by Daniel Harrell
There was a bit of back in forth over the Fourth of July decorations in the Meetinghouse this morning. My understanding is that Colonial Church tradition used to encourage a more star-spangled decor in line with colonial American tradition. I hear that flags and bunting used to be everywhere. But then as the relationship between conservative Christianity and conservative American politics got too cozy during the 1990s, to quote the Declaration of Independence: it became “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” And thus the bunting and banners came down. With the Fourth of July falling on a Sunday this year and with a liberal Democrat in the White House, we thought that maybe draping a little red, white and blue need not be so offensive—as long as we kept it off the pulpit and communion table. We do live in a country where religion remains an enormous part of our identity—all the more reason for the faithful to be wary of the seduction of political power. Be it prayer in schools, the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” oddly printed on American mammon, whenever Christian faith assimilates into civil religion, it significantly loses its salt. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. The Kingdoms of this world are not the Kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist certainly understood this. His call to repent was aimed at a people whose faith had become too entwined with their own national identity.
Politics and religion do not a marriage make, although John does make use of marriage metaphors in this morning’s sermon installment on the life of the Baptist. John the Baptist played best man to Jesus. Though in Biblical times, the best man was more of the main man as far as bride and groom were concerned. In addition to holding onto the rings, the best man arranged the wedding, sent out the invitations, presided at the reception, and most importantly, guarded the door to the bridal bedchamber until the groom showed up so that no false lovers could gain entrance. (Apparently this was a problem back then.) For a best man to abuse this sacred trust would have amounted to a scandal of genuine Biblical proportion. In the Old Testament, Israel is described as the bride to God himself as bridegroom. In the New Testament, this relationship is consummated with us, the church, as the bride of Christ.
John was the best man and Jesus was the bridegroom. With Jesus’ arrival, John’s “joy was fulfilled.” And now, John said, “He must increase but I must decrease.” This was not a statement of resignation but one of sheer delight. Nothing makes a best man happier than the successful completion of his duty. His is the most vigorous wave as the happy couple drive off, cans clanging from the back of the bumper. But for some reason John’s disciples didn’t share his joy. Even though John has identified Jesus as John pointed out Jesus as the very Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, they seem upset that Jesus has drawn a bigger crowd to his side of the river.
Apparently a “certain Jew” had riled them up. Perhaps he was a Pharisee or a Sadducee. Perhaps he walked up to the Baptists and tried to pick a fight over ceremonial washing, like a Congregationalist might pick a fight with a Baptist over sprinkling versus dunking. If John was performing Jewish purification rites, then he was doing so without the proper credentials. Within Judaism, one became impure through a variety of ways—from contact with mildew to contact with corpses, from eating pork to eating with pagans. Being impure restricted your access to worship and community life. Only through ceremonial purification with water could one’s purity be restored. And only a priest could do that.
John wasn’t a priest. But he wasn’t giving ceremonial baths either. He was a prophet whose use of water was not a sign of cleansing but a prophetic sign of drowning. John used water as a vivid reminder of God’s wrath against evil as wrought in Noah’s deluge and the Red Sea surge. The masses waded into the Jordan water signaling that they too—but for God’s grace—deserved a similar fate.
The Jewish man probably thought that appropriate for pagan Gentiles, but John was baptizing chosen people! This was intentional. John’s call to the water also signaled their need to start again. And just so nobody got it into their head that starting again was something they could do by themselves, Jesus couched it in terms of being born again. “I baptize with water,” John said, “but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” “Fine,” the Jewish man replied, “if that’s the case; if John’s baptism is a preparation for the Christ, and Jesus is the Christ, then what was Jesus doing across the river baptizing with water too?” What? Jesus was baptizing with water? They knew it. For Jesus to baptize with water made him a Baptist like John. And if he was a Baptist like John, then Jesus couldn’t be the Christ any more than John was the Christ. That’s why John baptized Jesus! Jesus wasn’t better than John if John baptized him. Jesus was just the same as any other run-of-the-mill sinner.
Admittedly, John had been shocked when Jesus showed up down by the riverside. The place was crawling with sinners: liars, cheaters, thieves, gossips, adulterers—all wading into the waters of repentance so as not to drown under the waters of wrath. So what was Jesus doing down there? What was he doing getting into line as if he belonged there? John knew better. John insisted Jesus baptize him instead. But Jesus insisted that righteousness meant doing things the other way around. So John complied, his hands shaking the whole time. And then when the skies blew open and the Spirit descended and God’s voice thundered—Jesus Christ! John knew it. Was that not enough for John’s followers too? Apparently not. If Jesus was really the Christ, what was he doing down here with sinners doing what only sinners needed to do? Maybe John wondered that as well. Didn’t Jesus know that somebody might mistake him for one of them?
I remember once being seated on a full airplane where someone had left a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine in the pocket. As is typical, the cover displayed some provocatively clad cosmetically enhanced woman alongside all sorts of bold-faced, suggestive promises of instant beauty and gratification. So I started flipping through it when a neatly dressed young man settled in the seat beside mine. He reached into his book bag and hauled out this really big Bible. I smiled. Felt a little guilty. Went back to reading Cosmopolitan. Once we had reached a comfortable cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and then as if almost on cue (I think he’d been praying for me), the young man leaned over and started a conversation about airplanes and flying. He then steered it to talking about a recent spate of crashes (I figured this was why he was reading a Bible). I also thought he was being a little morbid, when suddenly he said, “if this plane were to crash today are you 100% sure that you’d go to heaven?” What? This guy was evangelizing me? Couldn’t he tell I was a professional Christian? Then I realized. Cosmopolitan. He’d mistook me for one of them.
