Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord

January 8, 2023. 

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17. 

How many people, do you suppose, showed up at the banks of the River Jordan slack-jawed with wonder at meeting the great Baptizer himself. Hundreds, or maybe even hundreds of hundreds?

John took the lower Jordan by storm; a powerful speaker with a piratical appearance. People came because….well, probably for all the reasons that people come when there’s a buzz about something.

Many came with heavy burdens. They’d heard that John had a remedy for a drooping spirit and a hard luck story. Who can resist a chance to start over again after being on the losing end of life? And it didn’t take much for John to turn things around for them.

John took people down, down, down, into the Jordan river water and when they came up and out the other side, it just seemed like something new was possible. With John’s prayers ringing in their ears, they spoke their sad, hard truths right out loud. Confession is good for the soul.

It led them to a new road. Freedom from the secrets, the shame, the lies. Splinted back together, the very bones of their broken souls reset. Who wouldn’t want that? On the way home these newly washed ones told everyone they saw about John. He was a miracle man. And they were his truest believers.

To be sure though, some that came to John were just passers-by. They came to watch others come and see. Never intending to make a personal commitment, these people only wanted to be able to say they’d watched the spectacle. Interesting, but not their scene, really.

Without a doubt there were some who came under false pretenses too. Not in touch with any personal pain, but wondering if John’s gig was something profitable. Something they might try out for themselves. There are always plenty of people in distress out there. A strong potential market for someone with a little initiative and charisma.

One man did not come for any of these reasons. A man named Jesus. According to Matthew’s gospel, John did not respond positively to Jesus. He tried, apparently repeatedly, to re-direct Jesus away from the baptism and confession he was urging for everyone else.

Why? What did John know? And why did Jesus persist in asking for baptism? Every one of the four gospels records the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry with John’s appearance and preaching at the Jordan River. This is important. Pay attention. But to what?

According to Matthew’s gospel, John confronted Jesus saying, “What are you doing coming to me for cleansing? If anything, I need to be cleansed by you!” But Jesus was just as adamant, “Let it go. Right now this is how you and I take our parts in the completing of something way beyond either of us.” So John let it go.

What is this event by the river that seems to confuse and alarm even John? Though Jesus and John are surrounded by other people, it all seems to come down to a moment of surprising intimacy and unexpected portent. It’s God appearing in the flesh of Jesus. The churchy word for what happened is Epiphany. But have you ever thought of this as a revival?

Revivals are part of the rich texture and history of the evangelical Christian church. Big top tents or sports arenas full of a lively buzz. Preachers inviting sinners to let God’s Spirit MOVE them! Even if you’ve never been, you might have heard about revivals. The bible tells us though, that revivals are not recent or even uniquely Christian. After all, revival is the story in Numbers 11 about Moses and the Tent of Meeting in the Sinai desert.

There was a whole lot of backsliding going on among the Israelites. So God told Moses to call the seventy elders together for a session with the Spirit. They showed up, for better or for worse. God showed up too, sprinkling the Spirit over them, outing their sin, giving their faith a holy lift and some motivation to help Moses in the tough work of leading the community.

But the thing about a revival is that there’s always a certain element of risk. For all the planning, the preparation, the organizing, you never know exactly what the Spirit might do. In the case of Moses and the Tent of Meeting, it went according to plan with sixty-eight people getting a measured dose of the Spirit.

Except. Two elders who didn’t make the meeting – Eldad and Medad – should have paid a price for not being there as required. But God had plans for them. They got the Spirit full-on right where they were. And they started proclaiming God to the startled people around them.

Those two elders who missed the official event, were given a voice anyway. The Spirit warmed their hearts to witness for God. Moses’s assistant Joshua demanded that Moses make them stop it. But Moses said, don’t you wish everyone could have such a gift? Because we could sure use more of it. Ready or not, they were revived by the Spirit of God. According to Numbers what happened to Eldad and Medad was that, “…the spirit rested on them.”

John the Baptist, for all he knew, was hosting a revival on the banks of the Jordan River. An open invitation to sinners and backsliders. But when Jesus showed up it all changed. What John knew about Jesus is never made clear. John tried to do what he thought was right. But it turned out that what was right was letting God’s Spirit enlarge John’s revival into a divine reveal.

Jesus emerged from the water, sensing something like a fluttering of the universe. He became aware of God’s Spirit resting upon him, graceful and light as a dove-bird. And a heavenly sound was heard, announcing God’s particular delight in and with this chosen Son, Jesus. It was as much a summons as an epiphany. God declaring a new thing.

The encounter of John the Baptist and Jesus is rich with meaning. John is the prophet, the messenger, the preparer of God’s Way with cleansing water for rebirth. Jesus is the God-born Son, God’s Way, God’s Spirit-bearer, God-speaker, Savior, brother and friend in whom all created things find unity, and God’s holy Love gracious, everlasting. He it is who comes to judge our sin with mercy. Who warms our hearts, and whose Spirit and life can revive us all.