Friday, January 10, 2014

“The Choices We Make” - January 12, 2014

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

This past Wednesday, Zoe went back to school.  Her two roommates are both student teaching this semester, away from Cedar Falls, so she moved into a new dorm room.  When she went back to school, I drove up there as well because she had some larger items, like carpeting, to move into the new room.

You know, you can accept a dorm room just as it is.  A bed, a dresser, a desk, a chair, a tile floor.  But very few students who actually do that.  You accessorize.  You fix up the place.  You bring in carpet.  You bring a microwave, a fridge, a TV set.  Maybe a really big TV, with an Xbox or PlayStation.  You loft the bed, you put up posters, you get a funky lamp.  (OK, the lamp and posters might be more a part of my generation.)  It may be a tiny space, but you do what you can to make it your own.

We have the ability to change our corner of the world.  There are limits, of course – we are limited by money and structure and opportunity, and there are some things we don’t have the power to change.  When it comes to something like a dorm room, for example, there is only so much you can do.  You can’t put in a hot tub or a skylight or add a deck.  But in decorating - as in life - we don’t need to accept everything as a given.  God made us to be active, not passive; creators and changers of things, not prisoners of cells, both literal and figurative.

We can end up as bystanders in life, passively letting life happen to us.  It’s not uncommon; it’s the approach a lot of people seem to take.  But that isn’t God’s doing, and it isn’t what the life of faith is about.

Jesus is our model of an active mind and liberated soul determined to live in God’s way.  He made choices, he took action, and one of the first choices we read about in scripture is that he submitted to John’s baptism.  This was very much a choice.

The big news item this past week, other than Cyclones basketball, has been the announcement that the Iowa State Fair would go to a system in which fair-goers would have to purchase tickets that they would then use at the food vendors.  There was pretty much instant and universal disdain for that plan.  Nobody wants to stand in line to buy a ticket, and then stand in another line to order your food.  It would cut way down on impulse buying – you would go past a giant turkey leg stand but decide it’s too much trouble to find the nearest ticket booth and wait in line for tickets.  And what about unused tickets?  The fair would get all of that profit.  Bottom line: fairgoers would be inconvenienced, the experience would be less enjoyable, vendors would sell less and earn less and the fair board would make more.  Not surprisingly, the fair board dropped the idea a couple of days after announcing the policy.

When you go to the state fair, you see some kind of deep-fried, high calorie food on a stick, and you decide on the spur of the moment to buy one.  You happen to be in the neighborhood and you buy what they are selling.

Now, think about John.  If you think of baptism and repentance as what John is selling, it is the absolute, complete opposite of the state fair.  He is out in the wilderness.  There is no walk-by traffic.  Nobody just happened to be in the neighborhood, happened to overhear his sales pitch and decide to buy.  You had to really want to hear his message.  You had to be very intentional about it.  You had to make a deliberate choice to go hear his preaching, and you had to make a personal choice to be baptized by him.

To go and be baptized by John in the wilderness was not expected, and it wasn’t easy.  Jesus makes a deliberate choice to be baptized by John.

When Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus says Yes to the anointing of the Spirit, and he proceeds to live into his calling.

Jesus chose to take charge of his own life.  He chose to make changes in his life and in his world.

People want to ask, “Why was Jesus baptized?  Wasn’t he without sin?  Isn’t baptism about repentance?  Why did he need to be baptized?”

That’s a good question, and we’ll come back to that in a minute, but those kinds of questions followed Jesus throughout his ministry and throughout his life.  His followers and detractors alike kept asking that same question: why?

•    Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors?

•    Why did he go home to eat with somebody like Zacchaeus?

•    At the height of his popularity, with crowds growing, why did he seem to purposely offend people and make following him sound so hard?  Why was he so bad at marketing and PR?

•    Why did he flaunt convention and upset established piety?

•    When Jesus would heal somebody, why did he say to the person healed, “Don’t tell anybody”?

•    Why did he keep using Samaritans and foreigners as the good guys in stories he told?  Why did he make religious leaders out to be the bad guys?

•    Why would he hold up a poor widow as an example and criticize wealthy members of society, on whose generosity the running of the temple depended?

•    Why did he choose a bunch of everyday guys to be his disciples?  Why not respectable folks of high social rank? 

•    And why did he include Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot in the group of disciples, people at opposite ends of the political spectrum?  He had both a Roman collaborator and a nationalist insurrectionist among his disciples.  This surely increased the dysfunction of the group while also creating negative publicity for Jesus. 

