On the Spot

by David Baer, January 11, 2015

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Text: Matthew 3:1-17

There’s something powerful about having someone on your side. In the M·A·S·H episode, “Operation Noselift,” Hawkeye and Trapper arrange for a private with an awkwardly shaped nose to have plastic surgery in the unit’s operating room. Now, however good their intentions, this was an unauthorized and illegal use of Army resources, so when Frank Burns finds out that someone has had plastic surgery he vows that he’s going to find out who it is. But when he goes out into the camp, everyone is wearing bandages on their noses. Even the dog has a nose bandage.1 It’s nice to have someone on your side when the powers that be are out to get you, when you’re on the spot.

You probably know what it’s like to be on the spot. Maybe you’ve never had illegal plastic surgery, but if you’ve ever been called up to the chalkboard in school, if you’ve ever had a job interview or a performance review, if you’ve ever asked someone on a date, then you know what it’s like to be on the spot. You’re on you own, putting yourself forward, offering yourself up to the judgment of other people, and you don’t know for sure what they’ll say. I always have to laugh when I come across this particular photo of myself at the presbytery meeting where I was examined for ordination, because in that photo my eyes are about as wide as dinner plates. That’s what it feels like to be on the spot. We’ve all got our stories, haven’t we?

There are light, funny stores about being on the spot, but then there are deeper and rawer stories too. Maybe you disappointed someone you love. Maybe you hurt someone so deeply that you can’t make it right. Maybe you know you’re caught in a damaging way of living, and you don’t know how to climb out. Maybe someone else hurt you, and you don’t think you’ll ever be the same. You wonder what other people think about you. You wonder what God thinks of you. This is more than just being on the spot from embarrassment—this is shame and guilt from the brokenness that tangles and twists its way into every part of our lives. We can pretend it isn’t there or that it doesn’t matter, but deep inside we know that it does. Every moment of the story of our life is being written, and no part of it can ever be unwritten. In the space of eternity this book lies open. And so whether or not we’re conscious of it in every moment, we’re on the spot.

Our gospel lesson today is about Jesus putting himself on the spot with us and for us. He didn’t have to take our side, but he did. And when he does this, the Spirit rests on him, and he hears the voice of the One he knows as Father declaring his love for his Son. The Triune God comes together in the moment where Jesus puts himself on the spot through baptism, tying himself to us in our struggle with brokenness and sin.

Let’s take a moment first to understand what it meant for Jesus to be baptized. Last week we had celebrated the baptism of my son here in the sanctuary. For us baptism has become a regular milestone in the Christian life. That wasn’t so in the time of Jesus and John the Baptist. This wasn’t something everyone had always done. This was an act with particular significance. Remember that these Jewish people believed that their ancestors had been rescued from slavery in Egypt and led through the wilderness, where they finally crossed over the Jordan river and entered the promised land. When their ancestors had moved across the river, it was a fresh start. It was an entry into a new life that God was giving them.

But now, people wondered what had become of the gift God gave them. They were a people suffering foreign occupation, corrupt and tyrannical governance. Many of them suffered hunger and disease. They had a sense that somehow, as individuals and as a people, they had taken a wrong turn. Their sin, their falling away from God’s purpose and God’s intention, had damaged their inheritance–their promised land and their special status as God’s chosen people.

What John was doing was inviting the people to repent, to make a fresh start, to take a symbolic journey out of the promised land, and to re-enter the land, as their ancestors had done. He invited them to be cleansed by the water so that they could be ready for God’s new fresh start, the “kingdom of heaven” that John said was so near. According to the gospel story, people came out in droves from Jerusalem and Judea and the whole countryside around the Jordan river to confess—to say that they were sorry for all the ways their lives had fallen short—and to be baptized in preparation for what God was about to do next. That’s what John’s baptism was about: looking backward and saying, “I’m sorry”; looking forward and saying, “I’m ready.”

Part of the excitement of John’s preaching came from John’s insistence that what he was doing didn’t stand on its own, that there was a next act waiting in the wings. He told the people that there was another leader coming after him who would take this cleansing of baptism and make it more than just a symbol. John said that this new teacher would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire. He would separate out the righteous from the wicked like a farmer who separates out the grain from stalks of wheat, and throws the waste into the fire to be burned up. That’s why you need to repent and be baptized, John said. When this greater teacher arrives, you want to be found among the wheat, not the waste.

What a shock, then, when that teacher did arrive. Jesus came, not to join John in the work of baptizing and cleansing, but to join the people who were being baptized in the work of repentance. I don’t know how John recognized Jesus, but he did, and he was astonished: the whole point of baptism was to call sinners to repentance, and Jesus isn’t a sinner. “I need to be baptized by you,” says John. “What are you doing coming to me?”

Isn’t that how we think of God? God is up there, watching me, maybe judging me. God is up there, shouting down instructions about how to live, hoping to be heard by somebody. We have a hard time getting our heads around Jesus, getting our heads around God-with-us, and so over the years many, many people have tried to avoid it. Some people have said that Jesus only seemed to be human. Some people have said that God couldn’t possibly become one of us, and so Jesus was only human—a wise teacher, but nothing more. But what we have in this gospel passage is a story about a God who not only looks and walks and talks like us, but who takes on the struggles that come with being human—temptation and disappointment and anxiety and grief. Jesus is here not just to look human, but to be human, without ceasing to be God. That’s why he’s Immanuel—God-with-us.

Jesus tells John, tells us, “Let it go.” He tells us to let go of our conception of a God who is up there and above us, and to allow God in Jesus to be down here, on the spot, on our side. But even more than that, he says that this is a fitting way for God’s will to be done. The world could be put right through a fiery judgment, with God standing over it, looking down. But God chose to be right in the middle of that struggle, right in the middle of that judgment. And that’s who Jesus is—God-with-us, God on the spot with us, God on our side.

And so in the very moment that we find ourselves on the spot, we can be sure that Jesus is there with us, on our side. He’s one of us. It’s as if he walked into an Sinners Anonymous meeting and said, “My name is Jesus, and I’m a sinner.” Jesus came to bear burdens that didn’t belong to him—burdens of sickness and guilt and brokenness. He can bear them along with us because he’s human. He can overcome them because he’s God.

That’s the kind of life Jesus led, from the very beginning of his ministry here at the Jordan river, all the way to the cross at Calvary. Jesus came to be on our side, to walk with us through our struggles, to carry our burdens, to take them on himself and be weighted down into the dust, and then, in an astounding miracle, to rise.

So may you, when you’re struggling with the brokenness of your own life, may you remember Jesus’ baptism. Remember that just as you were baptized into this struggle toward wholeness, so was Jesus. May you remember that in his flesh and blood and temptations and fear and grief, Jesus was every bit as human as you and I, and so he is there with you. Jesus puts himself on the spot with us and for us. He became like us. But because he became like us, we are able to become like him. And so in our baptism we are also there with Jesus, when he comes up out of the water, when the Spirit dove rests on him with grace to carry him through his trials, and when he hears the voice from heaven that is meant for us every bit as much as it is for him: “You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased.” Amen.

Footnotes

  1. http://www.tv.com/shows/mash/operation-noselift-43241/, accessed 1/9/2015.

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