TEXTS: Isaiah 42:1-9 (the first “Servant” Song); Matthew 3:13-17
May we hear God speaking to us still through the readings of holy scripture, in my words and our meditations this day. Amen.
In the course of human history, whether the history of all humanity, or of nations, or of just our own small lives, there come moments of thunderous and shocking revelations. Occasionally they come in moments of utter holiness and sacred beauty, as when during the hard, cold, freezing temperatures of a Christmas eve in the trenches of armies fighting one another in World War I, a lone voice broke out singing in English, and then in German, Silent Night, and the voices begin to multiply, until the troops left their muddy holes where they had been shooting at one another to exchange a Christmas greeting of peace.
More often, it has been a national calamity that shook the foundations of society that have awakened us to our common identity and our common calling as human beings meant to live together in peace and justice. The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, and a century later of JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy come quickly to mind. I’m sure we all remember the terrible anguish and the sweet sense of unity that we felt in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, and how the world seemed to identify with us as well, feeling that all were “Americans”, much as John F. Kennedy could say 40 years earlier to the people of Berlin, in his famous speech, “ich ben ein Berliner.” Or the discovery by soldiers who liberated the concentration camps in the ashes of the Third Reich, who saw what utter brutality human beings could to do one another, and who swore then, “Never again.”
Perhaps in your own life there have been moments—and probably more than once—when you realized in stunning clarity that you didn’t have to live up to anyone’s expectations but your own, that you didn’t have to be defined as the “goody-two-shoes”, or “the athlete”, or the mean kid, or the brat, the fatty, the wall-flower, Miss Popularity, or the nerd. When all the old feelings of unworthiness fell away in the dawning realization that there was, in this world, a reality, a force, a being, perhaps, that loved you for you were and who you were meant to be.
Sometimes that moment came in a tap on the shoulder from a friend, or a mentor who gave voice to what would be your life’s calling and joyful work, inviting you to try on an occupation, a role….and you knew, in a heartbeat, that it was right for you.
Or maybe, as in the case of the conscience of nations, as well as of smaller communities and individuals, it was some great evil that awoke within you a deeper sense that some transcendent power was calling you to “turn around”, to be changed, to allow transformation – or at least profound examination of conscience – to occur. Perhaps this is what the terrible demonic actions yesterday in Tucson can mean for our nation, so prone in recent months to vitriol, and language of violence used to describe our political differences. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, now in such critical condition that she may never again be the person she was before, said, about such divisive language prior to the election: “For example, we’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action.” Perhaps the shocking irony of her earlier words will awaken a new consciousness within our nation about the reality that words have consequences.
This week I read a review of a book entitled American Homicide, which gives something of a history of murder over the past four centuries….not the typical book review one might wish to read, unless your life, like mine, has been touched by murder. The author, Randolph Roth, draws a conclusion that “…there is a strong correlation between homicide rates and whether people feel solidarity with their fellow citizens, regard the social hierarchy as legitimate and think that government is stable, fair and trustworthy.” The reviewer notes: “Put succinctly, the more positive that people feel about government and society, the fewer the homicides.” [Trollinger, Wm. Vance, Jr. “Murderous Nation”, The Christian Century, December 28, 2010, p. 27]
So here we are this morning, in the context of a nation polarized by distrust resulting in mentally unbalanced people acting quite literally on metaphorical gun sights, and exacerbated by inequities such as not seen in this nation for over 100 years. If we were to serve up a pie to the millions of Americans, represented by 100 people, 2 people would receive well over 85-90% of the pie. The remaining 10-15% of the pie would be divided among the 98. Such is an environment for animosities to grow. It is not the justice of God of which Isaiah spoke.
The gospel comes to us to tell us of Jesus, going to John the Baptizer—the voice crying in the wilderness, the spokesman tapping people and a community on the shoulder, who has been saying loudly, dramatically: Repent. It’s time for transformation, for turning around from the path you are on, to die to your old self, letting the old ways be washed away in the river Jordan, and to rise to be the persons and the nation that God intends for you to be.
What possibly could this text from Matthew have to say to us today? First, let us remember that Matthew has a theological perspective in which he is placing the events of Jesus’ life as they are known to him. He has jumped from Jesus as a baby, transported to Egypt by his father Joseph—much as the Joseph of Genesis helped transport his own people in a time of famine to Egypt where his dreams had led to provisions for the time of famine. Joseph then brings his family back to Israel, to Nazareth on the death of Herod. The very next action in Matthew’s Gospel is, in effect, an exodus event for Jesus: from one time in his life, from one way of being, to a new identity as he enters the waters of the river, and rises with a confirmation from a voice from heaven.
Second, it is a theological problem for Matthew and all the gospels, in fact, that Jesus would allow John, the baptizer who calls for repentance, to baptize him. Did Jesus need repentance?
Matthew answers this question in two ways: first, as the symbolic opening movement of Jesus’ new ministry, his new focus on the fulfillment of his calling, his personhood, Matthew has Jesus suggest to the hesitant John that the act must be “collaborative”. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). John must concede to baptize Jesus; Jesus must seek the baptism of John. Together, their obedience to God’s plans is a step on the path of righteousness. In other words, we need each other.
And second, Jesus says that the action of his baptism has the purpose to “fulfill all righteousness” which means acting in obedience to God in a way that coordinates internal dispositions and external action. Jesus’ first steps in public ministry are a combination of a compliant spirit and a powerful, public display of his obedience to God’s call.
If the Lord of life can acknowledge the need for public assent to submit his life to God, so that his internal sense of identity could be meshed with an outward act that confirmed that calling, are we not—as persons in the various moments of our lives, as a church, as a nation—in need of that same righteous cleansing ritual?
The beginning of a new year, and on the day after such awful violence against neighborliness and public service—are good occasions to remember our own baptisms—which may, or may not have been with water at the hands of a religious figure.
In the movie, The King’s Speech, which I hope you have seen or will see, at one point in his frustration with his situation and his stammering affliction, Prince Albert, the Duke of York, about to become king even though he desperately does not wish to be king, cries out, “I have a voice!” And his John the Baptizer in his wilderness, Lionel Logue speaks the affirming voice, “Indeed you do.” And in their collaboration through the days of WWII, King George the Sixth, as he became, used that voice to call his own people beyond themselves to a new sense of solidarity and unity.
Baptism is that moment when we sense the holy calling that is ours, uniquely as individuals, and together, collaboratively, as human beings. That baptism is God’s call through all the wilderness voices asking us for repentance, and to allow what needs to die in us to be drowned forever that we might rise to know that love that makes us whole and sane and productive persons and communities. We too must allow ourselves God’s baptism to fulfill all righteousness. Far off, in some distant corner of your life, a voice says to us: you, too, are my beloved.