Peaceful Transition of Responsibility

Baptism of our Lord, January 8, 2017. Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17.

Recording here.

A week from Friday, our nation will observe one of our most cherished and valued traditions – the peaceful transfer of governmental power. A new president will take the oath of office and be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States.

In spite of a vicious campaign season, in spite of ongoing partisan gridlock, in spite of the things candidate Trump said about President Obama and his performance in the office, in spite of concerns raised about president-elect Trump during and since the campaign, President Obama pledged to do everything possible to affect a smooth transition. “The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy,” he said. “We are going to show that to the world.”

In today’s gospel lesson, it appears John the Baptist thought it was time for a peaceful transition of power. Throughout the early days of his ministry, John knew he was preparing the way for someone else. Just before today’s lesson, he preached, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” When Jesus showed up at the Jordan River, John naturally thought it was time to step down. As a sign of his respect for the authority of Jesus, he asked Jesus to baptize him.

But Jesus said no. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” Here at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus submitted himself to John for baptism.

We can’t fault John for wanting to step aside. John did what we all tend to do. Nearly two thousand years later, we still often view others and ourselves according to a scale of value.  Some people have more value, we think, and some have less. We place ourselves somewhere on this scale. We don’t mean to think this way, but it is deeply ingrained in us. Even the language we use to describe respect conveys this understanding. We “look up” to some people and “look down” on others. It’s as if we are all standing on a huge ladder trying to climb to the top. In John’s mind, Jesus was above him, so the only appropriate thing to do was to switch places and put Jesus on top. “I need to be baptized by you.”

But that was not what Jesus wanted. And Jesus wasn’t simply being nice or humoring John. These were the very first words Jesus uttered in Matthew’s gospel. They were the first point in the lifelong sermon of our savior. In submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus demonstrated a basic truth he would later teach. In the reign of God there are no distinctions among people. You don’t look up or look down at anyone. Power and value are not things to be transferred, as if some have them and some do not. Instead, in the reign of God, everyone is infinitely valuable. Everyone is of infinite worth. So of course John could baptize Jesus.

This vision would guide his entire ministry. For example, on several occasions, when Jesus encountered someone obviously in need of healing, he didn’t simply wave his hand and force it to happen. Instead, he spoke with those who were blind or lame or suffering. He asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He encouraged them to speak for themselves. The one in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, did not exert power over others. Instead, he consistently built up power in others. That’s why he said things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. The greatest among you is the one who serves. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and give his life a ransom for many. The first will be last and the last will be first.”

It’s a different way of looking at the world and at people. It is how God looks at us. God assigns infinite value to each of us. Out of respect for that value, Jesus, the Son of God, did not come to earth in a show of force and take over everything. Plenty of people wanted him to. Many were hoping for what they called a Messiah, someone who would rule with that kind of might. Instead, from day one, Jesus did not push others out of the way. He affirmed John’s power and authority as a prophet of God. He encouraged and supported John’s ministry. And from then on, he strengthened and encouraged the capacity of everyone he met.

And he did this because he wanted to help us see the world differently. In the reign of God there are no limits or scales or ladders. We create them out of fear. When we think there won’t be enough love or opportunity to go around, we grasp for as much as we can hold. But when we trust God’s abundance, when we lift up the value of others, we see there are no hierarchies or ladders of respect. The last are first and the first are last and all are blessed.

A recent article in our local paper offered a parable of this gospel truth. Chuck Williams was writing about new businesses downtown, especially new restaurants. He used the metaphor of a pie, which was cute because he was talking about food. He wondered in writing how new businesses were affecting what he called the economic pie. Were they dividing up a limited number of customers, making things harder for everyone, or were they bringing in more customers and making the economic pie bigger? He compared overall sales over the last few years, and he thinks the pie is getting bigger.

Now, of course, Jesus was not expressing an opinion about whether the new French Bakery would help or hurt Iron Bank coffee shop. Jesus was interested in the flourishing of all life on earth, not just economic life. But the story Chuck described is a picture of what Jesus tried to teach us. Building up others helps us as well. Throughout his ministry, Jesus lived what he chose at his baptism. Jesus consistently built up others. He nurtured the gifts and capacity of others. He sought to strengthen everyone. And as a result the heavens opened.

Try to picture that if you will. It’s as if the earth became so full of glory there was no way to hold it all, so the heavens had to open to catch it all. When we nurture the gifts and capacity and promise of people, we all overflow with blessing. The heavens open. God’s kingdom comes, God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. You hear the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”

Our invitation and joy as followers of Jesus is to make this world as much like heaven as we possibly can. Building up others is a step in that holy direction.

John thought it was time for a transition in power. Jesus said no and encouraged what John was doing. But a time of transition did eventually come. It was a transition in responsibility. Matthew’s gospel ends with the Great Commission. As he left this world and prepared to ascend to heaven, Jesus said, “Go into all the world . .. “ Jesus gave the disciples responsibility to go into all the world and share the good news.

So we’ve probably given what happens on January 20 the wrong name. It is not really a transition of power, as if power is a finite thing. Everyone has power. Everyone involved in government, every citizen of this country has power to make a difference. The more we build up the power of all, the better off we all are. So we are not really transferring power on January 20. What we are transferring is responsibility. The new president and vice president will take the oath of office and accept responsibility for leadership.

We have a responsibility as well. In baptism, the Spirit of Jesus fills us with power to be God’s people in this world. And in our vows we accept responsibility to use this power the way Jesus did, to pour out our lives in service to others, to lift up others and be a blessing so that God’s world will flourish. Our baptismal vows are like our oath of office. We say together,  I will with God’s help.

So on this day as we remember the baptism of Jesus, let us renew our own baptismal promises to continue in the teaching of Jesus and seek and serve Christ in everyone and respect the dignity of every human being.

©The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards

Image: The Baptism of Christ from the Baptistery in Florence, by Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons