Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Before coming here as your pastor, I served three Churches here in New England as an interim or temporary pastor. I went into a congregation after the previous Minister retired or left to take on another Church. In the first congregation I served, I had also been the Associate Minister, and when the Minister of 35 years retired, I became the Interim. These were not always easy assignments, but they were necessary.
The Interim is the bridge between the former and the new. The job of the Interim is to tie up loose ends and prepare the people to welcome their new Minster. Part of that process is to spend time, usually a year or more, looking at themselves and doing a deep dive into how they operate as Church. What is essential and what is not. What new ministries would they like to begin, if any, and what old ones do they need to say goodbye to.
In some ways, this is what John the Baptist came to do. John the Baptist came to call the people to repentance, or an awareness that their lives were off the track, and prepare the way for the one who would come after him, Jesus. So in a way, John represents the end of the prophetic period of history; he is the last of the prophets sent by God to prepare the people. John then becomes the bridge between the old covenantal relationship of the people with God and Jesus, the new covenant.
We have heard about John before; he is central to Advent. John is the cousin of Jesus, born to Elizabeth and Zachariah. Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary were related, and Mary visited Elizabeth shortly before John was born. Elizabeth tells Mary that when the babe in her womb heard Mary’s voice, he leaped for joy.
John was a true prophet and told it like it was. He did not pull any punches, which inevitably led to his death. John was calling people away from their sins and toward a new life, not a new life that he would give them but the new life that God was about to give them through his only son Jesus.
The passage we heard this morning from Luke is a rather interesting take on the meeting between Jesus and John. Luke is rather eloquent in his telling of the story of the birth of both Jesus and John, but when it comes to this meeting, he simply states that when the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized. In the other Gospels, there is a conversation between Jesus and John. Jesus asking to be baptized, and John refused to baptize Jesus. In the end, John submits to the authority of Jesus and does what is being asked of him.
But in Luke’s account, Jesus gets in line with the rest of the people and is baptized. No fanfare, no conversation, just another person in line. In the other Gospels, Jesus wades through the line of people and presents himself to John in a very ceremonious way, but for Luke, the humility of Jesus shows forth. Jesus comes from the poorest of the poor to serve all, so he waits in line with the sinners and the cast-offs. This is an act of solidarity, the solidarity that Jesus has with the poor and the needy, the poor in spirit, and those needy of salvation.
I was ordained in the Orthodox Christian tradition, as most of you know. The priest in the Orthodox tradition is almost, but not quite put up on a pedestal and is always given preferential treatment. For example, after worship at the coffee hour, the people would always insist that I went through the line first. Perhaps it was to make sure the food was safe to eat; I am still not sure. But the idea was that I was the priest, so I had to go first. So I insisted that I go last, not out of some great act of humility but rather from the idea that I wanted them to take what they wanted, and I would be happy to have what was left. The older I got in my priesthood, the more this idea of preferential treatment bothered me. Now, there were always those that kept me grounded and often reminded me of who I was, and I am grateful for those folks, but far too often, clergy get caught up in the trappings of their office and forget what it is all about.
The Church can also fall victim to this mentality. When we care too much for the institution and lose sight of those, we are supposed to serve when we get comfortable rather than uncomfortable; when we say the right things rather than stir the pot when we stop speaking for those without a voice because it might draw unwanted attention to ourselves, then we are failing to live up to our calling as Church. The Church is called to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
Just like the way Jesus was born, through this act of waiting in line, Jesus is identifying with the damaged and broken people who are in need of God. God could have changed the story so that Jesus was born to a royal family in a princely palace. But God chose the birthplace of his son to be the lowest of the low. We, as Church, are not to seek power and privilege and walk the halls of power sidling up to those who hold positions of power in society. No, we are to be like John the Baptist and hold the powerful to account for the decisions that they make. We are not to serve at the throne of power but at the humble seat of the poor.
Luke goes on to describe what happens next. After Jesus is baptized, he goes off to pray. One of the examples that Jesus left for us is this idea of daily prayer in our lives, especially when we feel tempted and weak. Jesus is about to start his public ministry, but he goes off and prays to God for assistance before he does. Luke tells us that the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, came and rested upon Jesus. God never sends us on mission alone, God through the power of the Holy Spirit, will always be with us.
Everything that we do, be it as individuals or as a church community, should be done in a spirit of prayer and in the knowledge that God will always be with us and help us. When we start to go off on our own, we get into trouble, when we lose sight of the mission, when we take our eyes off God and trust ourselves more than God.
One of my favorite stories is the story of Jesus walking on the water. You know the story. The Apostles are on a boat, and they see a figure off in the distance coming towards them, walking on water. When they realize it is Jesus Peter, asks Jesus to allow him to walk on water so he can go and meet him. Jesus says, okay, come on. Peter steps of the edge and walks on the water towards Jesus. Then he takes his eyes off Jesus and realizes what he is doing, sees the waves, gets nervous, and starts to sink. He cries out, and Jesus helps him up. Peter took his eyes off Jesus, and he began to sink. As long as Peter’s focus was where it needed to be, he was fine. The moment he looked away and stopped trusting, he sank.
Here comes what I think is the most crucial part of this entire story this week. You have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating. We have already heard that after Jesus was baptized and he went off to pray, the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit came upon him. Yet, at the same time, there was a voice from heaven that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.”
Friends, I have said it before, and I will continue to say it, we are all children of God, and we are beloved. God loves us for who we are and for what we are, and don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.
Jesus could have taken on a position of power and a position of privilege, yet he chose just the opposite. He decided to be born poor and to stand in line with the poor. He took on and challenged the establishment. He not only turned the tables, but he also flipped them over to make room for a new way, the way of love.
I am not sure if you have ever read anything written by or listened to anything Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has said, but he has a saying that resonates with me, and I think it is an excellent way to end today. Bishop Curry says that “the way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love will change the world.”
Let us love one another, and let us change the world.