A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on January 19, 2014.
Not all of the gospels bother to describe Jesus’ birth. But they all have accounts of his baptism.
And when you can get Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to agree on anything, even if the details are different, it is worth noting.
In John’s Gospel, the baptism happens off stage. Jesus is walking down the street, and John the Baptist sees him and tells his own disciples, and anyone else who will listen, THIS IS THE GUY!
“Remember when I told you the reason I’d baptize you with water was so the Lamb of God would be revealed to the world?! This is him—he’s the SON OF God! When I baptized him (funny story) God’s Spirit descended on him like a dove and then hovered there. It was AMAZING.”
In the other gospels, there were apparently tons of eyewitnesses—they say that ALL of Judea and ALL of Jerusalem had come to the Jordan. So lots of people were able to witness Jesus’ baptism first hand.
But in John’s account, none of us get to be eyewitnesses. Only John the Baptist.
“I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God”, he tells his own disciples.
So we are left in a different place in this story than in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Rather than observing it ourselves, we have to decide if we trust someone else’s testimony.
This is something the followers of Jesus have been dealing with since the first generations of believers died.
John points Jesus out to his disciples and gives them a narrative about who Jesus is and how he is related to the God of their history, and how they can see for themselves.
And according to this gospel story, that’s all it took for the followers of John the Baptist. “Look”, he said. “Here is the Lamb of God”.
At which point, they shook John’s hand, said goodbye to him, and started following Jesus. Their journey of faith begins when John offers them a new narrative for their lives.
Here we are, 2,000 or so years removed from Jesus’ baptism, from the first followers who decided to “come and see”. And I think it is no coincidence that John ties Jesus’ baptism to the call of the disciples.
Because it is in baptism, most of all, that we join into the narrative of our faith.
When we are baptized, whether as infants, or as adults, we join with Christ in his baptism. It is in baptism that we are adopted into God’s family, and claim our place as beloved sons and daughters of God.
And this is a subversive claim. We acknowledge we are choosing to join with, to live by, a narrative that denies the world’s story of success at all costs, and wealth as a goal, and individualism as virtue.
In baptism, we claim we live by dying to the world and living to Christ. In baptism, we acknowledge our Lord is a man who was killed as a criminal by the state, and was raised from the dead by the God who will not be confined to the grave.
As one of my seminary professors, Walter Brueggemann, claims, “The entry point into the counter-script is baptism. Whereby we say in the old liturgies, “do you renounce the dominant script?”
When I ask the questions of the new members in a few minutes, pay attention to the claims of faith.
We acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and not the person who sits in the Oval Office or on any throne in the world.
We renounce sin and its power in the world, claiming there is something more to which we aspire in our living.
We promise to be disciples, to “come and see”, acknowledging that even in that, we require the Grace of God to be good disciples.
Joining in to the work of the Kingdom through baptism means we are claiming a new story for our lives, preparing to live a new narrative.
What narrative defines your life?
The narrative that has informed my life, and probably led to me being a pastor, is this. I was adopted as an infant. And as a young child, my parents told me “The woman who gave you life loved you but couldn’t be your mommy. So she trusted God to take care of you and find you a family. We are so thankful for her. We prayed for a baby, and God gave us you.”
So my entire life I have been told that God was actively at work in my life from before I was even born, providing for me, caring for me, and connecting me to the family God had chosen for me.
I am so thankful for that narrative.
We see narratives like that throughout Scripture too.
Isaiah 49 offers Israel’s answer to the narrative that defines her life:
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.
In this text, Israel claims God’s work in her life before she was born. And acknowledges the call to be a servant. Not to be the ruler of the world. But to serve the world. Not just to serve the tribes of Jacob, but to serve as a light to the nations, so that news of God’s love would reach the ends of the earth.
Did Israel always live like that narrative was true?
But we keep reading this script because we believe it to be aspirational.
Yes, we fail.
We fall short.
But we believe God has created us and called us to be servants. And we join again, week after week, praying a prayer of confession, acknowledging how we have erred, and agreeing to live the narrative again.
The lectionary text this morning for the Epistle is the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Listen to this:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Isn’t that beautiful?
If you were to stop reading where I did, you’d get the sense that the church in Corinth is a place of grace and peace, where God’s mercy flows through their speech and actions. Right?
Don’t stop reading. They are divided. They make mistakes. They fight over which leader is better, and what to eat, and how to be faithful.
And Paul will call them on all of this behavior. But he starts with the better narrative.
“You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
What is our narrative at Southminster?
This is a real question. Because we are about to welcome 14 people into membership with us.
And they need to hear our narrative from you.
They need to hear about how a small group of people without a whole lot of resources built this church when the neighborhood was new.
About how you received mission funding to begin as a congregation and have always made it a priority to pay that back by continuing to tithe your budget to denominational mission giving, even when the budget was tight.
They need to hear how you have always sought to be a place where people would feel both welcomed and invited to join in the work of the congregation.
They need to hear about the difficult years too.
When numbers declined.
When people fought over whatever it was you fought over.
When the budget was too lean.
We also need to hear the Southminster narrative from those of us who weren’t eyewitnesses to the beginning.
Because narratives change, they grow, they are interpreted differently. And as we welcome these new members, we acknowledge they have stories to add to ours.
What brought them to Southminster to “come and see”?
I love this day in the liturgical calendar. For me, Baptism of the Lord is where all of our stories come together.
And our stories play out in joyful and beautiful ways, as we celebrate with each other through the good times.
Our narrative is also told through the difficult and painful moments, the struggles, and the tragedy.
It is such a gift to be a part of a bigger narrative, to not be alone when our individual narratives take a difficult turn, or when we forget our own stories, and need to be reminded of the greater story we are a part of.
By joining together as the family of God, by agreeing to follow Jesus and “come and see” where he will lead us, we add each of our stories to each other’s stories. To have that privilege, to journey with you, is such a gift and blessing. Jesus is still calling us to “come and see”. I look forward to where that invitation will take us.