Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13-17 Commentary
Poor John. It didn’t look right. What was going on here? This was not the public appearance of Jesus that John had set everyone up to see (cf. Matthew 3:1-12 for goodness sake!!!). As Matthew 3 ends, you can almost picture John the Baptist carrying on with the rest of that day’s baptisms with a blank, vacant look on his face. He said all the familiar liturgical words and kept dunking people in the river and all, but his mind was not on his work. Why would Jesus have let himself be so anonymous? Why did he let himself look like any other mere mortal (and a sinful mortal too)?! Where was the fire, the axe, the razzle-dazzle John had been hopping up and down screaming about for so long now? It’s like John had been predicting Sylvester Stallone but instead Mister Rogers showed up.
It no doubt addled John’s mind because it all ties in finally with the mind-boggling mystery of the incarnation. Jesus was a mere mortal. He really was human. He could blend in with the crowd–he did. Yes, we readers have the inside track on knowing he is also God’s beloved Son, but he’s human, too–so human as to share our lot in a sinful world. Jesus himself was not sinful but he was squarely identified with a sinful race and so, on our behalf, let himself get treated as though he were a sinner. It would not be the last time he was so treated, of course. But that’s why he became human. And it is that very humanness which sets up the opening of also Matthew 4.
After all, prior to Matthew 4 had you ever before heard of the devil tempting God? Of course not. (Even the odd scene that opens The Book of Job is not tantamount to temptation.) When God is shining in all his mighty splendor, the devil cannot even get close to God. And even if the devil could get close, he could never tempt God. There would be no sense in trying since there would be zero chance of success. Trying to tempt God to sin would be like thinking you could actually pull a mountain behind you by tying a rope to a tree on the mountainside and giving the whole thing a good tug. Only a fool would think you could move a mountain by pulling on it, and so also with God and temptation: the devil would never be able to do it. You’re just not going to move God.
Until Matthew 4. What has happened suddenly to make the devil decide to try to pull the mountain along after all? The Son of God has become human. Suddenly the “mountain” of God has been reduced in Jesus to a significantly more manageable lump of clay. Maybe this one would yield to some serious tugging and pulling. It didn’t work, of course. In the end Jesus proved that he was human enough to be tempted but God enough not to succumb. At the Jordan River Jesus likewise proved that he was God enough to understand why John was protesting but human enough humbly to let it happen anyway. In both cases Jesus cast his lot with us. Jesus looked into the waters of death which baptism represents, he looked into the wilderness of sin and evil which we all face eventually: he looked into both places of death and sin and evil and said to us, his very human brothers and sisters, “Wait here: I’ll go first.”
We, like John, would maybe prefer a Jesus who looks less humble and more proudly powerful; less vulnerable and more self-assuredly victorious. John the Baptist wanted Jesus to take over the preaching that day, to fill the air with words even more fiery and images even more arresting than John’s own sermons had contained. But Jesus declined. Instead he wordlessly waited in the baptism line, wordlessly shuffled into the baptismal waters, and then wordlessly wandered off into the sunset to face God-knows-what in the wilds of the wilderness. Jesus held back. He was silent. He was humble. He was vulnerable.
Yet somehow it is maybe Jesus’ silence that saves. Before the gospel is finished Jesus will quite famously stand in silence before the likes of Pontius Pilate. Jesus quite consistently seems to know more than he’s willing to tell and yet it is somehow precisely this holding back, this willingness to say little or nothing, that manages to make everything work out in the end. Sometimes it’s the silence that saves–or at least there is more going on in the relative silence of things than we know. It’s not empty silence but pregnant silence.
It is fully possible, based on Matthew’s account at least, that Jesus’ baptism was one of dozens that long ago day at the Jordan River. It’s fully possible that few if any noticed anything unusual about that particular baptism. But isn’t that how we view all the baptisms we witness? The parents bring the baby to the font or an adult steps down into the baptismal tub and in any given congregation, we’ve seen such a sight scores of times before. We don’t expect anything unusual to happen, and to our watching eyes and listening ears, nothing does happen, either—nothing beyond what we expected anyway.
Yet in the silence of the sacrament and even in its ordinary exercise, the triune fullness of God is present. The heavens are opened again so that we can get at God and God can get at us. The Spirit of peace and wholeness descends to make a little one holy. And the Father’s voice issues the decree of adoption into the divine family. At church we don’t typically see much razzle-dazzle glitz and power as the world reckons things. Stones don’t turn to bread nor do angels flutter above our heads. But that hardly means nothing is going on!
As preachers, it’s our privilege to open people’s eyes and ears to see and to hear what is actually taking place.
The text of Matthew 3:16 surely makes it appear that Jesus alone saw the dove come down upon him and heard the voice from heaven declaring his beloved. Often when preaching on an incident like this, we subtly assume that John at least saw the dove and heard the voice (didn’t he so indicate in the Gospel of John?) and so we think that the crowds saw the dove and heard the voice, too. In truth, all four gospel accounts indicate that AT MOST John the Baptist saw the dove but none of the account indicate that anyone else saw or heard anything. Was this all just for Jesus’ benefit? And if so, why? It’s a good question to ponder.
One of the finer films of the last thirty or so years is Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies” (our colleague Roy Anker has an entry on the role of the Holy Spirit in the film and another on the kingdom of God in our “Movies for Preaching” part of the CEP website). The film chronicles the story of Mac Sledge, a one-time country-western singing star whose life later dissolved into a fog of alcohol and shiftlessness. Divorced from his wife and estranged from his only daughter, Mac staggers through life until one night he collapses onto the porch of a small, lonely little motel and gas station out in the middle of nowhere on the Texas prairie.
The motel is run by Rosa Lee, a young widow who is raising her boy, Sonny, and trying to make ends meet. Even though Mac is a shipwreck of a human being, grizzled, drunk, and despairing, Rosa Lee takes him in, sets him to work for her, and through this, transformation comes to Mac’s life. Over time he kicks his drinking habit, becomes a kind of father figure to young Sonny, ends up marrying Rosa Lee, and begins to attend the Baptist church in which Rosa Lee is a member of the choir.
In one lovely scene, both Mac and Sonny are baptized one Sunday morning. After the pastor dunks him into the waters of baptism, Mac stands back up, blinking and drenched, water dripping down off his balding head and glistening on his grizzled beard. It’s a portrait of grace. But after the service, Sonny and Mac are sitting outside the motel and Sonny says, “Well, we done it. We got baptized.” “Yup, we sure did,” Mac replies. “You feel any different?” the lad asks. Chuckling, Mac says, “I can’t say I do, not really.”
But we as viewers know the truth: Mac is different. Deep down on the inside of his heart and soul, Mac is a changed man. But outwardly it’s true: the baptism doesn’t seem to change much, and it surely doesn’t make life necessarily any easier. In the course of the film Mac manages to have a kind of reconciliation with his estranged daughter, now in her mid-20s. But no sooner does this good thing happen and the daughter is killed in a terrible car wreck. Near the end of the film, still grieving, Mac stands in the middle of a vegetable garden and tells Rosa Lee that he doesn’t understand life. He can’t understand the tender mercies of God that led him to Rosa Lee and to the transformation his life so badly needed. But then, he can’t understand why his daughter had to die, either. We often hear people pondering why bad things happen in life, but Mac is honest enough to admit to being equally flummoxed by the good things.
Grace can be as arresting as tragedy.
Mostly, though, grace and tragedy, the good and the bad, co-exist in this life. Yet as Christians journeying through this world, we say that the one thing that makes the difference for us is the one thing that, by all outward appearances at least, seems liked it could not possibly make any difference: baptism. Baptism is a watery sacrament. It is literally watery, of course, but not a few people today would regard it as watery in the more metaphorical sense of being insubstantial, thin, colorless. In a world so full of problems and tragedies, evil and dread, how could baptism make a dent?
But it does. Even Jesus’ baptism didn’t look like much. John the Baptist himself seems to have been a little disappointed. But as readers of the gospel, we know the truth!
(By the way, in the film—after first meeting up with his estranged daughter for the first time after many years—Mac sings a song he had sung to her when she was a baby. And it’s about Jesus’ baptism. It’s worth a listen! )
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