Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sermon: "Turn the Page", Isaiah 42:1-9/Matthew 3:13-17 (January 12, 2020)


With all that’s going on in the world today, it’s understandable that one might want to take a break from the news once in a while. Everyone has their own way to escape from the realities of life; one of mine happens to be reading. I particularly love fantasy novels. My favorites are the ones that follow the familiar quest narrative, the hero’s journey. They do tend to be fairly predictable, but that’s part of their appeal. The Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter…the literary landscape is filled with these sorts of beloved tales.

I’m sure you’ve read a story like this before. We all know the pattern: you open the book, and on the first page you encounter a community in trouble of some sort. The people long to be delivered from their situation, but there’s no sign of a savior in sight. On the next page, however, you learn that a hero has already begun an epic quest to save them from their suffering. As you continue to read, the hero meets new friends who help them along their journey; together, they face countless obstacles and hardships in pursuit of their goal. At times, the hero stumbles in their quest, perhaps needing to seek personal redemption along the way. Finally, after hundreds of pages of struggle, sacrifice, and seemingly hopeless situations, the hero triumphs against all odds. Thanks to the hero’s quest, the community is saved.

This timeless narrative is so stirring, so meaningful, so profound, that it’s been retold again and again throughout history and across cultures, each time with different characters and settings, but always following the same basic pattern. No matter the context from which it emerges, we always recognize this story and we devour it eagerly. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that we know how it will end—that good will triumph over evil, that suffering will give way to salvation. When the real world becomes too much to bear, this predictability can be a comfortable escape from the evils that we feel surround us. But the thing is, this would actually be a pretty depressing diversion if we truly believed that the story was entirely fictional; that good triumphing over evil is an impossible dream. This story wouldn’t make us feel good if when we turned the last page, we left goodness and salvation behind forever. Somehow, no matter how fantastical the characters and situations may be, the familiar arc of this story gives us hope for our own lives. Perhaps, then, the reason that it resonates so deeply with us isn’t because it takes us way from reality, but because the traditional hero’s journey somehow reflects deep, abiding truths about the world for us to cling to.

In fact, there’s one particular version of this story that’s overt in its intention to convey deep, abiding truths. While your mind may at this point be overflowing with images of distant planets or mythical creatures, it’s important to realize that the best-known version of this story isn’t a fantasy novel at all. It’s set long ago in a far-away place, but it’s not about princesses and dragons and knights. It’s about real people, living through real crisis and waiting for a real hero. It’s earned the title of, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” This timeless tale is, in fact, the story of our own faith. With the Roman Empire occupying Jewish lands and the long-suffering people’s desperate yearning for the Messiah, all of the elements are there. The Bible is one giant quest narrative. No wonder these novels all feel so familiar—we’ve been telling this story for thousands of years!

But our version of the story is a bit peculiar in the way that we tell it. At this time of year, as we switch gears from Christmas to Ordinary time, we find that our narrative seems to reject the literary conventions of continuity. In the written accounts of the Gospels, there’s an abrupt jump between Jesus’ “origin story” and the beginning of the quest (or, as we usually refer to it, Jesus’ ministry). Any literary editor or publisher would probably want to make these stories into two independent books within a larger series: “Book 1 of The Jesus Saga: Christmas Day” and “Book 2: The Road to Jerusalem”, or something like that. Each separate from the other; each with its own beginning, middle, and end.

But that’s not how OUR story works. We don’t take a break between liturgical seasons; we don’t consider Jesus’ birth an isolated event. Our story is told as a single, continuous narrative. Some details are omitted, yes, but the movement of the plot never rests. We jump from Jesus’ infancy to his baptism as an adult without any sort of break or separation. Although this might seem like sloppy storytelling, I think it actually serves an important purpose. It reminds us that Christ’s birth and Christ’s ministry AREN’T two separate stories, but are inseparable elements of God’s plan. Christmas Day doesn’t mark the last page in a book, but a transition to an urgent new chapter that’s about to begin. If the story of God’s people were a novel, then the baptism of Jesus would definitely be a cliffhanger moment.

