Isaiah 42.1-9, Mathew 3.13-17
January 9 2005
It’s been just four weeks since we heard John proclaiming in the wilderness that we all ought to repent and prepare the way of the Lord. Four weeks since we saw John getting ready for Jesus’ birth, right? Except for the part where Jesus and John are the same age. So now, two weeks after we celebrated the birth of Jesus, which was just four weeks after the annunciation, here we are standing in the muddy Jordan River. What was that about undue haste? On the other hand, kids just grow up so fast these days. Jesus went from birth to age 30 in just two weeks, which is pretty impressive even in our hurry-and-grow-up culture.
In any case, let’s just say it’s been four weeks. For four of our weeks, he’s been shouting about repentance and something about snakes and fire, he’s been yelling at sinners—maybe he’s losing his voice after all that shouting—and he’s dunking people in the water. He’s probably not into the Presbyterian sprinkling because it doesn’t go well with shouting. And all this time, he’s been telling people about the One who is to come, and how amazing that One will be, and that he can hardly wait. Who will it be?
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan. He stood in the line, waited his turn, made his way down the muddy bank to the murky stream they called a river, and waited to be dunked in the bacteria-laden water: the river that stopped running for the Israelites to cross into the promised land; the water that ran in the same place where Naaman the Syrian was healed; the water that feeds the Dead Sea and its spa-quality mud. When Jesus finally got to the front of the line, John looked up in order to shout out Jesus’ sins and order him to his knees in the water, but as he opened his mouth he found his words failed. Who is this man, the man who stopped John’s tongue? And suddenly John knew—in his mind and his heart; his gut feeling, his whole body were telling him that this man was the One, the One who is to come.
And so began the protests. I’m sure that we have only an abbreviated version of their conversation, standing there in the greenish brown water.
“Who do you think you are? I need to be baptized by you, what are you coming to me for?”
“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
“Huh? In Aramaic, please? I can’t baptize you!”
“Because you have to baptize me! I’ve been telling all these people that you were coming. Let me tell them that you’re here.”
“no, wait, I want you to baptize me.”
“I can’t baptize you! You’re the One who is to come!”
“You know you’re going to ask me later if I’m really the One.”
“No I’m not. I can plainly see and feel that you’re the One.”
“Can you dunk me in the water now?”
“Do I have to? It seems so wrong, so…sacrilegious.”
“Just do it already. My toes are getting all pruny.”
“All right then. Hold your breath.”
And John, who was probably NOT using the Trinitarian formula, dunked Jesus in the water and said some words about forgiveness. Or maybe he said words we’ve all heard before, words like “I have called you by name, you are mine,” or “child of the covenant.”
And when Jesus came up out of the water, he stood for a moment in the traditional Jewish pose for prayer, face lifted up toward the sky, and he opened his eyes and saw…the heavens parting before his very eyes, like the curtains on a stage, like the clouds in the sky in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and he saw…a bird? he saw it coming very close…and I always imagine a sweet little bird, about the size of a canary, floating gently down to him and perhaps flitting about a bit…but Matthew says that the bird alighted on him—maybe it landed on his head, this dove. Doves are substantially larger than canaries, too. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t like a bird landing on me. Maybe Jesus fought it off, or flapped at it a little, or maybe he just shook his head. I wonder if anyone else saw it and thought that maybe they shouldn’t get baptized today after all. Maybe John was even thinking, “whoa? what’s going on here? maybe I won’t tell everyone he’s the One, just in case he turns out to be crazy.”
And as Jesus was fending off the glorified pigeon, he heard it. The Voice of God. Matthew just gave us the abbreviated version of this too—it probably said something more along the lines of Isaiah 42: “here is my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, and he will not complain, but will do all kinds of good things like bring justice and heal the sick and bring light to those who sit in darkness. I have called him in righteousness and now he will be my covenant to the people, opening blind eyes and releasing prisoners, spreading my good news. Look at this new thing I’m doing, and I’m even telling you in advance to be sure you don’t miss it.” Now, it’s not clear that anyone else heard it, which is probably why Matthew just wrote “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Hopefully Jesus wandered off in a bit of a daze after all that. Probably he was wondering what it meant to be the Son of God. What was he supposed to do? How was he supposed to act? What was he supposed to tell his mother?—oh, nevermind, she wouldn’t be surprised. All the Voice told him was to bring justice, be a covenant, release prisoners, heal the sick, bring good news…couldn’t it have been a little more clear? A little more concrete? A five-step plan of action? A glossary of difficult terms? Who was he exactly? What was he supposed to do? What did it mean to be the Beloved?
I wonder if someone asked Jesus, “Who are you?” if he would have answered as the youth have learned from the Belonging to God catechism, “I am a child of God.” And then, if he were asked the follow-up question, “what does it mean to be a child of God?” if he would have answered, “that I belong to God who loves me” or if he would have given a complicated seminary-speak answer like he tried to give John about fulfilling righteousness. What does it mean to belong to God? It means to be the beloved, to be taken by the hand and kept by God, and also to have a responsibility to help people to see, to bring light, to establish justice. Too bad neither Isaiah nor God ever said it would be easy. Jesus has to go out into the wilderness—though we won’t hear about that for another four weeks. In Christopher Moore’s imaginative novel Lamb he goes to Turkey, Tibet, and India to learn how to be the Messiah from magicians, Buddhist monks, and Hindu yoga masters. But after all that traveling, fictional though it may be, the answer to the question “Who?” was the same. Too bad it wasn’t an easy answer, it didn’t come with glib definitions or a neat package. It came, and still comes, in muddy water, glorified pigeons, mysterious voices, and strange words. It comes with a little bit of a daze and some confusion, with mystery and awe, with a bit of a mess, really. And because “who?” is never far separated from “what do I do?” it comes with an assignment to be God’s servant in the world.
We all ask the question about who we really are, or who others are. We hear the question all the time: “Who are you?” The heavens open to give us the answer. “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” May you go forth to be God’s faithful servant. Amen.