A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 12, 2014
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This Christmas, I was given a copy of The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman’s masterful history of the causes and early battles of World War I. The story is gripping, especially as we enter the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of that conflict. The events that led to the Great War—the War to End All Wars, as it was falsely dubbed—unfold with all the inevitability and all the hubris of a Greek tragedy. Ancient grudges and contemporary tussles; national pride and personal ambition; long-held beliefs and newly developed technologies all coalesced into a perfect storm of violence and destruction.
And yet what I find most striking in Tuchman’s riveting account is the power that expectations and cherished certainties held over the minds and lives of all the kings, presidents, parliaments, generals, and ordinary soldiers who went to war in 1914. Each side expected a quick victory. Each side expected their plans to produce steady progress. Each side was certain that the war was worth fighting; that they would achieve their aims; and that the good of humankind would be advanced by the contest of arms.
Those certainties and expectations died in the trenches of the Western Front, along with a generation of Europe’s youth. But they did not die quickly, and the persistence of those expectations and the unwillingness to abandon those certainties ensured that the war would extract the ultimate cost, claim the largest number of lives, and lay the foundation for another, even greater conflict just two decades later.
That sense of the power of our expectations was with me as I read the Scripture lessons for our worship this morning. The two stories we have heard today are, in fact, stories about what happens when human expectations and cherished certainties collide with the power and purposes of God. The people who went out to be baptized by John in the River Jordan were waiting expectantly for the Messiah. The excitement surrounding John the Baptist’s ministry was one of preparation. The baptism with which he baptized was a baptism of repentance, a baptism that got people ready for something even greater that was about to happen.
The Messiah was coming. Everyone knew what that meant. Everyone knew that the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one for whom the whole nation looked eagerly, would be a mighty warrior-king who would purify and restore God’s chosen people, and then lead them in triumphant battle against the occupying Roman legions. John himself made it quite clear that he was not the Messiah. But he also knew that his task was to prepare the way for God’s anointed. And so John, like the other faithful Jews of his time, watched and waited with expectation for the one who would come to renew Israel—the one who would come to transfigure and transform a broken people.
Matthew, whose account of the scene we have just heard, does not tell us how John knew that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting. He just knows. Immediately, John recognizes Jesus for who and what he is: the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of Israel’s hope and expectation. And that is why, when Jesus wades out into the muddy water to be baptized, John objects. The Messiah is the one who will do the work of cleansing: he doesn’t need to be cleansed! The Messiah is the one who will lead the people in battle: he doesn’t need to follow John to Jordan’s bank! “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John asks in bewilderment.
The long-held expectations and the cherished certainties of the people of Israel have blinded John to the reality of the Messiah’s ministry and mission. John wanted a warrior-king who would lead the people. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the beloved son, coming down to him in the water to be baptized. John wanted a prophet-priest who would rise above the common crowd and purify the flock of God. What he got, instead, was Jesus, the humble servant, stepping into the lowliness and suffering of humankind. (As one hymn for this day puts it, “The sinless One to Jordan came, and in the river shared our stain.”) John expected a fierce and mighty leader worthy of his own fiery proclamation of repentance. What he got, instead, was the Spirit of God descending, like a dove, on a humble carpenter from Nazareth. John received, not the Messiah everyone hoped for, but the anointed One whose coming and whose purpose was beyond all human hoping or imagining.
It is harder to see the expectations surrounding our reading from the Acts of the Apostles because this passage has been rather unhelpfully lifted from its context. (For that, you can blame the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary.) To understand how radical, how earth-shattering Peter’s simple sermon is, we need to know a little about the early Church, and the ministry to which Peter was called.
Though he was a devoted follower of Jesus, Peter was also a loyal son of Israel. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, and Peter would have considered Jesus to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed Savior of the Jewish people—and of them only. That was the default position of the early Church. Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, and their earliest converts were all Jewish. They saw nothing inconsistent about professing faith in Jesus as the Messiah and continuing as devoted Jews. Indeed, they believed that through their life and fellowship the restoration of their beloved Jewish nation had already begun. The early chapters of Acts make clear that the first Christians continued to worship in the Temple at Jerusalem, to keep the Jewish feasts, and to obey the Law of Moses. And as they did all this, they proclaimed to their Jewish brothers and sisters that the long-awaited Messiah had come in a way that no one expected, and that through him God was doing something new and wonderful for his chosen people.
