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Baptized into God’s Mission

San Williams

January 9, 2011
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

01-09-2011 SermonThe most recent issue of Austin Seminary’s quarterly magazine, Windows, explores the rapid changes we are experiencing in both church and society.  All the articles in this issue address a number of major shifts that are affecting the church:  the phenomenon of social networking that is changing the way people form community and communicate; the fact that many folks, especially young people, are suspicious of institutional life and not inclined to give their loyalty, trust or financial support to institutions such as the church. Further, according to Michael Kinnaman’s book, UnChristian, the number of people who are openly hostile to Christianity is around 38% among young people ages 16 to 29.  Given this changing landscape, many thoughtful Christians are asking what’s next for the church.  Where do we go from here? Surely we’ll be asking these questions for many years to come.  But in this time of revolutionary change, let our quest begin where Jesus began his ministry–at the Jordan River, at the font, at the waters of our baptism.    

In the first place, the waters of baptism can calm anxious hearts and minds. If today we don’t have a blueprint showing us the future church, we can relax in the knowledge that Jesus never had a crystal ball that told him how his life would work out either.  Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John, without any foreknowledge of where his life of obedience to God would lead. The Gospels don’t present Jesus as a static divine being who sprang from the womb with a game plan all spelled out. As the temptation stories show, Jesus struggled with options all along the way. He wrestled with what God’s will meant in each particular situation. In other words, Jesus’ understanding of his mission unfolded as he tried to live his life in obedience to God.  Jesus knew that he wanted to be about God’s business, but where this commitment would lead him was not revealed ahead of time.  So if we, as the church today, find ourselves in a time when the way forward is about as clear as the muddy Jordan River, we must try not to be anxious. We must try not to fear. It was the same for Jesus.

But there’s another reason for pointing a church caught up in generational changes and cultural transformations towarad the waters of baptism.  In the waters of baptism, the church’s very identity and mission are revealed. Recall that at his baptism Jesus sees the Spirit descending and hears the divine voice announcing, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”  You’ll recognize these words as a quote from the passage in Isaiah that we read today. Matthew believes that at his baptism Jesus “saw” his life as an embodiment of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.  Empowered by God’s Spirit, Jesus was able to accept the mission of the Servant as his own—a mission to establish justice in the earth…to bring healing to all the bruised reeds of this world, to rekindle life for all whose flicker of hope is almost out…to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon.  In short, at his baptism Jesus took up God’s mission of bringing about a just world, a healed world. Jesus gave himself to serving others, no matter the cost.  Every hurting, hungry, diseased, alienated, suffering person was to be his mission field.   

Yet many people have been puzzled as to why Jesus would be baptized by John rather than the other way round.  Some have even called Jesus’ baptism by John the “messianic embarrassment.” Recall that John objects to Jesus’ request to be baptized, and he pleads with Jesus, saying “I need to be baptized by you.”  But Jesus responds, “It is proper for you to baptize me…to fulfill all righteousness.”  That’s an enigmatic phrase, to be sure, but righteousness, like justice, signals God’s passionate commitment to set right the things that are wrong.  Such setting right means turning power arrangements upside down. As our choir sang this morning: Christus Paradox.  In his baptism, we see the paradox begin to unfold:  The one who is superior is baptized by the inferior.  God’s Son will live as a Servant.  He will be a Savior who will not save himself from death. Beginning at his baptism and enduring until his death, Jesus resisted the temptation to promote himself over others. Instead—as the author of Philippians puts it—he emptied himself and, taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”     

And Jesus’ decision to fully embrace God’s cause of justice in the earth received God’s own endorsement:  “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”  God pours out his Spirit and his love on Jesus, because Jesus has made God’s cause his own.  Surely without the sense of God’s abiding love and approval, Jesus could not have endured the failures, the disappointments, the rejection and the cross.  His baptism was only the beginning of his ministry, but it gave him the lens through which he would view all his actions, and make all his decisions. By taking on the role of the Servant, Jesus received assurance of God’s love and approval. 

So here we are today gathered around the font.  Perhaps God’s cry to the church today is “Remember your baptism.”  That cry isn’t asking us to try to remember when we were infants. Certainly it doesn’t mean trying to shame people into feeling guilty that they have not lived up to their baptismal vows.  As Paul Tillich wrote, ‘Jesus is the only one who has been completely true to the voice he heard at his baptism.” No, remembering our baptism means claiming our identity as a Servant community empowered to make God’s mission our own.  As our UPC Mission statement begins, “Empowered by God, we will follow Jesus Christ as disciples and apostles equipped and sent to represent the reign of God…”  By the way, surveys show that the young people who express hostility or lack of interest in the church are not negative about Jesus.  Rather, they are negative about a church that too often doesn’t follow him. 

Friends, clearly much is changing in the world around us. The church today faces many challenges and a great deal of uncertainty. We don’t know for sure what’s next, but we can know what’s required of us today. In this time of transition, the church has the opportunity to renew our sense of mission, given in baptism, to be a servant people committed to God’s reign of justice on earth.  That’s the church that will please God and that will inspire a new generation of disciples.