Summary: Dave looks at the baptism of Jesus as a formative time for him, and shows how we must have a similar experience of coming to know who we are to God.
Standing In the Stream
Wildwind Community Church
September 19, 2010
Matthew 3:1-17 (MSG)
1 While Jesus was living in the Galilean hills, John, called "the Baptizer," was preaching in the desert country of Judea.
2 His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings: "Change your life. God's kingdom is here."
3 John and his message were authorized by Isaiah's prophecy: Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!
4 John dressed in a camel-hair habit tied at the waist by a leather strap. He lived on a diet of locusts and wild field honey.
5 People poured out of Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordanian countryside to hear and see him in action.
6 There at the Jordan River those who came to confess their sins were baptized into a changed life.
7 When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded: "Brood of snakes! What do you think you're doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to make any difference?
8 It's your life that must change, not your skin!
9 And don't think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as father. Being a descendant of Abraham is neither here nor there. Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen.
10 What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it's deadwood, it goes on the fire.
11 "I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. The real action comes next: The main character in this drama—compared to him I'm a mere stagehand—will ignite the kingdom life within you, a fire within you, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out.
12 He's going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He'll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he'll put out with the trash to be burned."
13 Jesus then appeared, arriving at the Jordan River from Galilee. He wanted John to baptize him.
14 John objected, "I'm the one who needs to be baptized, not you!"
15 But Jesus insisted. "Do it. God's work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism." So John did it.
16 The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God's Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him.
17 And along with the Spirit, a voice: "This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life."
We have three weeks until we start the Emotionally Healthy Spirituality initiative, and what I want to do in those three weeks is to look at a few specific episodes in the life of Jesus and frame them for you in new ways – help you hear them again, for the very first time. Today we’re going to look at this passage I just read, which is the entire third chapter of Matthew. The main point of the sermon, really, is found in the very last verse, but rather than assume the previous verses are just throwaway, I say we dig in and see how it all fits together.
So here’s John the Baptist in the desert. Let’s clarify some things. John the Baptist is a different John than the John who wrote the Gospel of John that we just wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. This John is the first cousin of Jesus. And this John is a pretty wild guy. He lives in the desert. We have to understand the significance of that. The desert is the fringe. The desert is the place of deprivation and death. The desert is the place of suffering and pain. The desert is the place you normally try to avoid. But not only did John not avoid it, but he lived there – the desert, the fringe, the place of suffering, was his home. There’s John in the desert baptizing people, showing that life is to be found in unexpected places – in places where death seems to rule.
Now baptism is not a tradition that started with Christianity – it was a Jewish tradition which Christianity adopted. So John the Jewish prophet is carrying out a Jewish religious exercise. But here’s the deal. He’s doing it in the desert! This is a huge no-no. Religion doesn’t happen in the desert. In John’s time, religion belongs in the temple. Religion belongs to the chief priests. God belongs to those who are pure, who follow the codes, who are not chronically sick. So this wild Jewish man baptizing in the desert stands in direct contradiction to his faith tradition. John, like Jesus, and all of the Hebrew prophets, and like every person of advanced spiritual understanding who has ever lived – realizes that he can contradict some of the key elements of his religion without sacrificing one bit of understanding about God. In fact John, and all of the prophets, and all deeply spiritual people, realize the value of their tradition, but do not allow it to box God in in any way. John shows this not only by moving this religious ritual outside the temple and into the barren desert, but think about it – he’s in the desert – the dry, barren desert where there is no water – but he’s baptizing. Yes, there’s a river running through this desert, my friends and there’s John, inviting people into a river, flowing in the desert. Do we see what this means? We should not fail to grasp the symbolism. “I’m in the desert. The Jewish rabbis don’t acknowledge that God can come to you outside the temple, but I’m telling you God is here. I’m in the desert. The Jewish rabbis – the religious establishment – says God is only here, only with us, only in these lines – I’m telling you he is everywhere – even in the desert. And I’m inviting you to step into this stream, flowing in the middle of this desert – flowing through the place of barrenness and dryness and death – this stream, bringing life to everything it touches.” Such is the stream, the flow, of God’s grace. It cannot be held in the temple. It cannot be restricted to the church. It cannot be said to only be found in “appropriate” places by “appropriate” people who meet appropriate religious standards and are therefore nice and appropriate. No, the flow of God’s grace and love and mercy are to be found wherever they are found, and our opportunity is to stop judging, stop deciding where it should be, and simply step into where it IS. And you know where it is? Sure, there’s some of it in the temple – of course. But it’s also in the desert. It’s in the dry and cracked places of the earth – the parched and broken places in your life. Running right through those deserted and dark places, there is a stream of God’s love and mercy and grace and healing and cleansing and forgiveness and peace.