Sermon of the Week
Keywords: Baptism of the Lord, Matthew McConaughey, Suffering Servant.
Can I just note the irony
of talking about baptism on one of the snowiest and coldest weekends of the year.
I was looking back, and over the seven Januaries I have been here,
we’ve had to cancel worship twice on this weekend
due to snow and ice.
Jesus was baptized out in a river. The river Jordan.
I’m guessing it was in the summer, or at least not in the heart of winter.
We’re lucky we do baptisms indoors,
rather than out in a river or a lake somewhere.
Last night, I noticed that Lincoln, the automobile company
has another one of those Matthew McConaughey commercials out,
where he doesn’t say a word.
It is just him, in a warm coat
up north somewhere, parked next to a lake all by himself.
And he walks out on the ice
and he drills a hole
and he sets up an ice fishing rig
and it looks so cold…
and instead of retreating to a hut or a nice fire
or, well, leaving because it was so freezing cold,
they show him sitting in the back of his Lincoln SUV
blowing a little warm air into his hands and smiling his trademark smile…
as if to say: buy a Lincoln, and you can be cold here too.
No thank you.
(Here’s the commercial)
But here we are, the Baptism of the Lord Sunday
in the heart of January. In snow and ice season.
McConaughey’s Lincoln commercial placed next to this reading from Matthew
made me chuckle, at first,
and then made me think of people who actually like to go do the polar bear dips
in the freezing water,
and the zeal and joy with which some people really give to the winter months
and I just wanted to curl back up under a blanket and dream of spring.
I know many people are thinking about a big Chiefs game today.
In fact, as I was working on some changes to the sermon this morning
I was interrupted by a chime on my phone,
and it was my brother,
in town from Minneapolis,
tweeting a picture of the tent they’ve erected out at Arrowhead Stadium
trying to stay warm as they wait for kickoff this afternoon.
I am happy for the Chiefs, I really am,
and I remember one play-off game, years ago
back when we had Joe Montana for a few years
and I was in the upper row of the upper deck in sub-zero temps
and the hot chocolate that I bought steaming-hot from concession
was like ice water when I got back to my seat
and all I can just say, is:
pitchers and catchers report to Sunrise, Arizona,
in 30 days, 12 hours,
and oh 30 minutes or so…
I really am, at heart, more of a baseball fan.
But, for those who love football: Today’s sermon is a bit of an audible.
The plan had been to tie the themes of Jesus’ baptism
and of Jesus’ call to serve God that he finds there
with the ordination and installation of our new ruling elders
and our common calling in the life of a church
to serve together,
but since our January snow and ice storm came yesterday morning,
rather than today,
the session was not able to meet as planned yesterday,
and we have had to postpone the ordination and installation
to a Sunday in the near future.
So, we will change it up just a little bit
an audible: call for a running play, instead of a passing play
and we will instead talk a bit more generally about Baptism.
I invite you to listen for the Good News this morning
as we consider these words from the Gospel According to Matthew:
John the Baptist said:
11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance,
but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me;
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
12His winnowing-fork is in his hand,
and he will clear his threshing-floor
and will gather his wheat into the granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan,
to be baptized by him.
14John would have prevented him, saying,
‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’
15But Jesus answered him,
‘Let it be so now;
for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’
Then he consented.
16And when Jesus had been baptized,
just as he came up from the water,
suddenly the heavens were opened to him
and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
17And a voice from heaven said,
‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
And may God bless to us
and our understanding
and our applying of these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
This text invites us to attend a BAPTISM.
In the life of the New Testament, few things are more important.
All four of the Gospels record the baptism of Jesus.
That alone should get us to sit up and take note
And Matthew, in particular,
not only offers one of the longer descriptions of Jesus’ baptism
but also ends his Gospel with these words from Christ:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all people,
baptizing them in the name of
the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe everything
I have commanded you—
–and remember, I am with you always,
to the end of the age…”
So Baptism is a pretty big deal.
But as important as baptism is,
we get NO words of instruction,
as to HOW we are to BEHAVE at a baptism.
I think the most significant moments of our life
tend to create their own atmosphere,
we tend to figure it out, all on our own.
If you attend a FUNERAL–
–even if it’s the FIRST funeral you have ever attended—you need no instruction.
Right BEFORE a funeral, people are standing around
talking about everything under the sun.
Where I grew up as a kid, back in Iowa—people were always talking about crops.
Or, the weather
Or, the local sports team. Again, go Chiefs.
Or, well, MORE about the crops.
But then—everything STOPS—because the family comes in.
The kids and the widow and friends have to ponder life without them…
And you DON’T need instruction—about how to behave.
The occasion…modifies your disposition,
appropriate to what you are experiencing.
I think it is the SAME at a WEDDING.
Oh, I know, BEFORE a wedding,
there’s this giant family and friend reunion,
and lots of laughing and back-slapping
and soda-cans tied to the bumper and all that stuff…
…BUT the moment they appear—before GOD and everybody—and the words begin:
“Will you…in sickness and in health,
poverty and wealth,
forsaking all others,
keeping yourself only unto the other,
as long as you both shall live…”
You DON’T need instructions—we know to be still.
