Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church
January 10, 2016 ― Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Baptized INTO a Movement
This is the first Sunday of Epiphany, and on this first Sunday we remember the day that Jesus was baptized. As we recall Jesus’ baptism it gives us the opportunity to reflect upon our own baptism and what that baptism might mean.
It would have been good to have gone out and done some “on the street” interviews asking folks what baptism means to them. I would not expect we’d get deep theological statements. Rather I think we would get what one might call a broad conventional cultural understanding.
It would be what people have picked up from sitting in their church pews for many years. Maybe what they remember from some religious training they received–what TV preachers had said – or what they might have heard from friends at work, to Billy Graham Crusades.
Their responses might sound similar to these. Baptism is your ticket into heaven, without being baptized you go to hell. Baptism is about being washed in the blood of Jesus. You get baptized to make sure you’re saved. Baptism saves you from the fiery pits of hell. Baptism is required for salvation.
Do those reposes sound familiar? Since I don’t believe in a literal hell that people are sent to, most of those don’t make sense to me.
So what is baptism if it’s not insurance to get into heaven? Well, let’s start with what John the Baptist was up to on the banks for the Jordan. John was calling people to repent, to get their lives turned around, so that they would be ready to take their place in the coming new age.
The new age, according to John, was about to break forth. To repent was to turn away from the complicity of the old age, its values and behaviors, and to turn towards the coming new realm.
The old age was full of corruption, and lousy rulers, and unethical people, and the impurity of Roman rule and idolatry. In short, bad people doing lots of bad things.
Many people were experiencing the old age and hoping for the dawn of the new age. So they went out into the wilderness, away from the corruption, to see John and ready themselves for the new age to dawn. And you start, John says, with repentance. Repent from your role and participation in the brokenness of the old age, and ready yourself for the new age, the new realm of God.
How many here would describe our age as similar to the old age of brokenness and corruption? Well, we will come back to that.
So John is what we would call, or classify, as an end-time prophet who announced that the apocalypse was about to occur, which would end the present age, and finally and fully bring about the realm of God, a new world, in which all things would live forever in love, peace, justice, mutual support, freedom, and dignity. Think of heaven on earth.
And this apocalyptic transformation could only happen if God would rip open the heavens and intervene to close out one age and begin the new age.
So John’s movement was one of calling people out into the wilderness to prepare themselves for the new age, by repenting and waiting, for God to take cosmic and dramatic action. This was John’s wildness movement, and who was part of that movement? The historical Jesus.
If there is anything that New Testament scholars agree upon it is that Jesus started out as one of John’s disciples. Jesus was baptized into this movement that John was leading.
Now this raises all kinds of questions which are more for Bible Study or an Adult Forum Discussion, but at some point Jesus left John’s movement to begin his own movement. That’s why today we are followers of the Way of Jesus and not followers of the Way of John the Baptist.
Those first followers of Jesus worked out, the best they could, the theological problems of Jesus being a disciple of a failed movement in their own creative ways. Their theological answers are found in the stories of Jesus’ baptism contained in our gospels. Where now (in our gospel accounts) John was always there to foretell of One greater than he, and to whom he is pointing everyone to look for.
John is not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal, let alone be Jesus’ teacher. One more powerful than I is coming the gospel writers say. Rather than have the heavens open and the wrath of God come down and destroy the old evil age and usher in the new age, heaven is split open and a dove comes down. Symbolically the same dove we saw in the Noah story found in Genesis 8,when Noah sent out the dove to see if the time of judgment was over, and a new beginning, a new age, was at hand.
The gospel storytellers use the image of the Dove to say that with Jesus, a new age has come, and we are to look at him to get our bearings. The new age will begin, not with God intervening to set things right, like John thought, the new age will begin with the ministry of Jesus – and the ministry of his followers – those who follow in his Way.
At some point Jesus stopped being a follower of John and started his own ministry. Jesus probably left John’s ministry when John was beheaded and the apocalyptic new age didn’t begin. It then seems that some of John’s disciples became the first disciples of Jesus. But Jesus quickly and dramatically moved away from the apocalyptic model of John, that God would intervene and set the world right – the expectation that God would dramatically usher in the new age―to preaching about how the kingdom of God was already at hand.
