Passing Through Death to Life


A sermon based on Matthew 3:13-17 preached on January 12th, 2014.
This is the first appearance of Jesus in the Gospels as an adult.  He is around the age of thirty years old, and strangely, we know practically nothing of how he has been spending his life up until this moment.
We can assume that through the years a deepening understanding has been evolving inside Jesus’ soul — a growing sense of the vocation that God is calling him to — and it comes to a head when Jesus hears about the ministry of John the Baptist down at the River Jordan, where thousands of people have flocked to this strange prophet in order to be dunked by him in the water of the River as a sign of a new life.
If Jesus came from Nazareth to the place where John was baptizing, then Jesus was willing to a make a very long trip — a 70 mile pilgrimage by foot — in order to undergo a dunking by John.
It was a troubling thing to many in the early Church why Jesus — the sinless one — would undergo John’s baptism.  It seemed to imply, on the one hand, that Jesus needed to repent, and on the other, that John was somehow above Jesus, so that Jesus felt obliged to submit himself to John.  And so Matthew takes the story he inherited from Mark and adds John’s objection:  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  It’s as though Matthew wants to make sure people get it that Jesus is the bigger dude.
But before he set out on that pilgrimage, I think Jesus had become clear about two things:
First, that the path that God was calling him on would involve a whole new understanding of what “holiness” meant.  Before this, holiness involved keeping one’s distance from anything that was tainted by sin; it meant staying away from sinners, staying away from disease and blemish.  Holiness did not descend into the muck of life; it stayed aloof and above, lest it be contaminated.
But over time Jesus had come to realize that true holiness actually moves in the opposite direction — that God is constantly reaching out to us human beings in the very muck and mess of our lives, and if we are to manifest something of the holiness of God in our human lives, then our lives must embody the compassion that seeks to be with those who are hurting.
The Samaritan who stops to embrace the man beaten up at the side of the road is expressing holiness; the priest and the Levite who keep their distance so they won’t be contaminated by the half-dead man, well they’re living out a fake kind of holiness.
And so Jesus had become absolutely clear that when he got to the banks of the Jordan, he would not stand there watching from above as others humbled themselves – he would enter the waters himself with all the thousands of ordinary, clueless Joes and Janes like you and me who had come there with broken lives hoping for a new beginning.
And the second thing that had become clear to Jesus was that in order to truly live, a person must first undergo a kind of spiritual death.  It was the principle he would speak of later on in his ministry when he said that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And so when Jesus entered those waters to be dunked by John, he was giving himself over to a ritual that expressed a kind of death:  the dunking was intended to symbolize death by drowning… death to that little ego-centered existence where everything revolves around me; and everything is about bolstering my image of myself through the accolades of others, a kind of life that is actually a kind of bondage, because it requires everything to go my way, and everybody to affirm my existence.
Jesus enters the water to let that fraudulent form of life die, in order that a much more expansive life may begin living through him; one that isn’t all about him, but rather about the love of God in which we live and move and have our very being.
And then, as he comes up out of the water, the Spirit descends like a dove, and the voice of God saying, “You are my beloved son, in whom I delight;” and Jesus arises with an understanding that moving forward he is to be the flesh and blood embodiment of the unconditional love of God in this world, reaching out to all the lost sheep.
So at the heart of baptism is death, a fact we often miss since we don’t dunk here when we baptize, and because mostly our baptisms involve beautiful little babies, so full of life.
I was reminded of a quote I’ve kept over the years about what baptism is all about, written by a United Methodist Bishop, William Willimon:
“To be baptized is to be condemned to die.  It is dress rehearsal for the last day of your life as well as for every day in which we must die to all that would make us less than God wants for us.  Baptism is also resurrection practice.  Between our death in baptism and our next death at the end of our earth life, we live in the hope that the same God who raised us from the waters of baptism will raise us again, pulling us forth from the tomb like newborn babes come from the womb.  We live in confidence which comes from baptism, because we have already been through a trial run of our death and resurrection.  We do not fear death, because we need not fear what we have already done.”
I am fascinated by the story of Harold I told yesterday in his eulogy of his experience of jumping out of that burning plane 15000 feet up in the air above Germany.   He was just a kid – 22 years old.  He’d gone through this four month crash course to train him to become a flight navigator.  There was a great of deal of technical information for the Harold to absorb, and there hadn’t been time for Harold to actually experience what jumping out of a plane should he need to; all they could do is tell him what it would be like.
And suddenly there is that explosion, and the plane is on fire – it’s going down. Harold helps the wounded bombardier, guiding him to the door so he could jump from the burning plane.
And so there Harold is — the last man on the plane — and he says a little prayer, putting his life in God’s hands, and he jumps.  They’d told him to expect a sudden jolt, but he’s surprised that there is no jolt, he simply floats peacefully down to the ground, the only sound the swoosh of air rushing by.  He hears the sound of the plane explode – the plane in which just a few seconds before he had been sitting on board — but it doesn’t disturb him.  He finds himself enjoying the view – the sight of the German forest into which he is slowly descending.
In the days that follow, travelling alone at night in what surely would be considered an extremely dangerous situation – he is after all, in enemy territory in the midst of a bloody war– the strange sense of calm continues for Harold as he finds himself feeling oddly free, enjoying the natural beauty of the earth.
As I suggested in my eulogy, I think this experience had something to do with the serene quality that Harold demonstrated in his life.  He never seemed to be rattled by anything.  It was, as if Harold had already passed through death when handed his life over to God and jumped out of that plane.  And having accepted death, it allowed him to walk serenely through life.
I am reminded of another story I heard from World War II.  A Lutheran pastor is being interrogated by an SS officer. The pastor is beat mercilessly, but the SS officer can’t get the pastor to tell him what it is he wants to know.  Frustrated and full of rage, the SS officer screams at the pastor, “don’t you know I can kill you?!!!”
The pastor calmly answers, “Do what you must; but I have already died with Christ.”  The rage suddenly disappears.  The SS officer realizes the power he though he held over the pastor does not exist.
I also thought about Helen, the member of our congregation who along with Fred is over in Troy Hills Center.  Helen is nearing the end of her life. Throughout her life, Helen’s nature has been that of a determined fighter, and that fierce, determined spirit has served her well.  It is this spirit that has allowed Helen to valiantly battle cancer for so many years.
In recent months Helen has been going through a lot of anguish and agitation, brought on, I think, by the fact she losing the battle she’s been fighting.
But recently I’ve seen a shift taking place inside Helen.  The impression I have is that she is embracing the death that is awaiting her, and giving herself permission to stop fighting, and to simply accept what is.  The other night when I saw her she seemed strangely radiant, at peace, unafraid.  She seemed in possession of kind of freedom.
You and I, as far as we know, we’re not reaching that point in our journeys.  We have more life to live; more battles to fight.
But what if when we find ourselves stressing out to the max, and everything seems to be going wrong because it’s not what we think should be happening – what if, in that moment we could try to let go — surrender our lives to God’s care, come what may, trusting what we tell each other each week, that God really is trustworthy with our lives, come what may?
What would it feel like in those moments of conflict that so often afflict our relationships, when the people around us don’t seem to be loving us in the way we think they should, we could remind ourselves that when we got baptized, whenever that was, the little fear-filled, ego-centered “me” got buried, and another me arose – the one who is God’s beloved child, in whom God is well pleased?
It’s the freedom I believe that Jesus experienced that day when he came up out of the water from death to life; the freedom I think that was glimpsed when Harold jumped out of the plane; the freedom that I hope Helen is entering as she accepts what is.
What would it feel like to live out that freedom that is God’s gift to us?

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