In a classic Charles Schultz cartoon we find the Van Pelt family in action. Lucy, ever the crabby one, is having a bad day, Lucy only has bad days. As the cartoon open she’s sitting by herself, looking despondent and saying “Phooey!”
At just that moment her little brother Linus comes along, he sees her in distress and he asks, “What’s the matter?”
“My life is a drag. I’m completely fed up. I’ve never felt so low in all my life.” she responds.
Trying to cheer her up Linus tells his sister: “When you’re in a mood like that you should try to think of the things you have to be thankful for. Count your blessings.”
That goes over like a led balloon. Lucy says: “Ha! That’s a good one. I could count my blessing on one finger. I never had anything, and I never will have anything. I’m nothing … I don’t get half the breaks that other people do … Nothing ever goes right to me!” “And you talk to me about counting my blessings?” she continues, “You talk to me about being thankful! What do I have to be thankful for?”
“Well, for one thing,” Linus answers, “you have a little brother who loves you.”
Lucy looks at Linus for a moment with a blank look on her face, then breaks down in tears and hugs him as he observes: “Every now and then I say the right thing.”
When Jesus comes to be baptized in the Jordan by John we see another family in action. John was the marque act in Israel at the time: he was big news and the best ticket in town. He had created a huge stir.
The voice of prophecy had been silent among the Jewish people for the better part of 500 years, since the time of Mica. Now, again, the Jews hear the voice of someone who speaks the power of God into their lives, into their culture, and into their communities. John dresses in a manner reminiscent of Elijah. He also does crazy things like prophets often do. His message is clear and urgent: folks better get ready because God is about to do something great and powerful. Repent and be ready for what is coming! Reform your lives because God’s kingdom is at hand.
People came flocking to John by the thousands. They came out into the desert, an arduous journey that they had to take on foot or traveling on mules or burros since there were no Mustangs of Broncos back then. Throngs went to John at the Jordan to be baptized. When the prophet speaks what do they hear? They hear a message of hope. They hear that God isn’t finished with them yet. God isn’t finished with his people. John says: “Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, whatever your mistakes might have been, just turn back to God. Repent, be baptized, and start fresh. But you better do it soon, time is running out.”
Tax collectors came out to John, prostitutes came out to John, all sorts of sinners came out to John. Why? They came because, in a society that had largely written them off, John gave them hope.
The religious elites, scribes and the Pharisees, went out to see John too, but he didn’t welcome them quite so warmly. He turned away nobody. He, and he didn’t turn them away either, but he certainly chastised them. “You brood of vipers,” he calls them, “who taught you to flee from the wrath to come?” Then he said, “Bear fruits worthy of your repentance.”
The scribes and the Pharisees went out to be baptized too, but they didn’t think they needed to repent: they were so perfect, they were so self-righteous. They weren’t sinners, like all the others who went into the Jordan to be baptized, they were righteous men.
John says to them, too, “You are sinners too, you just are too blind to know it? Repent of your sins. Confess and begin living into the kingdom of God. You do that by caring about people. You do that with your kindness and your decency and your honesty. It’s what you do though, not what you say or think, not how you dress, and it certainly is not about your pedigree as pious Jews: after all God can make children of Abraham out of stones.”
Then John’s cousin Jesus comes along and John is thrown completely off his game. He has been welcoming sinners, and chastising sinners who don’t know they’re sinners, but now, for the first time in his ministry, John sees someone who is sinless. Jesus. And he is coming to John for the baptism of repentance. John is flummoxed – why would the sinless one repent, what does he have to repent OF? It made no sense to the Baptist, and perhaps it makes no sense to us.
The Baptist goes up to Jesus and, in the conversation that we only hear in Matthew’s Gospel, he says, “Really? I mean, shouldn’t you be the one baptizing me? And now you want me to baptize you? I don’t want to do it. You have no sin.”
Jesus responds to that, in the first words he hear from his mouth in Matthew’s Gospel, (Chew on that for a moment because first words matter. And the author of the Gospel of Matthew knows that. This is a very consequential utterance and it’s easy to pass it over). Jesus responds, “No, it must be so for now so that all righteousness may be done.”
