For as far back as we have sermons and commentaries on today’s Gospel passage, there are at least two things that people have struggled with and found mysterious, even scandalous. First: Why would so many life-long, card-carrying Jews, directly descended from Abraham and Sarah, submit to John’s baptism, when water baptism was for Gentiles, their last rite of entry into Judaism, after they had had all the other the teaching and training necessary to become Jewish? What was it that brought all these people out to proclaim, in effect, that they were no better than, no different from, the Gentiles, the nations, even than the nation that oppressed and corrupted them, the Romans? Why would all these otherwise observant Jews declare that, in effect, they were starting their Judaism over from scratch, and square one? That’s radical in the truest sense of the word: going back to the root of things.
An even more perplexing and mysterious question is this: Why would Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, submit to John’s baptism, if it was a baptism of repentance for sin? In Matthew’s gospel and that of Luke, John is recorded as posing this very same question to Jesus: “Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?”
While I don’t claim to be any smarter than all the preachers and teachers who have wrestled with these two questions, here’s what I’ll venture about that first question: what moved people to respond to John and his message the way they did? Three words come to mind: Exile, Expectation and Vision.
About the first, Exile: if we think that that the Jewish exile from their promised homeland was over 500 years before John, when the first Jewish captives returned from Babylon to Jerusalem in the time of Ezrah and Nehemiah, that’s not how John and his contemporaries would have seen it. My reading of Jewish sources suggests that this sense of being a people in Exile never really finished when they began returning from Babylon, that it even continues today. There is even a sense in Judaism that God remains an exile in his world today.
God’s exile began a few years before the people’s exile in Babylon, according to a terrifying vision which the prophet Ezekiel recorded in the 10th chapter of his book. In this disturbing, distressing vision, Ezekiel saw into the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the temple to which only the high priest went, and only once a year, with the sacrifice of atonement on the Jewish New Year. There, above the Ark of the Covenant, which held the two stone tablets of the 10 commandments given to Moses, Ezekiel saw the Shekinah, the fiery, glowing sign of God’s presence over the Ark of the Covenant which had hovered there ever since it was placed in the temple. It was like a continuation of the pillar of fire which had guided and illuminated the Israelites in the desert by night during their Exodus from Egypt, a visible sign assuring them of God’s presence and protection in the wilderness.
But in Ezekiel’s disturbing vision, one night the Shekinah glory of God rises from the Ark of the Covenant, leaves the Holy of Holies, accompanied by angels and seraphim, goes to the east gate of the temple. There it hovers for a moment as if in regret and longing, and then leaves, heading eastward, toward Babylon, where the people of Judah and Jerusalem would soon follow, in exile.
In one sense, that vision was comforting: it meant that God would be present to his people even in the belly of the Beast of Babylon. The frightening, disturbing part of the vision though was this: the presence of the idols, gods and goddesses of Israel’s Gentile neighbors which the Israelites had installed there, along with obscene fertility rites and even human sacrifice, had become great enough, and had gone on long enough, that God would no longer abide it. To tolerate it any longer was to participate in it. The same with the abuse and oppression of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger and the alien, and the failure to give the land its seven year Sabbaths rests, along with the forgiveness of debts and the release of slaves. Those were the reasons why the Shekinah glory left the temple, taking with it God’s protective, covering.
Within a few years of the Shekinah’s departure, the temple was destroyed, the Ark of the Covenant was lost, and the survivors were chained and marched to slavery and exile in Babylon.
Though many would return and rebuild the temple, never was the Ark of the Covenant found, nor did the fiery sign of God’s presence, the Shekinah, ever return to the temple. Nor did most of Israel ever come home to their land. The biggest communities of Jews remained far away in Persia and Egypt, while foreigners ruled the Promised Land. That’s why John’s fellow Jews still felt very much in Exile, even while in Judea, because, in a sense, God remains in exile. That made them all the more open to John’s critique of their conduct, their lax devotion to God, and his call to repentance and to justice toward each other.
If this sense of their exile, and that of God, were the only thing that drew them into the water with John, that would be depressing. But I hear in John’s message and ministry also a strong note of hope. Which brings me to the second word: Expectation. The expectation that now God is drawing near and the exile is coming to an end, that now God is about to start the next stage of the work of restoration and renewal that he had promised, so that God will again dwell intimately and eternally with his people. That makes repentance and spiritual and moral housecleaning all the more timely, to remove the idols and the evils that stand in the way of God’s re-entry.
John’s expectancy was based not just in his insight into the time, but also in his vision, as he puts it, “of One greater, or mightier” than himself. That’s the third thing that drew people toward the radical act of baptism: John’s vision not only for the divine action, but for the divine actor. Once John conveyed this vision to others, and once they too caught sight of his vision of the “One greater than ourselves,” and of how much greater this One is than ourselves, it was natural that they would respond with self-examination, with repentance, submission, surrender and obedience to the call to baptism, with hope, with a willingness to start over. What moved people into the waters of baptism was not only a grievous and distressing vision of how far down they had fallen, and how far away they had wandered in spiritual exile, but a life-giving and hopeful vision of how high and holy was the One who drew near to them, and of how high up this One might draw them to himself.
