Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord

Preached at Grace Church, Ilderton, and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 13 January, 2007

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (Isa 42:1)

Last week the National Post ran a story about a group of Tim Hortons employees who have started a group on the internet to advise cranky customers how to order. These workers are tired of customers who tell them to “stir the coffee well” (because there’s no button for that), who order six sandwiches at the drive-thru window, or who get angry and throw food or coffee at them. I wonder if this story will surprise those customers who are used to treating the employees like slaves or robots. I’m sure you’ve noticed these folks. They stand in front of you in line and say “Give me a double double”. Whenever I hear something like this, I want to ask “Excuse me, but did your parents never teach you to say please?” or “Would it kill you to say ‘May I please have a double double?’”

We like the convenience of being served at fast food stores like Timmies, but how many of us would want to stand behind the counter and serve? Probably not that many of us. When we say “service industries” we sometimes use it as a euphemism for low-prestige, low-paying, dead-end jobs. For my part, I wouldn’t mind it if my kids worked at Tims while they were students, but I’d hope that they could find better jobs as adults. But that’s me being a snob, isn’t it? It’s nothing but snobbery, because who I am to say that the person who gives me my steeped tea in the morning and manages to smile while doing it isn’t as good or as important as any other person? I know, whatever my snobby side may want to say, that the Timmies worker is just as much a beloved child of God as me or the guy in the Ford Excessive in the drive through with the heated seats and the MBA and the Rolex watch? Because really, I don’t think God cares much about our big cars or our university degrees or our trophy consumer items. I think God is really interested in whether we are willing to be servants.

All through Advent we’ve heard the wonderful promises of the prophet Isaiah to a people that sorely need good news. We’ve heard God tell his people that the bad times aren’t going to last. A saviour will come to lead them out of the darkness and back to the light of God. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, Isaiah says, and for us this Christmas, as always, that light was a star that led us to the manger in Bethlehem. We saw the baby lying there, and perhaps we wondered, as the shepherds and the wise men wondered, what sort of king will this little one become? What kingdom will he inherit? What deeds of power will he do? Isaiah gives us an unexpected answer. “Here is my servant”. Now Isaiah was speaking to a people in captivity in Babylon, exiled from their homeland. We might expect Isaiah to say “Here is my champion” or “Here is my hero”, but no, it’s just “my servant”.

The servant is not loud or flashy. “He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street” (Isa 42:2). No loud televangelist here. The servant won’t do huge acts of strength or feats of might: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa 42:2). He’ll spend his time with the damaged and the vulnerable, with those whose hopes burn faintly. The servant will suffer as he goes about his work. “He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth” (Isa 42:4). He’ll pay a price for what he will do. The servant is quiet, gentle, compassionate. He’s not a great general waving a flag on the battlefield and shouting a battlecry, more like a humble medic going about helping the wounded. The servant isn’t an impressive figure, but his calling couldn’t be any more impressive. The servant is God’s chosen, the one who fills God’s soul with delight, and who God fills with his Spirit. The servant will “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). In all this poetic, powerful language, Isaiah is showing us how God works. Not with human power and dignity, but with a love and gentleness that wants the best for all of his people, for each of his creations. Where is the servant? He’s there, the humble carpenter from Galilee who comes down to the Jordan to be baptized, waiting his turn with all the other sinners.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized? John the Baptist was out there in the desert, telling the people to confess their sins, repent, and get baptized. John was even telling the proud and holy Pharisees to repent, even though they were the expert keepers of God’s law. He warned them to straighten up and fly right, because the one coming on his heels came from God himself. The one coming was bringing the fire and the winnowing fork. He was going to sort the good from the bad, and woe to you if you were one of the bad! I think after that preaching, the crowds were expecting someone pretty special. I’m sure John was, as Matthew describes it, because the Baptist is scandalized when Jesus comes down into the muddy brown water of the Jordan, where all the others have stood before him, and waits for John to pour the water and say the prayers over him. Why did our Lord and Saviour, the Alpha and the Omega, need to receive a baptism from John just like any other sinner? Did he need a baptism for the forgiveness of his sins? All the gospels agree that Jesus was a blameless person, a person without sin. Jesus had nothing to repent of, which makes sense, because why would the Saviour need to be saved himself? So there’s got to be another reason, and I think the reason has to do with you and me.

How did Jesus get into that muddy crick to stand before John? He would have to climbed down the bank like everyone else, literally stepping in the footprints of all the other sinners who had gone before him. He didn’t have to do that. Jesus could have stayed up there on the riverside in a blaze of glory and said, “That’s right, folks, I’m the guy he was talking about”. He could have said to John “Good work, John, I’ll take it from here.” For that matter, Jesus could have stayed with the Father in heaven. But he doesn’t. I think the whole point of Jesus’ baptism is to say, this is the moment when God announces his purpose, to send his son to stand in the mud and water with us rather than to lord it over us. This is when God unveils the servant who will save us, the healer who will heal us, the light who will lead us and bring us back to God.

When the voice from heaven says “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17), we hear the words of our first lesson, from Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa 42:1). At that moment, God announces that Jesus is going to take on the role of the servant and do all the wonderful things that Isaiah prophesied. Jesus will go to the bruised, to those whose hopes are faintly burning, to those imprisoned by illness and by social stigma, he will teach and he will heal. His mission is to bring God’s justice, God’s kingdom, to the earth, even if it has to lay down his life in shame and pain to do it. As the preacher Barabara Taylor Brown puts it so well, he serves us by coming to us, “where we are, over and over again, when he could save himself the grief, the pain, the death, by insisting that we come to him where he is” (Barbara Brown Taylor. “Sacramental Mud”. Mixed Blessings Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Publications, p. 59).

He comes to us because he loves us, as the Father loves him. Each of us first experiences this love at the moment of our baptism, when God names us and sets his spirit on us. From then on, as we move life we have the reassurance of knowing that we too are beloved children in whom God’s soul delights. We can find strength whatever crap and mud we find ourselves in, Jesus is standing there with us. When we find ourselves in darkness, when the way forward seems unclear to us, Jesus is the light, he’s the guide that takes us by the hand. When you feel down, or lost, or just not worth much, say to yourself, “I am God’s beloved child”. If you doubt it, if you don’t think you’re worthy of saying that, just remember that you were worth dying on a cross for.

God loves us, God serves us, and ultimately God saves us. Our baptism unites us to God and makes us part of his family. But there’s a catch. Everytime we baptize a child, we remember our own baptismal covenant. We remember that God has a job description for us, taken straight from Isaiah. God calls us to be servants too, to share in God’s plan to “faithfully bring forth justice”. God calls us to care for everyone who is still in darkness, to do what we can for the bruised and the dimly burning. Our baptism means that we can’t go through life wanting to be served. We are called to be servants, not customers. We’re called to love and serve the lord, and to love and serve one another. It goes against the grain of our world to be a servant, because we’re taught that there’s no prestige in it, no future. That’s the kind of thinking that Isaiah warns against when he says that God does not give his glory or praise to idols (Isa 42:8). God’s glory and praise comes in service, in the outstretched hand, in eyes that see with new light and new hope, down there in the mud where God and God’s people are truly needed. Or, to put it another way, each of us is a parishioner of St. Timmies, and our slogan is, “Welcome to God’s kingdom, how can I serve you?”

© Michael Peterson+ 2007

No comments:

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive