A Sermon Presented to St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church on Matthew 3: 1-6, 13- 4:1
The first part of our story today is made interesting by the presence of John the Baptist, particularly his wardrobe and food selection. In a children’s Bible of my daughter Annie’s, this scene illustrates John as disheveled—messy hair, with bees and locusts flying around—and he has kind of a wild look in his eye. One evening, while looking at this page, Annie commented, “John the Baptist is looking at me.”
Can you imagine the scene? John’s clothing must have made him look a little wild, but he is keeping with the tradition of other prophets. If you don’t know what Ezekiel ate and what he used as fire kindling, you should visit his book sometime! And after you read the book, you should direct all questions to our pastor, Reverend Lott, please.
Picture John, standing somewhere in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair and yelling out the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” You can almost see those wild eyes looking at you, can’t you? You can almost smell him, can’t you?
John, in all his wildness, brings the wilderness with him to the river Jordan—he dresses in nature and consumes wildness, untamed-ness. He is a man of nature, proclaiming for the God of nature: “Make his paths straight!”
Instead of going the other way or just being casual observers of a wild man, people go towards John, coming from Jerusalem and all Judea to the river where they confess their sins and are baptized.
What are we to make of John in the wilderness? What does it represent? It is untamed. The wilderness is a place of disconnect. It can be a cluttered place or a barren place. It is a place that masks direction and hides things from clear view. It is a place of wandering though it can also be a place of contemplation.
In looking at my previous sermons given to this church, I have found that “wilderness” or a wilderness theme comes up a good bit. As some of you know, my husband Jesse’s dissertation is largely based in the wilderness themes of the book of Hebrews. Being the introspective, former chaplaincy student that I am, I had to take pause with that revelation. After nine years of marriage, celebrated this past week, I know better than to speak for both of us, so I will only speak to what my reflection is and let Jesse do his own contemplation.
It is true that I identify with the metaphor of being in the wilderness. I equate the clutter of the wilderness to living in the confines of married housing, but the larger identification for me is the wandering. Life is happening, but the future is unclear in both location and ministry setting.
Consider your own wilderness experiences. Were you young and misguided? Were you older and disenchanted? Has grief driven you into the wilderness? Or, how about this: Has the wilderness ever offered you any refuge?
Take pause and consider.
Now move with me to the next part of the text from Matthew, picking up in verse 13:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today, just as we have considered our own wilderness, I want us to consider our own baptisms. As Bill Leonard says, “baptism should be a significant moment for the participant and observer alike.” As we observe the baptism of Jesus and consider our own, I want to offer a theme for our consideration—I want us to think about the word recovery.
Recovery. It’s a “full” word, isn’t it? We think of recovery when we think of sickness and surgery—”He is in the recovery process.” We think of recovery when we think entering into a program for an addiction. We think of recovery when we think of an item’s return to its owner—”The police recovered the stolen vehicle.” In this town, we think of recovery after a football slips the grasp of a player and one of our players, who subsequently moves quickly into sainthood, picks up or falls on the ball—”The home team has recovered the ball!” It’s a word that when used as a noun involves a process and when used as a verb, involves an ending. “We are in recovery. We have recovered.”
For now, I want to focus on the process, the scramble. What are we to do in recovery? How is baptism a recovery?
What of our baptisms? Let me consider my own with you:
I was 15-years old. For a few years, I watched friend after friend be baptized and I heard about how baptism was important and how it was a huge commitment—you were to be committed to a relationship with Jesus Christ. I watched friend after friend and bucked a little about following the trend. I was sure that I loved the church and that I loved Jesus, but I had to be clear that this decision was my own, that I was not influenced by my friends or anyone else. I wanted to be sure and when the time came, I wanted it to be a holy experience.
So at 15-years old, I decided that it was time. I met with my pastor and we talked and he walked me through what the baptism procedure itself would be like, including how to hold onto his arm and what words would be said and so forth.
The Sunday came and I was ready, but nervous. Still, I repeated my promise correctly in the baptistery, I came up out of the water without a problem and I walked up the stairs without slipping or falling down. It was all neat and orderly and what I wanted. I was baptized.
I took off my white robe and put back on one of my best Sunday dresses and returned to the service, my red hair still wet, waiting to be presented to the congregation at the end. After the benediction, I stood at the front of the sanctuary and people passed by, one after one, hugging my neck and telling me how proud they were of my decision. And about halfway through, I realized that I stunk. That’s right, a mixture of teenage hormones and nervousness combined to ruin my day and my memory. It’s still raw, nearly 20 years later.
Those “cleansing waters” didn’t even wash away my smell. Out of the waters I came, still human.
And so I read verses of Jesus’ baptism and I think of my own, “There were no doves. It was not perfect.” What’s to be recovered in that?
Well, there was joy.
My beloved minister, with his comforting eyes and his strong and tender presence—he was there. My congregation was there and they were happy for me. My parents were there and they were proud of me. And somewhere, though I could not audibly hear the voice, I know and do believe it today that God called me by name, passed through the waters with me and claimed me as a beloved child.
And I know and do believe it today that God is still working actively, making a way through the wilderness for me and bringing me back to a river that renews and does not overwhelm.
Baptismal waters do not elevate us to perfection, but they aid in the recovery process. We cleanse our wounds that they may heal. In baptism, we are reminded of our birth into this precious life, and in remembering our baptism, we are reminded of our birth into the covenantal relationship with Jesus.
What have we promised? Let’s recover it! Listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.” We have chosen to follow the servant Christ and enter into mission and ministry with him. Along with Christ we are to be a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners. Who has followed Jesus and who will follow Jesus into these waters? These waters are daunting! But in recovering our commitment, we also recover ourselves. We go into the water and we come out of the water, not as perfect beings but as imperfect humans—disheveled, smelly, addicted, materialistic, fatigued, wandering, sinning and re-sinning human beings.
The Good News is this: We can be reconciled without being fully recovered in the sense that we are not blameless or sinless. God still delights in us!
I know and do believe these words for you today—hear again the words from Isaiah from a voice crying from admitted wilderness:
“Thus says the Lord, the Lord who created you, the Lord who formed you: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious in my sight.” (Isaiah 43)
Oh Church, when we enter into covenant with the Lord and when we remember that covenant, I am convinced that joy is recovered. But just as much, I am convicted that this covenant implies action.
It is in the recovery of the covenant and of the mission that we invite our own selves to action. So, we look to Jesus. And we see Jesus move:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.
Whoa! Didn’t we just have a peaceful scene and didn’t we just get cleaned? Who wants to get dirty again? Who will follow Jesus into this new wilderness? Baptism is not an escape from the wilderness; rather, it is an invitation back into the wild.
But this wilderness is new, isn’t it? This is wilderness that offers clarity of mission. This wilderness is no longer a land of exile but a new land; unfamiliar, sure, but it is a new land prepared for us. We can prepare ourselves here, we can live here, we can be here. And we have a Savior willing to be here with us and accompany us on the journey. Grace is astounding.
This is not a time or the day to figure out what the wilderness may hold. This is a day when we remember that we do have the courage to follow, to take a step into the unknown, and to follow our Savior.
This is a new year, a time for new beginnings, a time for renewal. Remember the wilderness, remember the waters, look to new lands and be recovered.
Read more from Stephanie Little Coyne at her blog.