Sermon Ideas For Matthew 3:13-17 Part 2
For daily Christian living, this passage is very problematic. Parishioners will not readily see the implications of the baptism of Jesus for the triumphs and tragedies of their lives. Much less can they easily apply this event to the stresses of every day. It will seem to them as a tale already told and known. They will react with a ho-hum to the retelling if they have come to the worship service expecting some fresh word from God for the next day or week.
However, what seems obscure is dynamically transparent when one reflects on the depth implications of this interaction between John the baptizer and Jesus the Messiah. In an absolute sense, recognizing Jesus as Savior is, indeed, the profound answer to the problems of every day. Living out of this recognition is the key to faithful, and even successful, living. It is the explication of this insight that should permeate a sermon on this passage.
Several issues leading to this key insight could be considered. First, preachers should remember that they are speaking out of a tradition in which two convictions are foundational: one, that the key to our lives is contained in the life of one life, Jesus Christ who we call Lord; and two, that the words of the Bible are a faithful witness to this revelation. This means that preachers should remain faithful to this foundation and not hesitate to boldly proclaim that even anecdotal events such as Jesus' baptism have general meaning for daily Christian living.
The second theme that can be considered is the interaction between John and Jesus. This face to face contact can be considered a paradigm for what must occur in every life. Although we consider John to have special awareness of the Messiahship of Jesus, we exist two thousand years later and should not consider ourselves as bereft of knowledge as were the first century Jews. We have been told that Jesus has come, lived, died, and risen from the dead. The risen Christ is with us, and we, like John, should recognize his presence and be prepared, as was John, to acknowledge him. However, recognizing the presence of the risen Christ in our daily lives is easier said than done, as the old saying goes. This is where the pastoral task comes in. It has been said that to be religious means to belong to a group of persons gathered together around a transempirical idea. For Christians, that transempirical idea is the real and available presence of the risen Christ.
But, as we all know, becoming mindful of Christ's presence and his availability to guide, encourage, support, and sustain us is very, very difficult. John the Baptist was primed to recognize Jesus; we are not. We live in a rationalistic, technological culture that biases our perceptions toward recognizing only those things that we can see, touch, smell, feel or hear. Transempirical realities, such as the Risen Christ, are not nearly as apparent to us as they were to John.
Thus, preaching should always be "reminder specific." It should start by recalling the truth of Christ for the people in whose presence they exist. Jesus is here, just as he was for John the Baptist on the shore of the Jordan river. The next step for us is the same as it was for John—namely, to insist that we are not worthy to do anything for Jesus, much less baptize him as John insisted. This is reminiscent of Isaiah's experience when he went into the temple. Upon seeing the Lord God he exclaimed "Woe is me." (Is 6:5) But with Isaiah, as with John, the matter did not end there. Isaiah had to answer "Send me" when God asked, "Who will go for us," and John had to baptize Jesus instead of being baptized by him. Christians today, like these figures of old, must own their personal power to respond. They are not helpless. They have strength, they have vigor, they have authority. The Holy Spirit can work through them. This is not to say that in the midst of stress or failure they automatically know what to do. They don't. It does mean that they can respond to the situation with God's help. The way God works in situations is through people, not on them in any mechanical way. They should not expect to be zapped. They should expect to be assisted and encouraged. As the second verse of the hymn "Spirit of God descend upon my heart" states:
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay, no angel visitant, no opening skies; but take the dimness of soul away.
The scriptures says that when John baptized Jesus the heavens opened and the voice of God was heard blessing Jesus and saying that he was God's Son. Personally, I am convinced that Jesus knew this beforehand. John thought he knew it. But it was vividly revealed to John in the moment that he baptized Jesus. So it will happen for today's Christians. The moment they enter into an interaction with the Risen Christ, in that moment the heavens will open for them.
Once again, however, people need to be reminded that this is an INTERaction, not simply a miraculous event. It is absolutely necessary that people recognize in whose presence they are and be willing to engage Jesus in a relationship of shared power.
Finally, I believe this kind of experience can be understood within the doctrine of the Trinity. If God the Father be God above us, God the Son be God toward us, then God the Holy Spirit is God emerging out of us. Such an understanding of the third person of the Trinity provides a theological process for understanding what happens in contemporary John-baptizing-Jesus events. When people enter into an interaction with the Risen Christ and exert their power with him, the work of the Holy Spirit emerges out of them. They are able to face life in all its triumphs and tragedies with the insight of faith. They can, as Kipling said, treat the "two importers" of both failure and success "just the same." They are never alone; nor are they utterly helpless. The function of the Risen Christ is to awaken the Holy Spirit within them so that life can be lived to the glory of God.
H. Newton Malony Fuller Theological Seminary Pasandena, CA