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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

08-BAP-W-C 2004
Luke 03 15-17, 21-22
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
January 11, 2004

A long time ago, I used to work as a volunteer phone counselor at the Dallas Suicide & Crisis Center. One of the more frustrating calls I got was from a young woman who’d just been diagnosed with cancer. After talking to me for a few minutes, after describing her fear and desperation, she asked if I had ever had cancer. I told her no. She said, “Then you can’t understand. You’ve never had cancer. You’re not a woman.”

They give you training in cases like this to reassure the caller that while you’ve never been in their particular situation, you HAVE felt scared, you HAVE felt desperate, you HAVE felt as though nobody understands you. As I recall, I was feeling a lot of those things in trying to talk to this woman. They give you training to look at a list of numbers they keep beside the phone so you can refer the caller to someone who HAS been in the same situation – in cases like this, women’s cancer survivor centers. But all the training and all the resources couldn’t erase the truth – that I hadn’t been in her situation, that I wasn’t a woman, and that I couldn’t personally understand.

You don’t have to be working crisis center phone lines to know that truth. Anybody who’s been married for more than 15 minutes knows that they can’t completely understand their husband or wife (husband, usually). Anyone who’s been a teenager, trying to make their supposedly idiot parents understand them knows that truth. Anyone who’s tried to reach out to a friend who doesn’t reach back, knows how hard it is to completely understand somebody else.

Today we study scripture where it’s hard to understand the person’s motivation or need to do what they did. Jesus, Son of God, gets baptized in a baptism of repentance of sin – sins we know he didn’t have. Sins he knew he hadn’t committed. For goodness’ sake – save the water for people who need it, you know?

Today Jesus shows that even though we can’t always understand him, he always understands us. Today Jesus shows that even though we can’t live sinless lives, he understands how it feels to receive forgiveness. And today Jesus shows us that God can be pleased – pleased with us, despite ourselves – if we submit to his truth.

Jesus understands us. Somewhere, some scholarly Presbyterian has probably re-written the old song so it goes like this:

Jesus understands us, this I comprehend,
This is Judeo-Christian scripture’s end.
No age discrimination or gender bias,
All sanctified so Satan won’t fry us.

I know that last line doesn’t really fit. But I’m working on a schedule, here.

The old Cherokee saying goes, “I will not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” Rather than descending from above, Jesus is born as a human baby and grows up in the company of people. When the time comes for his ministry to begin, he gets baptized, as if to say, “I won’t criticize my neighbor until I’ve walked a mile in his (or her) sandals. But neither will I teach them, and neither will I die for them, until I understand how it feels to be washed clean of sins.”

According to their religion of the time, Jewish people like Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for the repentance of sins. They had an “in” with God to begin with. Father Abraham, whose faith was counted as righteousness, whose descendents were to be more numerous than the stars – just being part of Abraham’s family was enough to win you eternal favor with God, according to the religion of the time.

But, I would guess, most people who were honest with themselves, knew that they weren’t purely righteous people, no matter how righteous their great-great-great grandfather used to be. Like you and me, they all had stains of their own to wash off.

We don’t know a lot about Jesus up until this point. A lot of people have wondered if Jesus had messed up and sinned, sometime between birth and age 30, same as many of us. Had he not been the Son of God, chances are good he’d need some cleaning up. But we could speculate over stuff like that all day. Whether or not Jesus had sins is beside the point. In being baptized, Jesus shows us who certainly DO have sins stuck to us, that he’s going to walk a lot of miles in our shoes – beginning with the same confession of sin where all our Christian journeys begin. “O God, have mercy on me; according to your steadfast love; wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” (Psalm 51) Even if he didn’t know exactly how it feels to be you, Jesus does know how it feels to confess that you’re just you, God bless our little hearts.

Of course, “Jesus Loves Me, this I know,” isn’t about Jesus understanding us. It’s Jesus LOVES us, this we know. The first step in understanding anyone is loving them in spite of who they are. In being baptized Jesus shows us that God’s love is steadfast, unstoppable, even for people who need their hearts washed clean.

