Rev. Andy Ferguson, Senior Pastor
[ILLUS: The Glad River, Will Campbell]
In Will Campbell’s novel, The Glad River, he explores the friendship of three Army buddies through WW-II and now back home. Like a lot of old friends, they are known by nicknames that no one else can use. On the day that I want to share with you, the one known as Model-T is in prison waiting to be executed for a crime he did not commit. Doops has decided that he must be baptized. With the freedom of novels, Model-T has become the priest of their group.
Doops crowds into the jail cell with Model-T. The third friend, Kingston, stands near. In addition, they invite the jailer, the Prosecutor and a nurse from their war years. Three other prisoners, handcuffed together sit on the bunk nearby.
Doops and Model-T moved to face each other squarely. The others moved closer together, leaving them as much room as they could.
“You have shown me the truth, my friend,” Doops began. “Now I am asking you for the sign.” He spoke in a clear eloquent, and oratorical fashion.
“Are you asking to be baptized?” Model-T said with equal fluency.
“Yes,” Doops replied. “I am asking for the sign.”
“Are you heartily sorry for all your sins?”
“Do you desire the baptism?”
“Who will forbid me, that I should baptize him?” Model-T said, looking around the room at the group.
“No one,” Kingston, the Prosecutor, and the nurse said in unison.
“No one,” the three prisoners mumbled in hushed tones after them.
“Humble yourself before God and his Church and kneel down,” Model-T said. Doops, wearing seersucker trousers and a new white shirt with the collar unbuttoned and the cuffs turned up, knelt as close to the small washbasin, already filled with water when they came in, as he could get. Model-T cupped both of his hands together and dipped into the water.
“I baptize you in the name of God the Father,” he said, letting the water trickle over the tips of his fingers and onto Doops’ bowed head. “God the Son,” pouring another handful of water. “And God the Holy Spirit,” the water running off Doops’ cowlicked head, down his back and onto his shirtfront.
A little later, Doops and Kingston, having left the prison, are driving down the road. “It’s a long way from Bethlehem, isn’t it?” Kingston said as they drove away from the jail.
“No,” Doops said. “Not really. That’s as close as we’ll ever come” (1).
Jesus was not baptized in the isolation of a jail cell, as Doops was that day. Nor was Jesus the only one baptized that day. According to Matthew, people from Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to John, and many were being baptized with John’s baptism for repentance. Actually, Matt outlines several groups of people who came. These are the sort of people who might have been standing close by when Jesus was baptized.
1. First, there were the common people of Jerusalem and all Judea. These are the people with whom we likely identify. They came in religious sincerity and fervor. They came because John’s witness was compelling. They came, it seems, because they were hungry for the presence of God among them.
2. The second group Matthew identifies are the Pharisees and Sadducees. For these, John had scathing criticism: Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? These people were Jesus’ consistent critics. You can almost imagine John’s unhappiness that he had offered such a generous gospel. Did you ever feel a bit stingy with grace? Maybe if he had been a little less clear about his message, they would have missed the baptism he was offering with its repentance for sin and acceptance from God.
The sense I get from these first two groups is that people were hungry to return to God. They felt that they were not as close as they wanted to be. They were bothered by accusing sins that troubled them.
Think about the scene: John stands out in the countryside near the River Jordan. There he condemns the sins of the people and calls them to return to God in repentance. History tells us that there were renewal movements at work in Judea in those days. They mistrusted the complexities of city life and the mixing of nationalities in the cities that was happening under the influence of the Romans. These renewal movements encouraged those who were serious about their faith to pull themselves away from all of that. They formed communities like the one at Qumran near the Dead Sea. Other times, they lived in holy solitude. When we were in the Holy Land, we saw isolated huts at the base of Mt. Sinai that were used by religious mystics. On the stark landscape you could see the network of paths that led to the huts. I looked at them, and I was mostly astonished as such chosen isolation. What kind of religious conviction would compel a person to withdraw so completely? Scholars wonder if John might have been one of these.
Reflect on this with me; we also are drawn to that seriousness of religious purpose that would lead John into the wilderness. Imagine a faith so strong that it would become your clear purpose for living. This, I think, is the attraction of the mystic and the revival preacher. Their certainty and their passion invites us to consider our own faith.
I recall sitting in this nave, when I was in high school, listening to the preacher speak of a conviction about Christ that has the power to turn our lives in a new direction. (Lectern-side, second pillar back, about 5-6 places in from the outside wall. Who is sitting there this morning? Be careful there; God has dealt with people who unwittingly sat in that very seat.) I do not recall the text of the sermon that day; I could not summarize the message. What I received there was the conviction that Christ was dealing with me. Christ was calling me to put aside every other calling to share the healing I had found in this place with others.
I found healing here. Life here made sense. Direction was here. Friends who cared about the outcome where here. In addition, there was and still is a Presence here – the Presence of the Holy One who calls us to come near.
My call was to take the healing that I had been given in this place and build healing, holy communities of faith wherever I was sent. To share the touch of the holy that I had found here. I guess that God was into social networking before Facebook was even figured out.
For the people who went to meet John in the wilderness, it was just that simple and just that life-changing. I hope that at some point in your life, you also find a hungering for God that will not be satisfied until you follow that urging to know God more.
II. According to Matthew, what follows is John’s examination of the baptism he offers. In today’s language he could have said, “You might think that the baptism I offer is a big deal, but it is not.”
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (v.11-13).
Matthew is preparing us to see John step aside. John believed in what he was doing. He believed in his message. He was convinced that God had called him to prepare the way for the coming of an anointed leader that he did not know. He was also convinced that the baptism he offered was puny in the presence of the baptism this anointed one would bring. And then, Jesus stood before him. The details are so sparse, it is hard to do much more than guess about the scene.
1. Was Jesus just one in a long line of people coming for baptism? OR, was Jesus’ approach to John something that happened after-hours, after the two men had talked and shared their faith? We will never know. [This is the faith sharing that moves me!]
2. Was Jesus a stranger to John on this day? OR was Jesus a disciple of John who was really getting the message and understanding the depth of John’s call? Again, Matthew is not clear on this.
But, in that moment, John recognized the one for whom he had watching; the anointed one stood before him. He protested: “I should be baptized by you!” Jesus answered, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (v. 15).
Often we fret that this exchange revealed a secret, unsavory side of Jesus – that he had things he was not proud of as any ordinary person might be. But, I think that misses the point.
1. The point is that John and Jesus are demonstrating this passing of attention from the forerunner to anointed one.
2. The point is further that Jesus is demonstrating how any of us might come to God in faith and renewal of our lives. Now, we too know how to come to God in renewal!
3. The point is, in addition, that Jesus is demonstrating the great things that will follow, which only Christ can bring.
If John had prevailed in his protest, recorded history would have missed one of the great moments in God’s history on this earth. Yes, this needed to happen just the way Jesus set it up.
We come to the end of the passage. Do you hear the invitation woven throughout its story? It is a story of invitation and response, you know. God invites us now; what will be your response? Can anyone come to God? And will God notice anyway? Yes, we can come to God as the people of Judea and all Jerusalem came so many years ago. We can come seeking baptism, confessing our sins and seeking the forgiveness that only God can bring. We can come seeking baptism, knowing that God is paying attention, claiming us – as God claims every child who is baptized – as one of God’s own children. What response does faith compel you make?
1. Campbell, Will. The Glad River, Kindle location 4894-4921.