A sermon preached on January 9th, 2011 based upon Matthew 3:13 – 19.
We know so little about Jesus’ life prior to the moment at about age 30 when he showed up at the River Jordan where John was baptizing. We have the birth stories, and then the one little story from age 12 when Jesus comes across as being not unlike any other 12 year old kid, rebelling against the limits set upon him by his parents, mindlessly causing them emotional distress, while at the same time showing a profound spiritual capacity that mystifies his parents.
That’s all we know. We can only imagine the percolation process that took place within him leading up this moment at the river. It was surely evident to Jesus that the spirit of God was moving through John’s ministry out there in the wilderness in a way it was not moving back in the established structures of religion, and Jesus knew he needed to be there to be present to what’s God was doing.
He was probably moved by what he saw — so many ordinary people opened up to God, longing for a new beginning with God. In my imagination, he says to himself, “This is good, this is wonderful,” and got in line to have his turn being dunked by John.
And then comes an odd moment that breaks the flow of what is happening.
John recognizes Jesus – recognizes him as being the one for whom they have been waiting. But there is a problem from John’s point of view. Jesus doesn’t quite match up with what he’s been expecting. The one who is coming, he had declared will come with the Holy Spirit and Fire. But this man seems almost ordinary. And the fact that he is waiting in line like all these other poor slobs to take his turn to be dunked, like a just another sinner on the bus – well, this isn’t quite what he expected.
And so John stops Jesus. “Wait a minute. I should be baptized by you, not me you.” He wants to keep Jesus up on a pedestal. And it’s a funny picture that comes to my mind – Jesus responding, “Oh, okay. Sorry, I’m just finding my way with this messiah business, and if you can show me what exactly I’m supposed to do, I’d be much obliged.”
But no, Jesus senses from within that to stand aloof is the wrong path — that he is supposed to enter the water with all those other poor slobs. And so Jesus insists that John proceed.
This water that binds us all together –this water that symbolizes simultaneously the birth and death through which we all must pass.
As Jesus comes out of the water, Matthew tells us that “suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said,
‘This is my Son, the beloved, whom I am well pleased.’”
It is a voice that we, too are invited to hear: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I delight.” Ah, we might say, but Jesus was special. He was THE son of God. And so he was. He was very special… but we are special too; we are also God’s children.
There are these two truths that need to be embraced simultaneously in the spiritual life.
The first is this: You really ARE special. When God made you, God broke the mold.
God made you absolutely unique. Whenever you think to yourself, “I’m not like other people — I should be like other people.” It would be good to listen for the voice of God saying, “Sez who?”
A consequence of failing to embrace our uniqueness is that our gifts go unclaimed. I heard about a dream some guy had one night in which he was summoned to the post office, where he found this whole warehouse full of packages addressed to him that had been returned to the post office because he hadn’t been home to receive them.
If we are convinced that there is something wrong with who we are, that we are defective, that we should be more like other people, then we will not be receiving the special gifts that come with being you through which God wishes to bless the world.
David showed us a video in one of his groups in which the speaker talked about finding himself in a time of emotional turmoil and going to his therapist and asking, “Do other people feel this way? Is it normal to feel this way?” His therapist interrupted him. “What does it matter?” he said. “We’re not here to talk about other people — we’re talking about what you feel. And if what you’re feeling at this moment is different from what others seem to be feeling, what’s wrong with that?”
I heard somewhere that a wise old rabbi declared that when we die and stand before God, we will NOT be asked, “Why weren’t you Moses?” No, we will be asked, “Why weren’t you YOU?” Why weren’t we the person God made us to be?
So, the first truth is: you are special, embrace being special. You have gifts given to you in your specialness. Take responsibility for embracing those gifts.
The second truth is this: You are ordinary — embrace being ordinary. Get in the water with everybody else. The fact that you ARE special doesn’t translate into being better than anybody. Or inferior to anybody, either. You just are who you are, that’s all.
People start comparing themselves to other people and it gets them into all kinds of trouble.
We look for people to feel superior to BECAUSE we are not convinced that we ARE special, that we are precisely who God made us to be. So we COMPENSATE by trying to look down at others.
But the truth is:
We all sin.
We all screw up in life.
We all suffer.
We all have to face death.
We all find ourselves in situations we feel like we can’t handle.
We’re all in this boat together.
And part and parcel to this truth is the obligation to serve one another. We’re in this together. We need one another.
We are ordinary, even as we are special.
It can be tricky to keep the truths of our being special and ordinary balanced, and that is part of the reason that immediately after this remarkable experience of the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, the Spirit led Jesus off by himself for a full 40 days to wrestle with what it meant. The temptations of the devil all amount to tempting Jesus to claim his specialness at the expense of his ordinariness. “If you are the son of God…” he says to Jesus, you don’t have to experience the pangs and limitations of this bodily existence.
When Jesus emerged from the wilderness with unusual clarity about who he was and who he wasn’t, there was a quality of authenticity to him that people simply found compelling.
“He speaks with authority,” they marveled, “and not like the scribes and Pharisees.” The scribes and Pharisees were frauds, simply copying what they had heard others had said, rather than speaking from their own interior experience of God.
But Jesus wasn’t pretending. He was living out the truth as he had experienced it – his experience of the Abba God, the Daddy God, whose love is deeper and wider than we dare to imagine.
And when a person is the real deal this way, two things will happen simultaneously. First, people will find him or her very attractive. There will be so much life coming out of them – a vitality that draws others to them.
But the other thing that happens is that this authenticity will cause conflict because the person won’t conform to the expectations of others just for the sake of conforming. The person won’t do and be things that aren’t true to what he or she knows. He will disappoint others in terms of their expectations, leading others to lash out. All of which is one way to see how it was that Jesus got nailed to a cross.
There is a quality of being their own person to the people in whom Jesus recognized “faith.” There are several stories I could point to, but just consider the oddity of the story of the one leper among the ten who were healed by Jesus. Jesus commands them to go to show themselves to the priest, and as they go, they all discover that their bodies have been cleansed of the disease. Nine proceed on to do what they were told to do by Jesus, only the one who turns back – disobeying the command – to follow the truth of the spontaneous gratitude that wells up within him is commended for his faith. Notice this – Jesus takes delight in the only one who was in tune with his interior experience enough to disobey him.
It reminds me of a parent who delights in his or her child precisely at the point of recognizing the child is showing some gumption, some originality of thought, some capacity to think for her or himself – and not just parroting back what the parent has taught them.
At this point in the sermon I shared more personally from my own life, but hey, if you want that level of sharing, you’ll have to make a point of coming to worship.