For a couple of years I was the proud owner of a pickup truck; a white ford F-150. I bought the truck when I was working construction, and while it was helpful to haul around tools and materials, it was not a 4 wheel drive vehicle, and so on occasion, when we working at a particularly wet job site, my truck would get stuck in the mud. I can remember one time in particular, when my tires began to dig in and spin uselessly in the mud. After trying to free it myself several times, and only making things worse, I called over Cooter, who was our companies operator of heavy machinery, and asked if he could get it out for me. Having already tried to drive the truck out myself, I was hoping Cooter would hook the bobcat up to it and pull it out of the mud. But when he approached he asked for my keys and got in the driverside of the truck. Several times he revved up the engine and spun the wheels good and fast. They failed to find any traction and just continued to dig the tires deeper into the muck. When Cooter killed the engine and I got out of the truck I gave him look like, “What was that for?” and he shrugged and said, “Yup. Looks like you’re good and stuck, just wanted to check before I got the Bobcat.” Both Cooter and I had tried our best, we’d each gotten the Truck to give its all, and neither of us could do anything but make it worse. That truck couldn’t get itself out of that hole, try and try as it might, it only made things worse. We had to give up on the Truck ever being able to save itself, before anything could be done to help it.
At the beginning of the third chapter of Luke’s gospel, we hear that the Word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. Interestingly enough, we don’t hear what exactly that word was. Often in the bible, the Words of God are specific, they are quoted, they come after a nice prelude like, “Thus saith the Lord,” but not here. In the 3rd chapter of Luke we hear that the Word of God came to John, and whatever those words may have been, they apparently lead him to begin proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. We can deduce several things about what John must have heard from God from his proclaiming this baptism.
First, John learned that there was a problem. The problem was that people were sinful. People’s thoughts and actions and even parts of their being were warped by sin, turned away from their God-given beauty and righteousness and into something different, something worse. Sin had so infected the people that they caused harm to themselves and to each other, they took the gift of God’s creation for granted, they felt entitled to gifts of grace, and they convinced themselves either that they were worthless, or else that their worth was somehow greater than that of their siblings.
We can also deduce that John learned the people couldn’t stop sinning on their own. If sinning were easy to stop, there would be no need for the baptism, there would be no need to wait for the coming Messiah. One could just hear John’s proclamation about our sinfulness, politely agree, and then give up sinning. But instead, to those who can acknowledge their sin, John offers baptism. Baptism is a sign not only of their desire to change, to repent of their sinful behavior, but also a symbol of their need for God’s help to bring about this repentance and change. Baptism is also a symbol of God’s promise to save them from their sin. Even these symbols of God’s support was not enough, John told the people that soon another would come, one greater than he, and that one would baptize them with the Holy Spirit, that one, the Messiah, would truly and finally save them from their sins. What God’s Word told John was that salvation was coming, but that it could not come from sinful humanity itself. The sinners attempts to break free from sin are themselves marked and marred by sin. All of our best efforts to save ourselves are just like tires spinning and spinning, and only digging us further in. John has seen the problem, he has diagnosed our disease, but he is not the physician. John can assess our problem and he can point us towards a solution, but he is aware of his own limitations, he is not deluded enough to believe that he is the savior. John points to God as the one who can save, he tells the people to wait for one to come who is more powerful than he.
And then Jesus arrives. The Son of God, the awaited Messiah, is somehow just there amongst the sinners awaiting baptism. In the sentence just before we hear of Christ’s baptism we are told that John is going to be put in prison; he and his movement are considered criminal by the state authorities. So here we have the sinless, spotless, Son of God, sitting amongst a criminal gang of self confessed sinners and joining them in their baptism for repentance. The scene reminds me, of the Chappell’s dog Bubbles. Bubbles is an active and beautiful dog, with lovely mostly white fur. I have witnessed several times as this beautiful dog, with spotless white fur, goes out for a walk in the park and promptly lays herself down in a mud puddle. This is how I picture the sinless Son of God sitting with John’s group of criminal sinners. The spotless white fur of Jesus cozying up to the mud and muck of us sinners.
This of course, begs the question, why? Why would Jesus, one supposedly without sin, sully himself and his reputation by hanging with this group of criminal misfits? Furthermore why would the Son of God need a baptism of repentance? For what does the sinless one need to repent?
One good way to learn a little about someone is by hearing what others say about them. There are a nearly infinite number of different takes on who Jesus was and is, but there are some commonalities among, some themes that arise over and over. One of these themes, is that most people, especially people considered sinners, believe that Jesus is on their side. It’s incredible really, the sheer number of radically different people who are sure that Jesus understands them, their situation, and their choices. There’s a whole genre of rap songs about Jesus understanding thugs, songs contemplating if there’s a “Heaven for a G.” Drug dealers, bank robbers, and criminals of all stripes will claim Jesus as their own, the one who understands them, has compassion on them, and takes their side. The major reason that the issue of homosexuality is so controversial in the church is not simply because many churches condemn it, if that were all gay people would simply leave the church. The cause for the continued controversy is that so many gay people, considered sinners by a majority of the church tradition, are utterly convinced that Jesus loves them, understands them, and takes their side. This is the reason they remain in the church, the reason they fight for change from within, the reason that the controversy continues, and the reason that so many have come to see the Christian light of accepting and affirming our gay siblings.
This widespread conviction amongst those considered sinners that Jesus stands in solidarity with them is not without basis in the gospels. Luke’s gospel provides one of the primary supports for this belief in the crucifixion scene where Jesus hangs between two common criminals and declares to the one that he will be with him in paradise. Jesus, quite literally at the side of the criminal, declares his solidarity with him in eternity. Another such supporting story, is the baptism of Christ, the one we heard today. Jesus joins John criminal band of repentant sinners and he joins them in accepting their baptism of repentance.
What are we to learn from Jesus’ proximity to criminals and sinners? Is this a green light to sin away, to finally rob that bank you’ve had your eye on? By no means. Though the Christian faith takes seriously the conviction that all people are sinners, Jesus joins himself to a specific group of them. Hanging there upon the cross, Jesus is side by side with two criminals, yet his promise of eternal solidarity is given to only one of them. The repentant one. Indeed it is not just any group of criminals and sinners that Jesus affirms down by the Jordan, but the group who have heard the call to change and have answered it. Even more than this, Jesus, the sinless Son of God, joins himself to sinners who want to change, and who have come to believe that they cannot save themselves. Whenever people truly desire change and have come to the painful realization that it is them that needs changing, and that the them that is broken cannot bring about the change, at this moment of despair and surrender, Jesus is there. God is there. Not as another broken and miserable human warped by sin, but as the truly righteous one, the one with power to save, the one without sin, yet happy to be surrounded by us sinners. Once we have given up spinning our tires, once we have seen that our salvation is beyond our own abilities, it is at that moment that Jesus plops down in the mud with us.
I once heard this story, a story almost too cheesy to believe it actually happened, but a fitting story nonetheless. A man who had come to the end of his rope, a man who had come to the painful realization that his salvation was beyond him, once told it to me. He told me about watching an insect trying to climb up his screen door. He was just sitting there with nothing to do and watching this bug struggle to climb up the screen. The bug would make a little progress, 6 or 7 inches up the screen, and then loose its footing and slide back down. It would try again, struggling and straining with all its might to climb the screen, getting a few inches higher, and then sliding right back down again. This went on for a good while, the bug fighting to climb the screen, until it looked like the bug was running out of gas. The little insect had worn himself out, so much so that he just kind of gave up. He surrendered. He let go of the screen and started to fall backwards towards the floor. And just then, a pair of wings on his back fluttered to life, and flew him to the top of the door. The man who told me this story said, “Ain’t that me. Trying as hard as could to climb and getting nowhere. And the whole time I had wings and didn’t even know it.” May we have the strength and the courage to recognize our own sin. May we have the wisdom to know that we cannot save ourselves. And may we have the faith to surrender and to let Jesus be our grace, be our forgiveness, be our new life. May we let Jesus be our wings. Amen.