By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 26, 2020
12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. 23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.
The past few weeks we have really focused on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. I do not really think I have focused on that relationship as in depth as I have in the past couple of months, but I do feel we do not give John the respect that he deserves. Jesus even tells us that John is the greatest man to ever be born, which is saying a great deal.
Jesus supports John’s ministry. While I was participating in Ignatian Spiritual Exercises a few years ago, my spiritual director told me that many in their tradition of faith believe that early in Jesus’s ministry he supported John. That idea is supported to some degree in today’s passage, but I do not necessarily believe that Jesus and John were partners. I personally believe that Jesus and John did not compete against each other and when people spoke about the two, they both stood aside for the other.
The other gospel accounts suggest that there was a time where both Jesus and John were actively ministering at the same time, but Matthew suggests that Jesus was not fully engaged in his ministry until after John was arrested. I find that interesting. It is almost as if Matthew wants to make a distinction between the two expressions of faith, even though both the ministry of John and that of Jesus take much of the same approach from different trajectories. They both preach the same gospel message, which is that the kingdom of God is at hand or near. That was the original gospel message, the message of the kingdom was the only gospel message until after the death and resurrection of Christ. And I think that that message is something that we often overlook because too often we have morphed the Gospel into something incomplete by focusing on the how kingdom is won, instead of the what that kingdom truly is. Both Jesus and John passionately proclaim the same Gospel, they both speak to those that will listen to repent, to turn or to return to the heart of the Law. And to live with God today.
Jesus heard that John had been arrested, and that report seemed to speak to Jesus, telling him that now is the time to move out of his obscure life as a local handy man and begin taking the journey of the lamb. Prior to this Jesus lived and worked in Nazareth, that land in the far north of Israel, the land that was somewhat set apart from the rest of Judea because of the province of Samaria that separated it from Jerusalem. The land of Nazareth did not have the greatest reputation. They were regarded as Jews but because of the distance from the cultural center and lower population, the people there were often seen as being a bit ignorant. But these people were proud of who they were, they were often the ones that lead the independence movements and it was from Nazareth that many of the nationalistic rebels emerged. This is not surprising because they lived in an area closer to the more Hellenistic cultural centers.
If we were to give an example of these geographical centers in relation to our own nation, Nazareth might be likened to Appalachia in the United States where Jerusalem is New England. In our nation when we speak of American History a great majority is found in New England because it was in that region where events like the Boston Tea Party occurred. But if you were to ask the people of those areas what their heritage was, you would hear more people speaking of their ancestry, saying things like, “I am English or Italian.” But if you were to speak to those in Appalachia, they would more likely say I am American. Our cultural identity came from New England, but the pride often comes from other areas, the areas many people might refer to as hillbillies or good ol’ boys.
Jesus came from Nazareth and he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea. Nazareth was divided from the rest of Judea not only by Samaria but also a region that was highly settled by Gentiles. When the Greek culture moved into Israel after the conquest of Alexander the Great, they settled around the sea of Galilee. In this region, though it was part of Israel, the Jewish population in the first century was a minority. Jesus moved from Nazareth, the area known for their ignorant pride, to Galilee the of the Gentiles. He basically moved to Las Vegas.
John withdrew to the wilderness; Jesus went to the valley of the shadows. John called Israel to repent, and Jesus seems to make no distinction between Jew or Gentile but calls all people to repentance.
Jesus moves into this new community, and he begins to speak. His first message echoes the message of John, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This statement attracts the attention of many, because the wilderness preacher had been saying those words as well. That man was betrayed and taken to jail, but the message remains. Jesus continues to walk, and he make his way to the sea, and he sees two brothers working there.
Last week we spoke about the time just after Jesus was baptized, and John saw him walking in the distance and said to his disciples, “Behold the lamb of God.” When his disciples heard him say this, they left John’s side and followed Jesus and spent the night talking with him. One of those men, was Andrew.
