Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Can you picture the scene out there in the wilderness on the banks of the River Jordan? Large crowds had been drawn there by the most unlikely of charismatic characters, a man named John. We can imagine how he looked, dressed in scruffy clothing, his hair flowing wildly, his beard unkempt – kind of like the former Red Sox player, Johnny Damon! And we remember how he talked – his words were not easy on the ear. He called the people who came to be baptized a bunch of vipers, snakes. He urged them to repent of their sinful ways, and gave them some very specific and stringent ethical demands. “If you have two coats, you must give one to the person who has none. If you’ve got food, share it with the hungry. If you’re in business or government service, be honest and ethical in your dealings.” John didn’t mince any words, didn’t hold back any punches. He got right to the point, in a rather brusque way.
After hearing all this wrathful talk, what do you suppose the mood of the people was? Were they cowering in a corner, shivering in their boots? No! Quite the contrary! They were “filled with expectation.” Another version says they were “all agog,” but the translation I like best comes from the New English Bible that says, “The people were on the tiptoe of expectation …”
That’s what this Epiphany season we’re now in is all about – it’s a season of excitement, of expectation, of unveiling mysteries, of showing forth the glory and majesty of God’s Son.[i] The questions for us to consider today are how can you and I participate in this excitement, and how can we be filled with expectation – and be transformed for the better?
But first, what is this expectation at the River Jordan all about? What is the reason for these people to be on their tiptoes? It has to do with this preacher/prophet, John – they’re wondering if maybe he could be the long-awaited Messiah. Ever since the time of the great King David, over 900 years before, the people have been looking for a Messiah, a Savior. And John certainly seems to fit the bill. He is a powerful preacher and his words ring true. He urges the people to repent, and he implements the long-standing Jewish tradition of ritual purification by water, used with converts when they are accepted into the faith. Moreover, John is doing a land-office business. So, in spite of his harsh manner and tough words, the crowds of people are standing on the tiptoe of expectation, hoping that maybe, just maybe, their prayers of the centuries have been answered.
John responds by clarifying his position: “I am not the one you’ve been waiting for. The one who is coming will be much greater than I. I’m not even worthy to untie this man’s sandals.
But you’ll be able to tell when he comes, because he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. If you think my judgment is harsh, wait for this one to come.” Our text doesn’t tell us how the people react to this news, but I’ll bet they’re disappointed; I’ll bet some don’t even believe him. They think: “He’s probably like some of those politicians who say they aren’t going to run for office, but suddenly there they are in the race. I’ll bet he is the Messiah, and he’s just being coy about it, or maybe the time isn’t quite right. But when it is, then he will make his announcement.”
As we continue with our lesson this morning, back in the River Jordan the crowds are getting baptized by John, and Jesus suddenly appears. We don’t know where he comes from, but there he is – getting baptized by John himself! In this version from Luke there is no conversation between John and Jesus; in Matthew’s Gospel, John protests that he’s not worthy to baptize Jesus, but then finally consents and does so. The sixty four thousand dollar question is WHY?
Why does Jesus get baptized with all the others? Isn’t John’s baptism one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? Yes, it is. Isn’t it for sinful people needing cleansing? Yes, it is. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be free from sin? That’s correct. Isn’t baptism supposed to be for converts to Judaism, and isn’t Jesus already a Jew in good standing? Yes, on all counts. Why then does Jesus feel that he needs to get baptized?
To answer this question we need to look at the context of the story. Jesus at this point in the narrative is about thirty years old. It has been some eighteen years since he impressed the religious teachers in the temple in Jerusalem with his wisdom. All through these years he must realize that he is different, unique, special – others may sense it too, we don’t know. But he also has family responsibilities: he is the eldest son; his mother, widowed during this time, has to be cared for; his younger siblings also look to him for support; his late father’s business has to be maintained. So the village carpenter of Nazareth keeps biding his time, studying the Bible, and waiting for the right moment, waiting for a sign. Maybe John the Baptist and the religious stir he is causing is the sign Jesus is looking for, the call from God he has been expecting. So he goes to John out by the river, perhaps to ritually cleanse himself for the tasks ahead, but mainly as a way of answering this call from God.
