"Let it be so now", a Sermon for Epiphany 1-Matthew 3:13-17
One of the great gifts of being a clergy person is that people often come to me seeking help, seeking a safe place to talk, seeking counsel or advice, seeking a partner to discern God’s voice and direction in his or her life. It is a great gift to be entrusted with these moments…really with these relationships. So, I really think I should say before moving forward…thank you…thank you for inviting me into your lives and trusting me…and being patient with me when I stumble. It is a gift to share this journey with each of you…a common life…a family of faith…making our way together…becoming more and more the people God is calling us to be because we do this thing we call church, which is hopefully at the center of our lives, again, together. I think beginning the year in gratitude for our shared life and ministry feels right and good…so thank you again for my place in it.
But back to the place I began, I think clergy people in general and people in all sorts of helping professions will tell you that this sort of helping and listening work is deeply humbling…for very often the issues presented, the challenges that arise, the obstacles that are named…feel way beyond our, or focusing on me, my own capabilities, training, resources, and experience. Whatever the presenting issue that leads someone to seek me out…what then flows forth, what is revealed, can lead one to think…what possibly could I have to offer…little me…fully human me…just me…with my limited resources and limited time and limited wisdom. How can I possibly be a source of God’s unconditional love, divine wisdom, and limitless hope for those seeking healing and direction and help…when a marriage feels like it is falling apart…or a job is lost and the rent is due…or a profession or job feels boring or unsatisfying…or a real mistake is made that wraps someone up in shame…or fear takes hold leading one to paralysis and deep anxiety…or a betrayal takes place and forgiveness and reconciliation feel far off and unreachable…and of course the list could go on…for our lives, as I have said so many times before, are indeed breathtakingly beautiful…but are also broken…at times painfully so…a brokenness that flows from our own imperfections and poor choices and those of others that are heaped upon us. It is reasonable to feel like just keeping ourselves together, healthy and whole, is just about all we are capable of accomplishing…without the added burden of addressing the real needs and concerns of others, when they inevitably come to us.
As a small illustration of these feelings, I remember a participant in a prayer group I was a part of in seminary…a prayer group that met almost every week for three years…a participant who confided in the rest of us how unworthy he felt to serve the chalice in church. He was in seminary…his call to pursue ordination had been affirmed by his church and his bishop, and, of course as a seminarian, he served the chalice in church almost every Sunday. And yet he felt entirely unworthy to bear and share the life-giving sacrament that was held within the chalice…Christ’s blood shed for each of us for the forgiveness of sin, for an eternal life…it is the cup of life…that holds within it real power offered in the sacrament of bread and wine…power to connect with God at an elemental level and power to be Christ in and for the world…for that is what is offered in this sacred meal we share each week. And my friend, again, felt utterly unworthy to be the bearer of such grace for the world…to be the vessel through which such a blessing is shared with others. And honestly…I get his point…his feelings indeed resonate with me…they did then…they do now. For I, perhaps just as each of us at times, often feel inadequate to provide…or even simply be a conduit for providing…God’s healing, God’s hope, God’s help…that is so often needed by those who come to me…come to us…for all three…to be assured of God’s love and provision for their own lives and journeys. Thus, a sense that one might be unworthy of such a call…such a grand task…seems at the very least reasonable…and likely comes from a place of faithful humility.
Which takes me to our Gospel lesson…which on this first Sunday after the Epiphany…is always focused on Jesus’ Baptism. Today we hear that story from Matthew’s Gospel, and I want to focus on how the story begins…which is with Jesus coming to John for his own baptism. And more specifically, I want to focus on John’s reaction to Jesus’ request to be baptized. Matthew writes, “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. [But] John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” In my own words, I think John is saying, “I am unworthy to baptize you…you are the Son of God…the long-awaited Messiah…God’s own anointed one…Emmanuel…God with us. I am not even worthy to tie your shoes…much less be a bearer of God’s grace for you. How can little me…little John…with all my faults and foibles…my sin and imperfection…give anything of value to you…be a bearer of God’s grace in and for your life.” As with my own friend, John’s reaction seems utterly reasonable and likely comes from a place of faithful humility.
