Dr Noel Due
Sermon transcript for Sunday 10th January, 2021 St Petri Lutheran Church
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. ‘In Bethlehem in Judea,’ they replied, ‘for this is what the prophet has written:
‘“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.”’
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.’
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptised by him in the River Jordan. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt round his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’
You are my son “my beloved” with you I am well pleased.
Epiphany is not a word that you use very often. Epiphany refers to Jesus (God) appearing to the Gentiles. Sometimes it is called the feast of the Magi. These were the first group of non-Jewish people to come and worship Jesus. Who were they? Where did they come from? Most likely that they came from Saudi Arabia. The antecedence of what we call the Bedouins. There is still a tribe from among those people today – a clan whose name means “the planet watchers”. Throughout history as far back as you can trace they have been intensely interested in the movements of the starts and planets, comets, meteors and things. It is from that area to the East that is across the other side of the Jordan that they came. We had a reference in the Bible reading in Isaiah 60 where it talks about the kings of the earth bringing; gold, myrrh and treasures of the nations to worship Jesus. These were the first people recorded outside of Israel’s boundaries who came to worship the Messiah.
In those days when they talked about folk coming from the East that wouldn’t have meant to them China or Singapore. It would have meant East of the Jordan River which was the boundary. If we speak here of someone coming from the West coast, we don’t really need to explain where that is. It is like that.
In the Mark Reading, Jesus was baptised in the Jordan. This was not only because there is very little surface water in Israel but he was baptised at the place that represents the boundary between one world and another world. The Jordan was the boundary of the land that belonged to the people of Israel, the Jewish people and the lands that belonged to other people – the non Jewish people, the Gentiles as they were also called.
You will notice how much time was spent describing where Jesus came from or where his ministry took place and you will find that very often he is ministering on that edge border place. It is emphasized that he came from Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth was right on the edge of the Jewish world and it intersected constantly with the gentile world. When Jesus eventually rose and went before his disciples, before they received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, he said to them “tell my brothers that I will rise on the third day and go ahead to Galilee and there they will see me.” Meet Jesus on the borders, on the edges, on the liminal space.
Have you ever seen one of those signs on a train platform “MIND THE GAP”. You often hear it announced. Why are they telling you to “mind the gap”? Because you don’t want to fall into the gap do you. Today’s message is all about “minding the gap” because the “gap” is where problems happen. If you don’t mind the gap and you slip between the train and the platform you are in strife.
Some of you grow vegetables very successfully, my wife grows very good vegetables and I can grow good weeds. Weeds are the things that grow better than the things that you plant. Is that your experience? A weed is also something that fills the gap. If you have a gap in your carrots, you will find that weeds will fill that gap. If you have a gap between a husband and a wife, it gets filled with weeds. True? Relational weeds; suspicion, jealousy, fear, envy. If you sense that there is any gap between any person in your family it gets filled with some very prickly weeds. It gets filled with prickly pears which are very hard to remove. And other things like cactuses which you can’t approach very easily.
If you think there is a gap between you and some other believer, that gets filled with stuff too, doesn’t it. It gets filled with suspicion. “That’s a Lutheran”. The Lutherans have a history of a big gap. A gap that went on for a long, long time. Might still be?
Wherever there is a gap it gets filled with rubbish. It gets filled with suspicion, it is a dangerous place. The take-home message for today is the moment that you think there is a gap between you and Christ, you will fill it with all sorts of rubbish. Self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, self-promotion, or it will be filled with weeds like fear and anxiety, doubt and suspicion. Instead of relating to God as your Father who is intimately concerned about you, you start to relate to this God who is a long way off.
Having a gap is a very dangerous thing and we are here to “mind the gap” today and I am here to tell you that the good news is that there is “no gap”.
What happened in Jesus baptism? Mark gives us a shortened version of the baptism but it includes the main elements. It is a revelation of unveiling (epiphany). An appearing of Jesus in the fullness of who he is. That is, the Holy Spirit comes from heaven and rests upon him. The voice of his Father from heaven, declares to the whole world “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased”.
That statement brought together two pieces from the old testament that had never been put together in that way before. One part “you are my beloved son” comes from Psalm 2. Psalm 2 is all about the great kingly reign of the anointed king. His power and authority. The fact that he will rule over the nations with a rod of iron. The fact that his will, always will be done. Kiss the son lest he become angry when you meet him upon the way.
The second part is “in whom I am well pleased” comes from a different part of the Old Testament. From Isaiah 42. That is the beginning of a whole series of songs and poems about this beautiful and mysterious figure in the old testament called “the servant of Yaweh” (the servant of God). Whom we know as the suffering servant. This servant in which he is well pleased – in Isaiah 53 is the one who is marred beyond recognition. The one that is accounted amongst the transgressors. The “suffering servant” is the one in whom he is well pleased.
