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First Sunday after the Epiphany, January 10, 2016

When the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man came to Oz, it was because they wanted to see the great and powerful wizard who would give them what they wanted – brains, courage and a heart. They went to the chamber where the wizard would be with great fear and trepidation. A big voice startled them and asked them why they were there and they made their requests. In the meantime, Toto, drawn by the curtain over the stage began to pull the curtain back to reveal a man, a regular ordinary man. This man can’t be a wizard, they thought. We will never get the things we want from him. But they did. He gave them confidence that what they had was something they already possessed; they just needed to know it. So he gave them symbols that helped them feel whole.

In that movie, there were two views of the wizard presented. One was Oz, the great and terrible, and one was just a man who turned out to be kind and compassionate and loving. In the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are given two differing views of the Messiah – one predicting the Jesus to come and one the reality of Jesus. John predicts a powerful Messiah, coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready for judgment. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will split the wheat from the chaff, storing the wheat in the granary and burning the chaff in unquenchable fire. The power is good news for the people because they expect a Messiah who will deliver them from their oppressors, who will make things right for Israel again. But none of them wants the judgment predicted. That is why they have been baptized, to give up their sin and to make peace with God by bearing fruits of repentance.

But John is wrong about Jesus, or at least early in his prediction, which might be about the end time. It turns out that Jesus is non-descript. He is baptized with all the people, he prays and the Holy Spirit does not come like a fire, but like a dove, gently settling on him. Just as it was not Oz, some great and powerful wizard who came to save the creatures in the movie, it was not Jesus, the divider of the wheat from the chaff, who came to save God’s people either. Just as the real wizard’s actions held great promise for the tin man, the scarecrow and the lion, the actions surrounding Jesus baptism hold great promise for us.

Jesus was baptized among all the people. He was one of many who heard about John’s baptism and came to received it. We know that Jesus was sinless, so why was he baptized in a baptism that was so strongly about repentance and forgiveness. Jesus was of the world, fully human, and there were systemic sins in the world then just as there are now. Jesus may not have made bad moral choices but he lived in the midst of those social, political and economic ills just as all the people who joined him did. He longed for righteousness, just as the people who were tired of sinning did. He longed for God, just as the people who came looking for Someone to trust rather than something did. He was committed to bearing good fruit, as the people were exhorted by John to bear fruits of repentance. Jesus came to be baptized because he wanted to be in solidarity with the human beings he loved so much. He wanted to say that he was one of them, one of us. He wanted to be one of the community gathered who turned to God for help.

Jesus prayed after his baptism. He was praying for help to live out his life dependent on God. He was praying for the strength and the grace to honor God’s will in all that he did. He knew he could not rely on his fully human self to accomplish the tasks that were set before him, so he asked his Abba, his Father to help him. He knew what his work was about. He knew who his mission was for and he knew some people would accept what he had to say and some would not. His work would be hard, rejection would be hard and he needed God’s guidance and support.

As Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him. Jesus was touched by the Holy Spirit. Jesus never baptized with the Spirit, in fire or otherwise. This bodily form was like a dove, the symbol of peace, not of violence, and it empowered and supported him to be who God wanted him to be, who he already was, just as the wizard empowered the tin man, the lion and the scarecrow to be all the already were. If that wasn’t enough, a voice came from heaven to bless Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus had not begun to do any teaching, preaching or healing yet and already God was pleased with him. What Jesus had done was what God led him to do – come to the Jordan to be baptized, to confirm how much he wanted to follow God’s will in all that he did and to deny the world’s power structures that oppressed people and caused them to be broken and hurting (Larry Duggins). When he came up out of the waters of baptism, he had symbolically dedicated himself to God and promised to bear good fruits. That voice of affirmation from God is so important to Jesus as he begins his ministry. It strengthens him and gives him the confidence he needs to know that his mission will be what it is meant to be with God’s help.

Jesus’ baptismal process is good news for us all. We are all the people, the broken ones, the ones that are tired of sinning and want to live righteous lives. We are the ones who hope for a better future, where economic, social and political structures will cease being destructive and start helping people live their lives in faith and hope and love instead of fear and hurt and despair. We are the people Jesus identifies with, his brothers and sisters, the ones he has come to heal and save. We are the community of the church and Christ is in the midst of us helping us to accomplish our mission at St. John’s. We are not the ones that are separated like the wheat from the chaff. We are the ones that Jesus feeds and clothes and blesses. We are his people because he is one of us.

We are ones who can learn from the example of Jesus’ prayer. We are the ones he taught to call God Abba/Father. We are the ones who can pray for and receive the strength we need to carry out our missions and be sure of getting help with them because God gave them to us in the first place. We are the ones who can pray to God for others and know that it will make a difference because prayer is powerful. We are the ones who can praise and thank and confess and talk to God in whatever way we feel like talking because God has hold of us, just like he did of Jesus, and God will never let us go. We are the ones whose lives are changed, who are transformed, who are healed by the power of prayer. And our church community is no different. The power of community prayer for guidance about what to do to reach out to the world in the best way is strong and active, when we are faithful in our prayer.

And perhaps the most important thing. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters, because we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Through his death and resurrection, we have received power to become the children of God. Being called beloved by our Father is a great blessing; we need that affirmation to move ahead with our missions. That God is well-pleased with us because we are trying our best to be disciples is also a gift. We have been brought by God to declare our loyalty and we have done so. We can bask in the light of God’s love and know that our missions will be successful, not perhaps in human terms, but in God’s terms.

The wizard provided confidence and compassion to the visitors to Oz. God provides us with the confidence and love we need to be one of the people who are faithful and loving and fully prepared to rely on God. May you remember this day that you are part of God’s beloved family, and rejoice.

AMEN.

-        Rev. Ann Barker

Work cited:
Larry Duggins, Feasting on the Gospels, Luke Chapters 1-11, Pastoral Perspective (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 82