Recently, Tara Tucker (who gave me permission for this story) shared her desire to delve deeper in Bible study. During Advent, she and her husband Gary had read a chapter a day of Luke’s gospel (there are 24); and now, she said, “We want to know more.” So Tara asked me to help them find appropriate study resources.
A simple request. But I tell you, if Hollywood was portraying how I felt with Tara in that moment, you would have seen the sky opening up, the beams of heaven shining down, and the heavenly choir singing: “Ahhhh!”
Tara was offering me the opportunity to shower her with a measure of the riches I’d been graced to receive in Bible study. She was telling me how she and Gary have become more receptive to God, willing to open up to studying God’s Word and allow it change their world. I live for these kinds of moments in church ministry!
There is also that glorious feeling when finally, finally, someone asks of you what you are actually prepared and competent to do, what all your schooling set you up for. If there’s one thing we were taught in seminary, it was Bible study!
Do you know that feeling? It can be rare these days when everyone is struggling to adapt to the rapid pace of change. Our days are often filled with tasks and interactions which require us to step out into the unknown, which confront us with the fact that nothing up to this point has prepared us for the actual demands and risks we are facing, in our jobs, families, health, or the world’s problems. Establishing ourselves in a job, raising children, caring for aging parents, trying to live well with new health concerns—all of these situations can bring us face to face with the truth, that reality is utterly different than we anticipated. In such dissonance, doubt, and confusion, how might Christians respond in faith?
John the Baptist is a significant figure in all four gospels. We’ve heard his story many times, usually during Advent. Matthew portrays John as a prophet who himself fulfills prophecy. His appearance and character express the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, which joyfully announces to Israel, captive in Babylon, that their exile is at an end. They are going home!
The details of John’s bizarre clothing and diet are code words which evoke the prophet Elijah’s style, also point to the fulfillment of scripture: the concluding statement of Malachi, at the end of the Hebrew Scriptures, promises God will send the Elijah as a forerunner of “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Here, in Matthew, Elijah has come again, now embodied in the man John, who baptizes people in the River Jordan. At the threshold of a new age, he has come to prepare God’s people for the Messiah. A millennia has passed since Israel crossed the Jordan to enter and conquer the promised land. Passing through the Jordan again with John, the people signal their readiness for a yet greater conquest, God’s decisive defeat of evil and the establishment of God’ kingdom, on earth as in heaven.[i]
John’s incendiary preaching lights the people up with hope and fear. The “more powerful” one is coming, he says, and “I am not worthy to carry his sandals… “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s catchphrase is “Repent!” a word which means, literally, “Turn around!” or more broadly, “Change!”
John’s baptism is for remorseful people, those willing to admit how they have missed the mark of God’s righteousness, how they have alienated themselves from God. Confessing their sins and plunged into the water, the people are cleansed and made ready to enter the kingdom God’s anointed one brings. Because, John warns them, no one can assume they can enter this kingdom on pedigree alone. It’s not enough to be children of Abraham. Bear the fruit of repentance, he says, the visible evidence of changed lives, to be spared “the wrath to come,” the ax chopping barren trees, fire consuming useless chaff.
You get a feeling about the kind of Messiah for whom John prepares his people, a terrifyingly mighty leader, arriving in heat and light, transforming everything in one fell swoop.
But, as N.T. Wright puts it, “Instead, we get Jesus.”
We get a “king” who arrives in Matthew’s gospel as “a baby with a price on his head.” All grown up now, this humble carpenter simply comes to stand with the line of broken people facing judgment, waiting patiently among them to receive John’s baptism.
Surely John is as surprised as we are. John is confused. “What’s happened to the agenda?”[ii]
What’s more, John’s propriety is offended. He’s just said he is not worthy to carry this One’s sandals, but now John finds himself asked to do a lot more than that, the lesser man plunging the greater man underwater in what amounts to a symbolic drowning! “I need to be baptized by you!” John tells Jesus.
Nothing in John’s training could have prepared him for this. What an irony! The one sent to prepare the way finds himself so unprepared! The one preaching repentance finds himself called to a radical change of mind and heart. Face to face with the truth, the Son of God standing before him, John discovers that God’s purpose, power, and presence are utterly different than he anticipated.
