It’s a messy day today. The snow is falling fast and hard and seemingly endlessly. Sure it’s pretty, but also treacherous, and who knows whether it will stop in time for folks to decide to come to worship on Sunday. Sometimes I think Saturday snows are testing the faith of the church.
And it is snowing in Kansas City, where our Colts are planning to continue their improbable season by beating what many consider the best team in the NFL. Can they do it again? Arrowhead Stadium is an open air field, so they’ll be fighting the elements as well as the opponents. A messy day. Go Colts anyway. Go through the messy to victory.
Which is sometimes the best we can do. Go through the messy. To victory, which sometimes is merely survival. Sometimes victory is being able to continue on another day. To not run screaming into the darkness. Just holding on and hoping.
The other messiness of today is that I’m not preaching tomorrow. There was a time that I hated that, I lived to preach and it was something of an agony to have to stand aside to let someone else proclaim the Word. Now I know better. I know that sometimes I need to be quiet too. Need to listen and not just always speak. Some times there aren’t any words to say, and I need to acknowledge that. Need to allow the messy world in which we live speak. Or at least to listen for other voices from time to time.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." ... Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
This is the First Sunday after Epiphany, which means that the story is about the baptism of Jesus. It is the second of the three Epiphanies that border this liturgical season. We begin on Epiphany with the Wise men who saw the star, they were given an epiphany, a revelation about who this child really was. Not the son of a poor girl and her husband who couldn’t find a room in the inn, but the savior of the world.
The first Sunday of the season and the last Sunday after Epiphany contain two revelations that also identify Jesus as God’s Son. We begin with the baptism and then we end with the transfiguration, that misty mountain top experience.
What is interesting about Luke’s depiction of the event is that the baptism hardly figures in at all. The verses we skip serve to usher John the Baptist off the stage in favor of Jesus who now begins his ministry. But after John’s bluster, the next thing we know is that the baptism had already taken place. We missed it. Ain’t that always the way? We come for the show and by the time we got our seats, it had already happened. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized...” Darn it!
You’d think that if Luke had a clue about the centuries of struggle the church has had about the detail of baptism, he might have spent a little more time with it. We don’t know if Jesus was immersed or sprinkled. We don’t know which liturgy John prefers, or if the vows that Jesus made were the same as the ones we make or not. We don’t know if John was properly credentialed or if Jesus followed the rules. We don’t know who signed the certificate. We need to know these things, don’t we?
Luke doesn’t seem to think so. “Jesus had also been baptized...” That’s the sum total of the description here. If Luke is saying that the methodology isn’t what is important, then what is? Why is Jesus even there in the first place? That’s the question that has puzzled biblical scholars since the beginnings of the church. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. But we know that Jesus was without sin. So, why would He need to be there? What’s going on here?
The other interesting thing is that the next verses in Luke’s third chapter are the genealogy of Jesus. Since the Gospel writers never do anything for the heck of it, we have to ask why is the list of Jesus’ earthly family tree following the story of His being claimed by his heavenly father?
Here is the leap I’m asking you to make with me this weekend: Jesus went to John to be baptized because He was entering into this messy world that we live in. All of us are born into a world not of our making. A world we can barely understand at the best of times, a world we cannot explain at the worst of times. A world that needs repentance, which is a corporate need as much as an individual one. Jesus strode into the river to be buried up to the neck in the sin of the world, and then to rise to the Spirit. He didn’t approve of the brokenness of this world, but He embraced it, He made it his, and He carried it with Him, like a chip on the shoulder, like a pack on His back, He carried it all the way to the cross.
And what did He say, when He embraced all that is wrong in this life, all that is less than divine, less than holy? What words did He use to give meaning and understanding and explanation? He didn’t say a thing. Like us He was silent. Did He want to speak? Or was the weight of the burden He accepted so heavy that even He was struck dumb. Like us, He was silent. So that He would know what we experience when we have no words to say in the face of the messiness of our own lives.
There were words spoken in that moment, though. Words that echo in the silence of our moments even to this day. They weren’t His words or ours or any human. They were God’s Words and they said simply: “I love you.” Words of affirmation, not for deeds done or not done, but for being. Just for being. I love you. Words to hear in the midst of darkness, words to cling to in the midst of doubt. In the maelstrom of living and of dying we hear and then - by grace - speak these words, they are all we have: I love you.