1 Epiphany.C.19 (04) Baptism of Jesus
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
I am a fan of T-Shirts sporting pithy and provocative sayings. I find items such as these interesting and amusing; not only because, quite frequently they are humorous, but also because they mirror, for a short while, trendy sayings and fads. They also mirror values. Several years ago a popular slogan emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to pillows was “Queen of Everything”. Yet, my particular favorite was this; a t-shirt that read: “You’re right…it is all about me!”
We read a slogan such as this and grin because, who among us, hasn’t come across a self-centered individual and—if we haven’t muttered it out loud, we’ve more than likely thought to ourselves: “That person thinks everything is all about them!” The reason this saying is funny is because it calls on the carpet what irritates us about so many individuals (including, perhaps, ourselves), which is, the human capacity to be self-centered; believing and acting as though the world revolves solely around ourselves: our wants, our needs and our desires. To be honest, it’s a struggle we’ve all dealt with to a certain extent. And it prompts us to ask ourselves the question: How do I place others before myself? Because, let’s face facts, if it were easy to put other people ahead of ourselves, no one would bother wearing a T-shirt poking fun at the self-indulgent—we wouldn’t get the punch-line, as it were. No one would snicker, grin and nod their head in understanding.
Ironically enough, this is what brings us to a most remarkable individual whose fashion taste didn’t run to T-shirts and jeans, but camel’s hair and leather belts instead: John the Baptist. Interestingly, today’s Gospel passage; Luke’s account of the Baptism of Jesus, seems to focus more upon John the Baptist than it does upon our Savior. Listen again: “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In fact two thirds of today’s passage focuses upon John. And Jesus—the one who is being baptized—he doesn’t say a word. Not one. Indeed, the only other voice in this passage comes directly from God who proclaims: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I am fascinated by John the Baptist. This man had the grace to do what so many of us do not. John was the older cousin of Jesus, and he was well accustomed to holding center stage. The Bible tells us that scores of people travelled outside the city walls of Jerusalem to the banks of the River Jordan in order to hear him preach. These were people searching for a prophet, and there, in a lonely place, speaking in strident and uncompromising tones, they found him. A man calling them to repent and lead lives worthy of their God.
Yet, this morning, we see John stepping back. It was not all about him—and he knew it. What’s more, he didn’t try to “stir the pot” as it were, and confuse the issue. He didn’t remain silent, allowing people to try to make up their own minds about who was the messiah—himself or Jesus. Instead, he stated clearly and unambiguously (as was his fashion): “… one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Think about it—it would be difficult to be clearer than this.
And yet, imagine the consternation that some of the people standing on the banks of the river must have experienced. Because, if someone as holy as John wasn’t worthy, then who could be? After all, John’s life was the embodiment of servitude to God. Who, then, could this person be? By the end of the Gospel reading we are left with no doubt as to this individual’s identity. Jesus was the Son of God, the Savior of the World.
Lesser men than John would have remained silent. Instead, John points the spotlight squarely where it should be aimed, and moves himself into the shadows, allowing God to take center stage. You should note, that even in today’s reading, Jesus allows God the last word.
Pondering the ministry of John the Baptist leads me to consider the vocation of those of us who have been baptized into the ministry of Christ and are therefore bearer’s of the gospel in His name. With our words and within our lives, to whom do we point as being the center of the universe? When I speak, what are people drawn to see—myself? Or perhaps something greater? Take a moment to consider: In business, in our community, in our families and within our church: who do we let the spotlight shine most brightly upon? It’s worth asking the question: When people see me—is it only myself that they behold, or do my words and actions point to my Savior, to my values and commitments I have made to God. Do those who know us best understand what it is that is centrally important in our lives? Or do we hold center stage, obliterating the light which could shine on God and the Gospel instead? In other words, is it indeed all about us…or something or someone greater? You see, I believe the T-shirt slogan with which I began today’s sermon is significant, it reflects an issue with which we grapple, all to frequently finding ourselves in the uncomfortable position of having to answer the question: “Is it all about me?” with the response: “Why, yes…yes it is in fact all about me.”
However, I suspect we also have examples in our lives, of people who have had the grace to do precisely what John the Baptist accomplished. In fact, some of them are probably sitting right next to you this morning. These are people who have lived lives filled with grace and goodness, where the light that surrounds them isn’t shone on themselves, but directed somewhere else instead. These are Sunday School teachers, who patiently teach our children about God; Church School pageant directors; leaders of Bible Studies; volunteers at the Dedham Food Pantry; lectors, acolytes and Lay Eucharistic Ministers, vestry members and church treasurers. There are those who lead us in song and fill our sanctuary with the beauty of flowers. These are ourselves, at our best. Those of us who are living, and scores of our number who have died. Most haven’t been interested in us knowing their names—but of seeing, instead, the fruit of their labor continue: the hungry being fed, the lonesome welcomed and the God we love and adore honored in beauty, word and song; and the faith which has given our lives meaning and joy handed down to successive generations. The invitation has been given to us all—to see the life of John the Baptist as an invitation—to step up to the very best version of who we are by stepping aside in order to serve our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.