So, what does this tell us? What lessons might we learn, especially in a month when we start so many accounts and activities anew for a calendar year? First, about exile, ours and that of God in this world: It’s not just a Jewish thing. You know that feeling of not fitting in that you get when our neighbors and friends ooh and ahh about the Pentagon’s latest military tactics and technology, like drone warfare, and you don’t feel any more secure? Or when you’re at the check-out aisle of the grocery store and you see those magazines with screaming headlines about what some celebrities were seen wearing, or not, and we’re expected to care about that because they are so famous for being famous? But you don’t care? That feeling of having stepped off onto the wrong planet this morning, and wishing that the angels would just beam you up, is no accident. We’re supposed to feel that. Being oriented toward faith in Christ, rather than to the fears and fashions of this world, that’s our calling as Christians. That’s why the apostle Peter addresses his Christian disciples in his two letters as “exiles….aliens….strangers and sojourners in the world.” If we are living for the God who is himself an exile in his own world, then of course our faith, our values and our conduct will set us apart. I believe that the Shekinah Glory of God did indeed return to the temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus there for Mary’s sacrifice of purification, and only Simeon and Anna recognized what had happened, I believe also that the glowing Shekinah pillar of God’s glory returned to God’s human temple, the church, when the tongues of fire danced over the heads of the 120 disciples with the gift of the Holy Spirit on a certain Pentecost Sunday. Still, to be a Christian is to join our Jewish friends, and God himself, in exile.
Just don’t let that sense of exile and estrangement from the world and its values lead us to fear, hatred or a sense of superiority over others, certainly not to vengeance or violence, like it did the three terrorists in France this week. Let it drive us toward God, the way it drove those Israelites into the Jordan River for John’s baptism. Let it drive us in compassion toward others and all people who share this same sense of homelessness and being out of place, whether they are Christian or not, whether they even recognize it or not, because it is part and parcel of the human condition.
The second thing we learn from John’s ministry is to share this sense of expectation that John had and that his audience caught. Though we may often feel lonely, John’s ministry and message tells us that we are not alone. The exile of God and God’s people is still drawing to an end, as more longing, hungry, penitent and expectant people, now from the nations, keep coming to the waters of baptism and do the serious spiritual housecleaning that John still calls us to do, examining our own hearts and heads and lives for any idols that God cannot enable or abide. While we wait for the God’s glory to return for all to see, we can at least, in the meantime, offer our exiled God a purified and consecrated Holy of Holies within our hearts.
Then we will do like Archimedes wanted to do. He was the ancient Greek physicist who said that if he could find the right place to put a lever, with it he could move the whole planet. John found that sweet, strategic place on which to move the world, but it was not in the palace of Herod, nor on the throne of Caesar. It was not in some general’s tent, nor among his marching legions. It was in the hearts of longing, hungry, penitent and expectant people, who took responsibility first for themselves, by offering themselves up for change: Jews who realized and confessed that the cause of their exile was not the pagans, not even the corrupt and corrupting Romans, but among and within themselves. Among the Jews, it was those of the Pharisee sect who realized and confessed that their real enemies were not those of Sadducee sect; and Sadducees who realized and confessed that the Pharisees were not the source of their problems. If there were liberal progressive types, they stopped blaming conservatives and traditionalists for their frustrations and failures. Any who considered themselves conservatives and traditionalists stopped making liberals and progressives their scapegoats and adversaries. By baptism they were confessing that their real problems were the idols within the inner sanctum of their own hearts, the alien fire on the altars of their spirits. That’s what was making of them exiles and aliens to God, each other and themselves.
If we would change the country, the church and the world, that is where we too must ever and always begin. Within our own hearts is the lever by which we each can move the world.
And that again depends upon our vision. “Vision” has been quite a buzzword in the world of corporations, business, and the church as well. Usually it means, “What is your vision of what you want to accomplish?” So, a business vision might be something like, “We will grow our sales volume by 50% by December 31, 2016.” Or for a church, “We will expand our Christian Education facilities, add a separate church service, and grow our attendance by 30%.” Which is better than having no idea for a desired future at all.
Here at Zion Mennonite Church we have a vision statement, and it’s a very good one. Its about who God calls to be and what that calls us to do. But what is the vision at the source of this vision statement? What—or better, Who– do we see, that inspires us to make such a statement of who we are and what we do? While a vision for human action and achievement may be exciting and motivating, I doubt that it alone has the power to radically transform hearts and lives and people the way John’s simple vision of “One greater than ourselves” did. That’s where all the visioning, hoping, planning, wishing and doing of God’s exile people must ever and always start and lead, not with a vision for human projects or purposes, but of the divine Person, “the One greater than ourselves.” I can’t guarantee that such a vision for God will make church attendance grow by 30%, add new worship services and cause us to need new Christian education classrooms. But it will grow us in giftedness and godliness, and such growth is the world-moving lever at our disposal.