Had Jesus had handlers, no way would they have let him near John’s baptismal waters. Sure, he could have stood on the shore and offered words of encouragement to those going in, or even held out a hand to help those coming out. But under no circumstances could he go in himself. It made him look guilty as sin. What were John’s followers supposed to think? What kind of Savior gets baptized and then parties with tax collectors, lets prostitutes wash his feet, does miracles for despised Roman soldiers and basically acts like he hasn’t been to synagogue a day in his life? What are we supposed to do with a Savior who looks like a sinner? Shoot, we can’t even deal with sinners who look like sinners. True, we preach “love the sinner hate the sin,” but most of us are so bad at making that distinction we just end up hating both. It’s better to keep your distance from all that, have proper boundaries. That way nobody can ever mistake you for one of them.
Of course there’s no real need to worry about that. There’s not a chance that anybody would ever mistake you for one of them. That’s because you are “one of them.” As the Bible says, “we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We’re all in the line up at the water. But then down saunters Jesus. Taking his place in line as if he belonged there too. Which he does. Jesus being with us means being in the water with us—taking on our sin that we might take on his salvation; looking like us that we might look more like Him.
But who’d ever heard of a Messiah like that? Certainly not these hangers-on hanging around John. That’s why they were staying on his side of the river rather than going over to join Jesus. John uses the last few verses of our text to convince them otherwise.
John says, “The one who comes from heaven is superior to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way.” In other words, it matters where you come from. The contrast John makes between Jesus who comes from above and his own earthly self is not unlike the ones John has made already: John is the voice preparing the way for the one to come, Jesus is the one to come. John is the best man, Jesus is the bridegroom. John is unfit to untie the sandals Jesus wears. John baptizes in water, Jesus in the Spirit. John is from the earth, Jesus is from heaven. Unlike Jesus, John was the natural born son of purely human parents (albeit with some help from above as Danielle will preach about next Sunday). Jesus on the other hand came from above, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and thus is the Son of God. Moreover, Jesus’ heaven-inspired words bespeak his place of origin. John asserts this but adds —casting a caustic glance at his followers—“no one accepts his testimony.”
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life,” John says, “but whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.” Water was the vivid reminder of God’s determination to eradicate sin. Yet because all have sinned and fall short, John’s cry was not about staying dry. That was a Biblical impossibility. The trajectory of all sinful humanity runs down into the water. Yet for those who believe in Jesus, that trajectory does not end underwater. For those who believe in Jesus, they, like him and with him, rise up out of the water and on to the other side.
Yet for those who do not believe, who “disobey they Son,” there is no life. Disobey is the same word used to portray the wandering Israelites whom Moses rescued through the Red Sea. Moses offered them freedom from slavery and new life in community with their Maker, but they thought he was crazy for leading them through water and into a God-forsaken desert to do it. Despite the fact that the desert was not forsaken by God; He was right there with them the whole time. This word “disobey” is also the word used to characterize those that laughed at Noah as he built his ark. Noah offered them a free ride, but they thought he was crazy, even as the rain started to fall.
Some of you may have caught a piece that I, your new Senior Minister, wrote for a faith and science blog on the website Biologos.com. The Biologos Foundation was started by Francis Collins, the current Director of the National Institutes of Health. On the blog I tried to pave a middle way between evolutionary literalists and biblical literalists over the conundrum of a historical Adam and Eve. I tried to imagine Adam and Eve as among the first people rather than as the first people. My musings got picked up, tossed up and then blown up by the infamous Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion and other best-selling anti-religious screeds. In a personal email, Dawkins wrote: “I earnestly hope—and believe—that Francis Collins should disown this article, or at least feel embarrassed by it. If he would not, he is unfit to hold high office in the scientific establishment of the United States.” I didn’t know whether to be offended or flattered. His attack drew a number of comments, including the following: “I’m sad to say that I myself live in Edina, MN, in fact, only a block or so away from Colonial Church. Reading this post was just yet another rude awakening to the religious lunacy that for the most part in everyday life is operating under my radar... I kind of just assumed that no one really believed in all this [uh, doo-doo], and just went to church because of tradition and a sense of community. I cease to be amazed that otherwise completely rational people can be so incredibly deluded when it comes to believing in religion.”
At least he called me “otherwise completely rational.” Chalk it up to Minnesota Nice. The other comments weren’t nearly as charitable. Though I can actually empathize. Sometimes I wish that my faith was based on more tangible evidence. I wish that the heavens would regularly open up for all to see and spirit-infused flocks of doves would descend daily and God’s voice would thunder unmistakably for all to hear. Not that these things convinced John’s followers who actually did experience them. In the end, as a New Yorker article about Jesus asserted last week, “Belief remains a bounce, faith a leap… the absence of certainty the certainty.” In the end we’re left with a Savior who looks like Jesus—whose broken body and shed blood brings hope to our hardship, freedom from our fear, comfort to our anxiety, and finally life and love everlasting.