Hancock Church Sermon
Rev. Dana Allen Walsh
January 13, 2013
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Marked by Love
Over the summer, on our church’s service trip to Panama, one of our more adventurous workdays was preparing three big rice paddies. At the end of the day, we sipped coconut water from green coconuts and looked at our work and we were all amazed. Perfect rows of little green shoots sticking up from the muddy waters. These rice paddies would yield three different harvests of rice, enough to feed an entire family for a year.
However, the work of planting and preparing the rice paddies was anything but neat and orderly. When we climbed into the muddy pools that had been untouched for several years, the first thing that happened was our big plastic boots got stuck. With water up to our knees and mud encasing our feet, there was no walking around, if you wanted or needed to move, it meant using all your strength to pull your boot out of the mud and strategically place it in the next spot where it would get immediately stuck again.
Once in place, we attempted to “muck up” the area around us with shovels and rakes, trying to unpack the mud and mix it with the water that sat at its surface. We really had no idea what we were doing. And when someone tried to get my attention to instruct me on how to do the mucking up differently, I turned around, lost balance and fell backwards into the muddy water. I was the first of many to fall that day. And once we were all covered head to toe in mud, you could barely tell one from the other. The messy work of mucking up a rice paddy was a great equalizer, no one was better than another when you had mud in your ears.
I have never looked at a rice paddy in the same way since. I used to admire how perfect and neat they appeared, but now I know what dirty, difficult work goes into it.I have to imagine that the same goes for Jesus’ baptism.In most images, we usually see a glowing Jesus, dressed all in white and the Jordan River is wide and sparkling clean. There is no one else around, except for John the Baptist who daintily trickles water from a shell onto Jesus head. But I suspect that things weren’t as tidy and orderly as they appeared. In our story today, the people had come out of the wilderness to see something of a wild man. John the Baptist, cloaked in fur and long hair, preaches to the people about repentance and judgment. He tells them about the need to change their ways, to turn aside from their bad behavior and to be cleansed through water. I’m sure many believed that John the Baptist was their Savior and Messiah. He spoke with such confidence and was just crazy enough to probably be someone special. Yet, John the Baptist tells the people that he is not the One, instead, there is one coming who will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. So when Jesus arrives on the scene, not as an angry arsonist, but instead as a gentle carpenter, I’m sure people are shocked. He doesn’t come with judgment or anger, instead, he comes humbly and walks alongside them into the water.
In Luke’s version of this story, there are no intellectual discussions between John the Baptist and Jesus. There are no pundits explaining what John meant when he spoke of the need for repentance and that Jesus would bring fire and spirit. Instead, after Jesus, we don’t hear anymore from John the Baptist. Luke takes him out of the picture, so the only thing we have to focus on in Luke’s gospel story is the sight of Jesus in the Jordan with the other common folk when a dove descends from the sky and the voice of God declares: Here is my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.Jesus’ baptism is an epiphany that reveals that he is fully human and fully divine. His toes are squished in mud, water runs down his face, and the soggy clothes cling to his body, as they would any of us after wading in a river. Jesus takes the plunge in the baptismal waters right alongside the rest of us. Yearning to be marked by love. Longing to remember that his identity is not as Mary’s child, or a carpenter, but instead as God’s son. Jesus identifies with the people who are broken, hurting, and overwhelmed. People just like you and me. If you noticed, we said a prayer of confession in the beginning of worship this week. It’s not a regular practice for us, but it’s something we do occasionally. For a long time, I was leary of confession in church because I believe that people come to church to marked by love and not by judgement. I still believe we need those things, and that’s why we gather in worship each week, to remember our identity as a blessed and beloved people. But as author, M. Scott Peck points out, all of community requires the confession of brokenness. In his book, Different Drum, he writes: How remarkable it is that in our culture, brokenness must be “confessed.” We think of confession as an act that should be carried out in secret, in the darkness of the confessional, with the guarantee of professional priestly or psychiatric confidentiality.
Yet the reality is that every human being is broken and vulnerable. How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded!In this church, we are all messes in our own ways. And we can be honest before God, because we know that above all, we are loved. We are all up to our knees in muddy water, not everything is at neat and orderly as it appears but nonetheless, we come together, yearning for newness and a reminder of who we are. And we are not alone, Jesus joins us there. Jesus, the one who is willing to admit the brokenness and pain that exists, Jesus who is willing to get dirty and stand alongside the very common people. Sometimes Christians have even been embarrassed by the God who won’t act like a god, that Jesus submits to baptism, rather than being the one to baptize others. Maybe some wish that Jesus would act more like a king and less like a servant.
Some of you might remember the movie, “The King and I.” There’s a scene in it in which Anna, the English governess, learns one of the peculiar laws of the land. This law is fo being in the king’s presence and it states that no one’s head can ever be higher than the king’s. If the king is in the room and you are taller than he is, you have to lower your head so that his is higher.So in the movie, when the king enters the room, the governess lowers her head. Then playfully—but also to show that he can—the King lowers his head even more. Anna lowers hers again. He stoops down even further. She gets down even lower. Finally he drops to the floor, and she has to lay flat on the ground. Now imagine that scene the other way around—the King has to go one down. No one’s head can be lower than his, and he is the one who ends up laying before the governess.This is the God of Jesus.I have often wondered what would have become of Jesus’ ministry if he lived believing that he needed to be the most powerful, the one in command, the one who above all was right. I wonder if any of us can follow God, if the only thing that moves us to do so is a conviction that we are right and others are wrong, that we are better and others are less than. But if we are to live a life modeled after Jesus, our faith has to be fueled by something with more depth than egotism can supply, it must be fueled by love. An unfailing love despite our brokenness, a love that comes from our God whose head is lower than our own. A God who can be found in the mucky, dirty rice paddies and with the common folk in the Jordan River. In chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, the people ask the King, “Lord, when did we see you?’”The King replies, “It was when you looked down. When you looked at the least.”Yes, that was our God. That is our God. Amen.