Sunday, January 8, 2023

Phil Kniss: The day Jesus said 'Yes!'

Jesus reveals His calling and identity
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Psalm 2:7-8; Matthew: 3:1-17

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Today is a feast day in the church year.
    There are times to fast and times to feast.
    Today we feast.
    Officially, today is called the “Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.”

There are some traditional Christian feast days, or festivals,
    that we always observe at Park View—
    Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints Day.
There are some we never observe—
    Nativity of John the Baptist, Candlemas,
    Feast of Holy Innocents.
Then there are the maybe-or-maybe-not feast days—
    Christ the King Sunday, Ascension Day, Baptism of the Lord.
    It depends on what else is going on at the time,
    We do Baptism of the Lord Sunday maybe half the time.
I’m kind of thinking that’s not enough.

On the one hand, why set aside a whole Sunday
    to focus on Jesus’ baptism?
It was one fleeting moment in the Jesus story.
    No miracle was performed.
    No sick person healed.
    No profound new insight on the law was taught.
All we have is a vague description of a mystical experience.
    According to Matthew’s version of the story,
        Jesus had a vision—an auditory and visual experience.
        We don’t know whether anyone else saw or heard anything.
            Maybe only Jesus. Maybe the others in the vicinity.
    Matthew writes,
        Heaven was opened to him,
            and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove
            and resting on him.
        A voice from heaven said,
            “This is my Son whom I dearly love;
                I find happiness in him.”

Making this into a Christian Feast
    sounds a little like the church fathers taking the opportunity
        to reinforce the doctrine of the Trinity—
        Jesus is proclaimed God’s Son,
            the Spirit-Dove descends,
            and the Father speaks from heaven.
        All three members of the Trinity are in this scene.

But as I think about it,
    it goes a lot deeper than propping up a doctrine.
    This moment was crucial for Jesus.
    It defined and shaped his ministry from that day forward.
    And it’s hugely relevant for our ordinary everyday lives,
        as followers of Jesus today.
    It deserves a feast.
        So set the table.
        Fill the chalice.

This is not just a mystical and “woo-woo” kind of story.
    It’s practical.
    It’s contemporary.
    It’s relevant to Christians like us who like to focus
        on down-to-earth matters like daily discipleship.
    And it’s as important as ever,
        when our way of living in the world
        is challenged on so many fronts.

When the wider church is splintering and diminishing,
    when our culture is more polarized than ever,
    when our national politics is badly broken,
    when our culture seems constantly anxious, fearful,
        and always on the edge of violence,
    when our planet is in serious jeopardy,
    now is the time to get clear about who we are as God’s people.

And there is no better place to start,
    than contemplating Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River.
    You may think I’m overstating my case.

But no, there is no more important ritual in the life of the church,
    than the ancient practice of baptism.
    And it’s the one we get most confused about.

Throughout history, we’ve had all kinds of debates about baptism.
    Not just debates. Violence, warfare, executions.
    No one knows that more than Anabaptists.
        The ritual of baptism is part of our name.
    My 11th-great grandfather, Hans Landis,
        was beheaded in Zurich Switzerland,
        over what he believed about baptism.

Denominations have split over when to baptize,
    what words to speak when baptizing,
    how much water is needed, and on and on.
But most of that is old history.

That’s not the kind of confusion that worries me.
    I’m worried that today we have tamed baptism—
        that we robbed it of its rich meaning,
        and made it something sentimental.

All of you have witnessed some wonderful baptisms.
    We’ve had them here at Park View many times.
        Sometimes in this beautiful sanctuary.
        Sometimes on the bank of North River in Bridgewater.
        Sometimes other places.
    How joyful an occasion,
        to see someone—a young person or an adult—
            surrounded by loving family and supportive friends,
            making deep promises to God and the church!
    And when it happens out in nature, it’s extra poignant.
        Wind in the trees, birds singing, river gurgling—
            what more could we want?
        It’s something people want to share with others.
        Pictures are taken afterward, and shared on social media.
            Folks far and wide offer their love and prayers
                and warm congratulations.

That’s all great. All beautiful. I love it all.
    But, where we can get a bit confused about baptism,
        is thinking of it primarily, as a personal rite of passage.
    Like a birthday, or wedding, or quinceƱera,
        that we stage in such a way that it has our personal stamp on it,
        so it’s memorable and perfect and Facebook-worthy.

I’m not pointing a finger at any of our past baptisms here.
    Just saying a pretty common view among Christians today,
        is that a beautiful and memorable baptism
        is somehow better than an ordinary one.
    It’s like thinking that a big beautiful elaborate wedding
        is inherently better than a short and simple one.

Don’t get me wrong. I love beautiful things.
    I’m often willing to pay extra for something with aesthetic value.
    I love beautiful weddings and beautiful baptisms.
    I love seeing people getting into the moment,
        and celebrating goodness and beauty.
    But while a baptism can be aesthetically beautiful,
        it is so much more.

