A couple of weeks ago I woke up to find snow covering the ground outside our bedroom window. But there were warmer temperatures in the day’s forecast, I was concerned we’d soon have a thick layer of slush outside. And frankly, my snowblower is not terribly useful in slush! So I hopped right out of bed, taking care that my sleeping sweetheart, who’d been up a lot the previous night, was undisturbed, and ran to the front door.
I stepped out to see what I had to deal with. Hmm: still pretty cold. So, I was pretty sure I had time for some coffee. As I turned around, I saw that the inner door had swung almost shut, but I knew it wouldn’t latch on its own. So, I pulled open the storm door to go back in and … “click.”
It was not quite 6:00am in the morning. It was 28 degrees outside. It was dark. I’m wearing only socks, sweat bottoms, and a T-Shirt.
Now, I could’ve rung the doorbell, but I don’t want to wake up my sweetie. So, I ran along the bumpy and icy sidewalk, to the garage door and punch in the entry code. As the door rises, I duck underneath to get in there a little quicker, only to discover a puddle of dirty meltwater on the floor…
So now, slopping along in my muddy socks, I get to the door between the kitchen and the garage: which I suddenly remember I’d locked last night. But, I will not disturb my wife’s sleep. And besides, I still have another backup: the spare house key. I make a new set of wet tracks going back into the garage.
But, then I realize that the spare key is buried under all stuff we’d brought in for the winter. It takes a while to dig through the pile in my wets socks and T-shirt: but, I don’t want to disturb my sweetheart!
I find the key, squish back to the door, unlock it, take off my cold wet and dirty socks, dry my feet, and then walk quietly back to the bedroom at the other end of the house. And there’s my sweetheart: wide awake, as is our son.
I tell them the whole sad story. They laugh. And my wife says: “Well, you could have rung the doorbell!”
You know, sometimes we are so certain of our course of action – like me being certain I shouldn’t wake up my already wide awake family – that we fail to consider whether our current plan still makes sense, or whether we’re missing something we need to know. This can set us up for a world of trouble.
Peter’s sermon in our reading this morning is the centerpiece of the Book of Acts: he describes his expanded understanding of who the Gospel of Christ is meant for: not just for the Jews, but for all people.
Now, it took some work on God’s part to get Peter to understand this. Peter was determined to continue living his faith as he’s always done: a faithful and kosher Jew. But all this changed just prior to our reading, Peter had a dream where God lets down a giant cloth filled with “unclean” beasts of all kinds, and says “Peter, take and eat!”
Peter refuses, saying “Not I Lord! I’ve never let unclean food touch my lips, and I am not going to start now!”
Really? God says “Do this.” and you say “No God, never! I will never do such a terrible thing.” Peter knew the right thing to do based on all he had been taught since birth. He would not be dissuaded from what he knew. He was not responding to the very clear message he was getting from God now. Like me the other morning, Peter needed to stop focusing on what he knew was right: to see and hear what was really going on, right now; and to consider whether what he was currently saying and doing made sense any more. God had to tell Peter to eat three times before Peter finally got the message and said “Yes, Lord.”
Like Peter, I was earnest and honest in my determination to do the right thing. Being determined to let my tired spouse sleep in that morning. But, because I was completely focused on my own plan, I never realized how ridiculous and ultimately futile my efforts were, until it was too late. I should’ve known she would be happy to help me, she tells me that all the time!
Learning that same lesson led to this moment between Peter and Cornelius here in our reading. Peter had set aside what he had always known to be “true,” to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to people who were not Jews.
We are all certain we know what is right. But, our inner certainty interferes with our ability to hear God’s Word. God is not a static entity. God speaks. God changes. We change. And so, our relationship with God is changing all the time. Therefore, we must always be alert to God’s Living Word. We must listen for the Gospel.
And, this idea is central to what Baptism is about, which is what John does for Jesus in our reading from Matthew. In a way, Baptism is a setting aside of what we “know” is right to pursue the new path God is leading us on, now. Through Baptism, we show that we are determined to turn aside from our own path to walk the path that God has set for us; a path where we must constantly listen for God’s Word. Baptism is meaningless unless God is – and always will be – still speaking.
