I first preached this sermon in the Church of England's congregation in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Lectionary Text: Matthew 3:13-17
Good morning! Here we are together in this place in the year 2020. For some of us, this is difficult information to process. We think about the passage of time, what our life journey has been thus far, and perhaps we make promises to ourselves about ways in which we’ll do better from here on out. Some of us may be pumped up and excited about the future while others fearful, discouraged, or overwhelmed. We may even feel guilt or shame about what we have or haven’t done to address the problems of this world, and, I suspect there are among us those who are tempted to use the tradition of making a new year’s resolution as weapon to beat themselves up for falling short of being their idealized version of themselves. If the latter describes you, then I please let me offer the words of advice made famous by the comedian Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”
Seriously though, if you can’t yet silence your inner tormentors then at least stop listening to them for this moment and remind yourself that you are a child of God. You are loved unconditionally, and the fact that you are in this room today proves that you want to draw closer to God, and that you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus and, in this very moment, you are doing your best. We don’t berate a child who is making great progress on doing long division for not understanding how compound interest works, do we? No, we don’t because that would be harmful to the child’s mental health and counterproductive to the goal becoming skilled at math. So why, then, do so many of us think that bullying ourselves into doing better will make us better people?
So that said, I have a couple alternative new year’s resolutions to suggest:
1) Be kinder to yourself this year. Give yourself permission to decline requests because you have something else on your schedule that day, and then make sure that something else is self-care. Do whatever helps you re-center, re-energize, and hangout with God.
2) Stay in Your Lane. Now hear me out; I didn’t like that expression the first time I heard it. To me, it sounded a lot like “keep your head down” or “mind your own business,” but as I was meditating on the Matthew passage this week, those words kept coming back to me. And so, I began pondering what staying in one’s lane could mean in the context of that story. See, I was taught in seminary that when we read scriptures—especially when they are familiar stories—that we should approach them with curiosity. Ask ourselves, what is it that I haven’t noticed before? We should read the text in many different locations and ponder how different contexts illuminate different aspects. We should pay attention to what comes before and after, compare it to similar statements and stories found in and outside of the Bible, do some research on the original audience, get out maps, and ask questions we’ve never asked before. Such as, what would it mean for John and Jesus to stay in their lanes, and could that teach us something that impacts our lives today?
You know, sometimes I feel a bit bad for John. Talk about doing your best to live up to your parents’ expectations all while living in a family member’s shadow. And what were these expectations? According to Luke, an angel told his dad, the priest Zechariah, that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17)
John looks to me like a textbook example of an over-performing only child raised by older parents who set high behavioral standards ‘cause John took the no alcohol part of the instructions and took it up a notch. He “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,” and instead of bread he lived on “locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4) Way before his slightly younger cousin Jesus stepped into public ministry, John was already out in the wilderness of Judea, preaching repentance and baptizing crowds of people in Jordan—across socio-economic and political lines, including Pharisees, Sadducees, soldiers, and tax collectors.
John was a superb teacher, and many came to him for advice.
When “the crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?' In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.' (Luke 3:10-14) A lot of people were thinking that John was the Messiah, but “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”(Luke 3:15-16)
And then we come to the moment in today’s lectionary text. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell it a bit differently, but Matthew says that “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.” (Matthew 3:13-15)
If you go searching for scholarly commentaries on Jesus’ baptism, you’ll find a lot of theologians tying themselves into knots trying to shoehorn this story into neat and tidy doctrinal statements. But there are so many hard questions to address. Why did Jesus need or want to be baptized? What exactly happened in that moment when the Holy Spirit came down, and does this mean that the Spirit wasn’t in Jesus already? Was the voice from heaven heard by anyone other than Jesus (Matthew says say, but Mark and Luke’s versions leave one wondering)? Had there been a possibility that God wouldn’t be pleased with Jesus? How do we make sense of this story when talk about trinitarian teachings? What does this mean in terms of the meaning and protocols around baptism?
Yeah, so, let’s not open that box today.
Instead, let’s turn again to John, whose birth and ministry were foretold by angels, who is trying so hard to live a righteous life and to turn others righteous living, yet he sees himself as unworthy to even untie the dirt and sweat caked cord on his cousin Jesus’ sandal. And Jesus comes to him and basically says, “You stay in your lane, and I’ll stay in mine. Your calling is to call folks to repentance and baptize them. So get over get over all this ‘I’m not worthy self-talk’ and baptize me. My job is something else, so, no, I’m not here to baptize you.”
Does this resonate with anyone this morning? It sure does with me. Every single person in this room—so that includes you—who desires to live a life pleasing to God has been give a specific set of gifts for the road they are on. The good news is that God doesn’t expect you or me to excel at everything or to actively respond to every problem in this world. We are only asked to answer our calling and to faithfully stay in that lane. Don’t think of life as a race; we are not in competition with the folks to our left and right. They are being sent on a different journey. And if they try a pull a John the Baptist and say “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly do this. It really should be you,” remember that without boundaries, we can’t move forward. If it isn’t in your lane, you can follow Jesus’ example and say “No.”
Now here’s the challenging part. If it is your lane—if it is next big thing in the middle of the road God has called you down, then don’t let fears of inadequacy or the knowledge that, yes, it is asking a lot, stop you from facing it. In the longrun, running away from our calling leaves us feeling lost. That said, taking regular breaks for self-care is not the same thing as quitting. In fact, being kind to ourselves helps us to be better people.
Now, yes, sometimes “Be kinder to yourself” and “stay in your lane” are inadequate words of advice when trying to figure out what we should be doing with our lives. But, sometimes, they are exactly what someone needs to hear. Amen