This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/12/20, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:13-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
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John the Baptist was a wild man. He was a prophet – a person who spoke the words of God. He was living in the wilderness and baptizing people in the river Jordan. They were immersed in water as a sign of their desire to follow God and love other people.
Jesus came to John, to be baptized with water.
And John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. Because John recognized Jesus as the promised messiah. God’s chosen one. The one who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John didn’t want to baptize Jesus. It didn’t seem appropriate. He knew that he wasn’t even worthy to tie up Jesus’ shoe laces. He said, “You don’t need this water, Jesus. I need you to baptize me. Give me that baptism of spirit and fire.”
And Jesus agrees with John. He is the promised savior. He’s the one who will baptize with the spirit and fire. But Jesus still wants John to dip him in the Jordan river. “For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
I’ve been thinking about what that means. What is it about being immersed in water by John – participating in the ritual of his community – what is it about that action that “fulfills all righteousness”?
John the Baptist is a very important guy. The gospel of Matthew keeps circling back to him. In Matthew 11, Jesus says explicitly that John is Elijah. John is the prophet who is to come. Just like Moses represents the whole Jewish law, Elijah represents the prophetic tradition. And John is Elijah.
So this community John’s got going is the embodiment of the prophetic tradition. And Jesus, by receiving John’s water baptism, identifies himself with this community. He submits himself to it. He embraces it as his own.
This is confusing for John. He knows who Jesus is. He says to Jesus, “Who am I to baptize you? You should be baptizing me!” But Jesus says, “I want you to baptize me, because God is validating your message. You are a faithful servant of God, and you have prepared the way for my ministry. I embrace you, just as your work has created space for what God is doing in me.”
So they do it. John and Jesus go down into the river Jordan. John dips Jesus into the cold waters. And when Jesus comes back up and takes a breath, he’s breathing more than air. He’s breathing in the Spirit of God. They see the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and lands on Jesus. They hear a voice that says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Now, based on what just happened here, what would you assume comes next?
Me personally, I would assume that the next chapter of this story would be Jesus joining John’s community. Maybe taking it over, as John steps out of the way and Jesus becomes the head honcho. Maybe Jesus baptizes John, and then takes up the prophetic mantle out in the wilderness. I’d figure that John would become a disciple of Jesus.
But that’s not what happens. John doesn’t become one of the Twelve Apostles, and Jesus doesn’t join John’s community. John has his own separate ministry and disciples up until his death.
Jesus doesn’t stay with John by the Jordan. Instead, he goes out into the wilderness on his own, and then heads back to Galilee – the region where he grew up. He starts his own ministry, gathers his own disciples, stakes out his own geographical territory.
Jesus clearly loves and respects John. But he leaves and does something different. Why?
In Matthew 9, John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask him. They say, “Why are you doing things differently from John? We know we’re on the same side here, so why don’t you follow the same rules we follow and conduct your ministry in the same way that John does?”
Jesus’ answer to this is: “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins. If you do, the old wineskins will burst and you’ll lose both the skins and the wine. New wine has to be put into fresh wine skins.”
That’s why Jesus had to leave. That’s why Jesus didn’t simply join John’s community and take over John’s ministry. John was the greatest prophet of the old order, but God was doing something new.
The whole prophetic tradition and community pointed to Jesus. John’s ministry paved the way for the Messiah. But now that he had arrived on the scene, Jesus had been called by the Holy Spirit to do something new.
In spite of all the love and respect he had for John – in spite of the fact that his own ministry would have been impossible without John’s faithfulness – God was doing a new thing in Jesus. He couldn’t be boxed in by the past.
Is God doing a new thing now?
What does it mean that the Spirit has been poured out on each and every one of us? What does it mean that we are being baptized into the same Spirit that Jesus encountered during his baptism in the Jordan? Is God doing a new thing?
The early Quakers thought so. George Fox, speaking to a church like ours in 1652, asked:
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?
Is God doing a new thing? Is the Spirit descending again today? Is the new wine being poured out into our hearts?
We say, the Bible says this, and Quakers say that – but what can we say? Are we children of light? Are we walking in the light? And what we say, does it come inwardly from God?
What does it look like to love our tradition, to respect our spiritual ancestors, to submit ourselves to the church that has taught us so much – and yet to have the freedom to do a new thing when God calls us?
What is the new thing? Are you a child of light? Do you walk in the light? What you speak, is it inwardly from God? Have you received the new baptism, that comes from Jesus?
Is God doing a new thing in you?