Matthew 3: 13 – 17_He Went Down to Lift Us Up_January 12, 2020

He Went Down to Lift Us Up

Matthew 3: 13 – 17


(preached January 12, 2020)


In these days of the twenty-first century, we have more creature comforts than ever before in history.  We have machines to open our garage doors, machines to wash our dishes, devices that help us stay in touch across thousands of miles.  But, in spite of all these creature comforts, many people feel a great a spiritual emptiness.  Because our society is so consumer-driven and so individualistic, many feel as if life has no meaningful purpose.  At previous times in history, things were different.  For example, in the Middle Ages, people saw the world as determined and created by God.  They saw themselves as part of a divine plan for the world.  They shaped their lives around obedience to God.  That obedience wasn’t perfect, but working toward that obedience to God gave their lives meaning and purpose.


Today, though, we live in a secular age.  Reflecting on this, newspaper colunmist David Brooks says that doesn’t mean people aren’t religious.  But we have less in common, spiritually speaking.  There is no shared set of values we all absorb, more or less in the air we breathe, about what’s meaningful and important in life.  Today people have to find or create their own meaning.  For this reason we often feel anxious.  We are often indecisive.  When we have to make an important decision, we often lack the foundation of values from which to make it.


Brooks points to the way sports have risen up to fill the spiritual emptiness.  Watching an exciting sports event, especially if we’re in the crowd, can lift us out of our seats with a wonderful feeling, a feeling of being caught up in something greater than ourselves.  University of Houston professor Brenee Brown remembers the excitement that swept her off her feet when the Houston Astros won the World Series last fall.  The Patriots may be out of the running this year, but you may still remember how your heart beat faster as they soared to victory in last year’s Super Bowl.


Brooks has a word for that moment of excitement, that moment when we’re caught up in the power of something much greater than ourselves.  He calls it “whooshing up.”  He writes, “We get whooshed up at a sports arena, at a political rally, at a concert, or even at magical moments while woodworking or walking through nature.”  These moments of “whooshing up” overwhelm us and fill us with a sense of wonder and gratitude (Brooks, Springfield Republican, January 3, 2011, p. A6).


Our passage for today from Matthew’s gospel opens as Jesus arrives from Galilee, at the Jordan River where John is baptizing people.  From Jerusalem and all Judea, they have come out to the wilderness to hear John’s preaching and be inspired.  These people are spiritually hungry.  They are looking for a moment of “whooshing up.” They are seeking a moment when all their old anxieties will be washed away and they can make a fresh start.  They come to John because they wanted to make a change.


Not everyone wants change, of course.  We can see this in a conversation between Lucy and Charlie Brown in the “Peanuts” comic strip by Charles Schulz.  It’s just after New Year’s Day and Lucy and Charlie Brown are walking along the road.  Charlie Brown asks her: “Lucy, are you going to make any New Year’s resolutions?” Lucy hollers back at him, knocking him off his feet: “What? What for? What’s wrong with me now? I like myself the way I am! Why should I change? What in the world is the matter with you, Charlie Brown? I’m all right the way I am! I don’t have to improve. How could I improve? How, I ask you? How?”


Lucy may not think she needs improvement, but the women and men who flock to the banks of the Jordan know they need to change.  They want to improve their lives. They’ve left the security of the city, the familiarity of their homes because they want to be transformed.  They may be struggling with inner demons.  They may carry hurts from painful relationships with husbands or wives or children.  Some may suffer from more visible wounds.   But all of them want new life, a fresh start, and they’ve come to John to find it.


John baptizes them, but he makes it very clear that he’s just the stage hand to a much bigger, more exciting character in the drama of God’s salvation.  John speaks of one who is to come after him:  “I baptize you with water,” he says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”


Then, quietly, Jesus shows up.  He and John were cousins, so John had seen him from time to time, when they were growing up.  But now John is surprised by the way Jesus appears.  Maybe he expects that Jesus would look different now that he’s beginning his ministry.  Maybe he expects that Jesus would sound different: that his voice would be more bombastic; that he would come preaching sermons full of fire and brimstone.


Jesus doesn’t look anything like the powerful, fire-baptizing Messiah John has foretold.  Jesus’ arrival hasn’t gone the way John expected.  Jesus isn’t going to be the kind of Messiah John has been anticipating.