It really makes no difference if
    you were immersed in the Jordan River itself,
        and have a video to prove it, with a harp soundtrack
        (yes, there are commercial outfits that provide exactly that) . . .
    or . . . if you had water poured on you from a Tupperware pitcher,
        kneeling in a drab cinder-block church in Florida with no AC,
        and you barely remember because you were 12.

I’ll let you guess which of those two scenarios was mine.

Here’s the thing:
    baptism is not about a personalized and individualized experience.
    It’s about your identity as an individual in community.

    It’s not about where your baptism is located.
    It’s about where your baptism locates you.

I want to say that again.
    It’s not about where your baptism is located.
    It’s about where your baptism locates you.

Take Jesus’ baptism as an example.
    His baptism and ours are more alike than you realize.

We may wonder why Jesus needed baptism.
John the Baptist wondered, and even objected at first.
    Jesus was not baptized to have his sins washed away.
    No, it was the day Jesus said yes.
        A full, and knowing, and determined “yes”
            to his God-given identity,
            and to his place among his people.

The moment Jesus came up out of the water,
    a voice from heaven pronounced his new identity:
    “You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
So God spoke a clear and resounding “YES” to Jesus,
    and, in submitting to baptism,
    Jesus spoke a clear “yes” to the Spirit who beckoned him.
    At that moment Jesus threw in his lot
        with his God and God’s people and God’s purposes.
        He was re-christened.
        In a way, it completed the naming process that began
            when he was 8 days old,
            held by old man Simeon in the Temple.

    In Jesus’ baptism, the One who had the right to name him,
        the one who gave him life,
        said the most significant sentence a parent can say to a child.
    It begins with, “You are . . .”
        Not you should, you oughtta, you will.
        But you are.

The words that come after “you are,”
    can build up or tear down.
    They can create life or destroy life.
    But always, they are powerful.
    Because they articulate our identity.

In baptism, God is the first one speaking.
    It was true for Jesus.
    It was true for me in that sweltering cinder-block church.
    It was true for any of our young people who stood
        on the bank of the North River.
In baptism, God says to us,
    “You are loved. You are mine.
        You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
            I am with you. I am for you.
            I have an intention for your life.”

It’s no coincidence that in the Gospels
    the first event recorded after Jesus’ baptism
    is an agonizing trial in the desert,
    where Jesus new identity is put to the test.

The way Matthew unfolds his Gospel story is intentional.
    Jesus is told by God, “This is who you are.”
And the next moment he is told by Jesus’ greatest adversary,
    “No, you can be whoever you want to be.”

And the rest of Jesus’ life journey,
    he was pulled this way and that way,
        by well-meaning friends who thought
            he should behave in a certain way,
        and by outright enemies who tried
            to make him behave in a way that suited their purposes.

And every time, he went back to what he was told
    by the One who already laid claim to his identity.
    Jesus had to repeatedly say to his friends and enemies,
        “No . . . this is who I am.
            This is how I am meant to live.”

That’s the function baptism should have for us, too.
    It is foundational to understanding who we are.
    We start by hearing God’s “Yes!
        You are my beloved.
        You belong to me and my family.”
    And in baptism, we offer back our “Yes!
        I am your child.
        I make your family my family.
        I am all in with your will and purposes for me,
            and for the world.”

Once we hear God’s yes, and respond with our yes,
    we have a basis on which to act, and do, and behave.
    We have a foundation for ethics,
    for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.

I wonder . . . would there be less chaos and conflict and confusion,
    in our churches, in our communities,
    in our national and global states of affairs,
    if more people had heard and believed
        those defining words from our Creator,
    “You are . . . You are my son, my daughter.
        I have given life to you.
        You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”

So many things try to define our identity—
    our affiliations,
    our jobs,
    our degrees,
    our money,
    our stuff,
    our self-image.
All these identities are foisted on us by a culture
    that makes idols out of these identities and affiliations,
    idols that makes promises they can’t deliver.

When our choices grow out of these thin and fleeting identities,
    instead of our God-given identity as a beloved child of God,
    then we are not living the whole life we were created for.
And all kinds of dysfunction and violence results.

Baptism is the best thing the church has going,
    to set us on a different course.
    It locates us in a community on mission with God in the world.
    In times of chaos and uncertainty,
        it reminds us who we are,
        and to accept and love who we are,
        that we might love others
            with more courage and more integrity.

May it be so with us.
May God strengthen our “yes.”

Join with me in the confession, if you will,
    in your bulletin, and on the screens.

one  God, we confess that we are sometimes hesitant
        to throw in our lot with you and with your people.
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one   In times of chaos and uncertainty,
        we need reminding of who we are and whose we are.
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one  Today, we openly confess, “Yes, we are yours.
        Yes, we are part of your people in this world.”
 all   God, strengthen our “Yes!”
one  Let us gratefully receive God’s eternal “yes” toward us,
        and know that God has accepted our “yes,” in return.

—Phil Kniss, January 8, 2023

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