it was incomplete, he knew part of the story – and he wanted to be part of it.
I think we have that childlike understanding of God, even the wisest, deepest, most spiritual one of us. I find myself in awe of the story, and the way that God works, but I know that John’s message to the people gathered in the wilderness is still true.
“This isn’t about you. It’s for you, but it’s not about you.
“You’re blessed so you can be a blessing.
“Get your head out of the sand and get involved.
“God forgives you, you idiot!”
Wait, maybe that last one is just how I read it sometimes. Maybe that’s what I need it to say to me, because sometimes I fail to fully grasp God’s grace, and sometimes, I feel like I fail to exhibit the after effects of my own repentance. But the truth is, that God’s grace just keeps coming. That Jesus’ death doesn’t wear off. That while I might need to repent again, I don’t have to worry that God stopped loving me somehow.
That baptism is something we do but that grace is something God has done.
Rev. Rob Colwell shared the story of a woman who called the West Virginia Department of Transportation. The woman complained “about the location of a particular deer crossing sign. She demanded that the state remove that sign because the deer kept crossing at the spot where the sign was placed and they were being struck by coal trucks coming down off the mountain. Now, no offense to West Virginians because sometimes I wonder if we too view the sacraments in a similar fashion. Of course we intelligent Virginians all know that the deer were not crossing the road because the sign was erected, but the sign was erected because someone observed where the deer were crossing.” Baptism, he said, was where we celebrate the work God as already done, not the place God shows up because of what we do.
It’s why I think baptism is such a powerful image for our lives of faith. Water makes up most of our bodies – it’s necessary; water is what we use to wash ourselves, to keep clean from bacteria and viruses – it’s cleaning; water is what quenches our thirst and allows us to live- it’s life-giving.
But it’s also the water of the ocean and the river … and the swimming pool. Water that we play in and enjoy and cool off in. Water that… frees us to be without worry.
There’s an image of swimming that will stick with me – not from the Olympics or from my competitive days. But from a hot day this summer at my parents’ house. Dad had set up an inflatable pool – big enough for me to lie down in submerged if I was so inclined, with sides high enough that our three-year-old needed a steps tool to get up and over. We swam and splashed and played during the heat of the day, but nap time called, and my little guy had to go to his nap.
The adults enjoyed different activities throughout the afternoon, and my wife brought our three-year-old back out to the yard. He giggled about his nap, and without further thought, he turned and jumped through the inflated side of the pool and began splashing around.
That’s about what you expected, right?
But see, he went in, without rinsing his feet, without climbing the step stool. Without changing into a swimsuit. He was that excited – and he knew that the water was good.
It’s this water in which we’re baptized – just like Jesus was, at the moment when he was reminded that he was loved by God, that God had a plan for him. We’re about to move into a service of remembering our baptism (and take in a few new members) and speak together John Wesley’s Covenant of Renewal:
“We are no longer our own, but yours, Put us to what you will, rank us with whom you will, Put us to doing, put us to suffering. Let us be employed by you or laid aside by you, Exalted for you or brought low for you. Let us be full, let us be empty. Let us have all things, let us have nothing. We freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, oh glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine, and we are yours. So be it. And the covenant which we have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
We’ll see our lives again in the perspective of God’s saving grace, in repentance and forgiveness, out of control and in God’s control. We’ll see ourselves as people wandering in the wilderness, confronted by the truths of our lives, and freed by the truth of God’s love.
And maybe, we’ll find ourselves wondering, if it’s not something in the water, something in the baptism, something in the grace that makes us think the world could be different tomorrow. If we’d follow, and stay focused, and grow deeper as disciples.
If we would repent. If we would give up holding onto the things we don’t need, and the selfishness of our hearts; if we would embrace our neighbors and our enemies as children of God, and learn to love as God’s love; if we would recognize that our hurts and our pasts aren’t an excuse to hurt others, but opportunities for grow.
If we would recognize that God has already done the work, that in baptism, we just acknowledge it. “The difference between Christianity and religion,” Bill Hybels says, “is how they are spelled. Religion is spelled, ‘do’ – do this, do that, do, do, do… Christianity is spelled ‘done.’ Christ has already done everything we need. We just need to receive the gift of ‘done.’
If we would acknowledge that God is God and we are not.
If we would acknowledge that God loves us – that we are God’s children – and that God is in control.
If we would only bellyflop in the water of grace and splash around.
The water is that good.