SERMON Baptism of the Lord 2019

I don’t know about you, but I am very hungry for some good news just now.  I’ve been an avid consumer of world and national news at least since the Vietnam War, and I can’t remember a time when I have felt so discouraged, so helpless, when I open the paper in the morning.   Sometimes I feel like I’m choking on all the bad news out there.  All the lies and greed and cruelty and foolishness …

On the other hand, though, as a Christian, I know that I’m supposed to be a good-news person, and that we Christians, collectively, are the good-news people. It’s in our name: evangelical as in Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church literally means “good news” in Greek; the word gospel is Anglo-Saxon slang that means the same thing.  We’re the good news people.   Furthermore, the good news we have to share is really, really good.   I mean … it’s good news for a lot of people in Williamsburg and Bushwick that the L Train won’t be shut down; we carry infinitely greater good news for everyone everywhere: death is dead and sin has no power.  That’s good news of a different order of magnitude.    Living in the world, though, we get pulled both ways, don’t we?

If anybody ever held the tension in real time between the really bad news and the really-really good news, it was John the Baptist.   He looked out across the crowd of politicians and lawyers and preachers and tax cheats and general riff-raff that came out to hear him and denounced them with guns blazing:  “ … you nasty tangle of snakes, he says, who told you how much trouble you’re in?  You’ll be in hell before lunch, you and your phony king and the slut he’s married to  …”

Then Luke comments (with what always seemed to me like glaring sarcasm), “ … and so with many other exhortations he proclaimed the good news to the people.”  Good news?  John the Baptist opened his mouth and the sin hit the fan; where’s the good news in that?

John was a wise pastor, however.  His ministry was not just rebuking sin; to those who heard the truth of what he said, good and bad, John offered baptism, a bath of forgiveness: “Sinner,” he said, “get naked, step into the river, come clean, rise from the water, change your life.   All that sin and suffering, all those lies, all that cruelty and greed and foolishness … it’s all over, and it’s all over for you.  Rise out of it, come clean, it’s not who you really are.  And there’s more: there’s someone else on the way, someone much greater than I who will do with fire what I’m doing with water.”

Nobody could hold the terror and the truth, the horror and the holy, in tension the way John the Baptist could.  Maybe that’s why Jesus called him the greatest prophet who ever lived.   He’s one who shows us how the good news works and what the good news is for.   More than that, John shows us that the good news is not just a how and a what  but a Who.  He points to Christ who was himself the Good News, though, like us, he lived and died in a world of hurt.

And that is the great mystery of our faith, the thing that sets Christians apart from everybody else:  the Good News is not an idea or a feeling or a legal system or a political program; the Good News is a Person, the one John pointed to at the Jordan, Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of the Living God, a holy person who, furthermore, will become incarnate in a holy people, the Good News people.

Dear friends, that’s us; we are God’s gift to the world.  Such as we are, we, God’s church, are the presence, the person, the energy of Christ in the real world in real time.   The bad news, bad as it certainly is, is no match for the good news, no match for us.  We are the good news people.   That doesn’t mean we’re perfect, but it does mean that we are generally reliable not to lie all the time, not to operate out of greed or cruelty.  It means that we know that there are people in the world besides ourselves, people we are called to honor and to serve as best we may, with love and hope and peace.  Christians are not finished, but we are rising; rising out of the water of baptism with new power and promise, for the sake of the world that Jesus came to save.  That’s good news.

As I said at the beginning, I am hungry for good news this morning.  I want to hear, for instance, that everyone who is hungry gets fed, that everyone who is homeless comes home, that everyone who is afraid finds peace.  And if you know where to look for it, there is actually lots of good news about the hungry and the homeless and the afflicted.  But in our world as it is today, probably the best way to hear good news is to make it ourselves.

I’m not expecting that – even if we do our very best – we’ll solve the world’s problems anytime soon.   But I do expect to know in my heart, even if I don’t hear it with my ears, the good news that the one who sits on the throne loves his baptized, chosen people as beloved children, and is well pleased with us who – in the midst of all the world’s troubles – are entrusted with power and love and hope.

That, anyway, is my prayer today as I rise from the water.

Let us pray.

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