The timeline might seem odd. But Simon and Andrew already knew Jesus. They knew that John had great respect for him, they had even spent time with him, but at that time Jesus was a craftsman, not widely known as a teacher. At this point John was the teacher that people followed, and John had been taken to jail. These men were eager, they were filled with righteous desire, but they were common men. They were men that were far from the cultural center, they were overlooked by the pharisees, but they had passion.
These men existed in obscurity. This does not mean that they were unimportant. In many cultures there are certain values accredited to positions. Most of these accreditations revolve around some form of education. There is nothing wrong with an education. In fact, it is one of the most important things that we can give to those around us. But cultures run a risk when we regard degrees and diplomas as equivalent to wisdom. I say this as what many would call an educated individual. I worked hard for my degrees, but my degrees are worthless if I had not learned to translate the things, I have learned into language that those without that education can understand. If I am unable to communicate, encourage, and apply my knowledge it does not matter how many degrees I possess. These men did not have the degrees of their culture, and many might consider them to be ignorant because of that. That does not mean that they did not seek knowledge and wisdom.
The pursuit of knowledge is one of the amazing aspects of humanity. When we actively pursue knowledge our culture progresses. This occurs in different ways and in various stages. It also requires many people working in conjunction with one another. Each person adding a bit more to what others have provided. When humanity stops pursuing knowledge, we enter a cultural recession. These recessions tend to divide people. One group has knowledge and they seek to use that to control those without. The other group does not have the knowledge and they resist and resent those they perceive to be elite. These divisions tear a culture apart, and those cultures enter a stagnant period we can describe as a dark age.
Israel was on the brink of a dark age. Jerusalem was their cultural center; it was where the most important people gathered. Those within that center looked at the surrounding area with contempt because they were ignorant. John began to point this out when he went to the wilderness. John taught outside the temple industrial complex, he went to the wilderness and he taught the common, not the elite.
The idea is to bring the knowledge to the people. Encourage and inspire those that did not have the opportunity before. But it is not just to get a following, it is to ignite a revival, a renaissance. Jesus went out to the sea and he found two men fishing and he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” He is telling them that he will teach them the wisdom of God, he will show them a different lifestyle that will change the world. He is telling them not to settle, but to passionately pursue something greater.
Many of us feel as if we are living on the brink of a dark age. Our culture seems to be divided in a way that we have not experienced before. Though life is better than many of us think, a large portion of our population finds itself in a place of stagnation. I recently read a report that said that most of the emerging generations will earn less than the pervious generation, which is something that has not occurred in the last hundred years. The generation today has more in common with those just prior to the great depression. This is a sobering perspective, because that type of hardship is distracting. It intensifies division, and cultural decline. How can we stop it?
Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” I thought a great deal on this concept this week. And as I studied, I learned that the fishing metaphor was used in pagan and Jewish traditions. It is an idea of pulling people out of the current situation and setting them in a new life. Jesus is calling Peter and Andrew to participate with him, not only in a ministry, but initiating the kingdom that he was preaching about. A kingdom that is not based on the ideas and concepts of worldly kingdoms, but one that is based on restoration, community, and moving individuals together to a different perspective. Jesus is calling them to participate in a life and lifestyle that will promote mutual profit, based on how we can improve each other instead of the intense competition for selfish gain. He is calling them, and us with them, to a life where humanity is more important than anything else.
Jesus’s call to the disciples is a call to form a people of God once again like Israel’s ancestors as they left Egyptian slavery. When Israel left Egypt, they were not a nation. They wondered through the wilderness for forty years learning to live together with God as a guide. They had forgotten who they were, and God is calling them back. He is calling us too. He is calling us to be a people that sees the humanity of those around us, the humanity that was created to bear the image of God. He is calling us to a life and lifestyle that will immerse our communities with his spirit. Removing the distractions so that the light of God can shine through.
