Epiphany 1A Sermon (2011)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 3:13-17;
Isaiah 42:1-9


We’ve enjoyed the heartwarming story of Baby Jesus’ birth, but like all babies, he mostly lays there looking cute. All the action happens to and around Jesus in the first chapters of Matthew — actions of his parents, shepherds, angels, three wisemen, and the terrible actions of Herod trying to find and kill this newborn king.

Now the REAL action begins!! Jesus takes over and directs the action from here on out. Even when it seems like he’s a victim of circumstances beyond his control, Matthew shows us Jesus either knowingly in charge, or obediently following a God-guided drama of which only Jesus himself is fully aware. Pilate and the Jewish Council think they are in charge of Jesus’ execution. But they are essentially pawns to the powers of sin and violence, and they are about to collide with the power of God’s Love. If any person is directing the action, it is Jesus, who knowingly lets himself be executed so that God’s triumphant power of love is revealed.

It all begins innocently enough at the River Jordan, where Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist has been baptizing followers. The baptism is Jesus’ idea, and so he travels to the River Jordan to be baptized. John tries to resist, telling Jesus that he should be the one baptizing John! But Jesus is directing the action: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” he tells John. Right from the beginning, this is big picture stuff. Jesus is about to transform John’s baptism for repentance of sins into something much bigger – Love defeating the powers of sin.

“Fulfill all righteousness,” says Jesus. It seems like the only place we even hear the word righteousness anymore is in church. But what if we heard the word in a new way: as “right action,” or even as “the right thing to do.” Jesus has come to free our actions from slavery to the powers of Sin so that we can become more and more able to do the right thing.

So here’s the Question of the Day. Before we know what the right thing is, we need to know where our actions are rooted — what is the source of our actions? What drives them?

We like to see ourselves as rational creatures, that our minds are in control, and that our reason is the source of our actions. We wake up each day with a plan, but most days bring interactions with others that can get us off track. Someone says or does something, and before we know it, we’re not just acting, we’re reacting. And our Question of the Day quickly changes to: what is the source of our reactions? We get angry, frustrated, despondent. Where are these often irrational reactions coming from? We can’t see ourselves just as rational beings. We also have a whole range of emotions. The source of our actions is clearly deeper than simply our rational side.

That’s my experience, at least. And I think it’s true for all of us — our reactions are rooted much deeper than we may be aware awareness. Isn’t that what we mean when we say “he’s pushing my buttons!” ? For example, I grew up in an alcoholic home. My dad is a recovering alcoholic. Growing up, I had realize that a big part of my identity is that I’m an Adult Child of an Alcoholic. That’s not at all to blame my dad. We all adopted ways of acting and reacting to survive the chaos of alcoholism. Some of those ways aren’t so healthy since they come out of relationships that aren’t fully healthy. So a big part of my maturing has been to take responsibility for my actions today by being aware that sometimes the source of my actions are much deeper, still going back to when I was growing up. Becoming more healthy involves awareness of the source of many actions and unlearning them, and even more importantly, to more deeply form a new spiritual source for my actions rooted in love.

Another sense of how we’re rooted the deeper down comes through what I’ve learned about human desire. First of all, isn’t Desire a good name for that deeper down source of our actions? How consciously aware of desires are we, at any given moment? Aren’t they at a deeper level than conscious awareness? Once again, I’ll mention modern advertising as the illustration of this fact. Advertisers place ads all around us, everywhere we look, counting on the fact that influencing our desires goes deeper than conscious awareness. And the influence comes from imitating each other. We catch our desires from each other, whether it is seeing the latest basketball star sporting the latest shoe, or subconsciously catching our work habits that shape our lives from parents or other mentors.

But there is also a problematic aspect to this way of human desiring as the source of our actions. Even when we positively model behaviors from others, we also tend to then become rivals with them. Rivalry builds envy, and envy harbors resentments, and soon the deeper source of many of our actions is resentment.

There’s really only one exception to the human pattern of falling into rivalry because we catch our desires from each other. And that is when the desiring is truly love, truly a way of serving the other that puts them first. And the only one who perfectly loves that way is God, the one who has created all of us and all of this in love. And our Christian faith says that the only human being who perfectly embodied that love is Jesus. If we want the right source of right actions, then we need to follow Jesus. We have to focus our lives on him and learn the spiritual disciples of placing his love as the deepest source of our actions.

And it all begins with baptism, not just as the cleansing of sin as John the Baptist began it. But as the transformation which Jesus began in his own baptism. The fulfillment of all right action begins with the truth that each of us must learn to hear and trust deep down, God saying to each of us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased.”

It could be said that John the Baptist came to see and love in himself what Jesus saw and loved in him; and after him the disciple Peter. And the disciple Mary Magdalene came to see and love in herself what Jesus saw and loved in her. Jesus sees the “child of God” in people with such clarity and persistence that they begin to see it in themselves. But, in order for him to see the “child of God” in others, he must first know it in himself. In this sense, Jesus’ baptism by water and Spirit is the precondition for the baptism by water and Spirit of all Christians. The one who would awaken others to love must first himself be awakened. Awakening to love is essentially an interpersonal chain. The awakened Jesus awakens others, and then those awaken still others.

This, then, is the deep down source of our actions that we yearn for. It is the deep down source of our actions that begins at our baptisms, as God says to us, “You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. In you I am well pleased.” That is the Spirit of love that fulfills all righteousness, the Spirit promised to each of us as surely as it was promised to and landed on Jesus. It is the Spirit that we come here for each week to receive anew in word and sacrament that we might learn and encourage in each other the spiritual ways in which to access that Spirit as the source of our right actions.

Do you want to be able on a regular basis to do the right thing, to fulfill all righteousness? Do you want more and more to be a person whose actions have their source in God’s love? The answer isn’t in some high heaven. And it certainly isn’t just a possibility that can only be fulfilled in some high heaven. No, all the right actions of God’s love are down not up. The heavens open and the Spirit comes down. Mary’s womb is filled by the Spirit and she gives birth to it from inside herself. No, the source of right actions is in the deep-down of our lives, as our spirits learn to access the Spirit promised to each of us.

How do we learn that? I confess that I’m still learning myself. In addition to the Sacraments, and the Bible Study, and the loving service of others, I’m just beginning to learn more new ways of prayer and contemplation that helps me to center myself in the deeper down Spirit of God’s love — the center for right action that increasingly hears, “You are my beloved daughter/son. In you I am well pleased.” Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 9, 2011

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