First Baptist Richmond, January 8, 2023
Baptism of the Lord
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Today we begin a new sermon series suggested by my friend Don Flowers, who pitched it to us at Preacher Camp last summer by saying, “For Epiphany, how about a series called ‘Be curious, not judgmental’?” “OK,” we said (trying to be exactly that), “tell us more.” And then Don started talking about a television show called “Ted Lasso.” Have you seen it? It’s about a football coach from America who is hired to coach a soccer team in England even though he knows nothing about soccer. What he does know something about…is people. Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) is a folksy, good-natured, fish-out-of-water who wins you over from the first episode with his one-word philosophy: “Believe.”
Lasso is hired to work with the Richmond Greyhounds, a football club (because that’s what they call soccer teams in England) that has fallen on hard times. He brings his friend and fellow coach “Beard” along with him as they try to learn the rules of soccer while digging into the psychology of the fractured team and the football club’s manager, Rebecca, who is going through a bitter divorce from Rupert, the club’s former owner.[i]
In one of the most memorable scenes from the show Ted challenges Rupert to a game of darts, which makes everyone laugh. What could this American possibly know about darts, a game the English have been playing in pubs for generations? In fact, after accepting Ted’s challenge, Rupert produces a small leather case containing his own, custom-made darts and proceeds to show Ted how the game is played. As you might expect, Ted is losing badly when he steps up to take his final throw. But he asks the barkeep, “What’s it going to take to win?” She mumbles something like, “Two triple twenties and a bullseye.” Rupert chuckles and says, “Good luck.”
But Ted says, “You know, Rupert, guys have underestimated me my entire life. And for years I never understood why. It used to really bother me. But then one day I was driving my little boy to school and I saw this quote by Walt Whitman painted on the wall there that said, ‘Be curious, not judgmental.’I like that.” And then Ted throws a dart into this tiny red rectangle on the dart board, right where it needs to go: double twenty. A murmur goes up from the crowd.
“So, I get back in my car,” he says, “and I’m driving to work and all of a sudden it hits me. All them fellas who used to belittle me, not a single one of them was curious. You know, they thought they had everything figured out. So they judged everything. And they judged everyone. And I realized that their underestimating me? Whew! Who I was had nothing to do with it. Because if they were curious, they would’ve asked questions. You know, questions like, ‘Have you played a lot of darts, Ted?’” At which point he throws his second dart and sticks it right beside the first one: another double twenty. Everyone gasps, and Ted says, “To which I would have answered, ‘Yes sir. Every Sunday afternoon at a sports bar with my father from age ten till I was sixteen when he passed away.” And then Ted pauses, lines up his third shot, and says, “Barbecue sauce.” And sticks the dart in the center of the bullseye to win the game.[ii]
It’s a great scene, and a great quote: “Be curious, not judgmental.” But apparently Walt Whitman didn’t say it. As I searched the Internet for the actual source I found this quote by Martin Luther King, whose birthday is coming up next week. It’s not exactly the same, but sixty years ago, while giving a speech at Cornell College in Iowa, King said, “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other. They don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other. And they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.”[iii]
But what if they weren’t? What if we weren’t? What if, instead of separating ourselves from one another, we became curious, and started asking questions? How would that change the world? I remember spending Thanksgiving with my family back in 1984, an election year, when my brother and I nearly came to blows over our differences of opinion. I was only 25 years old, but at some point during that long weekend I realized there is a way to talk to people that opens them up, and another way that shuts them down. Maybe it’s the difference between being curious and being judgmental.
If that’s a good way to think about our conversation with people, it might be a good way to think about our conversation with Scripture. Too often we stand above Scripture, telling it what it’s supposed to mean instead of standing under it, asking questions, and listening for answers. One of the best things I do in my weekly sermon-writing process is go to a coffee shop on Monday afternoon and spend an hour reading through the lectionary texts for the following Sunday. An hour! Just reading and re-reading. And then I get up, get a cup of coffee, come back to the text I’m planning to preach, and try to come up with twenty questions. It’s not easy! Ten questions is easy, but twenty questions is hard. It takes another hour. But when I’m finished I can hardly wait to get to the commentaries and look for the answers. If I had gone to the commentaries first I might have found answers to questions I would never ask.
That’s been a good approach for me as I study Scripture. It’s kept me curious, and not judgmental. Today’s Gospel lesson is a good example. It would be a little too easy to say, “Oh, right. The baptism of Jesus.” And then to stand up here without even looking at the Bible and tell you what the baptism of Jesus is all about. It might not be a bad sermon, but it would come not from the text, but from what I think the text is about, or even what I think baptism is about. It would be judgmental. It’s harder to spend an hour asking the text questions, but it keeps me curious. So, let’s take a look at today’s Gospel lesson and see what kinds of questions come to mind.
It’s Matthew 3:13-17—just five verses. Can you imagine how hard it would be to get twenty questions out of that? That’s an average of four questions per verse! It starts with the news that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him,” and I have some questions about that. How did Jesus hear that John was baptizing? Did someone stop by his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth one day and say, “Hey, Jesus! You should go down to the Jordan! John is baptizing and people from Jerusalem and all Judea, and all that region along the Jordan are going out to him to be baptized!”? Did Jesus ask, “What kind of baptism is it?” And did this person reply, “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? You see, if I were the sinless Son of God, that’s when I would know I didn’t need to go. Because there would be no need to repent, and no need for forgiveness! But for some reason, Jesus packed a bag, kissed his mother goodbye, and went. Why?
