I’m taking the unusual step of posting my first draft of the sermon tomorrow in light of the events of today. I’m particularly appreciative of any comments you might have over the next ten hours or so as I continue to refine this. Thanks for participating in this sermon crowdsourcing!
Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
Yesterday morning, I had the privilege of speaking with a group of women and men at the First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica here in Queens about the process and practice of preaching. They are in the midst of a training program to explore and develop their gifts for ministry in that congregation, and as they begin their conversation about preaching, I talked with them about how I approach each week’s sermon. They asked me lots of great questions, but one of our conversations sticks out in light of everything else that happened yesterday. We talked a bit about what I’ve done when I’ve needed to change a sermon, and I noted that I have on occasion chosen to make major changes to my sermon on Saturday night or even Sunday morning.
Today is one of those days. About the same time I got home from that gathering in Jamaica, a gunman shot into a crowd who had gathered outside a supermarket to meet with their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as you probably know, some nineteen people were shot, and six of those have died, including a federal judge who had stopped by to say hello. I spent a good bit of yesterday afternoon in shock, following the story on TV and online, paying probably too much attention to all the details, and tracking the various details about this deeply disturbing and troubling event. So today I can’t just talk about the baptism of Jesus in the same way I had planned to do before the events of yesterday.
One statement in all the events of yesterday stuck out to me in light of our scripture readings for today. The new speaker of the house, John Boehner, offered a simple and short statement in response, saying in part: “An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” His words are an important reminder that this sort of tragic violence is simply not acceptable.
But even more so, I think his words point us to the prophet Isaiah, one who proclaimed that servanthood is something that comes from God and that the true servant comes to bring justice and righteousness without violence or even a raised voice, showing us that God’s way is unlike our human ways and demands justice in the midst of incredible hope and peace. This servant is steadfast and faithful in seeking and establishing justice, and the earth longs for this to become real.
In light of the events of yesterday, I think our longings for justice to become real are deeper than ever – not just for those who committed this senseless crime to be brought to trial but for something new and different to take hold around us, for violence to ease and warfare to end, for a different way of thinking and being and most especially speaking to take root, putting aside the vitriol and hate on all sides, setting aside the language of violence that pervades so much of our culture when we make “targets” of politicians in the next election, “fight a battle” against illness, or even suggest that we should be “soldiers of the cross” in carrying God’s message to the world, but instead opening ourselves to God’s real and difficult work of bearing forth righteousness and justice into our world. And so the servant joins in this work, stepping up to the difficult task of making God’s way real in the world and standing alongside all those who serve in countless – even at times seemingly conflicting – ways to embody this faithful and persistent justice in the world.
The prophet makes this way of justice clear, but then he continues by speaking directly to the servant, offering words of encouragement and hope for the challenges ahead, and pointing to the hope of justice and peace as the primary purpose and goal of the servant’s work. The servant stands with a mandate from God to be something new, to place the covenant made with Israel into bodily, human form, to be accompanied by God’s presence in the midst of trial, to open a new way for all who face uncertainty, pain, and hurt, and to bring light to the darkness that too often covers the world. In the midst of such incredible pain and hurt, God acts in and through the servant to make all things new, to embody and spread comfort and hope and peace and wholeness into the places of harm and hurt, to stand with those are attacked in body, mind, and spirit, and to make it clear that no one who walks in this way of new life and service will stand alone.
In the end, that is the real important message of the baptism of Jesus for us, too – we do not face this way of life alone. The one whose birth we have celebrated together over the last few weeks – Jesus – was human just like us, lived and breathed and thought just like us, faced temptations just like us, walked and ran and sang and danced just like us, and died just as we will one day do. Most of all, Jesus was baptized just like us – the exact meaning of that baptism can and will be debated, but because we share in his baptism and his life and his death and his resurrection, we can be sure that we are not alone.
We are not alone when things get tough – when life is hard and death and uncertainty surround us, when the darkness of the world seems to close in, when peace and justice seem far off and uncertain, as we have seen all too much in recent days. In these moments, we are not alone because Jesus shares our baptism and makes us whole again.
But we are also not alone when we walk forth from this place as God’s baptized servants – when we struggle to live out the ways of peace and justice set forth for the servant, when we feel resistance to God’s call to step out in a new way of hope, when we need help to find persistence and hope in the midst of changing and uncertain times, and even when we see little glimpses of God’s light breaking into the darkness of our lives and our world. In these moments too, we are not alone because Jesus shares our baptism and invites us to join him in fulfilling all righteousness.
The days ahead for us as a nation will be difficult. We have a tremendous task of mourning ahead for those who died, and even at this early moment, there seems also to be some deeper reflection necessary as well. As Christian thinker Diana Butler Bass put it:
We need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans – how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.
But the good news of Jesus’ baptism is that he shares in this moment with us. He invites us to this conversation, he comforts us in the midst of our pain and sorrow and confusion and hurt, he shows us where we have gone wrong, he gives us grace and mercy for all our faults, he offers us wisdom for finding a new way, and he steps in to lead us there himself. May Jesus’ baptism that we celebrate today remind us of these waters that we share, waters poured out in mercy for a broken and fearful world as we face brokenness and fear head on, so that we might go forth to walk in the light and peace and justice of God each and every day. Lord, come quickly! Amen.
Susie Atkinson says
Dear Andy, Thank you for sharing this. Your words echo the
thoughts I have been having for some time – even before this
senseless shooting. Dialogue and actions have indeed grown more
violent. I, too, believe that as Christians we need to be reminded
that Christ is walking with us and that WE are to take that light
into the world in as many ways as possible as often as possible.
Again, thank you! Your words were inspirational. Susie Atkinson,
Pastor, Diamond Hill PC, Gladys, VA
Andy James says
A note for posterity as much as anything: I ended up preaching a sermon very much like this one with only minor changes, so I’m not going to post a sermon separately. Thanks to those who offered feedback – it was greatly appreciated!