Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.
See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff. Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.
And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge! Can you believe your eyes? He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!
Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…
Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son? Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?
Let the film continue.
Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized? They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.
Look closely at water-logged John. Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye? He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles! Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here? Why does he want to be baptized? He is God’s Son, the sinless one. I need to be baptized by him!”
Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves. Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration. His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.
One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us. How can God’s son become dirty? you ask. He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.
While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.
When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side. There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.
I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger. If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.
Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again. Now look carefully. Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut? That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners? Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”
While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?
Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?
As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session. Should he be executed? Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God? Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?
As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company. Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive. That’s why we now start the film rolling again. Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe. Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.
Look one final time as the film nears completion. Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan? Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”
What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.