In last year’s Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, we are brought in to the Star Wars story many years after the defeat of the Empire. But not everyone lived happily ever after: in place of the Empire, the First Order has arisen and is trying to bring the galaxy under its control. Kylo Ren, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, has succumbed to the dark side of the force and is under the control of the First Order, trying to emulate his grandfather, Darth Vader. And Luke Skywalker has gone missing. But the good has not disappeared. Many of the people who took part in the Rebellion when the Empire was in control have gathered together and are working to find Luke Skywalker. Princess Leia, now a general, is one of the leaders of the Resistance. And while the Resistance may seem outnumbered, like the good usually is in a Star Wars movie, they still have a few tricks up their sleeve, and we expect to eventually see the good win out.
In our Gospel lesson today, we have a resistance going on. John the Baptist has appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As we listen to his preaching, it would be easy for us to dismiss John as the stereotypical fire and brimstone preacher; you know, the one that, when we see him on the street, we cross over to the other side and walk quickly by, hoping to put him and his uncomfortable message out of our minds and go on with our daily business. Except, John really isn’t your typical fire and brimstone preacher. Instead of crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him, people from Jerusalem and all over Judea and all along the Jordan are seeking John out, confessing their sins, and wanting to be baptized by him. So, what’s going on here?
In short, this is the resistance movement of 1st century Palestine. The Romans had just gained control over the Jewish people not so many years before this. The Sadducees were the people who accommodated the empire by working with the Romans to maintain control over the Temple. The Pharisees, although much admired by the people for their call to maintain faithful living even in this time of Roman occupation, were still part of the elite members of society. The people who were coming out to John to be baptized wanted to be part of the resistance to the Roman occupation. They were frustrated with business as usual. They longed for Israel to have control once more and to worship their God freely and for God to rule over them. And so the sins that the people confessed to John were not necessarily individual sins, but the sins that they saw in their society and that they had taken part in. The people saw John as a prophet in line with their prophets of old, the ones who had called the people of Israel to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with their God. They saw John as calling them to recognize their part in the sins of their society and to act for change, so that God would send the Romans away and come and rule over them once more.
And into this line of people coming to be baptized by John and to join the resistance movement comes Jesus. Jesus has traveled from Galilee, by foot, about 70 to 80 miles, to be baptized by John. Why? Even John says that he needs to be baptized by Jesus; why on earth would Jesus travel this far just to have John baptize him? Well, let’s consider where we left Jesus in chapter 2 of Matthew. He and his family have just returned to Israel from Egypt; we don’t know how long they were living there. They can’t return to Bethlehem because King Herod’s son, Archelaus, is ruling in his place, and he’s just as bad as his father was. So Jesus and his family go to Nazareth and live as refugees. Jesus grows up hearing the story of why they had to flee from Bethlehem, why they had to live in Egypt, and why they were now living in Nazareth. He grows up knowing that many of his cousins died in Bethlehem when Herod sent his soldiers to kill the baby boys who lived there. I’m guessing that Jesus may have harbored some anger at the government which occupied his country. Picture Jesus, then, arriving at the Jordan to be baptized by John as part of this resistance movement, in solidarity with his people who were longing for God to come and rule over them.
But then, as Jesus comes out of the water, the heavens are opened to him, the Spirit comes on him in the form of a dove, and a voice speaks, telling Jesus that he is God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. The imagery that Matthew is using here goes back to Genesis 2, when God created a man out of the earth and breathed life—or spirit—into him. In this scene, we see Jesus as the firstborn of God’s new creation. He is given an identity and a purpose: God’s beloved Son, the anointed one: the Messiah. God is taking everything that Jesus has learned from his time on earth with his family, first in Bethlehem, then in Egypt, and then in Nazareth, and God is accepting and loving everything that Jesus is and saying, “I will work through you to accomplish my purposes.” And as we go through the gospel of Matthew, we will find that God will work through Jesus to lead the resistance to the world, not with anger and hatred, but with love. That love will not look like what the world thinks it should look like. That love will be an action verb and not a state of being, and that love will include people that the characters in the Gospel don’t think it should include. Jesus’ baptism not only reveals who Jesus is, but it sets him on a course of action: teaching, healing, and finally, showing us what true love looks like by dying on the cross.
The baptism that we undergo is not exactly the same as Jesus’ baptism. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the death and the resurrection of Jesus. We receive God’s promise of eternal life when we are baptized. And yet, there are similarities. Martin Luther wrote in his Small Catechism that baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Baptism is not a “once and done” kind of thing. It is a reminder that we are at the same time saint: loved and forgiven by God, and sinner: we still do wrong things and don’t do things that we should. We are called to daily repent of our sins, and that means turning from them completely and changing how we live our lives. And, that also means repenting of how we participate in the sins of society as well as of our individual sins, and working for change in how our society does things.
As an example of the sins of society, I’d like to state some statistics that I have taken from the website of ELCA World Hunger. In the United States, nearly 16 million children are not certain where their next meal will come from. About half of all adults in the United States aged 20-65 will need federal assistance to buy food at some point during their lifetime. And yet, the world produces enough food to give every living person 2,868 calories per day. There is something wrong with our society when the world produces enough food to feed everyone, and yet people are going hungry. How then do we live out our baptism in response to this sin of society? First, we recognize that, individually, whether we realize it or not, we have participated in the system which enables this type of sin. Once we have recognized that, then we need to repent of it. And repenting of it doesn’t mean just saying that we’re sorry and going on with our lives. Repenting means to make a 180 degree turn away from that sin; to change our behavior and work so that everyone has enough to eat. This could mean giving to ELCA World Hunger, Loaves & Fishes, or Backpack Blessings, three worthy programs that work to address hunger nationwide and here in Powell. It could also mean contacting our representatives in the government and urging them to keep funding going for food stamp programs, so that people can eat. It could also mean looking into what causes people to go hungry: the reasons can range from lack of work to problems with addiction to even climate change, and, once discovering what those reasons are, working to address these societal problems.
Jesus went up from his baptism in the knowledge that God loved him to be tested in the desert and from there to begin his ministry. And his ministry carried on that resistance that was in what John was preaching, but in a very different way. Jesus resisted the occupying force, and the forces of evil, with love, with teaching, and with healing; by acknowledging each person that he met as a beloved child of God. We who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus are also baptized into that ministry of love, teaching, and healing. We are called to resist the forces of evil not by returning hate for hate, but by acting with love and acknowledging each human being in this world as a beloved child of God. And then we are called to resist evil by acting in love to see that each person has what he or she needs to carry out their own ministry. Will we always succeed? No, because, unfortunately, sin is still rampant in the world. But, we can rest in the promise that God makes to us in our baptism: You are my children, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Amen.