In addition, however, I think Jesus goes to be baptized because he wants to identify with those who have chosen God’s way by coming to John to be baptized. He goes right down into the water with the others, alongside them with all their needs, all their sins, in effect saying, “I am one of you.” His whole ministry after this is consistent with this act – he doesn’t stand aloof from sinners, but encourages them to come to him. He even eats with them and accepts their hospitality.[ii] Jesus does not need to be baptized, but he wants to be. He willingly chooses to be baptized, recognizing that it is now the time for him to begin God’s work, and because he wants to graphically show that he is one with those he came to serve.
Finally, I think Jesus comes to be baptized because he is hoping for an affirmation, a sign of approval that the decision he is making is the right one. And does he ever get it! The heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, and a voice, presumably God’s, proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” If Jesus is the biblical scholar that we assume he is, then he not only knows that the voice is God’s, but he remembers where these words come from. The first phrase is associated with the Messiah from Psalm 2. The second, from Isaiah, describes the suffering servant. So, besides affirming him, the voice from heaven is also identifying him as the Messiah and that this role will not involve power and glory, but rather, suffering, humiliation, and death.[iii]
We don’t know if anyone else hears this voice or not. But can you imagine if the people in the water around Jesus did hear it? Talk about being on the tiptoe of expectation – they would have been so excited, they would have been like Tiny Tim; they’d have been tiptoeing through the tulips! But I don’t think they do hear; I think this is a private message that only Jesus receives.
After his temptation in the wilderness a little later, Jesus returns to Nazareth, stands up in the synagogue, reads from the prophet Isaiah the passage we heard earlier about liberation, reedom, and hope – and then proclaims that he is the fulfillment of this scripture. The others in the synagogue don’t get it at first, but when he talks some more, then they do, and they are so angry, they try to throw him off a cliff. Though Jesus escapes, this is the beginning of the opposition, the beginning of the suffering foreshadowed at his baptism.
Back to the tiptoeing people. They were really excited about the possibility of the Messiah coming in their lifetime. But though we say we believe that Christ will come again – maybe in our lifetime, we don’t really know when – sometimes we act as if there never was a first coming. We have an advantage over the people at the River Jordan in that we know the end of the story, that Christ lived and died for us, and lives again, and that the salvation he purchased for us on the cross enables us not only to have eternal life, but a fulfilled life here and now.
Knowing this should motivate us to also live expectantly, and if we aren’t living expectantly, then this Epiphany season is the perfect opportunity to start doing so. Let’s see how.
First, we also can stand on the tiptoe of expectation because this is a new year we’re now in, and our faith teaches us that God is in charge. Think about that. In spite of natural disasters, threats of terrorism, violence in so many places, accidents, illnesses, death of loved ones, in spite of personal problems, economic upheavals, whatever, God has not forgotten us or forsaken this world. God is not “up there” pulling strings for all of us puppets “down here.” We still have the free will to make our own decisions, but I believe God is in charge of the big picture.
A farmer had a weather-vane on his barn, and on the arrow of this weather-vane was inscribed the words: “God Is Love.” A stranger passing by saw the weather-vane, stopped and asked the farmer, “What do you mean by that? Do you think God’s love is changeable; that it veers about as that arrow turns in the wind?” The farmer said, “Oh, no, quite the contrary. I mean that whichever way the wind blows, God is still Love.”[iv] Because God is still Love, you and I can stand on the tiptoe of expectation as we begin this new year, even though we know that there will be many changes coming for us personally, and in our nation, and in our world. God loves us, and will continue to be with us and with all of creation.
Second, we can stand on the tiptoe of expectation because we know that Jesus is the Messiah, and just as Jesus chose his baptism, so we can choose to affirm our baptism or not. Contrary to what we might think, baptism is not a “once and for all” action; the choices of baptism present themselves over and over again throughout our lives. We choose daily whether to live as faithful disciples of Christ or to follow the ways of the world. We choose daily whether to affirm our baptismal commitment or reject it.[v] The choice is in our hands.