The point is that no one had ever put those two segments together before in that way. That is to say that this “Epiphany” (unveiling of) who Jesus is at his Baptism is a declaration to the world that the Messiah who will rule the nations is the suffering servant and he rules the nations because he is the suffering servant. And he rules the nations in keeping with the character of the suffering servant. In other words, he is nothing like any of our earthly rulers. Not even the best of our politicians. And certainly not like the worst of them – certainly not like Herod who was contrasted with him in the new testament.
This declaration comes to us but it came even more at that point to Jesus. The word is “you” are my beloved son – “you” in whom I am well pleased. And it is his anointing for ministry, it is his equipping with the Holy Spirit and he would need those words. When he was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When he was betrayed, when he was handed over to the hands of godless men. When he was crucified – “don’t ever you forget my son, that I am well-pleased!” I am so pleased with you. You are my beloved son, even in the midst of that.
So, where does that leave us? I Matthew’s gospel you have this additional piece of information about the baptism. Many people were coming to be baptised. They confessed their sins in the Jordan River and were baptised. Jesus came along with them to be baptized. Matthew has this exchange. “I should not be baptising you” says John the baptiser. You should be baptising me. What did he mean? John knows that Jesus does not need repentance. He doesn’t need to confess anything. He doesn’t need repentance and forgiveness. John knows that “he does”. He says that “we should swap places here”. I will join the people coming down and you baptise me. Jesus says “No, John”. “It is fitting for …” not me but “us” to fulfil all righteousness. Why did Jesus use the word “us”? Why didn’t he say “no John, it is proper for me to fulfil the righteousness or the law” but he says it is fitting (appropriate and important) for “us”. Who is the “us”? The “us” is all the people coming to be baptised who were sinners. Jesus is saying right at the outset of his public ministry “I and all these people who are coming are inseparable. There is no gap between them and me. What they are, I declare myself to be. They come as sinners and I stand with them. There is no gap.
That was the problem of course with the Pharisees. There was always a gap. Because it is easy to specify that someone else is a sinner. But with Jesus there was no gap. He was one in his heart and his mind and his actions with these people but not only was he one in heart, mind and action then, he was heart mind and action, one with them all the way through, every thing he did drew sin to himself. It drew uncleanness to himself. He the holy one touched the unholy, he took the unholiness into himself and purified it. That came to it’s pitch on the cross. When we are told by the apostle Paul that he who knew no sin was made sin he didn’t just bear some cosmic, abstract punishment. God help us if that’s the view of the cross. He actually bore all of the rubbish that we use to fill the gap! All of our self-righteousness and hatred, greed, suspicion and anxiety and fear and jealousy and envy and bitterness. He – in some unexplainable way became that on the cross. That is why when referring to Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” That Psalm goes on to say “I am a worm and not a man”. He was marred beyond recognition not because of the suffering of the cross. There were thousands of people crucified. Anyone living in Jerusalem knew what that looked like. But he was marred beyond recognition because at that point he became our sin, and when you see that it is unrecognizably horrible. There is no gap between Jesus and his baptism, and Jesus and his ministry and Jesus on the cross. There is no gap between him and us. He is one with us all the way through.
But this means something else – it he is one with us through all the way through to that point, he is still one with us now. So he is one with us in the cross and the death and the burial as he bears our sin but then to put the thing slightly differently – we are one with him in his resurrection!
… and the voice of God the Father says to the son “You are my beloved son”. “I am well pleased with you, I am so pleased you are on the earth”. That voice now comes from heaven to us, to our baptism. That voice now from heaven comes to us today by faith, if you will hear it by faith, that says “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. In you I am well-pleased. I am so glad you are on the earth. I love you so much. Even if you pass through the deep waters, I am with you and even if you go through the fire it will not burn you and even as you face the deepest aspects of your suffering do not forget for a moment that I am well-pleased with you. Your suffering, your hardship, is not evidence of my displeasure even more than any evidence of Jesus suffering and hardship was evidence of God’s displeasure with his son.
So, what does God think of you today? How does he feel about you? Is he really, really, really pleased with you? If you say “I can’t believe that” then you are going to have a gap and you are going to fill it with rubbish and weeds will grow in it. But, if you say that is the place where I am, one with Christ, united with him in baptism, united with him in his death, united with him in his resurrection.
Let me ask you just this, “Where are you sitting just now?” for wherever you are sitting now, you are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. You are not just like going back home to your loungeroom. You live already in some sense, in heaven. Having been crucified with him, having been buried with him, having been raise with him through baptism he doesn’t leave us there, he takes us with him and has seated us with him in the heavenly places. That is the place of battle and fight and all sorts of things go on there if you read the scriptures. But it is the place of absolute security and it is the place of eternal blessing and it is the place of all places where there is no gap.
So, by faith today, can you hear that there is no gap? If you look at any of the weeds that have been growing in your garden internally, spiritually, if you look you will find somewhere it is because they have filled a gap you have put in there. The best round-up that you can have spiritually is the gospel. The gospel which tells you that there is no gap for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.