Jesus understands us, but he loves us anyway. Jesus understands us because he loves us.

In being baptized, Jesus shows that even though we can’t live sinless lives, he understands how it feels to receive forgiveness.

“Practically perfect people never allow sentiment to muddle their thinking,” said the fictional Mary Poppins. Perfect people don’t need forgiveness. And perfect people are practically fictional.

You might know someone who thinks he (or she) operates with such clarity of insight, with such heaven-inspired wisdom and truth, that he (or she) can get by just fine without ever having to ask anyone’s forgiveness. He or she is wrong. But worse than being wrong, this practically perfect person is very, very poor in spirit. Because if you’ve never received another person’s forgiveness, if you’ve never felt how it feels for someone to wipe your slate clean, you’ve missed out on the greatest spiritual gift of life. Jesus, THE perfect person, didn’t need forgiveness. But in being baptized, Jesus shows us that forgiveness is more important than perfection.

Forgiveness is more important than perfection. I think this is what the Son of God is saying to us when he begins his ministry by being baptized. “Start here,” he says to us. Feel what it’s like to receive forgiveness. Start here with YOUR ministries. Start here with your kids, with your families, with your friends. Start here with your enemies. We’re all so much less than practically perfect. But baptized in God’s forgiveness, we can be even more than perfect.

The baptized Jesus gets to understand how better than perfect it feels to be forgiven.

In being baptized, Jesus shows us that God can be pleased – pleased with us – if we submit ourselves to his truth, even if we do wrong things.

And then a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” Well, of course God was pleased with Jesus. We’re all pleased with our kids when they do the right thing. And we’re all displeased with our kids when they embarrass us. God never had to worry about that one where Son Jesus was concerned.

But the Bible tells us that we’re God’s children, too. How do we know when God’s pleased with us? The usual answer is when we get a good parking space. “Must be living right.” But we know God’s really not the Great Parking Attendant in the sky. How do we know when God’s displeased with us? Is it when really horrible stuff happens that no one can understand? It is when we feel completely misunderstood or misplaced, by God and by everyone else?

If we think God’s approval or disapproval of us shows in how well or how badly things are going, who’s really making the call? Jesus got crucified; did that mean God changed his opinion of his Son? Of course not. Does God reward us with good parking spaces and smite us with flat tires? Of course not. “O God have mercy upon me according to your STEADFAST love,” says the scripture. God’s love is steadfast. God’s love is permanent. God’s love is greater than the ups and downs of luck, of health and of the stock market.

In being baptized, Jesus shows us that knowing the steadfast love of God – feeling that God’s TRULY pleased with us – doesn’t come from keeping score of the good and bad that hits us. Jesus shows us that we know God’s pleasure when we submit ourselves to the ways of God.

So instead of trusting our pretty flawed opinions of ourselves, instead of trusting in the opinions of other people, instead of trusting in the opinion of the guy who says you’ll be infinitely happy if you just buy a new SUV with a DVD player and leather seats (which by the way won’t get you into heaven, but does make driving Alcoa Highway a lot nicer) – instead of trusting in the wandering winds of this world… we find peace ONLY by submitting ourselves to God, as seen in the baptized Jesus Christ, and as revealed in the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

Jesus came up from the waters and the skies opened and a deep voice said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Chances are, the skies won’t open and the voice won’t speak over any of us. But when we eat the daily bread of Jesus Christ, when we daily choose to submit ourselves to his guidance, we can begin to feel the space in our hearts open and the voice of our conscience whispering peace. Yes, we’re all pretty messed up in our own ways. But God can work with that. God is pleased when we want God to work with that, warts and all.

Yes, on the surface it’s hard to understand why Jesus would ever need to be baptized. It’s hard to understand why he’d want to leave the security of heaven to be born and walk in this dirty little earth with dirty little people each doing a fair amount of dirty little things. But we can never fully understand Jesus. The blessed miracle is that he took the time – TAKES the time – to understand us. He understands us. He knows how we feel when we receive forgiveness. And he shows us how to grow in our understanding of him, and of God.