Text: Isaiah 40:1-4, Matthew 3:1-17
Today is the first Sunday of Advent – a season of waiting and preparation. Many of the scriptures for Advent focus on Old Testament prophets, in their longing and hoping for God to come and make things right. One of those prophets was Isaiah. We heard his words of “Prepare ye the way of the Lord... make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
The image is of a highly anticipated royal visit. Preparations had to be made. Roads were repaired. Potholes were filled. New flyover exit ramps off the interstate were constructed. The whole community threw itself into making preparations. But instead of making ready for a ruling monarch, Isaiah said that the time would come to make ready for the coming of God.
Our New Testament scripture involves John the Baptist. John, of course, was Jesus’ cousin, born to Elizabeth in her old age. Matthew, writing the gospel, sees in John’s preaching and ministry the living out of Isaiah’s words. John was preparing the way of the Lord.
Now, this is a season of family get-togethers, of fabulous food and beautiful music and gift-giving. For a lot of folks, this is their favorite season – like the songs says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Into the joy and excitement of this season, this wild-eyed prophet shows up. John the Baptist didn’t fool around. He lived on honey and locusts and wore camel skin. His preaching was all fire and brimstone, all the time. The kingdom is coming all right, he said, but don’t think that it is going to be punch and cookies. Your only hope is to clean up your life like your life depended on it. He called for repentance – for serious repentance – and then he said that he was just the opening act, that he wasn’t even worthy to carry the sandals of the one who was coming.
John was one serious dude. His message is jarring to us. But sometimes that is what we need. Sometimes we need to be awakened from our complacency. Some of you may remember those old Mennen Skin Bracer commercials – they would say, “It’s like a cold slap in the face.” Somebody would slap a guy with Skin Bracer and he would say, “Thanks, I needed that.”
Well, that is John. He was like a cold slap in the face for people who needed to wake up to the reality of their lives. He helped people to be ready for the message of Jesus.
John was out doing his thing in the wilderness, but he took one look at Jesus and knew who he was immediately. “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he said, but Jesus insisted, and John was the one who baptized Jesus.
Now, think about John. 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.
Jesus makes the deliberate choice to go to the wilderness 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, but the fact is, those kinds of questions followed Jesus throughout his ministry. Both his followers and detractors kept asking that same question: why?
• Why did Jesus hang out with sinners and tax collectors?
• 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 folks to be his disciples? Why not respectable people of high social rank?
• 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 completely unexpected ways. The question that followed him was, “Why?” Time and again, Jesus’ teaching and behavior baffled his followers and enraged the establishment.
Jesus was a man of his time. He responded to the world around him - 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.
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? 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.
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 baptism is a witness to the fact that God has chosen us.
But baptism is also 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 trust God, to serve others, to live 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 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 1000. There will be bumps along the road, mistakes and failures, even major failures along the way. But baptism serves as 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 – in fact, baptism tells us that we are standing in a river of God’s grace – we are immersed in it.
This morning we celebrate with Lauren in her decision to profess her faith in Christ and to follow Jesus though baptism. In our tradition, baptism is always done in corporate worship. It is done in community. Because we don’t live the Christian life all by ourselves. We do it together. We walk the journey of faith with brothers and sisters. We choose to follow Jesus for ourselves, and that is symbolized in baptism, but we don’t have to follow Jesus by ourselves. We need each other because it’s not always easy.
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 speak up for what is right. We can 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 in service or get involved in a cause we care about.
We can make the choice for kindness, for understanding, for patience. We can refuse to give in to cynicism and to stay hopeful. We can choose to be people of prayer. We have choices about how we are going to live every day, and the small choices really do add up.
Jesus did not have to submit to John’s baptism. But he chose to do so. He was free to choose, and he knew that the choices he made would matter.
It’s like that with us. We are called to take our lives, our freedom, the choices we have, seriously. We are called to choose life, abundant life. And as we do that, we live out our baptism. Amen.