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Why Was Jesus Baptized?
July 16, 2006
Maybe you will be doing some summer entertaining – gathering friends on the patio to sip cool drinks while barbecuing burgers on the grill.
If so, I don’t imagine that you’ll include anyone like John the Baptist on your guest list.
Besides his disreputable attire, he would likely be dismal at small talk.
His dinnertime conversation would be the basic “turn or burn” rant he gave back in Jesus’ time:
Matthew 3:7b-8 “You brood of vipers!”
About this time, some of your guests might wander away, remembering they had an important phone call to make.
Undeterred, John would continue, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
Lovely, just lovely – pass the potato chips, please.
But the curious thing is that the gospel says that people traveled from far and wide to hear him, to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan River.
Why would that be?
The University of Chicago once hosted a symposium on the curious topic of “why do judgmental churches grow?”
They got a variety of insights from the assembled scholars.
A commonly held opinion was that people in the pews don’t think the preacher is talking about them but about those “other people”.
Finger-pointing at “them” is a way of strengthening the community of “us”.
There’s no doubt about that, but an additional theory says that judgmental religion finds a willing audience because deep inside we, ourselves, think we deserve to be judged.
It’s natural, really, because judgment is what we know best: teachers grade us, coaches rank us and bosses evaluate us, and most of us get told that we aren’t measuring up.
Tinder users simply swipe right or left to judge if we meet their standards.
Many of us even think we never passed the judgment of our own parents.
But the harshest, most judging voice in my life, and maybe in yours, comes from inside my own head.
Is it surprising, then, that when we hear John’s scorching warning that we are not good enough, doing enough, or living up to our potential, it just seems right to say, “Amen! Preach on, John.”
So, people flocked to John to confess that they were not measuring up, and to promise to do better next time.
Now, understand that John’s baptism of repentance was fundamentally different than Christian baptism.
John’s purpose was to wash away people’s sins so that they could start over with a clean slate.
But people kept sinning, so they had to keep coming back to be re-baptized, to start over, and then to try again to get their lives right.
We understand this message because it’s the practical religion that we’ve been taught by parents, teachers and bosses all along.
“God helps those who help themselves. Try harder, be more disciplined, be better organized, and get it right next time.”
Maybe the reason we like this is that it appeals to something heroic in us.
I’m sure I’ve told you about a bicycling friend who has twice ridden the Race Across America.
He did them as part of a team of four riders who rode around-the-clock shifts from Oceanside to Annapolis, Maryland in about six days.
They climbed over the Rocky Mountains, and then descended through the darkness of night at 60 mph, largely counting on the headlights of the team van that followed them.
They bucked headwinds, rain, and scorching sun through the Midwest.
It is heroic how they reach deep inside themselves to tap a willpower that pushes the limits of human endurance.
Something wells up in me when I think of that: if I really put my mind to it, I could do it too.
If I discipline myself, train hard enough, learn to endure enough pain, I could win the gold medal.
You also understand this because deep in your heart you might be thinking that if you really knock yourself out you will finally get your life right.
But how’s that worked for you?
There’s nothing wrong with achieving challenging goals.
I have a few business, sports and ham radio awards that I prize.
I even have a few plaques hung on the wall because I’m proud of them.
But none of them changed for long how I felt inside.
Back when I worked for Del Monte, I qualified for one of the highly-prized Sales Master awards – only the very best received the recognition, money and luxury vacation that came with the award.
I would have won one that year except they promoted me into management that year so I technically no longer qualified, but I was pretty disappointed.
I’m telling you about this 35-years later, so I guess I still am.
But, my first full year in management I won sales manager of the year carrying the same status and prizes as Sales Master.
I was elated.
But the bonus check hadn’t been cashed before I was telling myself that I just had a lucky break.
Awards and achievements are wonderful … but they seldom change our inner dialogue.
Who here believes they have life just right?
Back when Vivienne was making house calls to sell custom windows and Text Cote, she would sometimes go to the home of a CEO or senior management type.
