This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/10/21, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 3:7-12, 21:23-27. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Why do we believe any of this stuff?
Really. A God who created the whole cosmos in splendid order out of chaos. A God who parted the Red Sea and spoke to Moses through the burning bush.
A God who chose the children of Abraham, the Hebrew people, to be his holy experiment, a nation that would embody and catalyze his plan to redeem humanity from our confusion and sin.
A God who spoke through the prophets and led his people with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. A God who made his presence known in the tabernacle and in the temple, and in these latter days has made himself known in the flesh and blood of his only-begotten Son, Jesus.
On what possible basis could we claim that any of these things are true? We can’t prove any of it. It’s impossible to convince a skeptic, through reason alone, that any of these stories are real. Or even that our own personal experiences of God’s presence in our life is anything more than the peculiarity of our brain chemistry.
We live in an age and a culture that denies anything beyond the material, anything we can’t measure with repeatable experiments, according to the scientific method. We live in a time thoroughly hostile to the living God of the Hebrew people, of Jesus and the early Church.
So why bother? Why not go with the flow? Why not accept the spirit of our age, and assume that the stories of our faith are at best interesting myths, but ones which we must now abandon in favor of the new mythology of a supposedly objective, data driven worldview?
In the days before Jesus entered into his ministry, there was a man named John. John was preaching in the wilderness, wearing strange clothing that associated him with the prophet Elijah – the great prophet who the Jewish people expected would pave the way for the coming of the anointed one, the Christ.
John was teaching in the wilderness. In the desert. Down by the Jordan river, on the boundary of Israel. The place where the Hebrews entered the Promised Land so many generations ago. He stood there, inviting anyone who wanted to join him on the edge, the new holy frontier. Anyone who wanted to come and prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom.
John practiced a ritual of immersion in water – baptism – which most of the Christian church practices as an initiation rite today. The purpose of this ritual was to invite and symbolize repentance. A turning towards God and his kingdom, away from the corrupt and blinded ways of this world. Baptism was about dying to sin and confusion, and entering a new life immersed in God’s power and authority.
John didn’t make this stuff up. John didn’t invent the cleansing ritual of baptism. We know that the Essenes, and other Jewish groups were practicing similar rites as part of their communities. John didn’t invent the proclamation of repentance and preparation for God’s kingdom. He stood in a long line of prophets who were making straight the way of the Lord, calling the people of Israel away from injustice and idolatry and towards the kingdom of God.
None of this was new. The people knew what it meant that John dressed like Elijah. They understood the symbolism when he offered them immersion in the Jordan. They knew what it meant when John preached a fiery message of repentance and preparation for the coming judgment of God. They knew this was their story, from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Samuel and Elijah and all the prophets – there was a consistency, and a building – a growing in truth that God had been affecting in the people of Israel for a thousand years. They knew this story.
So it wasn’t really a question of whether they believed these things on a theoretical, intellectual level. It was a matter of whether they were ready to materially change their lives and embrace the immanence of the coming kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”
A lot of people came out to see John in the wilderness of the Jordan Valley. People came out for different reasons. Some folks were drawn out of curiosity. Others out of fear, sensing that the Day of the Lord was at hand. Others were there because they wanted to see a renewal of Israel, and a new monarchy established. Still others must have come because of their own awareness of their sin and need for God’s mercy.
And then there were, it seems, some folks who came as spiritual tourists.
That’s clearly how John saw the Pharisees and Sadducees who came out for baptism. When John saw them coming, he didn’t welcome them with open arms like he did the common people who came seeking forgiveness and life transformation. No, he basically cusses them out! If John were speaking today, I imagine him saying, “You bunch of water logged rats! Did somebody tell you the ship was sinking and you thought you could just jump into my lifeboat?”
This is when it becomes clear what John’s baptism is really about. It’s not just another “religious experience” to be sampled by the elite religious people coming down from Jerusalem. John’s baptism wasn’t a spiritual elixir to be consumed by just anyone. This baptism was a sign of radical life change and preparation for the kingdom. John would not allow it to be divorced from its real meaning and purpose.
John had no time for these high society religious tourists, slumming it at the tent revival. He tells them, “You came here looking for a show, but God is demanding a show from you – a show of repentance, a show of a renewed life, a show of justice! And if you can’t manage that, if you’re too self-centered and spiritually dead to respond to God’s call, even being children of Abraham can’t save you.”
Because these holy rollers, they thought that God’s favor was their birthright. They thought that, simply because of who they were and where they were born, that God had wonderful plans for their life. But John is saying, “God is not a hostage to your pedigree. Remember how God almost started over with Moses in the desert? If this generation continues with its corruption and idolatry, God can raise up new children to Abraham.”
