What's Tony Thinking

A Sermon for January 8: The Baptism of Jesus


The Family Photo

Isaiah 42: 1 – 9, Matthew 3: 13 – 17

January 8, 2023

As the New Year began Linda announced that one of her goals for 2023 was to get a family photo taken this year. Easier said than done . . . now that two members of the family live in South Carolina, and the eldest of the grands is away at college, and the rest of the crowd includes some squirrely characters. 

But if we do manage to all get together in one place at one time and I imagine that everyone will be willing, maybe even happy, to be in the photo.

Which is not always the case in every family. Especially if you have teenagers who have recently realized just how impossibly uncool their parents are . . . maybe how uncool the entire family is. 

I thought that J. K. Rowling did a briliant thing by starting off the Harry Potter saga, with her pre-adolescent hero, Harry, living with a bunch of truly dreadful relatives; the Dursleys, Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia and Dudley. 

Because doesn’t every teenager at some point believe that a mistake has been made, that these are not my parents, that this can’t possibly be my family? So Rowling got that many of her readers, whether actually at that moment adolescent or not, would totally identify with the idea that the people I am currently living with just cannot possibly be related to me. There’s been a mistake. My real parents were magicians, wizards and heroes, not these hapless, disgusting muggles.

Think middle school kids asking their parents to drop them off a 100 yards from the school door. 

Have you ever been that person? Maybe not an adolescent embarrased by their parents, but how about finding yourself a part of some group or crowd with whom you would really prefer not to be seen? 

If you’re my age, maybe you’re just not that thrilled about being in the college reunion photo with all those really, really old people. Because I don’t look like that, do I? 

Some people feel like that about church people. I mean who wants to be known as a “church lady” after Saturday Night Live’s many skits? Mostly, we don’t associate church people with high glamour, super sophistication or being with it. “You go to church? You’re kidding me!” 

Or maybe a friend who is active in AA has invited you to an open meeting because her one year of sobriety will be celebrated and she wants to share it and thank you for your support. So you find yourself in a room with 20 or 30 folks, with no evident common denominator, except one: every one of them cheerfully says, “I’m an alcoholic.” What if someone I know walks in and thinks I’m one of them? Your wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t go — what if someone thinks you’re an alcoholic, and that gets out in town?”

I’ve seen quite a few photos in people’s homes where they are pictured with some dignitary, maybe even one U.S. President or another.  Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama seem particularly popular. Funny, I don’t recall any photos in homes of people with Bernie Madoff or Harvey Weinstein. I’ll bet a lot of photos of Jerry Falwell Jr. went out in the trash last year. It kind of looked like the newly elected George Santos was sitting pretty much alone in the corner in recent shots of Congress, no one eager to get in the picture with him. 

I wonder if it was something along these lines that gave John the Baptist pause when the next in the line to be washed up was Jesus himself. “Not you.” “Not here.” “This is the line for the sinners and reprobates.” 

“Wait,” said John to the sinless Son of God, “I need to be baptized by you.” But Jesus insisted on John baptizing him. Jesus insisted on getting down in the water with the tax collectors and sinners, the prostitutes and the con men, people who were regarded — for anyone of a hundred reasons — as “unclean” — though in our day we don’t say “unclean,” we say “losers” or “the uncool” or maybe — and here’s a real curse — “inappropriate.” 

Jesus didn’t just stand on the river bank shouting “atta-boys” at John and watching as the hoi-poloi got washed up down below. No, Jesus got down with them. He got down with us. He has gotten down with you.

Perhaps you know the name “Dorothy Day”? Dorothy Day was a founder of the Catholic Worker movement during the Great Depression, the original soup kitchens and shelters to help the down-and-out. One day, she was deep in conversation with a raggedy, bedraggled homeless man when a reporter showed up to do an interview with her. I guess the reporter was in a hurry, or at least felt he should take priority over the bedraggled man with whom Day was huddled. 

The reporter paced back and forth just outside the open door, his impatience palable. He checked his watch. All his body language said, “Aw c’mon, enough already.” 

Finally, Day and the homeless man finished their conversation. At which point, Dorothy Day looked up at the reporter, smiled and said to him, “With which one of us did you wish to speak?” 

Jesus has, apparently, no qualms about getting into the photo with us. But the photo isn’t the typical holiday family photo, everyone decked out in their best and flashing a beautiful smile. No, this is the family photo where someone glowers at the camera, another has his eyes closed but mouth yawning open, and someone else’s attempt at a smile looks more like a leer. And you are right next to the uncle with the most god-awful Christmas sweater you’ve seen in your entire life — and maybe a MAGA hat to boot.

Jesus insists on getting into the photo with everyone that you might think the sinless Son of God should never be seen with — the reprobate, the desperate, the lonely and the lame, the ex-cons and the addicts. 

He insists on getting in the photo with us, in sharing our life all the way down — not just when our look is good, but when it isn’t, especially when it isn’t. Not just when we’re pictured proudly beside some distinguished citizen or leader, but when we’re beside the nephew that can’t seem to stop using no matter how many times he’s been to re-hab or the guy who is so overweight that his entire wardrobe is baggy sweat suits.

While he is down there, with us, in the muddy Jordan, a voice speaks out of the heavens, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

Up above, on the river bank, where the Pharisees and Sadducees were congratulating themselves for being the “the children of Abraham” and therefore special and better than others, they looked down at Jesus there with the lost and the least and said, “If that’s God’s Son what’s he doing hanging out with them? If he’s the Messiah, why does he need a baptism of repentance?”

Exactly. That is exactly where the Son of God needs to be, choooses to be, and is to be found — among the broken, the failed, the sick, the sorrowing and the screw-ups, among those who know they are in need of mercy. To Jesus “unclean” is not a special category for losers. Unclean is the human condition. A condition we all share, and which he has come to share and to redeem.

He has borne our sin and failures, our shame and sorrow, upon himself. He takes our sin, as the Psalmist says, “as far as the east is from the west.” As we trust what he has done for us, the words directed to him from out of the heavens become God’s words for us. They are for you. “This is my child, my kid, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In today’s Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah there are some truly beautiful lines about the servant king that God sends. Listen:

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him to bring forth justice to the nations . . . a bruised reed, he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

We may, in our heart of hearts, and in our saddest and downest of moments, be that: a bruised reed, a bashed blossom, which from the world’s point of view is good for nothing. 

Or a dimly burning wick, just barely hanging on, flickering on the edge of going out. The world tosses out the bruised reeds and the dimly burning wicks — all those lives that are flickering in discouragement or despair. But not this Messiah, not Jesus. He will not break of a bruised reed or toss a bent blossom. He will not cast aside the wick that is flickering dimly. 

Is that you? Has it been you? In a world that seems filled with bright lights and stars, we may sometimes wonder does anyone really know us, know us and love us? We may wonder if anyone could really love us, if they knew the truth about us, the secrets we carry, the ways we have been idiots. 

At this time of year, we roll out the list of New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, get in shape, journal daily, meditate each morning, volunteer here and there, radiate positivity at all times, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of those goals, aspirations or resolutions. 

Except it is all law. It is all stuff that we should do because if we pull it all off, then God or the world or our parents, or we ourselvess, will approve of us, will delight in us. We will be okay. Maybe that works, maybe New Year’s resolutions work, for someone. I just haven’t met that person.

What works is not the law. The law cannot bring about what it requires. It is because of the law, in its many and various forms, that so many are bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks. Because someone may have told you, as a child, that you wouldn’t amount to anything, that you are a disappointment, even unloveable, unwanted. So many people have gotten such messages. Sometimes we give those messages to ourselves.

In a sermon before Christmas I mentioned the old song about Santa checking his list, seeing who’s been naughty or nice. Afterwords, a woman told me this story. She was a young girl. On Christmas there were no presents for her. She asked her father, “Daddy, where’s my present?” I’m guessing she is nearly 70 now, but I could see the child she was then. He said, “There aren’t any presents for you. You haven’t been good enough.” It was one of the saddest stories I ever heard. She went on to say that her brother, who had struggled all his life with drug addiction, had died that week. It didn’t take a Phd to guess the roots of his addiction. “My Dad,” she said, “was so hard on him.”

Our wicks smolder as we tell ourselves to do better, to be better. But neither the law, nor our renewed resolve, will save us. Only grace will save us. Grace is love that seeks us out when we have nothing to give in return. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable.

And here’s the good news: there is grace. There is grace in Jesus Christ, the Servant King who will not break a bruised reed, who will not quench a dimly burning wick, who will, said Isaiah, “not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth,” who gets down with us in the cleansing waters of baptism so that we too may hear:  

God, the Father, is pleased with you. Full stop. 

Let me say it again, God is pleased with you. Not because of what you’ve done, but because God is a God of grace who in Jesus seeks us out when we are unloveable and loves us. Bruised reed, dimly burning wick that you are, God has taken your side and will not leave it. God has taken the burden of sin and shame on himself and declared you “righteous.” Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. 

Which is not self-righteousness, like that of the Pharisee and the scribes. You are not better than others. Nor are you less than others. You are enough. You are enough. You are beloved.

That’s all I want you to hear today. That God is well pleased with you.  You are beloved. Rest in this. Ask for the grace to hit the mute button on all the negative messages. Keep God’s sabbath: just for today (one day at a time), no more beating up on yourself. 

Hear the voice out of the heavens, and this voice alone. “You are my child, my kid, my beloved — with you I am well pleased.” Rest now in what God has done in Jesus Christ.


*Shout out to “Same Old Song” podcast, the “Photobomber” episode


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