As we now enter this time of open worship. I encourage us all to consider the passion of those first disciples. The passion that drove them to drop what they were doing to follow Jesus. Consider the calling to become fishers of men, and how that means to lift humanity out of one situation and integrate them into a new life. And consider where you are in that call.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 19, 2020
John 1:29–42 (ESV)
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” 35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).
Today we come together again during this period of the Church year where we basically say, “no what?” We know exactly what to do leading up to and during Christmas. We know what to focus on during the time leading up to Easter. Even during that time between Easter and Christmas we are okay with because it is the time, we celebrate the Spirit of God being with us. It is this period of time between Christmas and Easter that we struggle with. These winter weeks after the New Year, where we really just want the spring to come but that silly ground hog keeps seeing his shadow.
It is this time where we are left wondering. We know certain things in our mind, but are they a true reality. We recognize and profess that Jesus is with us, yet do we really live as if that is real?
Last week we met John and Jesus on the banks of the Jordan. I said that John was the one man in Israel that truly understood what was going on. But even John struggled with his faith. His life began in a miraculous manner similar to that of the patriarchs of old, and angel announced his birth to the father and the father was left almost laughing at the prospect. John knew that story of his origins, because I seriously doubt anyone involved in his life could refrain from talking about it. Imagine his dad enduring those nine months unable to speak. He was a priest of high regard; he was a leader in the Synagogue when he was not performing his duties at the temple. His wife, who in advanced years and never bore a child, was obviously pregnant and he could not say a single thing about it. And as John grew, he had this destiny presented to him that undergirded everything he was going to experience.
He was a child of privilege; whose life was to be dedicated to the service of God. Luke 1 tells us, “for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” John knew his life’s purpose before he was even born. Once his father could speak again, he would have directed his son into this life, giving him the necessary opportunities to make it happen.
Imagine what you would have done if you had been given this sort of direction in the rearing of your children. Imagine the decisions you would make to provide for the fulfillment of this prophecy spoken over your child. I have often wondered how John ended up on the banks of a river when the temple was such a central focus to the lives of the first century religious community. I have wondered how a religious community that was so efficient and organized could have a child with a destiny like that of John would not have offered space for him to within their colonnades? This gives us a glimpse into spiritual reality and institutional practice. John lived his faith with passion. His life and lifestyle fulfilled the very destiny that was proclaimed to his father, but I am certain that many within the organization suspected that John had turned from the truth path. We know this because when Jesus asked the teachers if John had come from God, they responded that they did not know. They responded in this way because they did not want to alienate themselves from those that had an opinion to either side.
John was the only person that knew Jesus in a way beyond the obscure builder. John knew that there was more to this cousin of his that met the eyes, but even John did not know exactly what to expect. I said last week that John knew Jesus, and in today’s passage John says that he did not know him. You might think that your pastor is off his rocker, and you might not be far from the truth, but we need to look deeper.
Words have power. When we group words together in certain ways they can inspire or condemn. They can empower or enslave. When we speak using words, we need to be careful. If a parent uses words with their children, they use can encourage them to become men and women of wisdom, honor, grace and faith. But we can also use words that belittle and discourage our children to the point they lose all desire to try to improve. This is one of the reasons being a parent is the hardest job in the world, because we really do not know until we enter eternity if we dealt faithfully with the precious lives we were entrusted with. People have made careers in teaching people and parents different methods of speaking to those they supervise, to promote greater response without causing harm. Words have power because words are often layered with meaning.
The word “know” is one such word. We can know in various ways. I know actors and actresses that star in my favorite shows. I know where they were born, and for some I even know if and where they went to college. And I am excited because the Ant-Man is going to be at the game today, because Paul used to live in this area, and he went to school at KU. I know these people, but I do not know them like I know my children.
I know my children in a much deeper sense of the word. With my children I can look at them and can basically predict exactly what they are about to do. I know by the tone of their voice if they are hungry. With the change of a single breath I know if something has changed in their current state of being. I know my children in a way that is deeper than any celebrity because I have spent a greater amount of time with them. Even this is different than how I know my spouse. There is a whole different aspect to knowing in this regard. Which includes everything we know about our children and more. Our spouses are those people that we have a special bond with one that we do not share with anyone else.
