Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Being in the right place at the right time can make or break careers and companies. That’s what business leaders were taught for generations until the global pandemic unfolded before us three years ago. That old adage of being there went hand in hand with the saying, that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up.
In commercial ventures, “being there” often meant having a presence on the ground. So in business schools, students studied both failures and successes. Kodak Photography, for example, might have had a brighter future, dominating digital imaging, if the company had “been there” in Silicon Valley soaking up the sunshine of digital creativity. Instead, the firm remained firmly in Rochester, New York, capital of an older technology era. In contrast, today’s Thomson-Reuters, reluctantly allowed a key staff member to move from London to California, where he showed up in the places that emerging talent hung out, including the Stanford student cafeteria. By being there, he was in preferred position to invest in many star start-ups and make friends with potential partners.
It’s an apparent paradox of this global pandemic. The declining significance of place is associated with the rising significance of technology which helps us connect with anyone anywhere nearly instantaneously, without ever needing to be there in the same place. Yet being in the same place at the right time means being able to make the serendipitous connections and discoveries that lead to success.
Certainly, this is a dilemma for business leaders, civic leaders, employees, and yes, even for the church. How much on-the-ground presence is needed in this day and age? Is it still important to be in the right place, preferably at the right time. The story of the Jesus baptism of Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading, offers some insight into the church’s unique challenge.
In St. Matthew’s gospel we read that “All of Judea went out to hear John the Baptist preach, and so did all of the people of Jerusalem.” This was quite an incredible feat. John’s sanctuary, after, was not at the world’s crossroads, in a comfortable setting where people would find convenient to reach. John’s followers went out into the wilderness to hear him and to confess their sins and to be baptized.
While one might think this was an interesting and intriguing business plans, but surprisingly it wasn’t. In the ancient Mediterranean world’s code of honor and shame, this would have been a challenging thing to do. At that time, any dignified person, especially a man, would do anything he could to amass honor and avoid shame. Therefore, coming to John for baptism and confessing one’s sin in public would not bode well for one’s reputation. God’s approval, forgiveness and blessing would come at the cost of losing face and social honor. Yes, people came to John not because it was convenient, but they came because it was important.
One could say that John was effective because he was a man who lived his message. Many men can preach a good sermon while their own life style denies its truth. They harbor a sizeable bank account while speaking of heavenly treasure. They extol the virtues of poverty while residing in a comfortable home. John was not such a man. He confidently lived his message in the desert where he preached of the coming of the God of New Beginnings. John taught that he was not worthy to untie the thong of the one who was to come.
Scripture doesn’t ever explain why Jesus chose to leave Nazareth that day, and to go down to the River Jordan to be baptized by John. But this was one of life’s serendipitous moment when connection and discoveries are made. The two men were relatives who no doubt spent time together every year for 30 years. Certainly, there must have been theological conversations over John’s work. But there are also a few theological problems with Jesus entering into the story at that moment. It is why John protested at Jesus’ baptism. After all, the baptism which John offered was a baptism of repentance, meant for those who were sorry for their transgressions and who were seeking a new way of life through the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus have to do with such a baptism? Wasn’t Jesus the sinless one? What could Jesus gain in a sojourn to John’s home in the wilderness- just showing up?
Whatever the reason, John knew that day, that his work was nearing completion. The light and focus was soon to shift from him to Jesus. And as the water trickled down Jesus’ brow and the voice could be heard from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” John knew that that new day had dawned. It was important that Jesus was there, and all for of the Evangelists agree, that this was the turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry.
So my friends, what really happened that day, that Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan? Let me share with you four serendipitous discoveries that Jesus experienced by being there and showing up?
First of all, in Jesus’ baptism experienced the power of decision. I know that this is not a very popular word in Lutheran circles, but it is truly a question of intent. On our Lord’s baptismal day, Jesus decided to forego the work of a carpenter’s son and to embrace the ministry and challenges to which he had been called. From that moment onward, Jesus’ own identity and purpose would be unquestionable; his ministry to the lowly, sinful and forgotten, unalterable; and his march to his death on the cross, unstoppable. From the moment he rose from the waters, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, his work and mission were clear and obvious. And he would do so with the affirming words of God ringing in his memory. Successful ministry and discipleship in the church is hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, to be sure, but is also about inviting neighbors to participate in the life of a Christian community so that they may see the power of the spirit active in the lives of other believers.
Second, for Jesus, the occasion of his baptism was also a moment of identification. Jesus’ baptism was a selfless act. Jesus did not need to repent from sin; there was no sin to be forgiven. But here was a movement of humanity back to God, and Jesus desired to identify himself with that movement. You might say that Jesus was exercising solidarity with the very men and women he came to save. My friends, that is an effective sign of your faith as well. You may not be poor, needy or disenfranchised, but by present and just showing up you show that you are willing to identify yourselves with the world’s forgotten and misbegotten.
Third, for Jesus, his baptism also meant approval. As Jesus was leaving his quiet Galilean home and entering the ministry of his heavenly Father, he was waiting for a word of recognition and approval that he was on the right path. Unlike the other gospels, in St. Matthew’s gospel, it is only Jesus himself who sees the heavens opened and it is Jesus alone who hears the voice of God, “You are my only Son, in you I am well pleased.” That is an important commentary for successful ministry as well. We do not always receive the public affirmation and approval for our work. Like Jesus, we will need to rely on the approval of faith.
And finally, for Jesus, his baptism was the equipping of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus ascended from the waters of the Jordan, the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. The symbolism could not be more clear. The dove is the symbol of gentleness. Jesus would accomplish his ministry through gentle perseverance and love. That is how you are called to do you work as well. Equipped with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, you act and walk with gentle perseverance and love.
Hendrik Kramer was a missionary in Indonesia for twenty years. When he returned home to Holland in the early 1940’s, the Nazis were arresting Jews who lived there. Even Christians who resisted Hitler were being arrested. The remaining Christians were drawn to Dr. Kramer for strength and inspiration. Late one night in the cover of darkness some of them slipped into his house. “Tell us what to do,” they pleaded, “Our Jewish neighbors are being dragged out of their homes and taken away. And many of our own are hearing the knock of the Gestapo on the door at night. Tell us, Herr Doctor, tell us what to do.” Kramer was silent. Then he spoke with the conviction that characterized his life. “I cannot tell you what to do,” he said, “but I can tell you who you are!” And with that he opened his Bible and began to read.
My friends, the story of the baptism of Jesus, teaches us who we are, and that as much as the world has changed, and affirms that there is no need for place and all can be done remotely and virtually, there is still a key role for the church. Christians need a place where they can be present, preferably at the right time and where they can be assured and trust that they will meet God through fellow believers. Yes, it is impossible to experience those serendipitous connections and discoveries without first showing up. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.