“Wait a minute,” you might say, “How in the world is baptism a cliffhanger??” Well…think about it. Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his earthly ministry, which (spoiler alert) culminates with our complete reconciliation to God. This is the point at which Jesus officially embarks on his hero’s journey. Everything in the story of God’s people has been building up to this moment, and whatever happens next will change everything: the very definition of a cliffhanger.

In a way, all baptisms are cliffhangers. Whether you’re baptized as a child or an adult, your entire being has led up to it. As God dreamt of you, as God knit you together, as God gave you your first breath and guided you through your earliest days, all of it was bringing you to this pivotal moment in your faith journey. It doesn’t mark an end; it points to the future and asks, “What’s going to happen?” It’s the point at which we decide not to close the book, but to turn the page and see what comes next. It’s the point at which we’re given our own quest.

Baptism sounds a lot more exciting when we describe it this way, doesn’t it? It’s got all the right ingredients for the origin of a quest: the community stands behind us, we’re given the tools that we need (reminders that we bear God’s image and love), and we make a vow to fulfill our destiny. We pledge our lives to God’s cause. And then we seal our promises with a solemn ritual. This is the stuff of legends. Epic storytelling. Real “hero” stuff.

That’s right; your baptism means that you’re a hero in the story of our faith! I bet you assumed that you were the sidekick, didn’t you? Or maybe you were the so-called “damsel in distress” waiting to be rescued? No, God hasn’t relegated us to the background of this faith story.

We’re not meant to sit back and passively watch Jesus’ journey unfold, crossing our fingers and hoping that it turns out well in the end. From the beginning, God has intended for humanity to be a part of the hero’s journey in the greatest story ever told.

See, God planted the seeds of our quest back in Genesis, long before Jesus came to earth. When God set Abraham’s descendants apart as a “Chosen People”, God wasn’t just playing favorites. No, the Israelites had been given a special responsibility. “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason,” proclaims God through Isaiah. “I will grasp your hand and guard you, and give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.”[1] God had clearly identified the heroes in God’s story. God’s people were being sent on a quest that would save all of humanity, and what a quest it would be: “[My servant] will bring forth justice to the nations,” God declares, “…he will faithfully bring forth justice…he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”[2] Justice to all the nations and over all the earth: this was the quest that God’s heroes had been given; this was the covenant that God offered humanity through God’s chosen people.

But the heroes faltered. We failed at our quest again and again and again, page after page, chapter after chapter. We turned from God, we bickered amongst ourselves, we became insular and defensive. We needed a way to move past our sin, our selfishness, and our stubbornness. We were in need of a good redemption arc...but we were in no shape to redeem ourselves. So instead of closing the book on humanity, God decided to start a new chapter. In God’s great love and mercy, Jesus undertook a quest of his own to put us back on the right path. In his baptism, Jesus set out to remind us of our calling and to save us from ourselves. His final words to us were, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them [and] teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.”[3] This is a clear reminder of our original quest: to show others how to follow God and bring God’s justice to all the earth, just as God has desired for us since the beginning of time.

So, as we remember Jesus’ baptism today, we must also remember its significance. We remember how earth’s creation, Abraham’s covenant, Israel’s establishment, Christ’s birth, all of it led to that pivotal moment in the waters of the Jordan River where Jesus’ quest began. A quest not just to rescue us, but to renew us on our own hero’s journey. All has been leading up to this, and all that will be depends on this. As we prepare to turn the page of this cliffhanger in Jesus’ story, let us not forget that the quest has been once again set before us, as well. God’s justice, our happy ending, is waiting. But we must be as daring and courageous as true heroes in order for it to arrive.

The quest has been given. We have friends all around us to help us along our path. The stakes are high, but God is with us. As we remember our baptism today and every day, let us also remember what it means. Everything in your life has been leading to this moment. Everything in the history of God’s people has been leading to this quest. The whole earth is counting on you. You have made a solemn vow. So don’t close the book, because the story hasn’t ended. Turn the page and see what comes next. Amen.


[1] Isaiah 42:6-7, CEB.
[2] Isaiah 42:1b, 3b-4a, NRSV.
[3] Matthew 28:19-20, CEB.

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