Knowing can be something attached to information and various relational aspects. When John says that he did not know Jesus, he is not saying that he had no knowledge of who he was. He knew his cousin, if not personally, he knew about him. I find it impossible to believe that John’s mom would be able to keep quiet about the reaction the fetus inside her responded during the visit of Mary. John knew Jesus, so what does John mean when he says he did not know him?
If we were to look up the word know in this case, it is references experience not facts. When John speaks about Jesus after he had baptized him, John is speaking of a different level of knowledge, he did not know him in the same way before. He knew him before in one way but the day after the baptism John knew Jesus in a much deeper way. Before he spoke in abstract, and today he speaks with experience.
John remained out in the wilderness preaching to those that came out to see him. He remained out there in the wilderness shouting out to those that came to repent for the kingdom of God is near. He remained out in the wilderness pushing people under the water to mark a moment where they had made a decision to turn from the life they once lived and embrace a new form of life. He was out in the wilderness, that next day and he sees Jesus walking by in the distance. He sees Jesus, and the message he was shouting changed from repent for the kingdom is near to, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Do we see the change? John moves from Prophet to herald. “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” John goes on to say that he witnessed the spirit of God descending on Jesus like a dove, and that he knew Jesus to be the son of God.
This is huge. John tells us that God called him to leave the richly decorated walls of the temple to embrace the ascetic life. He tells us that he was called by God to call people to repentance and he was even called to baptize them with water. If we were to look at the full report of John’s message, we would see that even John did not put any real power in his activity beyond encouraging a public declaration of repentance. He said that we cannot say that we have the right heritage because God could raise up children from Abraham from the very stones beneath our feet. His message states that it is not nationalism that save you because He was out in the wilderness baptizing gentiles along with those of Hebrew decent. John says that his baptism is in itself worthless because there is one that will come after who actually came before, that will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Maybe we do not understand what that means. What lead John out to the wilderness? What empowered John to proclaim the message that he proclaimed? The Spirit of God would be upon John even in the womb, meaning that John would experience God directing his life from the very beginning of his existence. John responded to that Spirit when he left the temple, and he began doing something different. Baptism has its roots in Jewish practice, but John expanded the meaning. The Jewish people would bath before they were to enter into worship in special pools. And as they entered these baths, they would fully immerse every part of their body into the water, every part of their body was clean. And the water would need to be living water, which basically means that the water needed to have a constant flow. The symbolism of the bath is that the things that might make us dirty are immersed and carried away from us. That which makes us unclean is removed and totally washed away. At that point they can enter the sacred place to worship. John is out in the wilderness; he is in the Jordan river. The symbolism here is even greater.
The Jordan is the often regarded as the border between Israel and the rest of the world. The fact that John was in the Jordan gives the impression that the holy place that people are to enter is not only a place of worship but the land itself. He is saying that no one is worthy of being called Israel, because all have sinned and need to repent. And when John baptizes Jesus it marks or reveals a new era of history. Jesus becomes Israel, he takes on himself all the future and history of Israel and redeems it in himself. Everything before, everything now, and everything in the future is now on him. John baptized with water; Jesus baptizes with God.
John did not know him in this way before, but now he knows. Now he knows that everything about his existence is made complete in Jesus. And later John will say, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Meaning the initial act of turning is not as important than the life lived in relationship to God.
John is out there in the wilderness. He is out there like many of us. We do not fully know what to do or where to go from here. John baptized Jesus, and all at once his life comes into focus. Yet what about us? A day passes and John’s message turns from repent because the kingdom of God is near to Behold the Lamb. Now another day has passed and again John sees Jesus. John is a man that has a following. People have come from all over Judea to listen to him preach. We know that his message had even extended to places far beyond Israel because, Apollos of Alexandria is found in the Book of Acts proclaiming the message of John. Jesus is seen approaching again on the second day, and John is standing there in the water of the Jordan with two disciples. And he looks at Jesus and he says to those with him, “behold, the lamb of God!” On the second day, John sends his disciples away from him, he directs them no longer to this abstract concept of repentance and baptism. He directs them to experience God with us. He sends his disciples away, encouraging them to follow Jesus.