The occasion helps us figure out the behavior!
It’s like children—if they’re fortunate to know a great grandmother
and when she visits
And they come in laughing from play outside—
and SUDDENLY they see her,
and they grow quiet
They are in AWE.
They want to touch her,
they want to hear her.
She is so….old, and has experienced so much…
you DON’T need to say:
“Now, children, be respectful,
this is the way you should behave
around your great-grandmother…”
They know… They know…
It is the same way with a BAPTISM.
Before a baptism, people are laughing and talking
and fussing with the baby’s 100 year old baptismal gown,
and hoping the baby doesn’t cry…
…BUT THEN, when the words get spoken:
“In the name of the Father,
and the Son,
and the Holy Spirit
one God, mother of us all…”
Anyone who is NOT HUSHED into the sacredness of that moment—
is probably ASLEEP!
There’s something wonderful, right there,
where we witness the amazing welcome of God
to wash away our faults
and to love us, no matter what…
Ok, all well and good,
but that takes us back to the reading today,
and the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth.
Of all people, of all people who should be EXEMPT from baptism—its Jesus.
Let him stand on the river bank
and watch all the OTHERS coming for baptism—
–those who need a second chance,
–those who have waded out into trouble so deep—
–THAT is who needs baptism!
Let those whose lives are just a tangle of bad relationships,
who’ve just messed everything up
those who—out of ambition and greed—
-think they’re going everywhere
–when, in fact, they are going NOWHERE.
Rich in things, pour in soul—let them come!
Why is Jesus here? Why now?
That’s what John says when he protests: “Jesus…you? YOU?”
“You should baptize ME—I shouldn’t baptize you!”
And Jesus says: “Leave it alone John. It is God’s will that we do this…”
And so Jesus presented himself for baptism. He was around 30 years old.
Why is Jesus here? Why now? To be baptized by John?
Scholars tell us that this is a significant time in the life of an adult from this era.
Those who entered into public life,
who finished apprenticing and started off on their own, did so at age 30.
Maybe that’s reason enough.
Maybe he was in synagogue,
listening to the rabbi reading scripture,
and while OTHERS are dozing off, something strikes him—
–and he says “THAT’S IT! Now is the time!”
Maybe after work in the carpenter’s shop,
late in the afternoon,
maybe he goes for long walks
and communes with God
and there is this stirring inside him…
Maybe he remembers something he saw as a teenager—
–when the ROMANS came to town and took some of the men
and strung them up on poles
you know, just to warn the people that they don’t want trouble,
–and NOW there is this burning desire for justice
and for fairness…
It’s a good question. I don’t have a definitive answer.
but it is a good question.
It’s a good question if someone at age 60 comes forward—why now?
It’s a good question of an eight year old comes and asks—“can I be baptized?”
It’s a good question for PARENTS coming with a baby in their arms—
The answer, I think, is that we cannot fully know the stirring of the Spirit of God.
But the Spirit of God is about making God’s business, our business.
John the Baptist says you don’t know whence it comes, or where it goes.
The Spirit blows where it wills–
–but we SEE and we FEEL its POWER!
All we know is this—
–one day, Jesus took off his carpenter’s apron,
shook the shavings from it,
laid it on the bench,
went into the house,
told his mother and brothers and sisters goodbye—
–and made his way to the Jordan,
to present himself for baptism—THIS is God’s will,
he would say.
And to that, there was a voice from heaven that said:
THIS is my Beloved Child!
We hear echoes here from our reading in Isaiah:
when Isaiah proclaims “Here is my servant.”
But here’s the catch: those very words were spoken
at the crowning of the King of Israel.
That’s what the voice proclaims at Jesus’ baptism:
Here is my child. Here is my servant. He is now King.
But look: what does it mean that Jesus is God’s beloved child, the King?
Does he go around now in a chariot, with silk cushions?
Does he now wear a crown?
And say kingly things?
And elevate himself above the common folk,
saying “Don’t touch me! I am the SON of God, the King,
and I say Kingly things and make pronouncements,
Now I am going to the palace and will have a nap and a banquet.”
[Did you notice this week how the world seemed to stop what it was doing
when Harry and Meghan said enough with all that…I’m going to take a break
and CNN and FOX and MSNBC and the BBC and the Guardian and so on
couldn’t stop talking about it….such is the sway that royalty still has in our lives]
None of that.
Instead, we have the rest of Isaiah 42,
which describes the so-called “suffering-servant” of God.
Isaiah describes the KING who works, night and day,
to redeem what is lost
to recover what is abandoned
to make whole EVERYTHING that is broken…!
And now, in Christ,
THIS is the one who gives his life—
giving, doing, caring—
–that ALL may know the wonderful ways of God!
And so it was, still wet from his baptism,
that Jesus left the Jordan…and he went about God’s business:
Every crying person,
every diseased person,
every broken person,
every lost person,
every alienated person,
every suffering person—was his BUSINESS!