What is he talking about? All righteousness? Righteousness doing the will of God, and Jesus is saying, “John, I understand your problem; I know that you don’t get that I have to go in the water with sinners, but that is precisely what the Father wants me to do.”
In fact, this is what the cross is all about too, and this moment at the Jordan prefigured and prepares us for the great theophany of the Cross. On the cross the sinless one carries the sins of the world and suffers for them in our place. At the Jordan, by going into the water with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the broken, the bedraggled, and the lost, isn’t Jesus saying “I want to be one with you? My father loves you. And by God, I love you.”
At the Jordan, Jesus he goes into the water with all of sinful humanity. He goes into the water with the sinners long past. He goes into the water with the sinners of the Jordan and he goes into the water with us! because he is the one who carriers our burdens.
The message of this Gospel is pure grace. We can’t save ourselves. And so he goes into the water and is baptized.
Water is a significant symbol. Water was there at the very dawn of time. The Spirit hovered over the water, like a dove that descended on Jesus at his Baptism. Jesus, by going into the water with sinful humanity, is presiding over the re-creation of humanity. In the water with Christ we are all transformed. We are made new. We are a new creation.
Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea, bringing them from slavery to freedom. In the water with Jesus we go from slavery to everything that is death-dealing: slavery to materialism, slavery to careerism, slavery to every ism you can thing of, slavery to our compulsions. Whatever we feel bound by, whether that be the urge to be the most powerful guy in the office or to be the most popular kid in school or to be the wealthiest guy on the block. In Christ we are set free from all if it.
Jesus says, “I’m freeing you because there’s only one thing that gives you joy and happiness and life — doing the will of my Father; doing the work of his kingdom. The Father wants you love with his heart and see with his eyes and act with his hands.”
Water cleanses. Naaman, in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 5), goes into the Jordan at the command of Elisha and is cleared of his leprosy. In the Jordan Jesus cleanses us from everything that might make us feel dirty.
Coming up out of that water of the Jordan three things happen to Jesus: the skies open; the Spirt descends like a dove hovering over that water, and the Father speaks, “This is my son, the beloved. I am well-pleased.” “This is my boy and I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
We are in the water with Jesus. We are made new in Christ. Nothing of this world can ever possess us. The answer to every struggle we have is obedience and submission to God. When we can be one with the spirit who still hovers over the waters of our world there is nothing beyond our reach. No chain can hold us when God keeps us in his care.
We’re not only in the water with Jesus, we’re in the water with each other. As we are transformed we become not only the recipients of grace, we become the bearers of grace. God gives us gifts so that we can gift each other. Every great thing we have is given to us so that we can bless with it.
We need to look around to see who needs us. Who needs to hear a word of kindness from you today? Who needs to hear, “I love you,” or, “I forgive you”? Who needs a little bit of help? Who needs our time, our interest, our investment of self? I guarantee you that every day God sends us people who need us more than they need anything else.
My sister, Barbara, died of ovarian cancer 19 years. She died on January 4th at ten o’clock in the morning. And I was with her pretty much every day for the last year of her life. Towards the end, in her last couple of weeks, she was in a hospice, Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. The closer she got to death the less she could do for herself. Ovarian cancer is a very uncomfortable disease. I was with her one night and she was spitting up gunk (to use the technical medical term), which was dribbling down her chin. I couldn’t call the nurse for everything, so I began to wipe the stuff off her mouth as often as she needed the stuff removed. At one point, as this was going on, Barbara looked up at me and, in her very weak voice, she said: “You know, you’re good to have around.”
Those words mean more to me than any words anyone has has ever spoken to me. They mean more to me than any accomplishment I’ve ever attained. Just a few simple words spoken after doing next to nothing; wiping a little bit of drool.
We’re all good to have around. That’s why we’re here, it’s our mission. We are called to be good brothers and sisters to each other: to speak words of love, and to care for each other tenderly.
In fact, in the Spirit, we are all good to have around; and every now and then we all say the right thing.