Sermon delivered by Dock Hollingsworth, assistant dean and instructor of supervised ministry at McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on Feb. 3, 2009.
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. Then he consented.6And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, the Beloved,d with whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17 NRSV)
Jesus was baptized. The Greek word is baptizo which means either to dip or submerge. There is nothing like hooking your listener early in the introduction to a sermon by saying the Greek word is ¦ But, our Baptist heritage has much invested in the translation of this word. I got this translation from Tom Slater and he’s a Methodist!
Because of my Baptist heritage, every time I ever saw someone baptized, in all of my growing up years, they went all the way under that water and came up drenched. Now I know that the way I grew up seeing baptism has surely had more affect on me than the Greek verbs but in either case, when I hear the scripture, And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up out of the water my imagination is not good enough to conger any image besides Jesus coming out of the River Jordon soaking wet from head to toe.
Jesus, wet from head to toe, is an image that is informed more by tradition than attention to the Greek verb but here’s the other thing, it is a symbol of full commitment. In a story with all of the grandeur of the opening heavens and the descending Spirit, I just can imagine Jesus any way but fully drenched. There is something about an image of Jesus with his clothing stuck to his body and his hair matted to his face that says I’m all in . This is a wide-open full bore commitment to my purpose in life “ this is a head to toe sopping wet full commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven and my part in it.
Before we get inside the story, I just needed to come clean with how this story is seen in my head.
Before this story in Matthew’s gospel, things have been pretty quiet since Christmas. After the birth and the visit from the wise men, we have the story of Joseph moving his family to Egypt to escape Herod but in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is a baby until now. Until now, Matthew has foretold his messiahship but Jesus is about to begin the demonstration of what that ministry looks like. This text includes the first spoken words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel and right from the beginning, he is turning expectations on their heads. The public ministry begins here when Jesus walks up on his cousin and asks to be baptized.
Jesus may not have had followers at this point but John did. And, John, in the company of those followers has just made a big deal out of baptism. John was preaching his sermon series on repentance, Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near and people from Jerusalem and all of Judea were going to him, confessing their sins, and being baptized.
And here is Jesus, one of the ones in line, one of the ones coming to John, with nothing to confess.
Jesus saw his cousin and asked to be baptized. John pushes back saying in essence, You are the greater, I am the lesser, I should submit to baptism from you. But instead, already upending what is expected, Jesus is baptized by John in an act of solidarity with us.
They waded out into the river and John baptized with water the one whom he declared would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He comes up from the water, wet from head to toe, all in. There is no back-up plan. He stands before his purpose with a wide open commitment, all chips in, full out. This is a head to toe, sopping wet, full commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven and his part in it.
The public ministry has begun.
While I contend that all in might describe Jesus’ entry into public ministry, it would not have described mine. I’m a bit more careful. I’ve always been a little skittish around folks who were all out. Radicals scare me. I am careful, prudent, orderly. I want to be perceived as having my act together “ a person of dignity and moderation – not as some radical. People of radical commitment wear orange pants to Clemson football games, set Guinness records for largest collection of Jello molds. People of radical commitment drive Mopeds that run on used cooking oil.
While I love to see a good radical every now and then, I have always favored balance, order, partial commitment to several worthy causes that might help the human condition a bit. To my thinking, it is better to not cause a stir, not be too sold out to anything, not to be so fully committed to any cause that I might look foolish and then I look up and see my Lord at the beginning of His ministry, coming up out of the River Jordan – soaking wet “ all in.
This ministry begins with a symbol of full commitment and all of the teaching and preaching in Matthew sounds like He’s looking for other radicals to join him. In Matthew’s gospel alone He said things like this:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
The rich young ruler wanted to keep laws and keep standing but Jesus was not satisfied with his level of commitment, Jesus said to him, if you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
I think the Kingdom of Heaven is looking for a radical or two!
I was in CPE at Emory Hospital in the late 1980s. I had to present a verbatim case study to a larger group than my usual peer group of 6 people. About 35 folks were assembled to hear my case study and I had poured over it and weighed every line. I did not want to look foolish. Before I started to read, one of the supervisors, Jim Shumake said, Dock, I can’t sit here and listen to you will all of the slick stuff you have going on. Your clothes are crisp and your hair’s in place and it just makes me sick. If you will loosen your tie, mess up your hair and lower your socks, then you might have enough defenses down to actually learn something but as it is, I don’t think anything will penetrate your slick stuff.
We spent the next hour talking about why I would not push my socks down to please Jim Shumake and we never got to my verbatim.
I did not do what he wanted but I now see his point. He made his point in a belligerent way but I now see what he was getting at – How can I protect myself from what others might think and be open to something as radical and what God is doing the world.
T.S. Elliot said, We know too much, and we are convinced of too little.
I am the back-up preacher today. You are going to be really disappointed when I tell you who was invited and could not come. Congressman John Lewis was supposed to lead off the semester for us. I met Congressman Lewis this year and asked him if he would be willing to come to campus and speak. He seemed genuinely interested but we were not able to work out the calendar. I did not want him to speak about the Middle East or the current economy. I did not even want him to speak about his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement. I asked him to come to McAfee and talk about his time as a seminary student.
Did you know that he was a 20-something seminarian? I read about his early life in David Halberstam’s wonderful history of the Freedom Riders, entitled, The Children. He was a student at the poorest of seminaries, American Baptist in Nashville, Tn. and his favorite professor was also the pastor of The First Baptist Church, the black First Baptist Church in Nashville. His name was Kelly Miller Smith. Through Kelly Miller Smith, Lewis was introduced to Jim Lawson who was teaching Nashville workshops in non-violence. A learning community formed. A mix of American Baptist students and Fisk students and area ministers and professors were meeting and talking and dreaming. Jim Lawson used a phrase in these meetings that jumped out at John Lewis “ he talked about the beloved community. (p.79) Something happened in classroom and community that changed the way John Lewis and these other young leaders saw the world. Some level of new commitment to the gospel and to the possibility of a beloved community took hold. The book goes on to tell the story of young freedom riders who were so committed that they committed to non-violent sit ins. They allowed themselves to be thrown from lunch counter stools, kicked in the head, cursed and spit on. John Lewis could not have known he would become a Civil Rights icon and a US Congressman. He was a 20-something student. He was living into an image of the gospel that was worthy of a soaking wet, all in, commitment. He trusted that this gospel was true enough, dependable enough, important enough, and big enough to throw his whole self into the Kingdom of Heaven and his part in it.(The Children, David Halberstam, Random House, 1998)
I’m not asking you to subject yourselves to beatings but I am asking that we not avoid this question, What would full commitment look like in your life? When you see an image of our Lord standing in the River Jordan with wet hair matted to his face and with pleading eyes asks if you are all in what does he want from you?
Some people spend their time at seminary learning the language of graduate school, leaving to get a stable job, and they enjoy a decent life “ passing out the Sunday School literature.
But some people catch a vision.
Some look into the eyes of a sopping wet Jesus and respond with their own, wide open, radical, full commitment to the Kingdom of Heaven and their part in it. Those people change the world.