June 2019   
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Matthew 3:13-17


            The story is told of a kid who gets asked to read this passage in church, and gets so mixed up, he says that Jesus was baptized by Jordan in the john!  (Scripture reading)

When I was a delegate to the Denver General Assembly, I remember hearing a pastor preach on today’s scripture.  She told some stories from some TV sitcoms to illustrate the huge risk Jesus took of being lumped in with or mistaken for sinners (I wish I could find the exact examples she used).  One example was a gal who goes with her friend to the problem pregnancy clinic, who finds herself in a position where she has to say, “No!  It’s not me.  I’m not the patient!”  Another example was a guy who goes with his friend who’s being tested for AIDS who again finds himself having to say, “No!  It’s not me.  I’m not the one who needs the AIDS test.”  The pastor said, “It’s one thing to talk about God’s love for sinners.  It’s another thing to risk being mistaken for them.”

            I myself can think of some examples from my own life.  I attend a Thursday night meeting in Carbondale of some friends of mine who all went to the same church with me in college.  We have an hour of prayer requests and prayer, we study a book together, and then we go somewhere to have snacks and drinks.  Most of them have a beer and light up a cigar.  The local newspaper did a story on this group.  My church members knew that I was a part of that group, and they knew that I’ve never smoked and don’t drink alcohol at these meetings, but I still felt like I had to say, “No!   Yes, I go to that group, but I don’t do what they do.”

            Another riskier example: I have a friend who is in jail on child molestation charges.  From what I can tell, I am the only person outside his family who continues to visit him.  Being his friend runs the risk that people will misunderstand me, that they will either think that I am like him, or at least that I am soft on sin, neither of which is true.

            That’s the kind of risk that Jesus takes when he shows up at the Jordan River and presents himself to John to be baptized.  People are gonna misunderstand.

            What in the world is Jesus trying to do when he comes to sign up for John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”?  Here is one place where even skeptics would admit we stand on firm historical ground.  Here is one episode from the life of Jesus that we can be sure the early church never would have fabricated.  It seems to contradict one of our bedrock Christian beliefs: our belief that Jesus was without sin.  In fact, in one of those books that never made it into the Bible called the Gospel According to the Nazarenes, Jesus supposedly says, “How have I sinned, that I should go and be baptized by him, unless perhaps this very thing I have said is a sin of ignorance?”

             In Matthew’s version of the account, John himself has a huge problem with baptizing Jesus.  He says that John begins or tries to prevent him from doing so.  (Neither Mark nor Luke mention John balking at doing this.)  Back in verse 11, John says someone is coming, whose sandals he is not worthy to carry (in Mark and Luke, he says he is not worthy to “untie his sandal strap”).  John recognizes the huge apparent contradiction that Jesus’ baptism would create.

            But Jesus insists on being an example for all of his followers.  After all, one of his followers might wonder, if Jesus was not willing to be baptized, then why should I?   Jesus says it is necessary to do all that God requires.  By being baptized, Jesus puts God’s stamp of approval on baptism as the first step in a life of turning to God in faith.

            We might even say that it is here that Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the entire world.  We know he bore our sins on the cross.  Perhaps here was the place where he first shouldered that burden.  He gets charged with our sins.  He takes them all upon himself.  And what does a sinner need to do to deal with their sin?  First of all, repent and be baptized.  Jesus does so for an entire world of sinners.  We never hear Jesus confess any sin of his own (none of the 4 Gospels record him doing so), but in the ultimate act of identifying with sinners, Jesus steps into our shoes and takes the penalty of sin that we deserved, for 10 billion souls.  Here is where the only human who knew no sin, becomes a world full of sinners wrapped up into one. 

(By the way, think about this question: who baptized the disciples?  We have no coverage of the event in the Bible.  Did they receive John’s baptism?  Or did Jesus baptize them?  Nearly 20 years later Paul runs into some followers of John at Ephesus in western Turkey.  They had already received John’s baptism, but Paul baptizes them again in the name of Jesus.)

John was definitely caught by surprise when Jesus wades down into the Jordan with the crowds coming to be baptized.  John knew that he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus.  It is no accident that Jesus’ movement gets far bigger than John’s. Jesus’ movement never would have eclipsed John’s if it were true (as skeptics have claimed) that Jesus’ followers merely borrowed John’s popularity as a launching pad for their own movement. 

