Epiphany 1: The Baptism of Our Lord, Matthew 3:13-17
Last Sunday, the first Sunday of 2017, our co-pastor, Rick spoke about New Year’s resolutions. While I took several notes, there was one thing he said that has stuck with me and I have been thinking about all week. In fact, it was going to be the central point I was going to focus on today had we not canceled our worship service because of the weather. Instead, I’m blogging, rather than preaching, today.
Last week Rick, while speaking about the process of choosing a New Year’s resolution mentioned an essential characteristic of a good resolution.
Resolutions should be liberating, for oneself, and for others.
What if liberation, and all the array of concepts about freedom, was at the heart of a resolution? Freedom, liberation, emancipation, deliverance, justice, peace, and solidarity are all powerful purposes for a resolution. These connected concepts, though are anything but easy, they are perhaps even painful. As Peter Enns writes in The Sin of Certainty, the idea of carrying a cross isn’t about carrying the cross, it is about dying on the cross being carried (Enns, 2016). So, while freeing, resolutions are not necessarily easy.
Jumping into the lectionary Gospel text for the First Sunday of Epiphany from Matthew 3:13-17…
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 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. 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
One of the abstract and theological questions commentators love to ask about this passage is a question of why. As orthodox faith has held through the millennia, Jesus as God’s Son, is sinless. So why is it that he would receive the baptism of repentance? What would Jesus have to repent of?
Hold that thought in mind….
Shane Claiborne tells the story of visiting students at Princeton University. They were eager to make a difference in the world and affect change, they asked what issues they should be involved with or support. Claiborne’s response to these earnest inquirers was just about perfect. Claiborne describes the event:
The question made me cringe. Issues? These issues have faces. We’re talking not only about ideas but also about human emergencies. My response to the well-intentioned Princeton students was, ‘don’t choose issues, choose people. Come play in the fire hydrants in North Philly. Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering, and then you won’t have to worry about the cause you need to protest. Then the issues will choose you’” (Claiborne, 2006).
As this past week went on, I kept wondering about resolution and revolution, which is why I initially reached for Shane’s book, Irresistible Revolution, on my shelf. If resolutions are to be liberating, might they also necessarily include a bit of revolution?
While John the Baptist is preaching about a baptism of repentance, Jesus comes forward and says he must receive this baptism. And what if we are interpreting too narrowly the concept of repentance?
The call “to repent” is often associated with moral deficiency, ethical failure, evil intent, being bad. Truthfully, I am capable of being all those. And I have probably excelled in one or more of those from time to time. So yes, repentance is about self-assessment and choice and the discipline to turn around as St Paul described it, so as “to walk in the newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). That’s all true. But if that is the only truth about repentance, then we are still stuck wondering why Jesus received the baptism of repentance from John the Baptist.
But the word repentance means more than the self-assessment of moral failure. The essence of the word is “to turn around”. Theologically, it means to be aware of the Spirit of God who prods you to this turn or that turn to follow Jesus. And this is something the Spirit is doing for everyone always (that’s called prevenient grace). When we narrowly use the idea of repentance to make ourselves and others feel bad about the mess we’re making of life, it lacks vision and creativity. Repentance is less about looking at how bad we are and more about turning toward a better vision. And this better vision isn’t an abstract idea, but the person of Jesus.
The nineteenth century preacher, Charles Spurgeon said of Jesus “He had set His face like a flint upon the accomplishment of the task He had undertaken and He had resolved to go through with it even to the end!” Repentance, is not just about turning away from the failed and broken lives we lead; perhaps even more crucially, it is about turning toward “the accomplishment of the task undertaken…even to the end.”
The Hebrew prophet, Zechariah, living in a time where hope, liberation, and justice were not evident encouraged others to “not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin” (Zechariah 4:10). The point is, everything has to start somewhere, sometime.
Jesus mission, as Matthew’s story tells it, is that Jesus “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). The notion of a ransom is that while kidnapped, you can cannot give your life to free your life, someone else must offer a greater prize to the abductors. Jesus is the greater prize, paying a ransom to liberate “those who are in slavery to the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15).
But, as said earlier, this just doesn’t happen. It begins somewhere, sometime, doing something.
As Jesus walks forward to John for the baptism of repentance, Jesus was coming forward with purpose and resolve; resolute and with resolution. Broader than a New Year’s resolution, but the resolution of a new era: the reign and realm of Heaven was being made present. Christians speak of Jesus “becoming sin who knew no sin” (1 Corinthians 5:21) on the cross. And with the resurrection of Jesus, the power of sin, the slavery to death and fear, are vanquished. But the walk toward the cross, of carrying a cross, begins in the river. Repentance, if used to describe Jesus, illuminates the intention and direction to walk toward something. Perhaps even greater than walking toward the cross, but walking to the other side, through the cross, to the liberation of everyone from the fear and slavery of death.
I know my New Year’s resolutions are paltry in comparison to saving the world. And I can get hung up on self-improvement in a resolution to the point of becoming selfish. If I fail, I feel guilty; if I succeed, I can get conceited. But if my resolutions were less about issues, and more about life and relationships, I wonder what might be different?
If Claiborne is right, perhaps a New Year’s resolution doesn’t have to be abstractly chosen, or drawn out of thin air. Who is in your life already? Who do you know that needs liberating in one way or another? What kind of relationship might call for advocacy, sharing a challenge, or simply being available? While a 2017 NBC News poll indicated that the main two resolutions made this year were 1) to become more organized; and 2) to eat healthier, a question is, to whose liberation?
It is never too late to make a resolution, a step toward repentance, or move toward liberation. So to paraphrase Claiborne: Fall in love with a group of people who are marginalized and suffering, and then you won’t have to worry about the resolution you need to choose. Then the resolution will choose you.
That's what I was thinking about....
Claiborne, S. (2006). The Irresistable Revolution: Living as an ordinary radical. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Enns, P. (2016). The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our "correct" beliefs. N.Y., NY: HarperOne.