(Matthew 3:13 – 4:11)
Baptism one minute. Temptation the next.
A voice from above telling you how loved you are. A voice from below trying to trip you up.
Water around you, over you, embracing you, your cup literally overflowing with abundance! Dust from the dry wilderness leaving your throat and spirit parched, your cup and plate long empty.
A call to fulfill your purpose and reason for being. And an immediate test of that calling.
This is what we find in our passage from Matthew. This pairing of the call of Jesus – his baptism – with his temptation in the wilderness. And I don’t know whether I’m supposed to admire Matthew or malign him for the way he sets this up: one leading right into the other. There’s nothing in between. We literally accompany Jesus from the mountaintop experience of his baptism and his full revelation as the son of God to a wretched, tortuous, god-awful forty hungry and thirsty days in the barren wilderness. With Satan.
Why does Matthew do this? Why does he tell his story of Jesus this way?
I’m only asking because, as we begin this sermon series on call stories in the Bible and what light these stories might shed on our own call, I’m a little leery of making too many comparisons here. Especially since today happens to be, among other things, our Ordination and Installation Sunday.
Today we will participate in the time-honored tradition of ordaining and installing our latest class of elders – Kim, Dale, Casey, Jim, Sean and David. It’s not a sacrament like baptism. But it is an important act of the church, where the congregation acknowledges and lifts up women and men who’ve answered the call to serve as ruling elders in ordained ministry. As you’ll see in a little bit, there’s a fair amount of pomp and circumstance to the affair – promises made, lots of “I do’s” and “I will’s,” laying on of hands and the like….
Why do we go to all this trouble? Why do we go through all the hoopla just to bring our newest leaders on the team?
You know, I kind of wonder if those questions are similar to the ones that surely were running through the head of John the Baptist that day. It started off like any another day at the Jordan River, people coming to him seeking repentance and renewal, one after the other…..
Until he stood next in the baptism line. John did more than a double-take when he saw Jesus standing there. Because John knew who Jesus was and who he would become. And so now the baptizer is not dispensing grace but the one sorely in need of it. I should to be baptized by you! he contends.
And he was right. I mean, if anyone in the history of humanity was ever deserving of a pass in the baptism department, it was Jesus. That much was clear to everyone – everyone, apparently, except Jesus! Because this was his moment, his calling. And Jesus knew that you don’t shortchange that. The calling means something – not just for the one being called, but for everyone else too.
So the water embraces him as words of love are spoken from a voice that does not belong to the Baptist, but to someone else: This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.
This is what the call does for us. It assures us of the relationship we live in – an ancient tie between Creator and Creature, a closeness with unbreakable bonds. And it affirms us in the deepest way possible of the love at the heart of those bonds; an affection that can only from God:
This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased!
You know, one of my favorite session meetings of the year is the December one where our elders-elect share their call stories. How their faith has led them in their lives; and why, when they got the phone call, they said yes. What becomes very as you hear them is that they take their call to serve in ordained ministry very seriously. They believe in Jesus, they believe in his church, and because of that they want to live out their faith in servant leadership.
Today we get to lay hands on them – and surely a voice from heaven will speak to their hearts and tell them how they are God’s child and how much God is pleased with them. The wonderfully refreshing and renewing baptismal waters, flowing from the font of ordination and installation, affirming them and assuring them of much grace and love for the journey…..
A journey that happens to lead straight into the wilderness and temptation!
And this is when it dawns on me that perhaps it would’ve been better to place the sermon after ordination and installation, not before it! Wait to tell the six new elders what’s coming once they’ve already committed to the gig. Not that anyone will be watching or anything, but we will have current elders stationed at all exit doors during the ensuing hymn. Just kidding.
But this is the rub of accepting the call to ordained ministry. Trust me, I know! And truth be told, we shouldn’t expect it to be easy. It wasn’t for Jesus. Forty days and nights in the wilderness without sustenance, we are told. Three temptations: turning stones into bread, jumping of the temple and living to tell about it, and uniting the world under his reign. Each different, but a couple of common threads running through them.