Consider this moment for a bit. John sent his disciples to Jesus. His entire life had been lived a certain way; he had responded to the call of God to leave the privileged life of the temple to live in the wilderness. He had disciples that had responded to his lifestyle and had joined him in it. And here he is sending them away. All that we have is God’s, and is given for His glory not our own. If we do not release what we have to God, we miss the very essence of our lives.
John’s disciples hear his voice saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” They hear his words, and they know that what John is saying is the life you seek is not in the water but with Jesus. They walk to the shore, they climb out of the water, and they follow. I wonder how long they followed Jesus, before Jesus turned and spoke to them. I wonder if Jesus took a particularly strenuous path just for the fun of it that particular day, before he turned to them and spoke. He leads them for a while, an unspecified distance but enough to know that they were indeed following him. Which seems to mean that they were now away from the crowds of people and in a place of some privacy. And he asks them a very important question. “What are you seeking?”
Think about that question, because it is not only a question for them two thousand years ago. It is a question for each of us. A few weeks ago, I asked a question, “Why are you here?” that question stems from this question Jesus asked these two disciples of John. Jesus at this point had no real interaction with those that followed John. There is no indication that Jesus had spent any time engaged in John’s ministry up to this point. As far as we know, this is only the third time they had seen Jesus in any aspect outside the obscure builder he had been for the previous thirty years. Yet, they trusted John. When they heard his words, their desires turned from following the baptizer and rested on this unknown figure. And He asks them, “What are you seeking?”
The question is profound, because the term to seek is abstract enough to basically cover any answer. What is your greatest desire? What is truth? What is the purpose of my life? All of these and more are found in that simple question, “What are you seeking?” And their answer is simple at first, yet equally profound, “Teacher, where are you staying?”
Their greatest desire is to spend the day with Jesus. Their greatest desire is to have a conversation with a man their teacher finds so interesting. Their greatest desire is to know the person their teacher, upon sight, instantly changes from passionate proclaimer of repentance, to reverence and awe.
They followed Jesus because there was something more behind what they saw. It is one thing to enter the water and to re-emerge, the change that they saw in John when Jesus approached was something that affected the very essence of his being, it was the substance of life itself. They left the river and they wanted to spend the rest of the day with this man. “Where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and you will see.”
They continued down the path, and the tenth hour approached, meaning that there was only about two hours of daylight left. They finished their day talking with Jesus. They experienced life with Jesus. They felt a different call, because the call of Jesus is not just adjusting your life to live better. It is to walk with him, stay where he stays, and to share life in a community.
The next day those two went out and they found others and asked them to come see as well. John called Israel to leave the comfort of their organization, and in the face of Christ he says behold the Lamb. Jesus looks at John who said I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me. And Jesus tells John let’s do this, and John takes the back seat and redirects people to Jesus. I ask you because you are here listening, “What do you seek?” And as we enter this time of open worship, I encourage you to approach the silence as George Fox did, because like John he knew Jesus by experience. And experience occurs when we “Come and see.” So let us see what God with us has to show us, and experience His life with us.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13–17 (ESV)
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We have once again moved from the celebrations of Christmas and moved into the next chapter of the year, epiphany. Since I grew up in a church that did very little with the church calendar, the season was often a mystery to me. It was just some weird thing that Catholics and Episcopalians did. But as I have been in ministry for a while and have come to respect the cycles that the church calendar gives, this mysterious season has become very meaningful to me. In Christmas we are excited about the coming of Christ. There is so much anticipation and joy that I almost want it to last all year. Part of that is because I really like winter sports so if it is still Christmas then hockey season is only half over. But after the celebrations are over, after the presents have been opened and the toys have been built and enjoyed for a while, and after the leftovers have been eaten or tossed, what now?
