Sermon, 1/8/23. Job available: All May Apply

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1 Epiphany

Psalm 29; Isaiah 42:1–9; Acts 10:34–43; Matthew 3:13–17

It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.  Mtt. 3:15

Not that I, this week, was consciously thinking about beginning a new career; however, two events presented themselves to me and caused me to think long and hard regarding a basic concept the baptism of Jesus, as described in today’s gospel, reinforces: Humans are at the center of the Creation Story.  Both events took place in the mundane world of work. 

Not that I, this week, was consciously thinking about beginning a new career; however, two events presented themselves to me and caused me to think long and hard regarding a basic concept the baptism of Jesus, as described in today’s gospel, reinforces: Humans are at the center of the Creation Story.  Both events took place in the mundane world of work. 

The first event occurred as I drove onto the parking lot of a local supermarket.  To my right, at the entrance to the parking lot and next to those temporary parking spaces for those who had ordered their items online and needed only minutes for pickup, was a sign, prominently displayed and fluttering in the wind, which read “Help wanted.  Begin a career of a lifetime.”  Interested individuals were urged to inquire online although inside the supermarket, which claims to be people friendly, was a customers’ service desk where, so thought I, some initial questions could be answered.  However, on an earlier occasion, I should chance to overhear someone, who apparently was interested in “a career of a lifetime,” inquire at the customer service desk, and what I overheard was, he should go online for answers.

I was not interested in applying, as I have long ago concluded that before I consider beginning a new career, I should perhaps purchase from Goodwill Industries a used rocking chair where I, seated in front of my fireplace, could consider the advantages and disadvantages of a new career.  What credentials would I have to assemble and present, and could I articulate convincingly what my motivation would be for the new job or career? And having heard from friends and read in news accounts that no longer can one be assured of a real in-person interview, because someone, sitting in front of a computer screen, applies the company established matrix and can determine whether my application has merit and should be advanced.  Has humanity been reduced to a calculable commodity?  I drove on, looking for a parking space.

The second event was a telephone call from the widow of my former department head in Hanover, New Hampshire.  Living alone and, because of her age and the handicaps that the age of 94 years had caused her to become more and more dependent on others, she lamented the difficulty of finding individuals who could render her services of various and necessary kinds. 

She explained, further, that when recently she had established contact with a real live individual via telephone, she discovered that the courteous young man, with whom she spoke, was located in a town in the Philippines. 

His solution?  He advised her to seek online services, not seeming to recognize that there are still needs that cannot be resolved electronically.  Alone and separated from her native land and family there, she rang me, not expecting me to drive two hours, in order to plow her driveway or fetch her groceries.  She needed, at that moment, an ear.  I listened and as I listened, I posed for myself the question, ‘has online buying replaced the essential need for workers who can provide real and tangible service?’    

What, you may ask yourselves, does that have to do with today’s observance of the baptism of Jesus by John? The answer to that question is given by none other than Jesus himself, as he responds to John the Baptist: “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  The human dilemma, to use a secular term for theological reflections, has since creation been fraught with solving situations that would dehumanize and to reduce beauty of being human.  God did not plant more trees or provide first humans with more animals to tend, hoping that those additions would solve the problem of being human, with all its successes and difficulties. 

I recall an assertion in the Gospel according to John, which, like the answer given by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, gets to the heart of the necessity of Jesus’ baptism.  John records God’s intentions thusly:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not perish but have ternal life.  It was not to judge the world that God sent his Son into the world, but that through him the world might be saved. (John 3:16 – 17)

And to do that, God’s Messiah had to meet the people where they were.  At that time, according to John the Baptist, they were living a life in disarray, an existence disassociated from that which God the Creator had proposed.  A change of attitude, or religiously expressed, a change of heart was required, and a visible sign that a change had taken place was in a cleansing ceremony or baptism.  Today’s gospel is about credentialing.  Baptism is the initiation rite that signifies that Jesus is ready to undertake the task for which he had come.

To hear today that Jesus desired to be baptized comes as a shock, even as we hear this recounted every three years in our lectionary cycle.  Did we not just celebrate the birth of God’s Messiah and his presentation on the eighth day in the Temple in Jerusalem.  It seems that without warning, biblical history casts us suddenly into the drama of an adult.  But where are the intervening years that would show us a development of spirit and stature?  However, this should not surprise us, because the writers of the gospels knew Jesus as an adult, and it is his adult life and all that he did during the time between his baptism and his ascension that it most important to them.