And yet…and yet…Jesus will have it no other way. He says to John, “Let it be so now!”…baptize me now…God will use you now…this very moment. And John indeed consents. He stands before Jesus in all his inadequacy, all too aware of his own brokenness, limitations and imperfections…and he baptizes Jesus. He does it. He opens his own life to God’s work through him and places Jesus under the waters. And God indeed acts…God shows up and arrives. As Jesus comes up from the waters, Matthew writes, “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Via John’s baptism…John consenting to God’s work in and through him that very moment, Jesus is anointed by God with the Holy Spirit. He is named as God’s own beloved child with whom God is indeed pleased. An anointing and words of confirmation, that Jesus needs to live his special life…granting him direction and power to offer healing to the sick and brokenhearted…hope for those in despair…confidence for those in shame…and ultimately life…life for the whole world…that darkness and, even death, can never overcome. Nothing more or less than the inauguration of Jesus’ own world-altering ministry is established through John’s willingness to be God’s own vessel of grace.
And I suppose this is what I want to say about all of this. It was not John who filled Jesus with God’s own Spirit. It was not John who claimed Jesus as his own. It was God…love perfected…the divine that transcends time, matter and space…it was God who anointed Jesus and who claimed him as his own. John’s role was not to do any such thing. John’s work was simply to be present…to just do the very thing God made him for…to call people to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin…to be nothing more or less than a vessel through which God could be present and act…to share God’s grace, God’s power, God’s direction for Jesus’ unique life. And indeed, the same is true for you and for me…for all of us. If we but only…if we but only show up…listen…serve…open our hands and hearts for God’s use…as God’s vessel…an opportunity has indeed been birthed into the world for God to work miracles…some small…some surprisingly big. In my own experience in 21 years of ministry, lay and ordained, God has shown up and acted…the light of God’s hope has begun to emerge like the first moments of a sunrise…God’s wisdom has poured forth like an inkling of an idea that makes the heart leap…God’s vision has emerged like the sun burning off a morning fog…God’s healing has begun to settle in like a fever breaking in a sleepless and uncomfortable night…God has indeed shown up and acted in altogether wonderful ways…when…when I was but only willing to show up…be present…listen…serve…open my own hands and heart for God’s use, as God’s vessel. And I know this to be true because I have seen the fruit of God’s work in the midst of each community I have been blessed to serve. I have seen human lives flourish as God acted through our, simply said, openness to be used by God for good. And, in all honesty, I also know this to be true because I have not shown up…not listened…not served…not opened my hands and heart and seen myself and others diminished for it.
Now the good news is that God’s loving work in our lives and world is not dependent solely on any one person or any one moment in time…for God’s love will, in the fullness of time, be all in all. And grace and forgiveness and new starts and second chances and new opportunities are the hallmark of resurrection…and we are indeed a resurrection people. Nonetheless, as we come to a new year, perhaps now is the perfect time to ask the question of where God is asking us to show up…to listen…to serve…to open our hands and hearts as vessels for God’s healing and hope and power to emerge, as we bravely share our whole selves with the people and communities that God has entrusted to our care. Perhaps now is the perfect time for us to consider where are we being gently pushed by God to move past our own sense of being limited, not enough, too broken…and instead know that despite all of this, we are breathtakingly beautiful and have so many God given gifts to share in a world full of hurting and underappreciated people.
As with John, Jesus will not settle for anything less. As he says to John, he says to us, “Let it be so now!”. Let it be so now…and in each day that follows…a willingness to show up…to listen…to serve…to open our hearts and hands as holy vessels, set apart in our own baptism, our own moment of anointing, when God claimed us as his own…for we have indeed been made worthy and called at both birth and baptism to be the very means…the conduit and vessel…through whom God will indeed show up and act…offering only what God can offer…healing and hope, vision and direction, for those he loves and who desperately need it. Jesus says to us, “Let it be so now.” There is no time like the present…now…to show up…listen…serve…open our hands and hearts…even now. Amen.