Baptised to Change the World
A sermon on Isaiah 42:1-9 & Matthew 3:13-17 by Jill Friebel 13 January 2008
Having just had a holiday I have been able to catch up with a variety of reading. Some of those have been inspiring biographies and autobiographies. People telling their shocking stories of their own abusive childhoods and now years later have established schools and refuges to protect other children suffering a similar plight. Or women in powerless situations trying to survive gross injustices but doggedly hang on for a better life for themselves and their children. They too have made it through to tell their story and are now inspiring and encouraging others. They start support groups or lobby governments or powerful people. The odds against them seemed massive but something in them cried out, “There has to be something better than this.” Something in them wouldn’t give up even when they were near death or defeat, humiliated and broken. The human spirit is capable of extraordinary resilience.
I have come across other stories and articles in The Age this week of people who make a difference in other peoples lives. Edmund Hillary who inspired thousands and set up schools in poverty stricken villages, a couple who have fostered 50 children over a period of 16 years and 2 of them are with them permanently. These people who make choices to sacrifice life styles because of love and compassion. It sounds glamorous but we all know it isn’t. Some of them are honoured and loved and others go unnoticed. They are people who are changing the world.
Recall the words of the God of Creation, the Lord of the universe who spoke through Isaiah in the first reading.
It is a description of someone who brings justice into a world who has forgotten what justice it is. Who isn’t arrogant or proud, who is caring for those who are fragile and vulnerable, who brings light to the blind, and gives feet to the lame. Someone who will not run out of steam or throw in the towel until their mission is accomplished. But the words come from God who is sending someone like this do his will.
It was an amazing description for someone to live up to. It describes a person who can change the world. Who could ever be like that? And what an amazing God or King that would desire this for his people and whose heart longed for this sort of justice for every living creature.
Before we jump to the conclusion that this is a description of Jesus, the identity of the Servant is not revealed in the Poem or Song. At the time it certainly meant someone else, but it is not clear and can only be guessed at. What it is certain, it is a description of whoever does God’s transformative work in the world. Someone who is chosen, given a new name, and in whom God delights. Someone who is powered by the spirit. Now the word used here for spirit is “ruach” and it is hard to describe just how much this word contains. It has many meanings which include God’s spirit, wind, emotions ranging from courage to anger, breath not only of God and humans but also animals and all living things, the energy of life. It can also mean animation, vivacity, vigour, and prophetic spirit. It is the source and energy of all life. The sort of life that keeps renewing, restoring, recreating, bursting out from dark places.
By the time we get to Matthew’s gospel Matthew has no doubt looking back that it this poem does describe Jesus. God chose Jesus and sent him in the fullness of time to be this Suffering Servant in a way that no-one else could do it, because he came fully loved and fully loving. But this is God ’s work, God’s idea and God’s desire for justice for all people. It was the Three-in-One God, their desire from the beginning of time and it is what all time heads towards.
When did Jesus take on this role? We heard it read tonight, at his baptism. We hear next to nothing about him up to this point, the birth stories and one incident when he was 13. The rest is silence. Something happened at this point.
When I was preparing for tonight I became quite excited at what I discovered. Which is not unusual for me. My longing is always that I can pass some of that onto you. So I will do my best.
I discovered that I had the four versions of the account of Jesus’ baptism merged into one and had come up with some false assumptions. That it was a very public affair and the crowds saw the heavens opened and saw the spirit descend and heard the voice proclaiming “You are my beloved Son,” and a sort hallelujah chorus was going on. But this was not the case at all.
Matthew’s version has Jesus lining up with everyone else and when he steps into the water John recognises his cousin straight away. He is taken back and starts remonstrating with Jesus that this is all wrong. He is embarrassed knowing for sure Jesus has no sins of which to repent. Jesus then says something like, “Shh, don’t draw attention, do it now to fulfil all righteousness.” John consents and only they see the heavens open and the Spirit descend and hear the voice. Everyone else is obliviously carrying on what they were doing; jostling and noisy, unaware of what is taking place right in front of their noses.
It seems that Luke also has a problem with John baptising Jesus because he can’t bring himself to say it at all. He has John in prison when Jesus is baptised. It was uncomfortable and awkward for them to accept this. So we have to ask what is happening here. Why was it important for Jesus to be baptised?
Jesus said it was to “fulfil all righteousness”. That is he is presenting himself to his Father in submission and obedience to enter into his life’s calling. He had never turned away from his Father and gone his own way, now he knows the time is right to take on the role of the Suffering Servant. Only he could achieve this in the fullest sense. At this point he hears his Father’s voice, “You are my Beloved Son, in whom I delight.” And the Spirit descends upon him.
These two passages put together paint a huge colourful picture of Christian baptism. The Greek word here used for spirit is ‘pneuma.’ It also holds much of what ‘ruach’ contains. But more, it is about knowing God and being known. Try to imagine ‘pneuma’ the gift of the Spirit entering into lives without the obstruction of fear and the resistance of cynicism and self-doubt. When your heart is cracked open with love and dogged determination to find something better and to change the world by loving and acting on behalf of the weak and abused.
I talked about the stories I have been reading of people changing their world. I reckon that God’s Spirit keeps bursting through any heart, whether they claim to be Christian or not. We see ruach working in their lives, restoring and renewing, we see it after every bushfire, tsumani, cyclone, war, we see it every spring, in the funniest of creatures, in caverns hidden below the earth, and the beauty of the skies.
But it’s beauty in never more redemptive than in a person who steps up to God in baptism and says, “Enough is enough. There has to be something better.” And they are filled with ‘pneuma’. Whether it is firstly for themselves and then for others, or whether they move from their privileged place of safety with a love and compassion for others who never had it in the first place. Christian baptism is a public act of stepping up to God in true repentance and submitting oneself to continue the work of changing the world. It is a repentance a turning around, admitting the self-destructiveness of trying to save ourselves and trusting in the power and Spirit of Jesus to do it in us.
I had a conversation with a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time this week. She is working as a nurse consultant at Eastern health in the drug and alcohol section. She was telling me at one stage she had a boss who was obstructionist and sarcastically told her that she just wanted to change the world. Yes, that’s right, that’s what we are baptised to do, to change the world, to have hope when it is hopeless, to love when there seems no response, to hang in when others would give up, to keep writing letters and banging on doors and wearing down those who have the power to bring about change.
Some of you here are doing this in wonderful and beautiful ways. I am the luckiest person, because I get to see and experience it first hand, for as is so often the case people change slowly and it is mostly done in the dark. It is hard won, years of hanging in while the Spirit heals. The ones that make it through are the ones that don’t give up, that keep coming back, regardless of what is going on on the inside. Many of you are changing, and you are changing your world, loving those who are in your care, reaching out to the vulnerable and wounded at work. We can never love too much, because the more we give the more it keeps coming back. I have been in conversations recently where two of our members both feel God is calling them to care for and foster children. Who knows whether God may be calling us to support them and as a group of baptised people, to encourage and enable one another to change the world.
If you are not baptised the invitation is to step up publicly and declare your submission to the will of the loving great Father and Mother. If you are baptised your invitation is to live more deeply into the role of the Suffering Servant. Forget about yourself and your own issues and take bold risks for others who are crying out for love and justice and receive the Spirit, the pneuma will bring newness and life to you and others. And hear the voice again whisper deeply into your soul, “You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son, in whom I take great delight.” Amen