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Who do you say that I am? This is the question that Jesus asks his followers in Matthew’s Gospel. This is the question that we’re considering throughout Lent as this journey leads us to the death and resurrection of Christ. Who do you say that I am? What does this mean for our lives? We talked last week about genealogies and their role in helping us know who we are and where we came from. Our identity, to put it simply. Who are we? I believe that the answer to this question is grounded in who Christ is. Let us take a look at our story this morning from the 3rd chapter of Matthew and hear what God has to say to our hearts.
The thing about God, the thing about following Christ, the thing about going around with the Holy Spirit in us, is that God is always doing something new. It never gets old. Never gets boring. Not if we’re paying attention. Sometimes the new thing is very evident. The new thing that Matthew introduces in chapter 3 is the start of Jesus ministry – the start of Jesus’ service or work on earth.
But before Jesus appears as an adult by the Jordan River, we have John the Baptist. Wild John the Baptist. I love John the Baptist, coming out of the desert with his camel hair robe and belt and his locusts and wild honey. He’d been prepared by God for a job. One writer puts it like this – “He came out of the desert…only after he had undergone years of lonely preparation by God. John leapt, as it were, into the arena full-grown and full-armed.” The new Elijah. The prophet. The one who was telling not only what was going to happen (the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!) but what was happening (Repent! Turn to the one who is bringing the Kingdom!). The one who was doing something new – baptizing in water as the people confessed their sins. Being baptized with water for repentance was not something Jewish people did. They were awaiting the fulfillment of a promise – a promised deliverer. They were living under Roman occupation. They awaited the one who would save them. While they were waiting, here was something new going on in the person of John the Baptist.
They would remember of course, that to get to the land of promise, crossing a river was involved. It’s no coincidence that John is baptizing in the Jordan. The same river that his ancestors crossed to enter the land of promise. The land of rest. To go through water signifies entering a new circumstance – of being changed. For the Israelites, knowing God was always about being transformed by the relationship. This transformation was to be manifested in action. Like Jesus after him, John speaks out about those practicing meaningless religion – “You brood of vipers, “ he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Do not think that you’re saved because of who your parents were. There is an ethical component to this whole God thing. Before we get too self congratulatory and say “Those crazy Pharisees and Saducees!”, we might say “Do not presume that because we believe or because we said the Jesus prayer once or because we have been baptized that we are done.” Faith and ethics are two sides of the coin for the follower of Christ or the coin is counterfeit. “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!” John’s words ring out through the years. Following Christ is not just about empty belief.
Now Jesus comes on the scene. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John tells the crowd, “but one more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He is able to raise up children from stones. He is the one who calls us his brother and sister. Who’ll pray with us “Our Father.” John says he is not even worthy to carry his sandals. This was the job of a slave in those days. I’m not even worthy to be called his slave, says John. In the person of Jesus, though, we’re worthy to be called children of God as the Holy Spirit’s fire refines us, burns away our dross and changes us. Children from stones. God takes from us our hearts of stone and gives us hearts of flesh. God gives us life.
God is doing something new friends. This is what God does. He makes things new.
Jesus appears. It’s interesting that the first act of Jesus’ ministry is not a miracle. It’s not a sermon. It’s an act. He comes to the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin. John would have prevented him. “I need to be baptized by you!” he tells Jesus. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Christians have struggled with this line ever since. Was this to fulfill some prophecy? Maybe, though we don’t know what it was. Was Jesus in need of forgiveness? No. For you grammarians, the verb “fulfill” is in the active tense – to fullfil – rather than the passive – “to have such and such fulfilled”. One writer interprets it to mean “It is required that you and I fulfill God’s will by allowing me to be baptized.”
What does this mean? The first thing I want to stress about Jesus’ identity from our story this morning is this. Jesus identifies with sinners. By this I mean of course that Jesus identifies with us. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin. Jesus stands with us. He did this throughout his life. He was known for it. After Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector – worst of the worst – and Matthew answers, they’re having dinner. A lot of Matthew’s friends come. Matthew invites a lot of his friends. Many tax collectors and sinners. Come meet this guy! I love that. Come meet him. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” is the question. Jesus answers “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” God is a God of mercy. In the person of Christ he identifies with us. He comes down into our mess. In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller likens this to a hostage rescue situation. A Hostage Rescue Team breaks into a place where people are imprisoned. The prisoners don’t want to leave. They’re scared. Is this a trick? They’re defeated, beaten down. One of the rescue team sits down beside them. Identifies with them. Reassures them. Leads them out of captivity. This is what Jesus does.