And the kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds, or like a small amount of yeast mixed with a large amount of flour. The kingdom and the ushering in of that kingdom, that Jesus preaches about is radically different than the apocalyptic ending John was preaching.
Jesus’ movement about how to transform the world from the present evil age, to the new age to come, was a new and different movement. A movement not of waiting for God to intervene in a powerful dramatic way. But rather, God coming in the still small voice; being seen in the helping hand of loving ones neighbor, happening in acts of justice, and arriving through the way we act toward one another, with kindness, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
In this Kingdom God’s work becomes our work; fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope.
Jesus started a new Way to be in the world and taught us the Way God would act, or not act in the world.
I recently read something, that I think will change the language of how I baptized those who desire to be baptized. All the liturgies say, “I baptized you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. If you look at verse 16 of our lesson from Acts it says, “They had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” In the Greek “in”, when referring to baptism, can also be translated as “into”. So it’s just as correct to say, when you are baptizing someone, I baptize you into the name of the Father, and into the name of the Son, and into the name of the Holy Spirit.
For me there is something much more powerful to think of my being baptized into God’s name, than just in the name of. The former has to do with belonging, being included and being part of something bigger than myself, being baptized into God. Being baptized into what God is all about. Being baptized into a movement; being baptized into what Jesus was all about. Transforming the old evil age into the new age, where God’s reign is complete: the new age of Love, the new age of Justice, the new age of Peace.
That’s what John wanted and expected, but didn’t understand how God would bring it about. God didn’t rip open the heavens and come down himself and make things right. God opened the heaven and a dove pointed us to Jesus and his Way, to the one who was and is God’s beloved.
It sure is a lot less work if we just wait for God to intervene and set things right, but Jesus says, “Get to work! The kingdom of God is at hand, and I need your hands!”
That’s what our ministry is all about right? It’s a ministry of bringing about justice, and love, and light, to the darkness and realities, of an evil age. We have been baptized into a movement; a movement of peace, and love, and compassion, and kindness.
You are baptized into the passions of God, baptized into the Way of Jesus, and into the Work of Spirit, until the world is transformed and healed of all its wounds. Baptism isn’t just a ticket into heaven, and about our personal salvation. Baptism is an initiation rite into a way of life; a simultaneous invitation to a movement, and a calling to become like Christ and take up his Way.
Let me end with a story that speaks to being baptized into something greater than ourselves. And just in case, too much of what I have said, went over your head, here’s a story you can take home with you today.
I recall a story that Fred Craddock told about the Southwestern Oklahoma community, with which he was very familiar.
The village had a population of 450, and four churches. All the churches were Christian denominations, and they all shared the people of the town. Sometimes attendance was up and sometimes it was down. However, there was a cafe in town whose attendance always stayed the same.
Many of the parishioners of the cafe never went to any of the four churches. The father of the faithful at the little cafe was Frank, a man of 77, who declared, “I have no need for church — I take care of my family, I work hard, everything else is just fluff.”
One day, a local minister in town saw Frank on the street. He introduced himself, and Frank told him he wasn’t looking for a church.
One day, to everyone’s surprise, Frank not only showed up for church, but was baptized at age 78. Talk started in town “Frank Baptized? Frank must be sick. He certainly is getting older.” There were all kinds of stories.
The preacher and Frank became friends. Finally, a few months later, the minister got up enough courage to ask the question that had been bothering him since Frank’s attendance that day.
“Frank, do you remember when I baptized you?”
Frank answered slowly, “Yes, I recall.” The minister paused for a moment then asked the question so long on his mind.
“I am sure you still work hard and take care of your family.”
“That’s right,” Frank nodded in agreement.
“Well then,” the minister said with a bit of caution, “what made you get baptized?”
Frank cleared his throat. “Before I didn’t know, what my business was; you see I thought it only included my work and my family, but I learned my work was also to serve God and human need.”
It is at those moments when the heavens open and you can almost hear the voice of God: “This is my Son; with him I am well pleased.” Amen!