Imagine, then, Peter’s surprise and astonishment at what happened one day just before lunch. Peter was praying up on the top of the house where he was staying. The midday meal was being prepared, and he was hungry. While he was praying, he fell into a trance. And Peter received an astonishing vision. He saw an enormous sheet lowered out of the sky. Within its four corners were all manner of unclean animals: reptiles, birds of prey, and other creatures. A voice from heaven commanded, “Rise, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter was aghast. As a faithful Jew, he would never dream of eating anything unclean—anything forbidden by the Law of Moses. But the voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call common.” Three times this vision was repeated. Three times Peter was enjoined not to call common or unclean that which God has cleansed.
And just as he puzzled over what this vision could mean, three men arrived from the house of a Roman centurion named Cornelius. The men invited Peter to join them, to share his Gospel message in the home of their Gentile master. And Peter realized that the vision commanding him to eat unclean animals was in fact a revelation urging him to carry the Gospel to people whom he, as a Jew, considered unclean. The Holy Spirit was answering the Church’s first difficult question, telling the early leaders that Yes, the News about Jesus is News for the Gentiles as well as the Jews: Yes, the word of Christ’s triumph matters for all nations as well as the chosen nation: Yes, the Messiah of the people of Israel is also Lord of all the peoples of the earth.
And so Peter went with the men to Cornelius’s house, and announced those expectation-overturning, certainty-abolishing words we have heard this morning: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Beloved, perhaps by this point some of you are asking yourselves, “So what? What does it matter if God works contrary to our expectations? What difference does it make if God overwhelms our certainties?” It matters because, if we are honest, we will recognize that we today are not so different from the ancient people of Israel or the early followers of Jesus. Like national leaders at the time of World War I, so often we march into the battles of this life or the trials and tribulations of our walk of faith full of misguided expectations and false certainties. So often we fail to grapple with the fact of our fallenness, the dread of our mortality, or the depth of this world’s pain. So often we look for the world to make sense in a way that we can grasp. So often we want God to behave as we would behave, were we omnipotent: to bless the good people, to punish the bad people, and to shield the innocent from harm. So often we project our expectations—and our certainties about who is good and who is bad—onto God…no matter how many times the reality we experience throws those expectations back in our faces.
For the hard truth is that we live in a world where bad things happen to good people. We live in a world riven and ripped by the horrors of war and the banalities of Sin. We live in a world where many, many people lead lives of quiet desperation: praying and not receiving, hoping and not realizing, striving and failing.
And if we let go of our expectations and certainties—our desires and demands for God to act in the way we want, in a way that makes sense to us—what are we left with?
Beloved, consider that the Jewish people in Jesus’ day would have been content only to have their nationhood restored and their sovereignty renewed. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole creation should be restored, and his own sovereignty proclaimed and renewed in realms once held captive by Death. Consider that the Church in Peter’s time would have been content only to preach to fellow Israelites in their backwater corner of the Roman Empire. But God’s everlasting purpose was that the whole earth should ring with the preaching of the apostles, and that all the nations of the world should stream to the brightness of Christ’s shining light.
For when we turn away from our own expectations, our own vain efforts to codify and control the purposes of God—when the world tears away from us our certainties and our cherished notions—all that we are left with is God’s self-declaration: the light of God’s self-revelation in the face of Jesus our Lord.
Abandoning our expectations means not trying to read in every challenge we face or in every blessing we receive the marks of God’s opprobrium or approbation. It means, instead, seeking out and following the marks, the footprints, of Jesus of Nazareth who has walked the path of this life before us. Abandoning our expectations means not trying to interpret our fortunes and our futures in the stars, but looking instead to the one bright, shining light that led the Wise Men to kneel at the edge of a cradle. Abandoning our certainties means not raging and railing against what we imagine to be a cruel and capricious God who makes us suffer. It means, instead, lifting up our eyes to behold Jesus hanging on the Cross of Calvary, and seeing there the assurance, the unshakeable promise, that God is with us in our sorrows and in our darkest hours. Turning our gaze away from what this world would teach—from the certainty our minds crave and would invent—means, at last, stepping into the unfathomable brightness of God’s resurrection light, and glimpsing the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us.
Beloved, may we with joy and gladness yield up our expectations and give over our certainties. May we sacrifice our demands for comprehensibility and surrender our desire for security. May we come to expect the unexpected, and to follow not the promptings of our fickle hearts, but to hold always to the promises of our faithful God. And may we, at last, join our voices with John the Baptist, and St Peter, and all faithful people in every age, in the great hymn echoing before the throne of the One whose goodness surpasses what we can grasp, and whose love endures forever: “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.”