These would be the kind of houses you might dream of, but once inside and in the backyard, she would find chaos.
They actually had to charge a premium to work on some of those luxury homes because there would be so much clutter and damage to neglected walls to work around.
Many of us feel that way about at least a part of our life: we’ve got our lookin’ good act down, but we’re dealing with a mess inside.
So, then we head back to the Jordan to repent and have that man dressed in camel hair baptize us again – so that maybe with a little more effort we’ll get it right next time.
Then one day without warning the Messiah walked up to the crowd and changed everything … but not in the way John had expected.
As soon as he spotted Jesus, John announced, “I told you! This is it. This is the Messiah I warned about, the judge I predicted would come.”
But Jesus didn’t take out the winnowing fork and sweep them all into the fire as John had expected.
Instead, he said that he had come to be baptized himself.
John was confounded, and theologians have debated this point ever since.
John said, “Whoa, man. You are the sinless one – you have nothing to confess. You are the judge – you are the standard that we are all trying to live up to – so why should I baptize you?”
Jesus replied, Matthew 3:15 Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. Then John consented.
To fulfill all righteousness.
In other words, the only way that everyone will be made right is if Jesus, the sinless one, the judge, comes to us who are drowning in a sea of judgment, false starts, and good intentions.
Jesus’ baptism was not about boosting our efforts to reach up to God, but about God coming to us.
Jesus submits to the baptism of repentance – not because He had sin to repent but because through baptism the Son of God identifies Himself with all of us.
Romans 5:8 Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready.
Does Jesus know about how you’ve messed up your credit score?
Does Jesus know about your flirtatious relationship at work?
Does Jesus know about your angry, unresolved conflict with an old friend?
Does Jesus know about your pettiness, your prejudices, your envy, your secret drinking or secret whatever?
And Jesus did not wait up there for you to get it perfect before accepting you … his love for you never hesitated and to be sure you get it, he left Heaven and stood in line with all the sinners for John’s River Jordan baptism.
Jesus loves you for who you are, not for what you wish you could be or pretend to be, or for what your mother thought you should be.
Now that changes everything because now we don’t have to keep the cycle of judging ourselves or finger-pointing at others for failing, and then repenting and promising to try harder next time, only to fail again.
Now with baptism into the family of Jesus, we aren’t claiming that this time we’ll work harder and smarter and get it all right.
Now with baptism into the family of Jesus, we are acknowledging we are flawed but loved anyway by the one who cares enough to come to us.
Now with baptism into the family of Jesus, we are accepting the relationship with the one who will walk with us through life – just because he loves us.
Sometimes people get the upside-down notion that church is a gathering place for people who have got it all together.
But no one has it all together, and so Jesus gave us the church where we can walk together and find that God loves us anyway.
I’m not okay, you’re not okay, and (as it turns out) that’s okay.
You don’t have to prove anything.
You don’t have to hide anything.
Jesus came to you just as you are.
Some of us go through life listening to voices from the cellar while others hear the voice from the balcony.
From below us are the cellar influences of harsh words that were said early in our childhood.
“You’re not very smart.”
“You never finish what you start.”
“You’re too fat, you’re too skinny.”
“You’re too young … and now they’re saying you’re too old.”
No matter how fancy the furniture we buy or how often we re-arrange the sofa and chairs, those cellar voices continue to seep through the floorboards to haunt us.
But it is possible to choose to listen to the voice from the balcony.
It is the only one that can drown out the nonsense from the dark cellar.
It is the voice of God who is so pleased with you just because you are His creation made out of His purest love.
Of course, I can stand up here all day and tell you that God loves you anyway … anyway, despite your particular imperfections.
But it doesn’t really sink in.
That is one reason that we have the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a sacrament that is more than words, it is the flesh and blood of Jesus (who stood in line with sinners to be baptized by John) entering us with all the love and forgiveness he feels for you individually and specifically you.
Serve the Sacrament: