A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark. on January 13, 2013.
Psalm 29:1-11; Luke 3:15-22
It’s a question I ask every person who comes to me requesting baptism. Young or old, it really doesn’t matter, I ask the question. I have to ask the question. It’s too important not to ask it. Yet most of them, no matter how old they may be or what experience might have led them to seek baptism, don’t know the answer.
The problem is, I’m not sure I do either. But I have to ask the question because the Bible, especially the Gospel of Luke, demands it.
But before I tell you the question, give me a moment to establish the background, the context, if you will. It is the Gospel of Luke, remember… the gospel that provides us the stirring narrative of Jesus’ birth. At the beginning of the gospel Luke is filled with visitations by angels, interweaving the message of God’s coming to earth in human form, while all the time going to great lengths to establish Jesus’ birthright as the Chosen One of Israel.
Not long from now (believe it or not, the season of Lent is just around the corner) we’ll be recounting the story of Jesus’ temptations by the devil in the wilderness, and will be told of how Jesus thwarts the evil one’s every attempt to place Jesus in submission to him and his purpose. Luke is the gospel – the only gospel – that includes the story of a youthful Jesus being inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem by his parents. When they return to look for him, he is astonished they would do so, saying they should have known he would be about his Father’s business. Put this together with the birth stories and you get the sense that every sentence, especially early in Luke’s gospel, reveals to us just how holy and purposeful Jesus is… to his God and to his mission on earth.
Luke makes it clear: Jesus is holy… to the bone, through and through, no question about it.
The writer of Hebrews is even more direct. Not bothering to put it in narrative form, he cuts right to the chase. Writing at a time when the early church is formulating its theology of Jesus, what the academics call christology, he goes to great lengths to describe Jesus. He speaks of “one who in every respect has been tested (or tempted) as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). John, in his first epistle, says the same thing (3:5-6). You just can’t get through the New Testament without the case being made clear and plain: Jesus is the Holy One.
Yet, and this is where the question (finally!) comes in, when Jesus comes to John for baptism, the baptism itself is based on John’s insistence for judgment and the repentance of sin. “You brood of vipers!” he wails to the people who come out to see him on the banks of the Jordan. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7, 9).
If that is the case – that we are baptized on the basis of, to use biblically doctrinal language, the remission of our sins – then why did Jesus feel the need to be baptized? If he was indeed the Holy One and though was tempted did not sin, why would he enter the waters of repentance? That’s the question.
We’re hardly the first and only ones to ask this. Remember: John didn’t want to do it, didn’t feel worthy to do it. If Jesus is holy, isn’t John the Baptist correct? It is Jesus who should be baptizing him!1 If we had been the ones to script the story, no doubt that’s the way we would have portrayed it. How could Jesus be baptized on the basis of the remission of sins when he knew no sin?
While we’re trying to figure that out (and my guess is that you’re struggling right now with the answer, regardless of how many years ago you may have been baptized and despite the fact that you may have been a believer for a long, long time), let’s go back to the scene at the Jordan River. All the people who have come to the wilderness to be baptized by John stand there dripping wet while Jesus, equally soaked to the bone, bows in prayer. And then they hear the Voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Or, as Clarence Jordan puts it, “The sky split, the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove came down upon him, and a voice came from the sky saying, ‘You are my dear Son; I’m proud of you.’”2
So, it appears that despite our questions, God seems to be happy with the whole thing and endorses what is going on. After all, God has come calling.
Well, God may have been pleased, not only with Jesus but with his baptism that day, but it still doesn’t answer the question, does it? I almost hate to tell you this, but if we’re going to ever get to the answer to that question, we have to ask more questions.
When was the last time you heard the voice of God? I’ve had people tell me they have heard God speak directly to them. Have you? You can imagine my immediate response. I’ll try to be nice… let’s just say my skeptical side kicks in. At the least, if you’re like me, when people start talking about hearing voices, whether they come from God or someone else, you get a bit edgy and not a little uncomfortable.
But it would sure make things easier if God spoke to us directly, wouldn’t it? Got a question, talk to God. Life throws you into a pickle, have a little heart-to-heart with the Almighty and God will provide you the answer, if not get you out of it altogether. Want to know what to do next, toss the situation at God and get a clear directive.
Something tells me, though, that’s it not that easy. I have a feeling you agree. Oh, there are times when – for lack of a better word – intuition kicks in… or inspiration, maybe.
I recall the day – in fact, I’ll never forget it – when Janet and I were going home from running an errand. As I approached the light to turn left on Napa Valley from Hinson, it turned yellow. I am not typically one of those drivers – we have enough of them already in Little Rock – who thinks that yellow means “step on it.” But, I was clearly in my rights to turn because the light changed just as I was about to enter the intersection. But something – something – told me to stop. So I did. It was then that a car came speeding, and I do mean speeding, over the hill in our direction. Had I gone through the light, we would have been hit directly on the right side of the car, and Janet would not be singing in the choir today. Maybe in the heavenly choir, but not the one at the corner of Kavanaugh and Cedar.
Was it God who spoke to me in that instant? I can’t tell you that for certain. To say that it was God would be a bit presumptuous, to say the least. After all, if God came to me in that moment, why did God not give a warning to the pastor who, along with his ten year-old grandchild, was killed out on I-30 last week?
But Luke was certain about the Voice who spoke that fateful day down by the River Jordan, wasn’t he? So let’s put the question – or maybe I should say questions (plural) – to him. Is it possible to have conversations with God? Can we have the kind of relationship with God that makes for anything closely resembling a dialogue? What were the dynamics involved at Jesus’ baptism when “The Voice” spoke from the heavens? Was that a one-time situation, or do we have the same access to God that Jesus seemed to enjoy?
Let’s look for some clues. Luke says, “The people were filled with expectation.” Does that mean that all we have to do is sit on pins and needles and expect God to speak to us and God will do it just like it was done at the River Jordan? If so, there’s a problem. You see, the people were filled with expectation about something in particular. They were excited, thinking that maybe, just maybe, John the Baptist was the long-awaited Messiah. That’s what they were expectant about, and John quickly quashes that notion… takes the air right out of that situation. No, no, no, no, no… he’s not the one.
So if you would like to carry on a personal conversation with God and think that simply having a spirit of expectation will initiate such a dialogue, and you want to use the story of Jesus’ baptism as your proof-text, you might ought to think about it again. Chances are, it’s not going to happen.
Then what will? How do we talk to God? The answer may be found in yet another question. What is the backdrop to “The Voice” coming down from heaven? It is baptism, isn’t it? And what is the purpose of baptism? It is in obedience to the command of God to follow the One God has endorsed as his Son.
Forgive me, but I need to throw in another disclaimer. Obedience does not mean that life will be the way you necessarily want or expect it to be. It simply means you won’t have to go through the valleys alone. But it also means you will be seeing the world around you with new and fresh eyes. That in itself comes with a warning: it can be quite an unsettling experience.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of leaving the big city of Atlanta for the rural life in northeast Georgia. She says she left Atlanta because she was “tired of being afraid all the time, and locking my doors all the time, and defending myself against people I was called to serve. Not the ones inside the church. I did all right with them. It was the ones outside the church who spooked me: the men who congregated in the parking lot late at night with bottles in paper bags; the women who hurled abuse at the receptionist for giving them one more telephone number to call instead of the help they needed; the children who clung to their mothers’ legs with eyes one hundred years old. They were only the tip of the iceberg, and I knew it. I knew the city was full of catacombs where people existed on very little light and air, where bullets flew and babies’ stomachs growled and old people froze to death in their beds because they could not pay their utility bills.
“So I left. I had an illusion that the country would be different, and for the first few weeks it was. All I saw were the cows, and the clouds, and the fields full of wildflowers. But once I had gotten used to those, I started seeing other things: the Mexican children playing in the drainage ditch at the trailer park, the Laotian women coming out of the chicken processing plant with their hair in white nets, the old folks at the grocery store with almost nothing in their carts, trying to decide between beans and cereal for supper. I had an illusion that the country would be different, but God disillusioned me.” 3
You see, when God comes calling, God opens your eyes and sometimes disillusions you. What you see may not be all that rosy. You might become sensitized to that brood of vipers John so quickly chastised – but also baptized – the ones who are standing on the river bank of life shivering in their wet clothes from the baptism of hunger and gunfire and loneliness and illness. When Jesus stood in line to be baptized by John at the Jordan, those in line with him were the Mexican children and the Laotian chicken processors and the hungry old folks. And God said he was pleased about all that, perhaps because they were in it together, and Jesus had arrived to connect God and his people in a way never seen or known before.
When God comes calling, you just never know what God is going to show you. So if one of your overriding goals in life is to hear the voice of God, you better prepare yourself because what you hear and see may not be what you expect or want… not at all. But it begins at your baptism, and it begins with obedience.
Why was Jesus baptized? Best answer – maybe not the complete answer, but the best I can give you – because you and I need to live out our baptism and all that it means, and he identifies with us and wants to show us how to do it. And he calls us to walk the road of redemption with him, being his visible presence to all we meet. And maybe, just maybe, there will come that time when God comes calling and tells us he is pleased.
Lord, we listen for your voice, and when we hear it in the voices and faces of others, may we be Christ to them. In your holy name we pray, Amen.
1The idea for this line of questioning comes from Carol Lakey Hess, Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 236.
2Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts (Chicago: Association Press, 1969), p. 23.
3Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1995), pp. 69-70.