Jesus wants John to baptize him. “Let it be so now,” replies Jesus, “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Only in Matthew’s version of this story depicts this interaction between John and Jesus. “Righteousness” is a theme which will come up repeatedly in Matthew’s narrative, showing us that in Jesus, God’s righteous ways are different than we expect.
From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry initiation here at this baptism, God’s righteousness is not about separating or excluding people, winners or losers, right and wrong, in or out. Instead, God joins together what has been too long separated, immersing the divine into human suffering, plunging God’s energies into compassionate solidarity with flawed and broken human beings.
None of our training in a culture which imagines power as violent or economic domination could prepare us for a “more powerful one” who sheds all superiority. We cannot anticipate the Savior who rescues us, not by wiping out our suffering or limitations, but by entering into our condition without reservation, coming alongside us in our pain to share it with us.
My favorite part of Matthew’s story is a tiny moment. It comes at the ragged edge of everything John has hoped for and everything that is to come. The Messiah has arrived, requesting baptism, overturning everything John expected. But it seems that John still has a choice.
Keith and I considered how the Rowan Atkinson (British comedian of “Mr. Bean” fame, who does funny versions of scripture, such as this one here) version of this scripture might go: “But Jesus sayeth unto John, ‘Let it be so, for it is proper to fulfill all righteousness,” and lo, John did crosseth his arms, stompeth his feet, and respondeth… “No.” Can you imagine? The whole gospel might have come screeching to a halt if John had refused to baptize Jesus.
Now, I truly believe did John have a choice! He could have said no. John could have flat out refused to change, until Jesus—the more worthy one—compromising to protect John’s puny propriety, baptized John instead.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Matthew’s gospel says, “Then, he consented.”
In a split-second of grace, John chooses to release all his preconceived ideas, allowing a total paradigm shift, and willingly adding his energies to the direction of God in Jesus Christ. John consents to change, gives permission for God to have God’s way with him, wholly transforming his perceptions and preoccupations. John chooses to accept God as God is, not as he wants God to be.
The opportunity to consent to change arises numerous times in our lives. It’s an invitation to pass through a threshold and enter a new realm of faith and trust where we can receive yet more riches of God’s grace and mercy. The threshold can look like a happy occasion an accomplishment, a wedding, a birth. That threshold can look also look like a misery, the loss of a job, health, or a loved one.
Whether the change is longed for or dreaded, by God’s grace, one choice always remains. Will we choose to dig our heels in, refusing the change that arrives in our faces, denying the grace of God’s purpose, presence, and power revealed in its wake? Or we consent to let God be God in this moment,[iii] allowing ourselves to receive the grace always available to us?
Mark Twain noted that “The only person who likes change is a baby with a wet diaper.” But like it or not, my friends, change happens. We can try but never be fully prepared to face its demands. It can feel uncomfortable and risky, but consenting to change, “letting it be,” as Jesus invites John to do, frees our energies to partner with God in co-creating a whole new world.
When one world ends, in our Triune God, a new one always begins, one more beautiful, free and vibrant than we could have previously imagined. Jesus comes up from the water and the sky opens; the Spirit alights on him like a dove and we hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Dear friends, God daily showers us with invitations to pivot yet more in God’s direction. But the God we know in Jesus does not coerce, shame, or guilt us to make changes. He invites us to let it be, he waits for our consent, he joins us in the tension of decision until we are ready and willing.
And when, by grace, we consent to receive God’s transforming Spirit, God’s heart surely breaks open in beams of light with that heavenly chorus, “Ahhh!” so pleased to finally able to shower upon us the riches of grace and mercy, the beautiful wholeness and self-giving power God’s been longing to give each and every one of God’s Beloved children from the beginning.
Thanks be to our Triune God, Creating, Redeeming, and Sustaining us forevermore. Amen.
[i] [i] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 18.
[ii] N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Pt. 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004, 21.
[iii] “Consenting to God as God Is” by Thomas Keating p72-73