Exile, expectancy and a vision for “the one greater than ourselves,” those are some of the things that brought card-carrying Jews to the waters of baptism. Now, what about Jesus? Why would the sinless one, the One greater than ourselves, “who knew no sin,” submit himself to a baptism for repentance of sins? One early church father was so stymied by this question that he came up with this explanation: by dunking himself into the dirty, polluted Jordan River, Jesus was actually helping to make it cleaner. Well, I can think of a few other rivers I’d like him to get into. I wish he could have done that in the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, before it caught fire in 1969.
For that alone, the Buckeyes should lose to the Ducks tomorrow.
I can better address that question with a story than with words or an idea. A few years ago I attended a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous, in the basement of the building where the church that I pastored then met. I liked going to those meetings occasionally, but not because I had a problem with narcotics. I have other issues, but by the grace of God, they’re not complicated by heroin or crack cocaine. I enjoy the refreshing candor of people who have already lost all respectability to their addiction, and who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by attending a meeting which starts out with everyone saying, “Hi, my name is….. and I’m an addict.” To which everyone responds with, “Hi……[your name]” and with affirming phrases like, “Keep coming! It works!” or “While you’re here, you’re clear!”
What if we should start every worship service here by standing up and saying “Hi I’m…..and I’m a sinner?” It would be like one of John’s Baptismal services along the Jordan.
As the meeting started and the introductions came my way, I was rehearsing how I was going to say, “Hi, my name is Mathew, and I’m an addict, though not to heroin or crack or cocaine, I’m an addict to overwork, over-achievement, respectability, caution” and the like. But when my turn came, I got no further than, “Hi, I’m Mathew, and I’m an addict,” when everyone interrupted me to say, “Hi Mathew,” and “Keep Coming; It works!” “While you’re here, you’re clear.” Then, suddenly, the person next to me stood up and said, “Hi, I’m Gilbert, and I’m an addict.” I was so wanting to interrupt Gilbert and say, “But hey, wait! I’m not that kind of addict! Not like you are!”
Fortunately, I knew better, shut myself up, and sat down.
That’s when it hit me: So why was I was all so concerned about making it clear that I wasn’t their kind of addict with their kinds of addictions? How honest was I about my addiction to respectability if I needed them to know that I had respectable addictions, like over-work and over-achievement, unlike their addictions? If I cared about being like Jesus, then why was I so worried about being confused for their kind of sinner, when Jesus himself was willing to wade into the Jordan River, to stand among and be identified with adulterers, embezzlers, prostitutes, bandits, and more?
The grace of God had just kept me from saying something incredibly stupid and prideful, by distinguishing my sin and addiction as different from, and probably better than, theirs. I could almost hear God saying to me, “I meant for you to say no more than you did. This was good for you; just the medicine your proud, proud heart needed. You should be happy and honored to be counted among people this courageous and persistent, given what all they are up against. Let them think whatever they wish of you; its no worse than the truth.”
I am glad though, that your search committee did not come to the streets of South Minneapolis to get references on me last year.
One reason then why the sinless Lamb of God submitted to John’s baptism for repentance of sin, is because the Shekinah Glory of God was returning from Exile to a new human temple not through overpowering acts of domination or subjugation, not in a stance of superiority nor separation, but in humble, gracious and loving identification with sinners. Just as Jesus was willing to be confused and identified with rebels when he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, so was he willing to confused and identified with all strugglers and sinners in the muddy waters of the Jordan.
He is mightier than us even in his humility.
What does that teach us? It tells me that such a humble, gracious stance of identification with all fellow exiles and aliens in this world is again our place of greatest leverage from which to move the world, rather than the usual stance and image of power, efficiency, effectiveness and with-it-ness that we so often want to project.
Which is not to say that we join everybody in whatever sin or bondage they are in; identification with fellow sinners is not the same thing as affirmation, celebration, nor participation in sin. The world does not need the church to join or affirm everything that everyone wants or does. But whenever we lose sight of “the One greater than ourselves,” and start to compare ourselves with others and consider ourselves above them in relative ranks of power, purity and piety, the more we risk driving everyone, including ourselves, deeper into exile, away from the One who is not only greater than ourselves, but who is unashamed to be found and counted among us.
Since Jesus is ever interceding for us, this, I think, is what he might be praying for us: “Return, Abba Father, in the fullness of your Shekinah glory to your new temple of flesh. Bring your wandering exiled children home, Lord, to the vision that John had of us, for our common frailty with all humanity, where we sense rightly our shared need, and can blush again over the great gulf between what we are and what you call us to be. Bring your people home, Lord, to the beautiful vision that John had of yourself, of your grandeur, glory and goodness, of your faithfulness, of the importance and the potential of every moment, so that we might be lifted up in wonder and worship of “One greater than ourselves,” full of eagerness, openness and expectations of your restoring, renewing work.