This is what epiphany is it is the what now season of Christ. The angels are done singing and the initial excitement of the shepherds had died down. The wise men from the east have come and gone, and we are left with a child. Have we really reflected on that? Have you ever really thought of the time between Jesus’s presentation at the temple and the baptism of which we read today? There is thirty years of time between these events. Thirty years of life.
Jesus’s birth was written in the stars. Angels announced it from heaven. And people ran around the countryside saying the king has been born. Great scholars from Persia, or modern-day Iran, had traveled from their home to pay homage to this baby and proclaimed that the child was to be their king. How they knew that we can only guess, but Persia was very aware of Israel’s religious beliefs because Daniel, one of Israel’s prophets was respected among them. And a Jewish man served as the cup bearer of the Persian king. When these scholars came to Jerusalem, they approached Herod the Great, and Herod called all the great teachers of the Jewish faith to find out where this king was to be born. He then went out to kill the baby, which caused the Holy Family to flee their homeland and live as refugees in Egypt.
Persia knew Jesus was born, the shepherds knew, the Jewish scholars knew of Jesus’s birth, and the ruling entity knew of Jesus’s birth, the roman emperor had probably heard about the birth of Jesus because they probably wondered why magi were making an appearance in their land and why their appointed ruler was killing a bunch of babies. And after the birth everyone entered this weird portion of life where everyone wonders, what now?
A lot can happen in thirty years. Herod died within those thirty years. And the land he ruled was divided among his children and his sister. In those thirty years Herod’s sister gave her portion of the land to Rome, and the son that was given Judea was deemed unfit to rule so Rome took direct control over that province as well. In those thirty years, the Jewish people lost control of their Holy City. In those thirty years, people struggled to maintain position and to gain position, they tried to survive, and they tried to become more prosperous. For thirty years they lived knowing that at one point they had heard that their consolation was born, but that was thirty years ago. A lifetime had passed.
I have mentioned before that we often think of Jesus as being a young man because in our perspective thirty is early in our life. But during Jesus’s lifetime to be thirty would be a respectable age. At the age of thirteen children were regarded as adults. Most girls would be married at that time, and the boys would begin their careers. At the time of today’s passage, Jesus had worked as a craftsman for seventeen years. At that point in time he would not have only been a craftsman but a master craftsman, he would have been at the peak of his career.
Jesus had lived an entire lifetime, not as a king, but as a builder. We say carpenter but he was much more. Joseph was more likely a stone mason than someone that worked with wood. He was a builder. And that lifestyle is what Jesus would have lived. And we know this because we get one glimpse into those thirty years from birth to Jesus’s entrance into ministry, when he goes to the temple at the age of twelve. That age was very important to Jewish boys. They go to the temple to offer sacrifices for themselves. They are no longer under the authority of their parents, but they stand as men before their God. They speak for themselves and are responsible for their actions. When Jesus went to the temple he sat with the teachers and they marveled at his knowledge. This is important because every boy would have had an opportunity to listen and interact with these teachers. These teachers were looking for disciples, they were talking to the boys to see who they would ask to extend their education and work as a rabbi. They marveled at Jesus’s grasp of scripture, but they did not ask him to stay. Jesus returned north to Nazareth with his parents. That story is important because it tells us that Jesus was not trained as a rabbi, they were impressed with his brain but not enough to say we must educate this boy because he will be a leader among the people.
Jesus returned to a life of obscurity. The stories of the angels singing to shepherds had been forgotten and the appearance of the magi had only been remembered by those individuals who had lost their infants during Herod’s paranoid rampage. For thirty years, a lifetime, the stories of the anointed king being alive among them had been forgotten.
