Set Free from the Things That Entangle Us — 8 January 2023

Pastor Lecia Beck
8 January 2023
Saint Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

Set Free from the Things That Entangle Us

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Matthew 3:1-17 
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” 

For years, I didn’t go anywhere without my coffee cup in hand. I constantly felt sluggish so caffeine became my best friend. While I was a pastoral intern, every morning when I got to church, the first thing I did was fill up my coffee cup to begin waking up and being able to engage with the world. When it came to Sundays, I had some good boundaries – I drank my coffee before worship began – and between services and probably after too, but never during worship. I mean, coffee and a white alb never seemed like a good idea.

One Wednesday morning, I filled my cup like usual and went to lead preschool chapel – in the sanctuary. I set my cup down next to me when I picked up the guitar and we sang a silly song that had us getting up and down and stomping our feet. And yet, it was while I was sitting on the step that disaster struck. Just as I was telling the kids, “God loves you THIIIIIS much,” I knocked over my cup. That was almost full. On light tan carpet. After we finished and the kids went back to class, I tried to clean it up the best I could. It wasn’t perfect, but I hoped it would get better when it dried.

Well, the next time I walked in there was Sunday morning…and guess what…my coffee stain wasn’t any better. A few people commented and wondered what had happened and I just kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to admit my mistake. I didn’t want to admit that I was the one who made the mess. In fact, if pressed I was tempted to blame one of those energetic preschoolers. I thought I had pulled it off and no one knew until a couple weeks later when my supervisor came into my office and closed the door.

Isn’t that how it goes? Big or small, the ways we mess up, the ways we hurt other people or we let them down, the ways we don’t live up to who we want to be, somehow we hope that if we keep quiet, they will simply go away. We don’t want to admit the ways we have fallen short.

We are afraid of the shame, the vulnerability. Our desire to be looked upon well by others, means that we cannot acknowledge the ways we fall short, the missteps we have taken. We fear that if someone knew what we had done we would be shamed or shunned or held accountable and we would never recover.

John was gathering the people of God at the riverside. Can you imagine the scene? It says that people from Jerusalem and Judea and all over the region were coming out to him. This wasn’t an orderly gathering, but all sorts of people coming to hear this wild prophet. 

And John was no quiet, gentle preacher winning people over to the reign of God by love and affirmation. He told the truth about humanity and called for people to repent and be baptized. 

To repent means to turn around – to re-examine, to think again. To repent means you must face the ways you have fallen short, to be vulnerable, risk the shame and make a change. I think we all know how hard it is to admit that you were wrong and to publicly change. 

We see this in the deadlocked political discourse – among the people in the streets to the highest ranks of our government. If someone dares to learn more and rethink their position, they are called a waffler and construed as someone who doesn’t know what they think or what they stand for, instead of understanding that this is what repentance looks like on the outside.

When John called the people of God to repent, he was not suggesting a quiet, introspective ritual like our Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness. This was publicly declaring before God and everyone that you cannot be righteous through your own power, that you can no longer justify yourself. This is admitting your shame and letting it engulf you. This is knowing that no matter how hard you try to change it, you are the chaff that will be burned.

But that is not the end of the story. God is not finished.

John invited them to come more deeply into Jordan and into the story of God and be baptized. 

The Jordan River today is a mere trickle, with the water diverted to support all the humans living in a dry, conflicted area. But John invited them into a Jordan River that was wild, alive with story and a baptism that was quite different from ours today. 

This wasn’t a “gather the family to ooh and aww over the cute baby” type of baptism.

It wasn’t a perfunctory “make grandma happy” type of baptism.

It wasn’t a fire-insurance, “get out of jail free card” type of baptism.

This is the same baptism that would set Jesus on a path to turn the religious establishment on its head, to challenge the “powers that be” who maintain the status quo. It is the same baptism that would set Jesus on the path to the cross – and the restoration of the world.

This is a baptism that makes you feel like you are going under and may never emerge, that you may be drowned along with your sin and brokenness.

For you see, John was serious about the winnowing fork and the chaff that will burn. We are too precious to God to leave us alone in the depths of our sin and the parts of ourselves that we fight. 

Fire will destroy, but it can also be used well to purify and release.

In the United States and Australia — and probably other parts of the world, as the colonizers came and forcibly removed the indigenous people — the lands were no longer cared for in the same ways they had been for generations. Now land management bureaus were set up to control the land, demarcating some of it for living or logging and other for preservation. The health and future of the land was determined by a few people who were far removed, who did not intimately know each and every tree and hill, like the indigenous people who lived close to the land.

As the land sat, carefully protected, things continued to grow, the trees and scrubby plants on the forest floor. Years later, when the dry season came and lightning struck, wildfires tore through the land, decimating everything in its path, whether tree or house. Huge swathes of land burned and the animals that survived had no shelter, no food. 

It became a charred, barren landscape.

But that is not the end of the story.

As time passed and the rains fell, an amazing thing happened. Green started to appear. Slowly, tentatively, small shoots came up in the desolation. Surprisingly, bright wildflowers appeared. And then, people noticed that certain trees came back better and stronger after a fire. Fire was needed to release the seed for certain sequoias and pine and spruce and cypress. It wasn’t until the forest was cleared and fire tore through that new life could spring forth. This is when we realized that indigenous people understood the land, burning smaller pieces to clear the undergrowth and release the seeds when the weather was cooler and fire not quite as destructive.

In baptism, our sin is cleared away. Big or small, the ways we mess up, the ways we hurt other people or we let them down, the ways we don’t live up to who we want to be, God clears it all away and burns away our chaff. In baptism, we are united with Christ in a death like his so that we can be united with him in a resurrection like his. We are filled with the Holy Spirit.

I once heard someone say that Lutheran worship isn’t the most invitational or visitor-friendly. We do some things that make people uncomfortable because they don’t do them anywhere else, because they are completely countercultural. It all starts at the very beginning. Many Sundays when we gather for worship, we begin by confessing all the ways we have fallen short or messed up. We begin by declaring to ourselves and to God that we do not have it right, that we are sinners in need of grace.

When we confess, it is like the controlled burn, burning away the undergrowth and making space for something new to spring forth in us – God’s spirit working within. We don’t need the complete remodeling in baptism, we come and confess to regularly burn away the chaff so that we can be the people God created us to be, so that we can join Jesus on the path to restore the world.

When you come to the font to be baptized and when you return to the font in confession, you are set free from the things that so easily entangle us. And as you emerge from the baptismal waters, I know God speaks the same words about you, “This is my Child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Amen.