January 12, 2020 – Epiphany 1A: The Baptism of Our Lord
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Why would anyone want to hear a sermon about sin? We don’t come to church because we like feeling bad about ourselves. And we resent it when a preacher makes a living telling people how terrible they are in order to keep them coming back to fill the pews and the offering plates. But, in many cases, it seems to work. Why?
Two months ago, when I served on staff for the Happening weekend for youth from across our diocese that was held here in town, I came to St. Paul’s for the first part of Sunday morning, but, as soon as Sunday school was over, I got in my car and drove across town to rejoin those who were taking part in Happening. I don’t often get to drive around town on Sunday morning, but, when I drove past one of those big evangelical churches in our community—one of the congregations that is known for talking a lot about sin—I saw that the parking lot was packed. Why?
Two thousand years ago, a zealous preacher stepped away from the religious establishment and went out into the wilderness where he preached day after day about sin and the need for repentance. Instead of pointing their fingers and laughing at him or shaking their heads in disapproval, great throngs of people left the cities and villages, where the established synagogues were, to go out and hear the prophet’s message and be baptized by him in the Jordan River. In other words, they rushed out into the wilderness to embrace his preaching about sin. Why?
When Jesus of Nazareth began his earthly ministry, he started right there, among John’s followers. He left his home up north in Galilee and went all the way down south to Judea and out into the wild, where he sought baptism by John. All four gospel accounts locate the start of Jesus’ work right here, in this encounter between Jesus and John. It seems clear that Jesus, in one way or another, understood his ministry to be a continuation of John’s work—that, before he could take up his own mantle, Jesus had to begin with John’s proclamation of sin and repentance. Why?
Why was Jesus, the one who ate with sinners and welcomed outcasts, attracted to John’s preaching? And why would Jesus seek baptism by John? John preached a message of repentance. When he dunked you under the surface of the River Jordan, it was to symbolize the washing away of your sin. When you came up out of the water, it was the start of a new relationship with God. Baptism by John meant leaving behind your old ways of wickedness and embracing the new life of belonging to God. But Jesus didn’t need any of that. Jesus was God’s Son—perfect man yet perfect God. He was without sin. His will and God’s will were forever unified. In that sense, he didn’t belong there. John’s objection makes that clear to us: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Yet there in the River Jordan is where Jesus got his start. There, in the same water with all the sinners, Jesus sought the new life of God’s great reign on earth. Why? Because Jesus knew that, if you want to find the power of God breaking into this world, you’ll find it wherever sinners go to seek redemption.
John wasn’t preaching a guilt-ridden message of sin and shame. He was inviting broken people who had lost their place in the religious establishment to return to God’s fold by forsaking their sin and embracing the hope of a new life with God. I trust that’s what the evangelical churches around us whose parking lots are full and whose ministry in the community is growing are doing, too. It’s not complicated. It’s grace. The liberating truth of the gospel is that God shows up amidst those whose lives aren’t perfect whenever and wherever they start to look for God. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said to John, “It is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The fulfillment or completion of all righteousness is the making right of all the broken relationships between God and God’s people. That can’t happen until all people—even the most isolated sinner—is invited to repent, to turn around, and to return to God.
Jesus didn’t need to be baptized by John in order to become God’s beloved Son. He didn’t need to forsake his sins before God would look down upon him and declare, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” But he needed to be baptized alongside all of us in order that we might see where God is to be found. For all of human history, people have looked for God in the lofty places where the angels sing, in the holiest shrines, and amidst the best and holiest people among us. But, when Jesus came to show us where God is to be found, he started in the river with a bunch of sinners. He wanted us to know that God has come among us—not among the saints who presume to have merited an audience with God but among the sinners whose humble search for a fresh start is where God’s power and love and presence shine through.
Today, we come to this church, to this font, to this water seeking again a fresh start. We come not as perfect people whose holiness has gained us access to God’s presence but as sinful people who are made holy because God has shown up right here among us. Today, we baptize three new saints of God—children of God whom God makes holy—into the fellowship of those who believe that this is where God is to be found. We believe that God is revealed not when good and holy people get together to impress God but when broken and imperfect people get together to look for God’s presence among them as they seek together a new life with God.