Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Baptism of Our Lord - Matthew 3

(wma download link here)

“Repent!” That was John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness. “Repent, you sinners!” That was what he said to people like you and me; average, mostly-honest people who came out to hear a good, entertaining preacher by the shore. “Weep, mourn and wail. Turn your joy-filled relaxation into bitter distress. Rend your garments as a sign of despair. Repent of your sin.”

Imagine being there, watching this camel-hair wearing, bug-eating semi-lunatic. Do his words truly apply to you? Is it fair that he should speak so loudly, and with such conviction of you? Is it just(ice) for him to claim that you are a sinner worthy of eternal damnation? Because he is the last of the prophet’s of God, sent to prepare the way of the Lord, yes.

Repent, he says, to one and all. And he doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t let you or me anyone off the hook. The Pharisees came to him saying, “How can you tell us that we are at risk of losing salvation? We have Abraham as our father.” That meant “we’re in.” That meant they had made their decision and purchased their salvation ticket. They believed, and they believed they believed…but what they actually believed was not in the forgiveness of sins, but in their own ability to please God.

So, “You brood of vipers,” John lashes out at them. “How dare you try to flee from the wrath of God without faith in your need for forgiveness. And here’s the catch in what he says to them, “Bear fruit in keeping with your claims of repentance.” Faith is not an intellectual yes, but a death to self and rising of God in your life. So John says, “Do not assume that once you have told yourself you believe, you are free to live however you will, and can never fall out of grace. You come to God through mercy. And you stay with God through mercy. So stop seeking your own ends, and live in need of mercy.”

It’s a frightening thing, hearing John the Baptist preach. Terrifying. But, thanks be to God, this is not the main point of Matthew’s Gospel! Thanks be to God, Matthew has something to say to us beyond the Truth that John preached. And try, for a moment, to picture this occasion. John is in the wilderness, preaching this “repent!”, and shouting this “be baptized for forgiveness!” He is accusing the best “believers” of the day of being vipers and liars. He is tearing down every man so that each of us might see our need to be saved from the Lord who was coming very soon to judge and destroy, to burn and devour. And then, in a moment, suddenly he sees that very Lord standing before him, saying, “Baptize me.”

What? Baptize the one who baptism is given to protect us from? Baptize for repentance the one who has nothing to repent of? Baptize for forgiveness the one who comes to forgive? What? “No, no, Lord. It is you who must baptize me, for I am not worthy to do even the most menial tasks such as untie your sandals.”

“Do it, John. For now. This will fulfill all righteousness.” What that means is, this is how I have come to save. Not by power. Not by might. Not by war. Not by destruction. Yes, by bloodshed, but, ponder the marvel of it, by my own bloodshed. I have come to save, not by stopping the wrath to come, but by taking it upon myself in your place. I have come to be baptized for you.

“And look, by being baptized for repentance, I do what you cannot do. I repent for the sins of the whole world and that I do perfectly. I stand as a man and say, “Yes, mankind has been wicked for a long time.” And I plead with my Father, “forgive us.” And look, I will even bear the weight, pay the price, stand in the stead of many by dying their death for them.”

And even as John obeyed his Lord’s words, the clouds opened up, the sky rent in two, the Spirit of God came down to hover over the waters, and the voice of the Father said, “Yes, I am well-pleased with this substitution.” “Yes, I will accept this repentance.” “Yes, my Son, draw all men to yourself and in yourself set all men free.”

If you were here last week, you learned that Epiphany means “revealing,” and that from here until Lent the Church follows the life of Jesus as he reveals to the world that a God become man is a man who has the power of God for salvation built into his blood. The nations saw it first last week through the eyes of wise men. Today, the prophet’s of Israel have also seen and believed.

And why is this? What is all this repentance about? Is it a mandate that we live in constant guilt and shame? No! The opposite! We are not accused so that we shall be driven away thinking we are not saved. We are accused so that we might walk away knowing in all fullness what we must be and are saved from. And seeing that: real, terrible sin in your own heart, in your own life: is to know you have received the substitution of the baptized Son of God, who came down from heaven and was made man in order to repent of that sin for you, and take its punishment upon himself in your place. In him, all righteousness has been fulfilled, and just as his baptism took your sin into himself, your baptism puts his righteousness into you.

It is the great reversal. God says to man, “Repent!” And the Son of God became man so that for man he can say to God, “It is finished.”

In the Name…

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