Matthew 3:13-17
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 8, 2017

The Lord God invites us to join Him in a dance of grace and thereby to live at a higher and happier level than we could ever attain on our own.

Yet, do we have what it takes – the coordination, strength and stamina – to be God’s dance partner?

Not if we have to come up with what it takes by ourselves! But God – if we are open to His taking over and willing to follow His lead – will put into us what it takes. God will, as He did for Jesus at His baptism, bless us with His very best gift: His own self in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who will inhabit us and enable us to dance well the dance of grace, even when it takes us, as it did Jesus, down the hard road of suffering.

When the time came for Jesus to begin His ministry, He went to His cousin John the Baptist to be baptized by him. John protested that it would be inappropriate for him to do that, for Jesus was Someone vastly superior to him, Someone who could do what John never could: immerse people, not just in water, but in the Spirit of God Himself. Seeing himself as no one who could do anything for Jesus, John objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

Yet, Jesus insisted, and John deferred. But the reason Jesus gave – “to fulfill all righteousness” – is a difficult one to figure out. How could it be right for a perfectly sinless person to submit to a rite that signifies repentance from sin?

It was, I believe, just the right thing to do because Jesus was just what John would later (John 1:29) declare Him to be: “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.

In submitting to a baptism He did not need, Jesus was standing in solidarity and identification with sinners who deserved death. Thus, in stepping into the Jordan River that day, He was taking His first step toward His own death at Calvary – which He once (Matthew 20:22) called His “baptism” – where on that cross He would offer Himself as the substitutionary sacrifice to pay the penalty we had incurred and would, while proving God’s mercy and grace, fulfill all righteousness and justice at the same time.

When Jesus was baptized, three things happened. First, “the heavens were opened”, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s praying (Isaiah 64:1-2) that God would clear a way to come down from heaven and rescue His captive people. Second, the Spirit, whom the rabbis of the day sometimes compared to a dove, “alighted” upon Jesus, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesying (Isaiah 61:1-3) that the Spirit would come upon the Messiah to empower His work of redemption. Third, God announced His pleasure in Jesus as His beloved Son, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s foretelling (Isaiah 42:1) God’s delight in the Messiah whose commitment to serving Him and people would know no limit and whose soul would be permeated and pervaded with God’s life.

When the Spirit descended upon Jesus and indwelt Him, it was not the creation of a reality that didn’t exist before, but rather the visible revelation of an invisible reality in which Jesus was already immersed, a visual demonstration to shore up faith for the challenges to it ahead. Though John later (Matthew 11:2-6) lost his faith in Jesus, at least for a while, it shored up his fledging faith in Jesus. John said he started to believe in Jesus as the Son of God once he’d seen the Spirit’s coming upon Him at His baptism (John 1:32-34).

We all need to keep fighting against doubt in order to believe. For at times life hits every one of us hard and hurts us badly, and we doubt that life is any kind of dance of grace. It helps us to win the fight against doubt when we personally know the presence and power of the Spirit helping us.
Unless you are what I, in a public confession now, am only reluctantly admitting: a fan of boxing, you might not know the name Angelo Dundee. But everyone knows the name Muhammed Ali, probably the greatest, and certainly the most famous, fighter of all.

It was Angelo Dundee who over the course of two decades enabled Ali to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” and so surmount the pinnacles of pugilistic success. During those two decades, Dundee was in Ali’s corner, literally. Dundee was Ali’s corner man, the guy who comes into the ring between rounds to put out a stool on which the fighter can rest, to fix his wounds and cuts, to guide him in fighting strategies, and to encourage him with words of hope and exhortation. Dundee described a corner man as a “surgeon, engineer and psychologist”.

As followers of Jesus we have Someone better able to help us than a surgeon-engineer-psychologist in our corner. We have God the Spirit there for us, eager to heal our wounds, guide our battles, strengthen our hearts and empower us to triumph.

But how do we obtain that help? Try this analogy.

Some people – and I am one of them – have trouble falling asleep. What I have come to realize is that I cannot make sleep come upon me. The best I can do is put myself in a mental and physical posture that invites and welcomes sleep. I lie down in a comfortable and relaxing position, close my eyes and breathe slowly, and I turn away from agitating thoughts as much as I can. But the power of my resolve and stratagems falls short of bringing sleep upon me. All that those steps which I take do is to make me more susceptible to sleep’s coming upon me. I don’t make myself fall asleep; but I do allow sleep to overcome me, by imitating its reality, letting go, and giving myself over to the descent into unconsciousness. Eventually I sleep, but it is not my doing.

Sleep is a gift to be received, and yet a gift that, to be received, requires a posture of reception – a kind of active, steadfast welcoming of it.

In the same way, we cannot determine when and how the Spirit will descend and dwell in us, but we can take a posture of reception – inviting His arrival, imitating the conduct He inspires when He arrives, and allowing Him to take over and make it all happen – which is what He alone can do.

Let us then actively and steadfast welcome the Spirit’s coming upon us and immersing us in God’s life and power, that we might live beyond ourselves and dance with God’s grace. Let us pray.

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