So why do we believe this stuff? Why are we Christians? It’s a lot of crazy ideas, isn’t it, when you really step back and look at it?
Well, it matters not only that we believe, but how we believe it. Because, like the religious leaders in John’s day, we can believe all the stories and the rules and rituals. That’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. But what we need is the baptism. We need immersion into God’s story. It has to transform us, so that we can truly participate in it, and not merely “believe” in a shallow intellectual sense – or even worse, wear our religion as a cultural identity that makes us feel superior to others.
Believing is a full-body experience. When we truly believe the gospel, we bear fruit worthy of repentance. When we find ourselves willingly brought under God’s authority, we become true children of Abraham.
It’s about authority. That’s why we believe all this stuff. Stuff we can’t prove. Things that don’t make any sense when taken out of the context of our faith and our long, long, long walk with God from the days of Abraham forward. We walk in the way of Jesus because we have become convinced that the story is true. In the words of Han Solo in Episode VII: “It’s true. All of it.”
We discover that authority in the baptism, in the immersion into Christ’s life, teaching, and death. We discover the authority by walking it. We find ourselves caught up in the authority of God when the same Spirit breathes in us who breathed in John, saying “prepare the way of the Lord!”
In our culture, we don’t talk about authority very much. In some circles it’s almost a taboo subject, because we really don’t like the idea that anyone can tell us what to do. That’s what freedom is, right? That deep knowing, down in your gall bladder, that no one is steering your life except for you?
We tend to shy away from talking about authority. But in the culture that Jesus inhabited, in the culture of the near-Eastern ancient world, authority was a very important concept. For the ancients, the whole cosmos was very explicitly hierarchical, and what you could do was based on where you stood in the great chain of being, and what authority had been delegated to you from above. Slaves could act because their lords commanded. Free men operated under the direction of their superiors. Rulers responded to other, more powerful rulers, and ultimately to the gods.
For Jesus and his contemporary Jews, of course, the ultimate authority was the God of Abraham, the God who once spoke through the bush, then in the tabernacle, and now resided in the Temple at Jerusalem.
And so when Jesus arrived in the Temple, disrupting the commerce that was going on there, the chief priests and elders of the people immediately questioned Jesus’ authority. “Who gave you permission to do this?” they demanded. “What gives you the right to come in and cause this uproar? Who are you to challenge the priests and elders of Israel? Our authority comes from God through Abraham and Moses!”
And Jesus answers them in a very interesting, very rabbinical way: He asks a counter-question. He says, “I’ll tell you what, gentlemen. I’ll tell you by what authority I’m doing all these things. But first, riddle me this: What was the source of John’s authority? Was his baptism from heaven, or of human origin?”
Now, as we heard this morning, the religious leaders didn’t want to engage Jesus on this, because either way they answered they ended up losing the argument. So this was a really brilliant response on Jesus’ part. But it wasn’t a mere rhetorical dodge. Jesus’ question was also an answer. With his question, Jesus identifies his ministry as an outgrowth of John’s. Jesus’ authority comes from the same source as John’s. John’s baptism came from God, and so does Jesus’ ministry.
This is something about the Christian religion that never ceases to blow my mind: Even Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, fully inhabited the story. He didn’t take any short cuts. Jesus was baptized into the narrative of Israel. He was swimming in the stream of the prophets. He was living in the authority of the Spirit, specifically as expressed through Moses and Elijah. He submitted himself to baptism by John in the river Jordan. He entered into the story completely.
Jesus brought the law and the prophets to completion, but he also stood within their authority. And now, we receive all those riches through Jesus, through the apostles, through the church down through the ages. Because we are walking in the path and authority of this story.
I want to invite us to sit with this question of authority. This query of the chief priests and the elders, I want to pose it to us as a community in the risen Jesus:
“By what authority are we doing these things, and who gave us this authority?”
What is the power that we stand in? What is the story that we inhabit? Whose people are we?
It’s only through this story, this power, this living authority of God in our lives that we can enter the kingdom. It is only through the authority of Moses, the authority of the prophets, and Jesus the ultimate prophet, that we can embrace the life of repentance and transformation that John the Baptist calls us to.
We didn’t make this stuff up. We stand in a line of authority, coming down from Jesus through his church – the prophets, shepherds, and saints who have paved the way for our own participation in the faith.
We didn’t make this stuff up, and that’s why we can trust it. Because the gospel is not wish fulfillment. It is not the will to power. It’s not a human fantasy. It is the heart of God. It is the truth that relativizes all our delusions and brings us to the end of ourselves.
We didn’t make this stuff up, because our authority is the same as John’s and Jesus’. Our authority is the power of God.
This morning, we stand together in the story. We stand together under God’s authority. We proclaim the gospel, together with Jesus and John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”