Sermon for January 12, 2020

I read a book about the Gulf War seen through the eyes of an Army Chaplain. Although it has been several years since I read the book, I recall a vivid battlefield scene. Chaplains are not safely behind the lines in some place of worship busy studying the Bible. They are with the soldiers along the front lines. The chaplain who wrote the book was a Baptist, but in the military denomination backgrounds are not important. In the dangers of battle one soldier managed to find the chaplain with an urgent request. He wanted to be baptized. The natural fear of death prompted this man to think about eternity and his relationship with God. The chaplain knew that baptized or not, the soldier was a beloved child of God. But this was not the time for a sermon; baptism would be a great comfort for the soldier. But there they were in a desert setting without any source of water nearby. If they had carried any water it was already consumed in the heat of the day. So the chaplain felt he had only one choice: he would use his own saliva, his own spit, as water. So the soldier was baptized in a dangerous place, with just a dab of spittle, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today the church remembers the baptism of Jesus. Jesus was a grown man when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. As you remember from Sundays in Advent John was busy preaching and baptizing with the goal of preparing the Israel for the coming of the Messiah or Savior. John’s baptism required repentance, a true confession of sins. The water of this baptism would be like a washing away of an old lifestyle, and seeking to live a new life obedient to the Word of God. Now only in Matthew’s gospel does John refuse to baptize Jesus. John knew Jesus and would have prevented his baptism saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John had told everyone that one powerful was coming after him who would baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. It was like John thought of his baptism with water was a preliminary baptism; but just wait when the Messiah comes with the true baptism with the power of the Holy Spirit to create new and clean hearts. But John’s picture of the Messiah came with a warning: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Judgment is coming so you want to be wheat and not chaff.

But Jesus insisted on being baptized  saying; “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” After hearing that John reversed himself and baptized Jesus. We don’t know what John may have said when Jesus went under the water of the Jordan. When Jesus came out from the water dripping wet the heavens were opened. The Holy Spirit descended like a dove and came to Jesus and the voice from heaven declared publically, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” The voice from heaven said nothing about unquenchable fire. Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit for the mission of proclaiming peace, for Jesus the Beloved Son is Lord of all.

I have been reading a book, “Trains, Jesus, and Murder: The Gospel According to Johnny Cash.” The author, Richard Beck, quoted Johnny Cash who said ‘black is better for the church”. People thought Cash was joking because people would associate the color black with an outlaw image. But the meaning is solidarity. His song “Man in Black” has the lyric “I wear the black for the poor and beaten down, livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town.” One commentator said “Johnny Cash does not sing to the condemned, but with the condemned, and sometimes you may feel he prefers their company.” His passion for solidarity for the beaten down and forgotten is shown by his over 30 concerts in notorious prisons like San Quentin and Folsom Prison. Cash faced his own troubles, divorce and addiction, but found redemption, found Jesus, among the condemned, the prisoners.

This is what Jesus meant when he said his baptism would fulfill all righteousness. Jesus would soon begin ministry not in a protective sanctuary but among the demon possessed, those judged as too sinful to merit God’s attention, the sick that had lost all hope, and certainly the poor living in a world that did not value them at all. Jesus came to reveal the solidarity of God not with the movers and shakers of the world, but with the losers and lost. At his baptism Jesus was revealed as the Beloved Son of God. He would not keep the love of God to himself, but would abundantly share. Jesus received the Holy Spirit not a special mark of holiness, but to began his work as a Servant: to be a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring the prisoners from the dungeon, those who sit in despair. The Holy Spirit brings the beauty of holiness, but this beauty is found in unexpected places, among the fearful and even those who have lost faith in the face of all the evil in the world that is so troubling. The beauty is the presence of Jesus who will not forsake anyone. The beauty of holiness is the voice of God: yes, the Psalm said the voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, even shaking the wilderness. But the voice of God, from the mouth of Jesus, is also powerful,  just listen: “Come to me, all who are tired of carrying life’s heavy loads, be yoked to me, learn from me, that I am with you always, and I am gentle and humble in heart, so that you may find rest, peace for your lives.

One of the most popular Johnny Cash songs is “I Walk the Line”: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine, I keep my eyes wide open all the time, I keep the ends out for the tie that binds, Because you’re mine, I walk the line.” This song sounds like a pledge of faithfulness to one’s marriage vows. It is that, but Johnny Cash stated later in life it was his first gospel song hit, because it spoke of his remaining faithful to God. Author Richard Beck said the truth is Johnny Cash did not walk the line: he was unfaithful to his first wife, and he strayed from the Christian faith. A fellow country music star and friend said of Johnny Cash, “Johnny Cash was out of line all his life. “I Walk the Line” was ludicrous for him to sing. He never walked the line.”
Author Richard Beck wrote, “But if the gospel according to Johnny Cash means anything, it is not about our ability to walk the line. The gospel is not about our faithfulness to God: it is about God’s faithfulness to us. Johnny Cash could not walk the line. Nor can you or me or anyone else. God walks the line for us.” This is the story of Scripture: Israel strayed and failed to walk the line going after other gods, but God’s steadfast love remained, as God sent prophets to call the people back to faith. Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness, that is to walk the line for us: the line of solidarity, Jesus does not forsake sinners, but befriends them. Jesus also walked the line of salvation for us. He faithfully walked the line to the cross and death for our forgiveness and salvation. Jesus was raised from the dead to bring to birth within us the faith that knows, “nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God revealed for us in Jesus. Johnny Cash would testify, “The times when I was so down and out were the times I felt the presence of God…that powerful and positive presence that said to me, “I’m still here.”

Jesus began his ministry at the Jordan River, baptized by John, a ministry of solidarity with us, whatever we are going through, and the ultimate goal of his steadfast love on the cross, our salvation by grace. Today is a good day to remember our baptisms: from the baptismal font make the sign of the cross with the water on your forehead. Remember the gospel of your baptism because of what the cross means: Jesus walked the line for us. Jesus will seek the lost, forgive the sinner, and call us to follow him; the Servant of God inspiring us to serve.