Sure, he was the Son of God,
he was the KING of KINGS—
but what that MEANT was simply this: Jesus’ business was GOD’s Business.
And what is God’s business?
To see that the broken are made whole,
the alienated are welcomed home,
and all people are redeemed in JOY and in HOPE,
in LOVE and in GRACE!
Throughout his life,
the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther
kept saying “Remember your Baptism.”
Which I always found kind of silly.
How could they possibly do that?
In Luther’s church, like ours, most of the people who were baptized were infants—
–they were brought by their mothers and fathers and they were baptized.
How could they remember their baptism?
WHY did Luther say that?
To make you feel guilty?
For all the times I have forgotten my baptism?
Is he scolding here—for all the ways we have strayed
from our baptismal promise?
No, I don’t think so.
What Luther had in mind was this:
Remember your baptism so that you can CLAIM YOURSELF a child of God
so you can be about God’s business!
God’s business: serving other people,
binding up that which is BROKEN
redeeming what is lost,
making things WHOLE.
Baptism makes God’s business our business.
As it was for Jesus, so it is for us.
What’s your business?
Do you think much about that?
What exactly is YOUR BUSINESS?
Fred Craddock tells the story from when he was a pastor
in Custer City, Oklahoma—
–a small town of 450 people in the southwestern part of the state.
He describes the down by saying there were FIVE churches in town—
the Baptist Church
the Methodist Church
the Nazarene Church
the Christian Church (or we’d say the Disciples of Christ)
AND, the café on main street.
On Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, Craddock said,
the café more than held its own with the four churches.
In fact, the BEST and most consistent attendance was at that little café—
–where all the pick-up trucks were parked,
and where all the men gathered to discuss the weather and the cattle
and the hail, and the wind,
and the wheat bugs…
Most of their wives and children were in one of those four churches—
but many of the MEN held forth in the café.
They were always there.
Now, once in a while, they would LOSE a member there at the café–
-because their wives or kids would finally go to them—
–and they would sheepishly go off to one of the churches.
The patron saint of the guys who met at the café was Frank.
Frank was 77 when Craddock met him for the first time.
He was a good man,
a strong man,
a pioneer rancher and farmer.
He had been born in a sod house.
He had earned his credentials,
and all the men at that café considered him their leader of sorts.
Craddock, the minister of the Disciples church in town,
met Frank on the street one day.
Craddock was like most of us.
He’s not the sort of pastor to go ACCOST people in the name of Jesus…
–he just shook hands with Frank and was chatting.
But FRANK took the offensive.
He said, “I work hard. I take care of my family.
and I mind my own business.
If you ask me, everything else you preachers do is FLUFF.”
Did you see what he told him?
“Leave me alone—I’m NOT a prospect.”
That’s why Craddock was SURPRISED,
the church was SURPRISED
the whole town was SURPRISED
and the men in the café were absolutely DUMBSTRUCK—
–when old Frank, at 77 years old,
presented himself one Sunday morning…for BAPTISM!
And Frank was BAPTIZED.
Now, some of the talk in the community was:
“Frank must be sick.”
“I guess he’s scared to meet his maker.”
“They say he has heart trouble…”
“Never thought Frank would do that—
–but I guess when you get sacred…”
And there were all kinds of stories like that…
But this is the way it was, as Frank told it:
First, Craddock asked him:
“Frank, do you remember that saying you used to give me all the time—
I work hard.
I take care of my family.
And I mind my own business…”
And he said: “Yeah! I remember that!
I used to say that a lot.
I still say it, as a matter of fact.”
And Fred asked Frank: “So what is the difference?”
And Frank said: “I did not know then…what my business was.”
Frank: He discovered…what his business was.
He NEVER ONCE said what exactly it was that turned him—
–what focused him on what his business really was.
ONLY that one day, he appeared to realize that his business was:
to help redeem the lost,
to help recover what is abandoned,
to help MAKE WHOLE everything that is broken…!
So, Frank stood there, before the congregation, and was baptized.
With liberal application of the cleansing,
living water of God—the words were spoken:
“In the presence of those who have gathered
and upon your confession of faith in Jesus Christ,
and in obedience to his command—
–I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son,
and the Holy Spirit. Amen”
I don’t know about you,
but I was baptized as an infant
and I don’t remember my baptism,
but I remember that I was baptized
and what I was baptized for…
to know that I am loved wildly
to affirm that this world is God’s world,
and to be about God’s business.
And whether you are 7 months or 70 years old
the waters of baptism remind us each of these things:
that we are loved wildly
that this world is God’s world
and we are to be about God’s business.
What is your business? God’s business is your business
to share that love that God shared with you
to shower the world with compassion
to thaw frozen hearts, and help neighbors care for one another.
That is our common calling as those who follow
the one baptized in the river Jordan by John, Christ our Lord.
May we rejoice in the welcome we receive from the God who made us and loves us
and may that help us remember our baptisms
so that we can joyfully serve our God by serving our neighbor.
May it be so.
 Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2001) p. 67-69. The flow of this sermon and some other content closely adapted from an earlier work of Craddock entitled “Attending a Baptism”