Why was Jesus baptized? I’ll preach on this tomorrow at Houston’s Northwest, from Matthew 3. The preaching outline has the following blanks:
God as ______ is good news.
The religious _______ manipulate things instead of being ______ & ________.
Baptism clarifies _________.
The first point is how we should think: God is in charge.
The second point is how we should not think: our view of God is in charge.
The third point is an example of point 1 trumping point 2.
First, REPENT, the Kingdom of Heaven is coming! This is the good news. God as king is good news.
Wait, I thought 1 Corinthians 15 was the good news?! Death, burial, resurrection. Well, yes, but read the whole chapter. The point of the death burial resurrection is that it is the pivotal part of the story through which God’s rule is comprehensively victorious over sin and death. The whole idea develops to a sequential subordination of powers under Christ, and then Christ under God and then the mysterious uber-shalom:
When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, <sup class="crossreference" style="font-family: 'Charis SIL', charis, Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size: 0.65em; font-weight: bold; vertical-align: top;" value="(AY)”>so that God may be all in all. 1Cor15:28
The Good News is God ruling over us in justice and mercy and grace and peace. This is how things ought to be, it is right. Since the rebellion at the beginning, we have been alienated and fearful. God hates evil, and we have been identified with evil. The call to repent, is a call to ‘re-think’. That is literally what the word means. Yes, it does provoke a change of direction, the same way that realizing you just missed the turn for the party. You do a U-turn because you repent, rethink, where the right way is contra the way you were going. ANYTHING other than the Creator ruling over us is wrong. But we do it, because God seems far off and our appetites are close and our options to cope are convenient.
John’s message is to leave the promised land and start over. Come back to the wilderness, and then plunge into the water and start fresh. Show your rethinking about God and your trust in him.
The religious left and right, Sadducees and Pharisees, come out as well. Why are they there? Quality control? The Sadducees are the elite, compromisers with worldly powers, the sophisticated. The Pharisees are the proudly conservative revisionists, calling people back to the right way of living, even if they are constantly creating new memories of how things used to be and how we are to show we are conserving the good old ways. John is having none of it.
The religious wrong manipulate things instead of being humble and teachable. Jesus will go on to spend much of his ministry trying to undo the undue confidence of the religious people. They KNOW how things should be and are constantly less than pleased with Jesus. But they don’t know as much as they they claim. I used to know more than I do, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
God as King is not the same thing as my view of God as King. I love my wife Karla even more than my idea of my wife Karla. If I think she likes mint chocolate ice cream and she corrects me, I’m not going to argue with her and tell her she is wrong. “I KNOW you like this, you always have.” Rather, I’m going to try and be humble and teachable, and ask “what would you like?”. That’s being humble and teachable.
Humility is a virtue. It is not just a virtue for weak people. Humility is not needing to demand. It is an aspect of love and being aware that I am one spiritual being among others, and that I need to allow space for others. Jesus was humble, and not in a fake way. His virtue of being humble is one of his most astonishing calls to righteousness:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew11:29
It is also the main point of the harshest preaching of Jesus, not aimed at the obvious sinners, those who are clearly enjoying themselves despite the self-destructiveness of their ways. Rebuking the religious wrong fiercely, Jesus declares:
For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Matthew23:12
God is the one who gives us our place, it is not something we grab or force. We make every effort to enter into His rest, and where that leads is up to Him. We religious people sometimes try too hard to help God be God. The prophets have always had to work hard against the rationalizations of the religiously accomplished. In doing so, often it us we who are religious leaders who get taught the hard way. Habakuk, Jonah, Peter where all taught lessons about politics and race and the right and wrong way to live. They were humiliating lessons, but they are ways that make it clear: Our theology is not God, God is God. Don’t be shocked when God subverts your Sunday school lesson, or even the sermon you’re preaching! John gives us an example.
After railing on the religious leaders for being dead trees, lifeless waste to God’s purposes, Jesus shows up to be baptized. John, as delicately as a camel hair clothed prophet can, tells Jesus that it seems Jesus should baptize John. John can’t sort out the connection between sinners repenting in baptism and Jesus getting baptized. Most of us can’t. We come up with some interesting theories.
The most popular answer as to why Jesus was baptized was so he could be an example to us. But we don’t shout that. We mumble that. It kinda makes sense, but not really. Does that mean he is faking it? Or is this some way of him ‘identifying’ with us, as if he were a sinner like us? After all, didn’t shakespeare say “To err is human, to forgive is divine”?
Uhh, no. Alexander Pope said that, and he was technically wrong. Adam was human prior to sin, and Jesus was human without sin. Sin is not an essential component of being human. Sin is being sub-human. That’s the problem, something is not right with us. We are all off. But we want to be right; right with God, right with ourselves, right with others. How? We repent of turning away from God and turn to God. Here is the key: rebels have to take off their rebel colors before they can put on their royalist colors.
The main aspect of baptism is not what you are turning from. I can quit smoking and drinking and quoting crude movies and cussing out bad drivers and eating carbs and all the other pernicious sins that come to mind and still not be loyal to God. The repentance is from wrong thinking (whatever varieties you may have). That is diverse. What is unifying is what you are repenting toward. You are saying not that, but this. I want God in charge of my life. If you have had other loyalties you must renounce them in order to fully commit to God as your definitive loyalty. When I committed to my wife, I renounced all others. The point is not those I am not devoted to, the point is the one I am devoted to. Jesus had no other love than God. Unlike us, he never fell for any variety of turning to the creation instead of the Creator. Like us, he was baptized into the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God, publicly declaring his allegiance. The difference is we had to take off rebel colors; he never wore them.
In World War II Mussolini lead Italy to join the Axis powers in fascist aggression. The Allies fought against the Axis powers. Due to the holocaust and other factors, it was about as clear a version of good vs. evil as human wars get. The Italians fought as the bad guys. They were rebellious against good. The interesting thing was that Italy was given a chance to repent. They renounced their allegiance to the Axis powers, and pledged loyalty to the Allies, and were then granted the privilege of fighting for right instead of wrong.
The call to repentance is the call to renounce the ways you have been part of the historically sweeping problem of the Axis of evil. But, that is not the main point. The point is not what you are against, but what you are for. To reject the Axis powers is not the same as affirming the Allied powers. Your call is to affirm what is right, and in order to do that, you need to clearly renounce allegiance to what is wrong. That is what baptism is.
My grandfather had lung cancer. He was a tough old guy. After a terribly painful procedure, he insisted on being at church on Sunday. The pastor was concerned that Woody thought somehow that being at church would give him good standing with God or something. We can be like that. Thinking our baptism ritual, or church attendance, or the Lord’s supper, gains us credits with God. But my grandfather reassured the pastor. “Oh no, I’m not trying to earn points with God. I’m here because I want it be clear who’s side I’m on.”
This issue is loyalty. Our baptism is our public declaration of loyalty to God and his Kingdom. The Lord’s supper is our corporate celebration of the grace of God which makes us worthy to be wearing royal colors, to be included in the family of God, to be guided towards wise and right living over and against foolish and destructive living. God in charge is good news, baptism and the Lord’s supper are good expressions of that goodness.