But there was one guy who remembered. A man whose emergence to this world was nearly as miraculous as that of Jesus’s, John. John’s father was a priest in the temple thirty years prior to this day. His father was the one that symbolically carried the prayers of the people and presented them before the Lord in the sacrificial burning of incense on the altar in the holy place. His father, while doing this most precious service was visited by an angel and was told that he was going to be a father of a very important child. And his father being a mature man at the time and married to a mature woman, questioned God and as a result was silent until the child was given the name John.
John remembered what everyone else forgot. There was a short revival in the religious community during the early years of his life, but he had watched that revival rise and fall. And for thirty years he had observed his nation turn to the world instead of God. John would have been a child of privilege. He was a son of a priest and because of this when the time came for him to pass from a child to become a man, he did not go into obscurity, but he would have been ushered into the presence of the teachers. Since he was a child of a priest that had seen an angel in the temple, and that vision was confirmed by the sign of silence, John would have been sought by the greatest of teachers in Judea. The people knew John, they remembered John, but Jesus they had forgotten.
Jesus spent seventeen years building; John had spent those years learning to be a priest. Priests were trained for twelve years before they could begin to serve in the temple at the age of twenty-five. For those years John would have been taught, but there would have been something that remained in John’s mind all those years. A story that his mom used to tell him, of her young cousin that came to visit when he was still in the womb and how when she came to visit how excited he had become. He would have remembered the stories from his father, how for nine months he had to endure his wife’s talking without being able to speak a single word even if he wanted to. John spent those years of training listening to the teaching of the rabbis, learning how to do the proper actions and to say the right words. He spent years learning and remembering while the rest of the world forgot.
When the time came for him to enter the temple service, John could not proceed. He had watched and learned. He saw that everything he was trained to do was empty ritual at best and exploitation at worst. And when the time came for him to follow his father into service, John left the temple and went out into the wilderness. He began to speak out against the very temple he had been groomed to serve. He went out into the wilderness screaming to those that would listen to repent because the Kingdom was at hand. He screamed because he was the only one that remembered what had happened thirty years ago. He was the only one that remembered that there was one living just a few miles to the north of where he was standing that could take away the sins of the world. He was the only one that remembered in a nation that had already forgotten.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to be Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. We so often look at this passage from an institutional framework and we forget or do not even see what is going on. The king has lived thirty years in obscurity and the priest thirty years in privilege. Emmanuel had been rejected already, and the only priest that remembered his presence had rejected the institution that forgot their reason to exist. The temple was the physical representation of who Jesus was. Yet when he came seventeen years prior, they had let his parents take him back to Nazareth to become a builder, and instead they chose the son of the priest to train. John looked at that system and he rejected it. And he screamed from Jordan’s banks you have forgotten, you have rejected God, you must repent and be cleansed. You too must pass through the Jordan because you are not worthy to be called Israel because you had seen the coming of the Kingdom and you failed to recognize it. Do we see what is really going on in this passage or is it simply something of an institution for us?
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. For thirty years, John had watched as Israel rejected truth. For twelve years, John had been trained in the institutional aspects of the religious orders. For five years, he had to struggle with his response to the system, and John chose to leave Jerusalem and he cried in the wilderness and he baptized all that would come out to listen. He cried out in the wilderness baptizing Jew and Gentile, he preached and proclaimed the gospel that the kingdom is at hand. He was out in that wasteland trying to turn people’s attention to the God that they were rejecting. He would tell those that came out there that He baptizes with water, but the one they really need to look for, the one they should really follow is coming after him. The one they really need to watch is so much greater than he that he is not even worthy of washing his feet. And that one is going to baptize, not with water, but with the spirit and with fire.
For thirty years, Jesus lived in obscurity. He labored in the construction sites. He walked to Jerusalem offering the appointed sacrifices to the priests that rejected him, and he walked back to Nazareth to labor some more. For all those years, Jesus lived and worked knowing full well who he was, he watched as people moved to the other side of the road because he was from the north, Nazareth and nothing good comes out of Nazareth. For thirty years, a lifetime, Jesus lived growing and working among mankind. And after thirty years, he walked from Galilee to the Jordan to John the son of the priest.