Jesus appears on the banks of the Jordan, ready to begin his public ministry.  We don’t know just how Jesus prepared for his ministry.  Was he active in the youth group at his synagogue, or whatever they had for young people in those days?  Did he talk about faith with the rabbis and other religious leaders?  Surely he studied the Hebrew Scriptures, the writings of prophets like Isaiah.  He might well have found in the words of Isaiah the kind of Messiah he wanted to be.  Here is how Isaiah describes the Servant God has chosen to save his people:

“He won’t call attention to what he does

With loud speeches or gaudy parades.

He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt

and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant,

but he’ll steadily and firmly set things right.”     (Isaiah 42: 3 – 4)


John is expecting someone much more grandiose than Jesus.  He’s expecting someone who will sweep into town with rousing sermons and miraculous healings.  He’s not expecting humility.  He’s flabbergasted when Jesus asks to be baptized. “Oh no!”  John says.  “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”


John has a good point.  Why does Jesus want to be baptized?  Baptism marks a decision to renounce sin.  Baptism follows repentance.  But Jesus is God’s own Son, untouched by sin.  Jesus has no need to repent.  So why does he want to be baptized?  To understand that question let’s look at a couple of things we can see in Jesus’ baptism.


First, his baptism is the first public act of his ministry.  As his ministry begins, Jesus want to show what his ministry will be about.  It won’t be about loud speeches or gaudy parades.  It won’t be about bold proclamations from on high.  In his ministry, Jesus won’t be standing on high.  He’ll be walking beside the downtrodden and downhearted.  He’ll be eathing and drinking with women with bad reputations and others who are outcast from polite society.


By going to John to be baptized, Jesus is showing what his ministry will be about.  He will be walking with people who know their lives are totally messed up.  Jesus will be willing to join with people who know they need a fresh start.  By joining with them, Jesus publicly demonstrates the meaning of Emmanuel.  Emmanuel means that God is with us; God has come to us; God has joined us in this world, in our human condition, in our human predicament.  Jesus shows us that God understands! God knows what life is really like for you and me!  And God will know what death is like for you and me.


Jesus was baptized to join us in our human condition.  And another thing his baptism shows is this:  Jesus is baptized to show us that baptism is the beginning of a whole new life: a life of service.  Jesus goes under the waters of the Jordan; he makes himself low so that he can serve.  That is what baptism can be for you and me, as well.


When we make ourselves low with Jesus, when we go down with him in the murky waters of the river, there is good news for us.  Because we already know what it means to be brought low.  Maybe you were brought low at some time in the past.  Maybe you were brougt low in an unhappy childhood or a broken marriage.  Maybe you were brought low by a career failure or a horrible illness.  Maybe you find yourself at the bottom right now — estranged from a loved one, troubled by an aging body, afraid your savings aren’t going to last.  You already know what it means to be that low. You feel confused, ashamed, and powerless.


But there’s good news here: The good news is this: there is power in that downward descent.  Not power to grab and keep yourself, but power to use in serving other people. Whatever it is that has taken you to the bottom has been a kind of baptism – if you stand out of the way and let it work. The death you have experienced can be life for someone else. That downward descent, horrible though it was, can lead you to some unexpected mission where Christ will rise again in you and your neighbor.


By being baptized, Jesus joins with the downhearted.  He joins with those reeling from pain and loss and hopelessness. By being baptized, Jesus is preparing for his ministry: a ministry of service.  His baptism also prepares you and me for ministry.  In seeing Jesus’ baptism we realize that God has chosen us, as God chose him, not for glory, but for service to a hurting world.


Charles Hoffacker puts it this way:  “we do not serve a hurting world when we climb ladders upward, so much as when we are pulled downward.  It is out of our pain that we heal.  It is out of our poverty that we make others rich.  It is out of our ignorance that we enlighten others.  It is by our brokenness that others become whole.  It is from our dying that others come to life. When we follow Jesus in his descent, when we accept his downward movement, and our own, we become his true disciples.”


Jesus came to John to be baptized.  Jesus was baptized to show that he is one of us.  When we choose to follow him, we realize that God has chosen us, as God chose Jesus, not for glory, but for service.  When we follow Jesus, when we accept his downward pull, and our own, we become his true disciples.




Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Epiphany 2