First, the temptation to make the call all about himself, so he becomes the focus. The miracle worker who survives a long fall and transforms rocks into food (which, on a personal note, would’ve sounded quite appealing after forty days with nothing to eat). It’s tempting to make yourself the focus when you’re the one being called. You’ve been selected, you’ve been chosen, affirmed, assured. Why wouldn’t it be about you?
But even trickier, the fact that none of these temptations at face value appear to be all that bad. In fact, it could be argued that the end result is – dare we say – something worth pursuing. I mean, consider: how many hungry around the world would be fed if stones really could be turned into bread? How many people drained of all hope might be inspired and uplifted if they saw Jesus survive certain death? And in a world fractured into a million pieces over warring countries and political and religious divides, what in the world could be bad about all nations uniting under Jesus’ reign?
See the rub? See the challenge for ordained ministry? Let me remind the elders-elect that we’ve got the doors secured!
To be honest, the temptation is all of ours, really. Not just these six. The temptation as followers of Christ, as ones who have been called, to make it about ourselves. To put ourselves at the center of things, our own agenda, our right ideas. The temptation to pursue whatever course of action to bring about what we want and desire, because if it’s for God and for the mission of the church, it’s gotta be right, right?
Not if we change the terms of the call. Not if we make ourselves the center.
And ultimately that is why Jesus rejects them. Because he knows, in the end, that it’s not about him. Even the Son of God, it’s not about him. It’s about God his Father – the God who created him, who called him, who continues to affirm and assure him no matter what the call brings.
And that, my friends, is what it means to be called. Because when we are called as Jesus was – when we are affirmed in our relationship with God and assured of God’s love for us, the temptations will come. You can count on it. Temptations to confuse our will with God’s will. Temptations to categorically change the mission. Even temptations to do good things for all the wrong reasons, or wrong things for seemingly good reasons.
Which is why one of the things I love about the Presbyterian church is that one person doesn’t get to make all the decisions. We believe in the collective wisdom of the community of faith represented in an elected, installed and ordained session. A session who prayerfully discerns the will of God for the church. It’s why last year we started beginning every session meeting with worship, scripture, proclamation and communion – right over there in our chapel area.
Because, as I tell our elders every chance I get, they are more than just our policy makers, our budget approvers, our facility managers. They are, first and foremost, our spiritual leaders. And their job as spiritual leaders is not to lead people to themselves. Their job is not to lead people to me or Grace. Their job is not, as odd as it sounds, to lead people to the church. Their job, their calling, is to lead people to Jesus Christ.
Which does not mean, by the way, that every decision they make will be met with unanimous approval. Nor that everything they do will be perfect. I love the way Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber put it when she spoke at the Montreat Collegiate Conference this past week. I had friends who attended and they shared something profound she said: “It has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.”
I wonder if maybe that’s why Matthew goes straight from the baptism to the wilderness. For we all are sinners, every last one of us. And yet somehow, God works through us to be the body of Christ to the world. What makes us the saints of God, the called people of God, is not our ability to be saintly but God’s ability to work through us sinners.
And see, that’s a gig that all of us have signed up for. The six to be ordained and installed, and every last one of us in this sanctuary or reading or listening to this sermon online. Being the called people of God is a 24-7 thing! And we don’t get to turn it on and off as it suits us. We don’t get to turn it off when the person next to us on the cross-country plane trip starts asking about what religion we are. We don’t get to turn it off when our car happens to stop next to the man standing on the tiny slip of raised concrete at the busy intersection holding his cardboard sign. We don’t get to turn it off when our co-worker begins spouting heated political religious rhetoric around the water cooler. We don’t get to turn it off when a friend’s cryptic post about depression and loss pops up in our Facebook feed.
We don’t have the luxury of choosing when to engage the world as people of faith and as followers of Christ. There is no choice for us. This calling of ours is constant, the baptismal waters continually running off our drenched bodies.
And the voice that follows rings forever from the heavens, when the call to serve and build God’s kingdom feels awesome and when it weighs us down like a ten-ton weight. The voice is always there:
This is my beloved son, this is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well, well-pleased.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.