John saw him approach. John was the only man that remembered who Jesus truly was. The only man that knew. John watched Jesus approach the banks of the river and stand before him. John had been crying out to the people telling them to repent, and then he looked in front of him and saw Jesus. If we were to look at the full accounting of the gospel writers, we might be able to get a broader picture of what this moment might have been like. Jesus came down to the banks and John stops talking and says, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” He might go on to say, “Hey you guys, this is him this is the one I was telling you about the one whose sandals I’m not even worthy to untie.” This bold priest stands in the water as Jesus approaches, and as he comes near John falls to his knees right there in the water. He falls to his knees in front of a crowd of people, before a man everyone perceives to be the son of a common construction worker. And John holds up his hands and says, “I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?”
The people knew John. They knew his father because his dad was a priest in the temple. And they knew the story of what had happened nine months before John was born. They knew John’s dad had seen an angel, they knew that John’s birth was announced and that he was a child born by the divine intervention of God. John was a privileged child that sacrificed his lifestyle to prompt a revival in Israel, and they responded. But no one knew this obscure dust covered builder, that John was treating like a king.
What is happening in this scriptural scene? Is Jesus and John instituting the ritual of baptism or is there something more? The baptism of John was the baptism of repentance. He was calling Israel to turn back to the God that they had rejected. John was saying we cannot claim heritage for our salvation, we cannot claim nationalism as our hope. He was saying on those banks that we do not have a right to even be in this land, because we are rejecting God. And he urged them to enter the water and be cleansed, to re-emerge as true Israel, like those that followed Joshua. Boldly saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the lord.”
John looked at Jesus and he saw him for who he was. And he saw himself for who he was. He said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John saw in himself, all the rejection and sin in his own life. He saw all his unworthiness and he recognized that he was undone. He like the prophets of old was a man of unclean lips from people of unclean lips. He was not worthy to be called a child of God. He saw while he looked at Jesus his own need. “I need to be baptized by you!”
This ritual is something of a mystery. So often we see it only as the ritual and do not look beyond. It means immersed, but the word comes from the act of dyeing cloth. It is immersed to take on a new form or purpose. But the word also has a wider use attached to being shipwrecked or to sink. In this sense is to be overwhelmed, and from this usage it can be used even outside of the water to refer to being overwhelmed by drink, desires, or even magical arts. Remember the gospels were written in Greek so sometimes we need to look at wider meanings. Baptism can be immersion in dye, it can be overwhelming, and it can be a spiritual ritual marking a change of some sort. What is going on in this exchange? Clearly John is overwhelmed, but what of Jesus?
Jesus says to John, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” At those words John stands and takes hold of Jesus and immerses him. As Jesus emerges from the water the heavens open, the spirit descends like a dove and rests on Jesus and a voice says, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” What is fulfilled? The commentators look at the use of the plural in this verse as the key. Jesus is uniting John’s ministry with his own. John rejected the systems of the world to bring honor to the rejected king, and Jesus in his baptism is redeeming John’s protest.
John the child of privilege rejected the system. Jesus the rejected king that lived in obscurity unite to move forward. Together they initiate something new and the message they preach overwhelm those that hear. God is with us. He is in our obscurity and in our privilege. He is in our adherence to cultural norms and in our protests. He is in our work and in our worship. God is with us, but do we see? That is what the season of epiphany is all about. Do we see God with us, or is He something relegated to the background of our lives? Are we immersed and overwhelmed by his presence or is he just some obscure concept collecting dust? John lived a life of privilege and turned from it so that he could see God, and Jesus lived a life of obscurity and turned it to a life of honor. Will we turn? Will we turn and see God with us? Will we turn to our neighbor and see God with them? Will we be overwhelmed?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I encourage you to really imagine the scene scripture has put before us. I encourage you to look at it from a perspective beyond the institutional rite that it has become and see it in the raw form. Do you stand or are you overwhelmed? Are you able to see what is there before you?