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What God Requires
Isaiah 42:1-9; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

In our gospel lesson from Matthew, we are given the story of how Jesus was baptized by John in the wilderness along the Jordan River. There, as I've described before, John had been meeting with the people of Israel who, in their day, were the ones who were truly concerned with what it actually meant to be children of God. Out there in the wilderness they were re-enacting the story of how the Hebrew people, led by Joshua, entered into the Promised Land many years before. In those days the people of God had trusted God with a trust so deep that it seemed that they could do almost anything. And their trust was so deep because they had been tested by God out in the Wilderness for forty years. They had seen what God could do. And, so, many years before, God's people had lined themselves along the eastern banks of the Jordan River and crossed over, wading through the waters, baptized, as they made their way into the Promised Land.

This was what John the Baptist was doing with the people who came out to see him in the wilderness. He was reminding them that they were the Children of God; that they were his Chosen People. He was reminding them of how much they needed to trust God. For if God was truly with his people and if God's people were truly with him, there wouldn't be anything that they could not overcome.

It was this scene of remembrance and celebration that Jesus encountered in our scripture lesson for today. Truly, he wanted to affirm that he was a child, even the very Son, of God. And, so, it was necessary for him to be baptized by John in the Jordan. To have refused baptism would have meant refusing who he was. And, so, he asked John for baptism.

Sometimes people ask me about baptism. Indeed, sometimes they wonder what it's all about. And the answer is this: Like it was in the day of John the Baptist, baptism is an entering into the Promised Land. It is an initiation into the community of those known as the People of God, the Chosen Ones. And how important it is for all of us to want ourselves and those dear to us, even our little children, to be counted as being among the People of God.

But, one of the problems with our modern understanding of baptism is that many believe that the event should be something that we can remember; that it shouldn't be something that we do unless we first believe. But, if this had been the case, then the first Hebrews who crossed the Jordan River would have had to leave their babies and little children behind. They would have had to leave the mentally retarded and the senile back in the wilderness. Indeed, if only those who believe and can remember the event should be permitted entrance into the Promised Land, then many of Israel's most important people, their children, would have been left behind. But the fact is that the whole nation of Israel crossed over the Jordan, adults as well as children and babies. For our God is a great God, full of grace, capable of loving us even before we know what love is, earnest to accept us as a child even before we know what acceptance is. And so, coming out of this very biblical tradition, we United Methodists baptize infants. We baptize even those who do not, or even cannot, know what it is.

But, sometimes things that are religious don't make sense to us. And that's alright. Sometimes the things of God don't make sense. And that makes us feel uncomfortable so that we may even rebel. But, when it comes to the things of God that don't make sense, if we would just allow ourselves, through faith, to accept those things, then we would learn after a time how good and logical those things are.

For instance, John the Baptist didn't think that it make much sense that Jesus should be baptized by him. After all, John knew who Jesus was. He recognized him as being the Son of God. He had even announced it to some of his disciples, saying, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." John knew that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ. So, it didn't make sense to him that he should baptize Jesus. Rather, it made more sense to him that Jesus baptize him. Nevertheless, Jesus told him to do it because it was what God required.

What does God require from us? Really, as compared to the Jewish people of Jesus day, the Christian has few rules. But the rules we do have are basically centered around love. For instance, Jesus told his followers to love their enemy.

For many, and even for those of us who are Christians, this doesn't make much sense. Most of us figure that a person wouldn't be our enemy if we loved him. Enemies are, in fact, people who hate each other. I mean, who among us loves Noriega, "Old Pineapple Face?" Last week on T.V. I must have seen at least a dozen pineapples being squashed by Panamanians who wanted people to know how they felt about "Old Pineapple Face." In fact, they hated him so much that if he hadn't surrendered himself to the American military when he did he would have probably been hanged by his own people outside the Vatican Embassy.

And now, without even having seen the evidence, 80% of all Americans are sure that Noriega is guilty of the charges which have been placed against him. But, if we're going to really take that commandment of God seriously: to love our enemies, and if we're even serious about our own constitution, then we need to presume innocence before a person is found guilty and even have some compassion, even though it may not make sense.

And there are many other things that God wants us to do, even though it may not make sense at the time. That scripture about turning the other cheek has always been one of those that most people have trouble with. In fact, if someone hits us we feel quite justified striking back. But, if we could internalize that rule about turning the other cheek and make it a part of our practice, over a period of time we would see how wise such a principle is.

Indeed, there are many of these biblical principles for life which sometimes do not make sense -- forgiving 70 times 70, the golden rule, going the extra mile. But if we would accept these principles by faith, not only would we be better people for it, but we would be greater witnesses for Christ, as well.

The scriptures tell us that as Jesus and John came up out of the Jordan River into the Promised Land, something miraculous happened. Quite suddenly it was as if the heavens had opened up and the Spirit of God was descending like a dove and landing upon Jesus. And then a voice could be heard saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

When we are baptized this is what God says to us. Indeed, it is as if the heavens open up and God Spirit comes down upon us and fills us and stays with us. And then God says that we are his children with whom he is pleased.

And this is something that we need to remember whenever we are tested, whenever we feel down, whenever we may feel lonely. We need to remember, constantly, that we have been baptized. Remembering this is simply reminding ourselves of what God has done for us. For in being baptized, no matter how long ago it may have been, no matter if we can remember it or not, we know that God's Spirit is with us, comforting us, supporting us, and guiding us. Remembering that we have been baptized has power, for in doing so we are affirming that God has chosen us to be his children.

And with God's Spirit, and as God's children, there is nothing that can defeat us. There is nothing that can bring us down. Amen.

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