If you’ve been counting, that’s five questions already. But let’s look at the next verse. When it was Jesus’ turn to be baptized, when John looked up and saw who was standing there, “[He] would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Aha! So John knows who Jesus is! But how? When did he get to know him? And where? In this Gospel Matthew doesn’t say, but in Luke’s Gospel when Mary is told by an angel that she is going to have a baby she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and as soon as Mary calls out a greeting from the front gate Elizabeth’s baby (John, who is still in the womb) jumps for joy. So it isn’t too much to believe that these two boys would have gotten to know each other through the years, and that their mothers would have told them that story. But it’s not in Matthew’s Gospel, and it’s not in Mark, and it’s not in John. The best we can do is assume that Jesus’ relationship to John was a matter of common knowledge in the early church, and that John’s need to ask “What are you doing here?” would have been understood.
But let me pause long enough to ask: what are you doing here? What are you doing sitting in a church pew on a Sunday morning, or sitting at your kitchen table watching a worship service on your laptop or tablet, or sitting in your recliner watching First Baptist on TV? If someone asked you that question in the wrong tone of voice you might get defensive and say, “It’s none of your business what I do with my own time!” But what if they asked you in the right tone of voice? What if they were genuinely curious? What would you say?
I asked that question on Facebook last week—“Why do you go to church?”—and got some beautiful answers. Kenny Park wrote, “To see God’s face in the faces of those gathered, to hear God’s voice in the interactions, conversations, questions, and (sometimes) answers expressed.” Jen Tsimpris wrote: “Some of the happiest, most sustaining, edifying, and peaceful times in my childhood were spent in church, as a part of the community of believers. I want my children to have the same experiences, from which they too can draw strength, courage, and hope in the years to come.” Margaret Spencer wrote: “You want honest? Sometimes it’s because it’s really hard to break the habits of a lifetime. Sometimes it’s because if I didn’t go to church, my already-small social circle would be downright tiny. Sometimes it’s because it’s my scheduled day to greet. Sometimes it’s because it’s time to make baked ziti casserole for one of our social service agency mission partners. And then there are the days when a sermon suddenly ‘connects,’ or the choir delivers a wonderful/challenging/brand-new or old favorite anthem that resonates, both literally and figuratively, and I remember that, with any luck, I go to church to make a difference.”
I could go on. There were over a hundred comments on that post last time I checked and if you are my Facebook friend maybe you will take a look at them this afternoon. But maybe you can keep those three in mind for now and keep your own reasons in mind when I ask you to bring your pledge card forward at the end of the service, or make your commitment to give online. Maybe you can see that there are some very good reasons for being with us in person or connecting with us in other ways, and that what we do in church is worth supporting: it’s not only life-giving, but often also life-changing. When someone is baptized, for example: when they give up their old life, renounce their old ways, and announce to the world that from now on “Jesus is Lord.” When they go down into the water still covered in sin but come up clean. When they gasp for breath and fill their lungs with the Holy Spirit. That’s life changing. That’s why we Baptists have taken our name from that act.
Have you noticed the stained glass window in our baptistery? The one that shows John getting ready to baptize Jesus? It is an illustration of today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 3. And above that illustration is a portion of verse 15, carved into the marble of our baptistery: “Let it be so now; for it is proper in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.” If you haven’t come up with your twenty questions by this point, you should have no trouble now. Because I don’t know what that means—“to fulfill all righteousness.” I’m curious. The way it’s carved into our baptistery could make you think that this is how we fulfill all righteousness: that being baptized is what makes us right with God. But even if that were true it’s not why Jesus was baptized. He didn’t need to be made right with God. So, why did he do it?
Through the years it has helped me to paraphrase Jesus’ response by saying: “Let it be so now, John; it’s the right thing to do.” That’s one of the possible translations of this verse. And if you read on in this text you can see why it was the right thing to do. Because no sooner had Jesus come up out of the water than the heavens were opened, and he saw the Holy Spirit fluttering down in the form of a dove, and a voice like thunder said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I sometimes explain the word epiphany to children by saying, “It means, literally, ‘to shine upon.’ Like when you hear a noise behind your house in the middle of the night, and you go out there with a flashlight, and you find a raccoon standing in the alley, with another raccoon on his shoulders digging through your garbage can. You shine your light on those two and say, ‘Aha! So that’s what’s making that noise! A couple of raccoons!’” It’s an epiphany with a lower case “e.” But in the baptism of Jesus we have an Epiphany with a capital “E.” God shines a light on him from heaven and we say, “Aha! So that’s who that is! The Beloved Son of God!”
If you have eyes to see it, it can be an answer to the question of why Jesus would come for baptism at all: because it was the right thing to do, because, in this way, he could be revealed for who he really was. And if that’s true—if he really is the Beloved Son of God—then it might be the answer to that other question as well: “What are you doing here?” I don’t know what you would say to that, but if Jesus really is the Beloved Son of God then let me ask my twentieth and final question:
Where else would I be?
—Jim Somerville © 2023