The matter before us is, at its core, a simple one.  How does the baptism of Jesus, God’s Messiah, underscore the intrinsic value of being human?  Perhaps, things become clearer, if we were to undertake a brief analysis Jesus’ baptism as in the realm of employment, an activity with which we are surely familiar.  we might discern in them a job description and the skills needed to fulfill the task being advertised. 

First, a job description must be posted, and for that I turn to the prophet Isaiah:
I. Name of firm: Covenant Building Enterprise

  • The Founder of Covenant Building Enterprise seeks in a CEO a candidate for a leadership role to actualize a Covenant in Community Building
  • Covenant Building Enterprise has existed since time immemorial.  Covenant has revised its building methods to reflect the Founder’s desire that all should live in unity, sharing in the further building and acceptance of diversity

II. Attributes sought: The successful CEO candidate must be:

  • Dedicated completely to the initial intent of Covenant Building Enterprise
  • Willing to advocate for justice among all peoples of the earth
  • Self-assured, not a braggart or self-centered desiring to bring attention to himself, but willing to let the Founder’s intention guide
  • Humble and of a gentle disposition, willing to work with all sorts and condition of men and women
  • Not given to belligerent, and intemperate behavior
  • Of strong emotional, spiritual, and physical stamina, as well as intellectual acuity to hold his own against competitors of the Covenant

The Job Interview must take place:
In a typical employment of this nature and importance, letters of recommendations and/or statements by reliable witnesses are required, which brings our focus to John the Baptist.  John the Baptist investigates and certifies Jesus’ credentials.  This is no trivial function, for the activity upon which he is about to undertake will have grave consequences for the people of Israel and the Gentiles.

The meeting between John and Jesus is a prototype of a modern-day personal job interview.  For both Jesus and John, the relationship between God and the people of God had reached a tipping point.  No more plagues and no more floods and no more famines—for these were external indices which affected the lives of humans, but when once passed, were quickly forgotten.  Rather, a change in outlook, a change in heart, a change which would cause each individual to take responsibility for him/herself in understanding self, before attempting to build positive, durable relationships with others. 

Jesus and John knew that they had to be where the people were.  Both understood that each had a unique role to play in the Covenant Enterprise.  Each brought different backgrounds to the task at hand.  Unity of purpose required support of the other.  There was no competition, just a difference in expression.  John was, in today’s jargon, a hands-on person, but no less sincere or worthy of exercising a key role in the Covenant Building Community firm. 

When Jesus comes to his cousin John seeking to be baptized, John is hesitant, and his hesitancy may strike the onlooker, the outsider, as arising out of competition or out of a sense of inferiority.  Jesus quickly erases both those possibilities.  Jesus responds with a certainty of his fitness for what lies ahead and what the baptism signifies, but his response gives us a sign of his humility.  That is, his intention to submit himself to the outcome of what the baptism demands.  And in so responding to John, Jesus has set an example for us, as we continue our own journey on The Way. 

How many times have we questioned the credentials, the integrity, the sincerity of others, or had our own challenged?  Given our individual backgrounds and origins, our vocabulary may be different, our demonstration of God’s purpose for humankind may be different.  How many times have we, because of our unique backgrounds and relying on first impressions, predetermined what and who others are?  Those are but outer garments.  Jesus, in submitting to baptism of John before all those assembled at the Jordon, has declared to you and me that the superficial must not be allowed to hide what our baptism has offered us, namely a lifetime career to serve as builders in the Covenant Building Enterprise, where we are reminded by Isaiah:
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  I am the Lord, that is my name… See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare. (Isa,42:8)

This is no small matter, the task before us—namely, to spread the Good News of God, a God whose love is offered to all, no matter who we are or where we come from.  A first step, in working for God’s firm, the Covenant Community Building Enterprise, may I suggest, is this: To remember from whom all blessings flow.  The birth of Jesus and his subsequent baptism challenge human inclination to reduce that uniqueness which our Creator God has bestowed upon us.  We are more than a machine.  We are greater than a commodity that can be easily exchanged or outsourced.  To that end, John, the PR man, and Jesus of Nazareth, the CEO of God’s Covenant, are there to guide us.  Amen.