If Jesus, the only perfect human who ever lived, was not ashamed to identify so closely with sinners to where he risked being mistaken for a sinner himself, if Jesus was willing to be misjudged and misunderstood, then we must be willing to take that risk as well.  Do we really want our church to be known as the place where all the druggies and hookers hang out?  Do we want our church to be known as the place where the real losers and rejects go, because they can’t find friends anywhere else?  Do we want to risk being that much like Jesus?

It’s kind of amazing to me how effective Jesus and his followers were at attracting sinners.  Judged by 21st century standards, they were proverbial Boy Scouts; they were Puritans.  Remember how tough John the Baptist was on sin?  He could make anyone who wasn’t squeaky clean squirm.  And yet, the extortionists and hookers of Jesus’ day flocked to John, and to Jesus, not so that they could hold onto their sin, but because they knew John and Jesus knew how to love sinners without loving the sin that was destroying their lives.  They knew that John (and later Jesus) was the place where they could find salvation, the place where they could be set free from their chains.

Can we welcome sinners without automatically welcoming their sin?  Can we spend time with sinners without being lumped in with them?  Yes we can welcome sinners, but not without being misunderstood.  Somebody’s going to look at us (without looking too closely) and get the wrong idea.  If we walk into a bar, or a pregnancy center, or an AIDS clinic, somebody’s going to draw the wrong conclusion. If we are misunderstood, however, we’re in good company.  We are following in the steps of the only sinless human who ever lived.

Jesus’ baptism puts this bedrock belief to the test.   Our belief that Jesus was without sin is a conviction we must ultimately hold on faith.  Our belief is based on the testimony of witnesses from 2000 years ago.  As I look at the footage of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, I see times where we can see he’s not a divine robot.  We see him get hungry enough to pronounce a divine curse on a fruitless fig tree.  We see him get exasperated with followers who fail.  We see him drive merchants out of the temple with a whip.  We hear him call his opponents “sons of snakes”.  (I remember when my pastor called the local newspaper a “Mickey Mouse organization,” I could tell he was mad!)  But I take it on faith, based on God’s word, that Jesus never crossed the line into sin.  1 Peter 2:22: “He committed no sin; no deceit was found in his mouth.” Paul says he was the one “who knew no sin.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)  Hebrews 4:15 says he was “tempted in every way we are tempted, yet without sin.”  Only a sinless human could die for the sins of fellow humans.  Unless he was without sin (and I believe he was without sin), Jesus could not qualify for the job to be Savior of the world.

God puts his stamp of approval on Jesus the moment he is baptized.  While he’s still standing in the river, Jesus sees the heavens “ripped open” (according to Mark), and he sees the Holy Spirit come down on him like a dove (John says he saw it too), and a voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus and says “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Here Jesus’ followers must have gotten the story straight from Jesus, because I get the impression that no one else in the crowd saw what he saw or heard what he heard.  Here we can see all 3 persons of the Trinity in one place at one time, which helps us visualize a God who is one God in 3 persons: we see God in the flesh standing in the water, the Spirit descending from heaven, and the voice out of heaven from God the Father.

 “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  Imagine how Jesus in his human nature must have had to cling to those words in times of testing and confusion.  More than any of us, Jesus needed to remind himself of who he was, in the face of vicious pushback not only from human opponents, but from all the powers of hell.  We are children of God only by adoption (we are not God in the flesh), and yet, if we are to weather the storms of life that are determined to tear us down, we need to remember that we are loved by God as well. God delights in us, not because we are without sin (like Jesus), but because of his inexplicable, undeserved mercy.  We call that: grace.   God offers that mercy to all who will place their faith in what Jesus has done to take away our sins and put us right with God.

It’s incredible: the only human who ever lived who was completely without sin, takes the risk of identifying himself with sinful humans, by taking the plunge in baptism, a baptism of repentance.  He had no sins to repent of.  Yet this sinless man totally identified himself with us.  He stepped into our shoes.  Jesus freely and willingly took upon himself the sins of an entire world, to take away our guilt forever.  He did that for you too, if only you will place your faith in the death he died to take away our sin.

Lord, we marvel at how a sinless eternal person like Jesus can offer us the ultimate unfair trade: he takes our sin, we get his righteousness.  How can this be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?  Help those who have never done so before to accept this gift in faith.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

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