It is not our current righteousness or plan that matters. It is not our current understanding of Good and Evil or God that matters. What matters, what always and only matters, is what God is saying to us here and NOW. Our faith is not a static set of rules, nor is it a deep understanding of tradition and scripture, even though those are important. Our faith is constantly evolving and ever deepening: a broadening dialog between our selves, our neighbors, and our God.
Baptism (or, in many denominations nowadays, the Confirmation of our Child Baptism) marks the start of this journey for each of us, personally: this dialog, with God, just as we see happening in Matthew at the start of Jesus’ own ministry. Baptism is not a goal, it is not an end point; it is a beginning: the beginning of a new life of hearing and living the Gospel of Christ.
And even John the Baptist had to learn these same lessons. When Jesus came to him, John says “I need to be baptized by You, and yet you come to me?” Jesus responds “Let it be so NOW; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Yes, the Baptist was right: Jesus is far greater than he, for Jesus is the Messiah. Therefore, it is true that under the old way of understanding our relationship with God, John the Baptist would not be fit to tie Jesus’ sandals. But, Jesus’ point is that past truths can’t be allowed to undermine new revelations from our God. Ultimately, what really matters is what God is saying and doing right now. Like Jesus said, we must fulfill God’s righteousness, now. And since “now” is always changing, we are never done fulfilling God’s plan for us. It is not something that can simply be attained and then set aside: like another notch in our belt of righteousness. That is not how Baptism, or our faith, works; and is not how God works.
We all tend to run along the paths like we always have. It’s easier. We know the routine. We know the rules. We know the way. We know – we think – where the path is headed. But, a point found in both of our readings this morning is that God’s path is never the path we think it is. We do not follow God by assuming we know the way, or by our deep knowledge of our faith. We follow God by being sensitive to where God is leading us NOW. — Which may not be the same way God leads us at some point in the future, and certainly is not the path we’ve been walking in the past.
The Baptism of Christ is about setting aside our own thoughts of what is Good and Right and True and instead embracing what God is leading us to do NOW.
Peter talks of this; saying that in God there is no partiality. There are no laurels, no commendations, no record of past accomplishments to elevate us in God’s eyes. And, no sin is remembered.
It doesn’t matter who we were, or who we are, or even who we will become. What matters, all that matters, is our Love for God, and God’s love for us – expressed in every moment of how we live our lives and walk with our God.
Remember that Jesus is the one who walks with us. He was baptized by John, setting aside his own righteousness and his own agenda, to embrace God’s plan NOW. We are called to do the same.
Another point of Baptism is that it is a physical act. John the Baptist physically immersed the Body of Jesus in the waters of the River Jordan. Baptism is a confirmation that our bodily existence matters to God (just as Communion, is by the way). God shows no partiality or preference of our spiritual existence over our physical: both matter. For his ministry to begin, Jesus had to be physically baptized, not just spiritually anointed or blessed. Only once that physical act was completed did Jesus see and hear God commending him for his righteousness.
And so, in this, our modern world, these two passages remind us that it does not matter what we think of those whom we encounter in the world around us. What matters is what God thinks of them: God loves them, and us, without partiality. They are loved by the God who is the Lord of All. The God who commands us to share the Gospel with every one of God’s children; but sensitive and responsive – as always – to how God is now leading us to be that witness in each and every individual encounter.
Jesus had to be baptized by the hand of a fellow human being in order to be deemed ready to begin his ministry among us. Jesus had to set aside all preconceptions – whether his own or those of others – as to his righteousness and his divinity and his destiny, so that God’s righteousness and plan would be made manifest and fulfilled.
We are all called to do the same: to hear the Gospel and then live it.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, January 8, 2017 (First Sunday after Epiphany, “The Baptism of Christ”).
Copyright (c) 2017, Allen Vander Meulen III.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.