Jesus’ first act of public ministry. How everything starts. What a beautiful scene. Just as he came up out of the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him. Something heavenly breaking through. The song we sang earlier went “You didn’t want heaven without us, so Jesus you brought heaven down.” Mark describes this as the heavens were torn. Nothing would ever be the same again. He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, alighting on him. The same Spirit that would be sent and is sent to live in Christ’s followers.
What happens with heaven comes down? “And a voice from heaven said…” A voice from heaven speaks. God speaks. Jesus is starting his work here on earth. God says something about him. What is the thing that God says? “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Echoes of Isaiah 42:1. Echoes of Psalm 2:7. The thing that Jesus would hear again on the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah – the law and the prophets – appeared with him and he was changed – “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The thing that Jesus would carry with him throughout his life. The Son of God. The Word made flesh. The beloved one. He would hear voices that questioned this. Look at the scene that immediately follows this one. Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. He is tempted by the devil. You can almost hear the sneer in the tempter’s voice – “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the temple. If you are… Prove yourself. Make a name for yourself. Do something for yourself – you deserve it. Make yourself bread! Do something spectacular! Gain some power! Prove to me who you are…
As I like to say, Jesus didn’t have to prove anything. He didn’t have to prove it, he had just heard it. He could rest in God’s love knowing his loving Father would provide. He could rest in quiet trust in the plan that was being worked out in and through him, which did not depend on crowds or spectacle or power but in self-sacrificing love. He could cry out on the cross “My God my God why have you forsaken me” knowing that Psalm 22 ends with the words “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
The Beloved Son.
If you had one thing to tell someone about God, what would it be? I always answer this question with “God loves you.” This is the voice that echoes down to us through the years. We’ve been talking about questions like “Where do I come from?” and “Who am I?” What this voice from heaven is telling us is that our primary identity is to be found in being The Beloved. This is an age in which we want to reduce everybody to labels, and this is usually done to divide us – liberal, conservative, progressive, evangelicals, illegals. It’s an age in which we are constantly bombarded by messaging that our identity, our sense of self, our worth is tied up in what we look like, what we consume, what we produce. Henri Nouwen puts it like this – “I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: ‘Yes I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.’ There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave me, since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional. As I long as I keep looking for my true self in the world of conditional love, I will remain ‘hooked’ to the world – trying, failing, and trying again.”
The invitation is here, friends, to find our true identity in being beloved of God. In taking time to hear that voice in all the different ways that we take time to hear that voice. In quietening our hearts. In hearing God’s voice in scripture. In song. In solitude. In coming ever more to greater heart knowledge that God loves us and that in Christ we are adopted into God’s family – that God has in us raised up children of Abraham from stones, because hearts can be pretty stony.
This is a miracle friends. It results in a transformed life. As Nouwen puts it – “When I hear that voice, I know that I am at home with God and have nothing to fear. As the Beloved of my heavenly Father, ‘I can walk in the valley of darkness: no evil will I fear.’… Having ‘received without charge,’ I can ‘give without charge.’ As the Beloved, I can confront, console, admonish, and encourage without fear of rejection or need for affirmation. As the Beloved I can suffer persecution without desire for revenge and receive praise without using it as a proof of my goodness.” It is entirely transforming.
And it not only transforms our sense of self. It transforms the way we look at others. As you go through your day, everyone who you come across is beloved by God. We need to be getting this right. We need to be getting this right with those closest to us. We need to be getting it right with our children. I saw an interview recently on a Christian tv program in which a young woman was talking about the career expectations placed on her by her parents. How she perceived that their love was contingent upon her following the career path that they had set out for her. How incredibly damaging. We need to be letting our children and everyone know that our love for them is not contingent on anything.
In the morning let me know your love, the Psalmist sang. May this be our prayer. It starts with God’s love for us. This is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his Son to be an atoning sacrifice for us. This is where this story is heading. Jesus lives and dies and rises again in this story as the beloved Son of God. May we ever more be coming to know ourselves and those around us as beloved of God. God grant this this may be true for us all.