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Beware of God’s Calling!

Isaiah 42:1-9;  Matthew 3:13-17


For two thousand years, Jesus’s baptism has intrigued and even confounded theologians, preachers, and congregations. “How come the son of God must be baptized?”




I’m sure you recall this extraordinary event in Jesus’s life. Matthew tells us that one day a young man named John, who happened to be Jesus’s cousin, decided to became an itinerant preacher, travelling all over Palestine urging people to repent. Those who repented in response to John’s harsh preaching were immediately baptized.


John was so obsessed with repentance and baptism, people started called him “the Baptizer.” As his reputation grew, his followers began to believe that he was the long-promised Messiah. But when they asked him if he was the Messiah, John shocked them by telling them: “No way, I am not, but I’ll let you know when I see him!”




Even though Matthew doesn’t discuss the relationship between John and Jesus, we already know that they were cousins, and that their mothers had been very close.

Do you remember that Advent Scripture about a sunny afternoon when Mary, pregnant with baby Jesus, visited her cousin Elizabeth, herself pregnant with babe John?


When those two young women met, unborn baby John noticed that something unique was happening with aunty Mary.  And babe John “leaped for joy” in her mother’s belly! Like Jesus, John was the result of a miraculous conception, for Elizabeth was barren, and both Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, a priest in the Temple, were “old in years.”


Since they lived in Jerusalem, John’s family must have hosted Jesus’s family whenever they traveled from Nazareth to the Jerusalem, especially for the Passover festivities.




Without any doubt, both families were very close, and the day John heard God’s call to be a prophet, Jesus must have said to his dear cousin, “Go for it, John. You have heard God’s call. And don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” A little bit later, when Jesus discerned his own divine call, he went out searching for John — time to further discern God’s call, to compare notes, to ask John for his endorsement, and above all, to be baptized by John.


Now, and this is something very interesting — Jesus did not consider the Temple as the ideal venue for his own baptism. Neither he thought of asking his own uncle Zechariah, a priest, to baptize him. He asked John, instead, which may have been Jesus’s way of expressing his great admiration for John and his way of validating John’s baptism of repentance.




It goes without saying, John is thrown out of balance by Jesus’s special request.

“But Jesus, if you have nothing to repent of?” For John, baptism was a cleansing ritual, a ritual of purification to wash away the “original” sin that, as many believed, was passed from generation to generation at the time of conception. Incidentally, the Greek word baptism means that precisely: a “ceremonial washing or cleansing immersing” in the waters of purification.


Many Christians, particularly within the Roman Catholic tradition, rush to baptize their newborns because they worry that the original sin in them, unless washed away, may confine their souls to a dangerous spiritual place called “limbo,” a Latin word that means “the border.”




The Protestant Reformation, particularly the so-called “radical” reformers, some of whom deeply influenced Wesley and the Methodist movement, did not ignore this Jewish-Christian understanding of baptism. Yet they emphasized a more positive, dynamic, pro-active understanding, as a radical “transformation,” a sort of 360 degrees turn-around, from “the old man” — or “old humankind” — into the “new man,” or “new humankind,” all made possible by the grace of Gods in and through Jesus the Christ.


Baptism as the starting point, as the mark of a life of joyful obedience and dedication to God plus a whole life of loving concern for our neighbor. [Pointing to the wooden Cross by the altar.] Right there, friends! The vertical dimension and the horizontal dimension for such a reality – intersecting to make a huge plus sign!


From this perspective, baptism is that sacred moment when we too can hear God’s voice – whether a booming “Hey, Ariel!” or a soft whisper, “Hey, Ariel” — telling us that we are forgiven and perfected by the Spirit so that we can be children of God and help God wherever he may want us to serve.




Such is the point Matthew is trying to make when he uses the Greek word metanoia, which most Bibles have translated as “repentance.” And this is ok, yet metanoia means more than “repentance” in the sense of washing our sins and putting our past behind.


It also means a radical transformation, pro-active and militant in nature, not only to live the past behind, also to welcome God’s present and future as disciples with a job assignment. One of my favorite lay leaders used to say, “God’s call comes to us with strings attached.”


All of God’s calls come with strings attached. Thus, God called Abraham and many others after him, but he gave them a job –to help us realize that God must be first in our hearts and lives. God called Moses and many others after him, but he gave them a job — to help us realize that he takes note of the suffering in our world wants us to do something about it.


God called Mary and many others after her, but he gave them a job — to help us realize that a humble and obedient life can bring about significant changes all over. And called Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others after him, but he gave them a job — to help us realize that all human beings are created equal, with the same rights and privileges.




This helps us understand why Jesus, the Son of God and without sin in his life, still begs John to be baptized. Jesus has been discerning his call and he now wants to make sure that he is ready for it, and that he has God’s full endorsement. Here Matthew makes a comment that Old English has translated as follows: “to fulfill all righteousness.”


But, what does it mean? Quite simply, something like this — “My Father and I need to catch on some important paperwork before we move on, make sure we are both on the same page.”


And when Jesus finally enters the waters of the Jordan River, God’s excitement is such, he can’t keep his mouth shut, and he shouts and shouts through all the heavens, all the way up and down the river: “Listen, people, this is my beloved son –there he is, and you better watch him!”




Joseph Donders, whose devotional insights are so inspiring, wrote: “John was right in the old way, according to the Old Testament pattern, but with John that pattern closed. Something else came instead, and John’s message of DOOM step out to make room for a message of GOOD NEWS.”


The good news that our “Abba Father — a loving “dad,” also a loving mom — is always looking for a lost son or a lost daughter. The good news that our caring shepherd always looking for her lost sheep. The good news that this, our church, is always ready to welcome us and the stranger too.


Thus, my friends, how would you answer if Jesus asked you today — “Are you ready to step up and follow me, because a job for you too?” You could just ignore his call and pretend you haven’t heard it. Or you could answer like that pious gentleman who responded, “Use me, yes Lord, but in some advisory capacity.”


Or you could answer like William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army. Towards of very end of his amazing and rewarding Christian life, someone asked Booth about the secret of his non-stop commitment and ministry in the name of Christ. “I told the Lord that he could have all that there is of William Booth,” he humbly responded.


Friends, I believe that’s the main reason Jesus asked John to be baptized –to let God know that he was ready, and to let God that he could have all that there was of him. As we remember Jesus’s baptism, do prayerfully remember yours as well – and all the strings attached!