Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Matthew 3: 13-17)
John the Baptist was right, you know. The idea of him baptizing Jesus was downright absurd. He knew it. Everyone knew it. It’d be like world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo stopping by your house so you could give him some voice lessons. Or LeBron James picking your brain on basketball moves. Or Paula Deen scrounging your kitchen for recipes.
John and everyone else alongside the Jordan River that day knew that baptizing Jesus was ridiculous. Everyone, that is, except Jesus. For him, it made all the sense in the world. Which is why Jesus made his way through that crowd, the large gathering that could always be found when John was doing his thing. And when it was his turn to kneel in the Jordan at the feet of the fiery Baptist, John’s beet-red race turned white. Because he knew who this man was, and it just didn’t seem right for someone like him to baptize someone like him – if anything, it should be the other way around! He actually floats that idea to Jesus, but Jesus shoots it down and insists on being baptized like everyone else.
You ever wonder why Jesus insisted on being baptized? Granted, it’s the kind of question that only Bible geeks like me go around asking – but seriously, if there ever was someone entitled to a pass in the baptism department, it’d be Jesus, right? Why? Maybe Jesus was trying to be “one with the people.” Maybe he wanted to set an example for everyone.
Either way, it’s a question worth asking today, for a couple of reasons. Today is not only Baptism of Jesus Sunday. It is also the day we ordain and install our newest elders – Kelly, Josh, Mike, Jane, and Andria. Next week we’ll do the same with Caroline. And while elder ordination and installation may not be a sacrament like baptism, it’s still an important act of the church, recognizing women and men who’ve answered the call to be spiritual leaders of God’s church. There’s a fair amount of ritual that goes along with it, as you’ve witnessed – all those questions, the laying on of hands…..
Is all of this pomp and circumstance really necessary? John asked Jesus much the same thing: You come to be baptized by me? I think it’s a worthwhile question to ponder. Because both baptism and ordination/installation are more than simply observing some time-honored ritual. They’re about something in us being transformed.
That’s pretty much what Jesus said to John, right? Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Now I’m a lifelong fan of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, but I got to tell you, in this instance it makes Jesus sound more like a college professor in the lecture hall than the son of God being baptized by the river!
I actually prefer the way Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message. In there Jesus says. “Do it, just do it. God’s work is coming together right now in this baptism, putting things right after all these centuries.”
I love that little phrase, Putting things right. It’s a much friendlier way of understanding “righteousness.” Frederick Buechner unpacks righteousness in a way only he can, with a story about a piano teacher and her student:
“You haven’t got it right!” says the exasperated piano teacher to her student. Junior is holding his hands the way he’s been told. His fingering is exceptional. He has memorized the piece perfectly. He has hit all the proper notes with deadly accuracy. But his heart’s not in it, only his fingers. What he’s playing is a sort of music but nothing that will start voices singing or feet tapping. He has succeeded in boring everybody to death, including himself.
Buechner goes on to say about righteousness: If you play it the way it’s supposed to be played, there shouldn’t be a still foot in the house.
So righteousness, then, is not about acts or rituals. It’s not the doing of things that puts us right. Righteousness is something we find in community – authentic community – with Jesus and with others. And in his baptism, Jesus helped to embody that authentic community. Because more than anything, authentic community with Jesus was what those people needed most. That hasn’t changed, by the way. In fact, I’d say that authentic community is the greatest gift we as the church have to give the world. More than our lovely worship service. More than all the programs we might plan and prepare. More than our amazing campus. Authentic community is the greatest gift we have to give.
Over the ten years I’ve had the pleasure of serving as one of your pastors, you’ve heard me talk a lot about the need for the church to be authentic. What exactly does it mean to be authentic? I might offer up a paraphrase of another Buechner musing here; that an authentic church is where the church’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Where the church’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. The need for that has only increased in recent years, coming out of a pandemic that accelerated cultural trends that had long been at work fundamentally changing our society and changing us. And we, like every other church, have struggled with what we “do” in this new normal.
And I got to be honest, I often wonder if we might be missing the mark a bit. It’s human nature, I get it – the tendency in liminal seasons to fall back to the tried and true, to what we did before, to what feels comforting and comfortable. An authentic church must be vigilant about resisting that inertia – and instead lean into the uncertainty, listen to what people need instead of assuming we already know, focus on people instead of programs, and welcome new people into our gatherings even if they don’t quite fit.
Because the truth is, if the world outside our doors does not find the church to be authentic – to be real, to be accessible, to be genuine – if they instead find the church to be a place that puts on airs, that has rituals but doesn’t explain them, that is more concerned about preserving than serving – if that’s their experience of church, they’re not going to stick around. If a church talks a good talk but fundamentally fails to listen – listen to the people around them, listen to what their needs are and respond to those needs – they will not show up.
Now some surmise that declining church membership and attendance is due to people deciding that they don’t need the church community anymore. I’m here today to tell you that, in my conversations with folks, I hear the exact opposite. I find that people want the church. I find that people desperately need the church. But the church they desperately want and desperately need is not always the church we are.
So the question for churches everywhere, not just ours, is fairly straightforward to ask but harder to answer: how do we go about being an authentic community where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? How do we go about being an authentic community where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet? I want to encourage all of us in this new year – our staff, our newly elected elders and session, everyone in our pews and online – to spend some good time pondering and praying on this question. Because what we should strive to be in this work of “putting things right” isn’t all that different from that piano piece played with meaning; as we embrace the fact that it’s not just what we do that matters, but who we do it for and with, and how we go about doing it.
Or, as Presbyterian pastor Tom Are puts it:
The church that is becoming is going to matter to the world because of how we treat one another. The world doesn’t need another community that has figured it all out, a community that acts as if it has all the answers. The world needs a community that loves one another, that loves the neighbor – not because of their creed or status, but simply because the neighbor is the neighbor.
Could it be that that was what was going through Jesus’ mind, his heart, as he came to the riverside that day, as he came to John for baptism; even though there was every imaginable reason for him, of all people, to get a pass; even though John was there baptizing people at the riverside day after day?
You want to know why Jesus insisted on being baptized? I’ll tell you why. It’s not because John was running a program. It’s because John had created authentic community there by the river. And Jesus saw that, and he so wanted to be part of it. As do all of us. As does the whole world.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, 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.
 Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner (1973: Harper & Row), 82.