•    And then why were there women among his group of friends and supporters?  In that day, it was seen as scandalous.

•    Why was Jesus so self-effacing?  Why did he wash the disciples’ feet?  Why didn’t he insist on the honor and respect due and appropriate for such a prophet?

•    Why did he teach using such obtuse, hard-to-understand parables?  Why couldn’t he just spell it out for us?

•    And why was he so big on forgiveness and loving enemies?  What was up with that?

Jesus carried out his calling in free and completely unexpected ways.  The question that followed him was, “Why?”  Time and again, Jesus’ teaching and behavior baffled his followers and enraged the religious establishment.

Jesus was a man of his time.  He was connected to the community and the culture.  He responded to his environment – he wasn’t controlled by it, but he wasn’t aloof from it, either.  He chose to do the right thing, and then the next right thing, rather than the conventional or the easy thing.

Why did Jesus do what he did?  Why did he make the choices he made?

Jesus made the choice to serve others, rather than himself.

He made the choice to serve God, not power or popularity.

He made the choice to pursue righteousness rather than personal ambition.

Jesus chose to violate traditions that he considered hurtful to people.  He believed that we were not made to serve traditions, but traditions were created to serve us.

He chose to follow the commandment to love God and love neighbor, even when it was hard, even when doing so came with a cost.

And it did come with a cost.  We all pay a price for acting freely.  But the fact is, we’re going to pay a price anyway.  There is a price to most anything we do – or don’t do.

You can live in a drab dorm room, or you can pony up for carpet and a TV and a microwave.  Either way, you pay.  The point is, we need to choose the price we are going to pay.

A few chapters later in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and mammon.”  We have to decide.  Mammon is money or greed or the pursuit of wealth, but in a larger sense it represents all of those things that we may be tempted to serve rather than God.  We have to choose who or what we are going to serve.  We have to choose what our life is going to be about.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism by John?  We shouldn’t be surprised that this raises questions for us; pretty much everything Jesus did raises questions.  But it seems to me that Jesus was choosing to cast his lot with humanity.  He was choosing to be one with all of us.  He was choosing to identify with our needs, our struggles, our pain.  He was choosing in baptism to set the course for his life.  He was choosing to identify with the movement which John had started.  He was choosing to serve God rather than Mammon.

This was a choice he made in his baptism, and it was a choice that he made over and over, again and again.

It’s that way with us.  We follow Jesus daily, making choices large and small along the way, again and again.

Baptism is a symbol of new life, a symbol of God’s grace, a reminder that God says to each of us, “You are mine.  You are my beloved child.”  There is nothing we do to earn that, so in a sense baptism is a witness to the fact that God has chosen us.

But baptism is also a choice, a choice that we make.  And it is symbolic of all the choices that we will come to make.  In baptism, we are saying that we have chosen to follow Jesus, that we have chosen to continue down that path of loving God and neighbor.  We are saying that like Jesus, we are choosing to do the right thing, to trust God, to serve others, to love by the law of love.  We are committing ourselves to Jesus’ way in all of those daily choices that we make, large and small.

This may sound it sound like a huge, cosmic undertaking, and it might sound like a lot of pressure.  Well, don’t worry: we’re not called to be perfect.  We are not called to bat 1.000.  There will be bumps and mistakes and failures, even major failures along the way.  But in baptism, we are committing our lives to Christ and choosing, as best we can and for better or worse, to follow the way of Jesus – even when it may lead people to scratch their heads at the choices we make.

Baptism is also a reminder that we are God’s beloved children, and that in those times when we fall short, we are still loved and still surrounded by God’s grace.

Like Jesus, we have choices, every day.  We don’t have to accept our lives as they are.  We don’t have to accept the world as it is.  We can redecorate our dorm room or take a vacation.  We can speak up for what is right at work or choose a career path that fits our gifts.  We can help a neighbor in need or encourage a person who is hurting or use our gifts by joining the choir or a writer’s group or volunteering to get involved in a cause we care about.  We can choose for kindness, for understanding, for patience.  We have choices about how we are going to live every day, and the small choices really do add up.

Jesus didn’t have to submit to John’s baptism.  But he chose to do so.  He was free to choose, not following a blueprint, and he knew that the choices he made would matter.

It’s like that with us.  Like Jesus, we are called to take our lives, our freedom, the choices we have, seriously.  Amen.

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