Once there was a king and a wise old man. The king resented the old man because the people respected him so much, and they were always seeking his advice. The king stayed awake many a night, trying to think of some way to discredit him. He wanted to embarrass him in front of the people. One day he hits upon a scheme, and summoning all his followers and the old man, the king asks him, “O wise man, tell me this. I have the tiniest of birds cupped between my hands. I command you to tell me if the bird is alive or dead.” The wise man immediately realizes he’s in a dilemma, for if he says, “Alive,” the king will surely snuff out the little bird’s life with one squeeze of his hand; and if he says, “Dead,” the king will simply open his hand, and the bird will be released into the air. Either answer will be used to discredit him.
The old man ponders his decision. The king grows impatient. “Well, is the bird alive or dead?” he demands. And the wise man replies, “It is as you wish, your Majesty. The choice is in your hands.”[vi] As we stand on tiptoe looking expectantly into the future, let us remember that God is in charge and Christ is our Savior, and that the choice to follow or not that lies before us is in our hands.
Third, we can stand on the tiptoe of expectation because we know that the Holy Spirit has been sent to guide us and strengthen us. It’s the power of the Holy Spirit that helps us make the right choices. Receiving the Spirit does not mean that we are exempt from problems or troubles – in all likelihood it will be quite the contrary. But it does mean we are given the strength to cope with them. Like the unseen wind that propels a sailboat, when we experience the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, we will know it. It’s a power that can lift us to new heights.
A group of friends were visiting Death Valley, and near the end of their visit they hiked partway up Wildrose Peak, a mountain rising nearly 9000 feet above the valley floor. While looking over a panoramic view, they noticed something in the valley below, several eagles, flying with gentle flapping motions. Suddenly there was a change. Catching one of the hot air currents, they stopped flapping their wings, and within minutes the eagles had risen to where they had climbed, thousands of feet high. Those eagles could have flapped their way to that height, but they didn’t need to, for they had caught a thermal! Sometimes you and I struggle, and put out so much effort, and never seem to get anywhere. But God says to us, “Relax. Lean upon me. Let my power help you. Catch the thermal, the wind of my Spirit, wait for me, and soar with me.”[vii]
Finally, we can stand on the tiptoe of expectation because we know that the calling to which we’re called is vitally important. Jesus left the River Jordan and soon thereafter he became involved in the lives of people. This is the calling to which we are also called. We are called to the privilege of touching others’ lives, of reaching out to others in the name of Christ, of loving the unlovable, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, advocating for peace and justice and non-violence, and so on. Put simply, we are called to serve.
The great master artist, Leonardo da Vinci, had started work on a large canvas in his studio, choosing the subject, planning the perspective, sketching the outline, and applying the colors, all with his own unique genius. Then with the painting still unfinished, for some reason, he stopped, and summoning one of his students, he invited the student to complete his work. The student protested that he was both unworthy and unable to complete the great painting which his master had begun. But da Vinci silenced him, saying: “Will not what I have done inspire you to do your best?” [viii] And the student agreed. Our Master began something two thousand years ago – by how he lived, by what he said, by what he did, and by what he suffered. He illustrated his message, but it was incomplete. He has left us to finish the picture. This is what it means to serve.
What more needs to be said? Believe that God is in charge, believe that Jesus is Lord, believe that the Holy Spirit can indeed empower your life, and be open, be receptive, to that power.
Make wise choices and serve others unselfishly. Claim your baptism, and claim the relationship that is yours as a child of God. This, my friends, is what Christian discipleship is all about, and this is all you and I will need to enable us to stand on the tiptoe of expectation not only as we peer into the new year before us, but into all the years to come. So may it be. Amen.
Rev. Kenneth C. Landall
[i] Reginald W. Ponder, Abingdon Preacher’s Manual, 1992, 1/12/92, pp. 27-31.
[ii] The Clergy Journal, 5-6/88, 1/18/89, p. 47.
[iii] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke, p. 46.
[iv] Autoillustrator, #471.
[v] The Clergy Journal, 5-6/91, 1/12/92, p. 67.
[vi] Emphasis, 1-2/92, p. 18.
[vii] Autoillustrator, #8471.
[viii] Ibid., #65.