I’m not a preacher or a pastor. I’m just a seeker and wonderer, and something of a theology nerd. But last Sunday I gave the message at a small church nearby that is having guest speakers while they search for a new pastor. For what it’s worth, here it is.
Today’s text is from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Chapter 3 verses 13-17.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Let me begin by saying what an honor and a privilege it is to be able to come and spend part of this morning with y’all. Thank you for inviting me and I hope you will not be terribly disappointed.
But let me also say I am very sorry for the circumstances that cause you to have to have me as your speaker this morning. I never had the privilege of meeting Pastor Steve but I’ve heard wonderful things about him. Please know that I am truly sorry for your loss and wish you God’s blessings as you go through this process of healing and transition.
I should probably begin by introducing myself. As some of you know, I’m Bill Guerrant. I am currently a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. If all goes as planned, this spring I will graduate with a Masters of Arts in Theological Studies. I am also a farmer. My wife and I operate a farm in Keeling, where we raise organic vegetables, goats, pigs, chickens and other things. Before becoming a seminary student and a farmer I was an attorney. I practiced law in Tampa, Florida for over twenty-six years before moving back to the farm where I grew up.
As some of you know, I have something of an inside connection to this church. One good thing about speaking to a group that includes your mother, and your wife, is that no matter how badly you do there are at least two people who were going to say you did fine. But seriously, it is a great pleasure to be able to speak in the church that has meant so much to my mother, and I thank you for that.
Today is the first Sunday after the Epiphany. On this day millions of Christians all around the world will gather in worship to remember the baptism of our Lord, as we have for nearly 2,000 years. All around the world today, millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ will read and reflect on the passage from Matthew that I just read.
The Scripture tells us that Jesus came up from Galilee to be baptized by John. John the Baptizer, as he was called, must have been quite a sight. The Scriptures tell us that John wore clothes made of camel’s hair and that he ate locusts and wild honey for food. When the religious leaders of his day came to see him, he called than a “brood of vipers.” We might say, a “nest of poisonous snakes.” Clearly he wasn’t interested in winning any favor from them.
John the Baptizer was a prophet–proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven was near and calling on the people of his day to “repent,” meaning to turn and go in a different direction. John told the people that someone was soon coming, “whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” John was announcing to the people that the time for the arrival of the Messiah was at hand.
We’re told that when John saw Jesus he didn’t want to baptize him. John said I am the one who should be baptized by you. But Jesus insisted, John baptized him, and the Scripture says the Spirit of God then descended upon Jesus.
After Jesus underwent his temptation in the wilderness, Scripture tells us he returned to Galilee. There he began his ministry, with the very words John had used in the Judean wilderness, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
The Scriptures tell us very little about the life of Jesus up till the day he came to John to be baptized. The gospel of Matthew records the story of the birth of Jesus, and later the arrival of the Magi. Scripture tells us that the jealous and murderous King Herod felt threatened by the story of the birth of a new king, so he ordered all the young boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem be put to death. Joseph was warned of this threat in a dream so he fled with his wife and his newborn son to Egypt. There the young family stayed, as refugees and probably illegal immigrants, in a foreign land whose language was probably unknown to them, whose religion was different from theirs, and whose culture was hostile to them. We can imagine that this was a hard life, and certainly not the life Joseph had hoped for his young family.
A few years later, after Herod had died, Joseph and the family left Egypt. Matthew tells us that Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Bethlehem, where it was still unsafe, so instead Joseph took his family to a town in Galilee called Nazareth.
In the gospel of Matthew we are told nothing else about the life of Jesus from the time the family moved to Nazareth, until the day Jesus showed up to be baptized by John, nearly 30 years later.
Even though Scripture is silent on Jesus’ childhood, and the years leading up to the beginning of his ministry, there are some historical facts from that era that shed some light on what it must have been like for Jesus to grow up in Nazareth at the time.
Jerusalem, and the area around it, was the power center of that day. Galilee was what we might call a backwater, or “the sticks.” The people of Galilee were mostly farmers and laborers. They had a distinct (what we might call countrified) accent. I don’t think we have to use our imagination very hard to know what it’s like to be considered to be from the sticks.
Galilee was “the sticks” to the people from Judea, but Nazareth would have been considered “the sticks” even by other Galileans.
Nazareth at that time was a very small village, probably having no more than about 200 people in it. The entire population of Nazareth in Jesus’s time could easily fit in this small church. Nazareth isn’t mentioned at all in the Old Testament. Nazareth was quite simply an insignificant village of peasants. It is easy to understand why Nathaniel, when told that Jesus was from Nazareth, would respond “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)
Life was hard for the villagers of Jesus’s time. The country was occupied by the Roman Empire, a foreign military superpower. The people were forced to pay exorbitant taxes to the Romans, which were collected by corrupt tax collectors, who were allowed to keep anything they could collect above and beyond what the Roman government was demanding. The people of the day were generally so poor and living so close to the edge, that the payment of these taxes could be a threat to their very existence.
These were dark days for the people. Living under foreign occupation, and living in poverty, is easy to understand why they longed for a Messiah–the Messiah that had been prophesized and promised centuries earlier. It is also easy to understand how their hopes could be raised easily, and how devastating it must have been when those hopes were dashed.
In those days it was not uncommon for someone to proclaim himself to be the Messiah, only to be crushed in yet another disappointing failure. We know of at least three such “messiahs” from around the time of Jesus: Simon of Peraea; Athronges, and Judas of Galilee. All 3 of them, claiming to be the promised Messiah, led revolts against the Romans, and the Romans crushed and killed them all.
Just 4 miles south of Nazareth was the city of Sepphoris. Unlike the little village of Nazareth, Sepphoris was a large and prosperous city. When Jesus was about twelve years old the people of Sepphoris rebelled against the Romans. They were successful for a while, but when the Romans arrived in force they crushed the rebellion, burned the city to the ground, and killed or enslaved every single person living there. The Roman commander took 2,000 of the rebel prisoners to Jerusalem and crucified them outside the walls, where their bodies were left to hang and rot, as a warning to the people. As a boy, Jesus would likely have witnessed these events, and he likely knew some of the victims.
Scripture tells us that Joseph was a carpenter, but a better translation of the word is “builder.” Probably the best translation of all is to say that Joseph was a construction worker. Jesus would have learned the trade from Joseph, and would have worked alongside him.
After Sepphoris was burned to the ground the Romans decided to rebuild it as something of a resort town for the wealthy. It is very likely that Joseph and his son Jesus were laborers in that long and massive construction project, building Roman bathhouses, temples, and theaters on the land that once held the homes of their neighbors and countrymen.
By the time Jesus traveled to the Jordan River for his baptism, scholars believe that Joseph had died. Scripture makes no mention of Joseph after the birth narratives. Those were hard times and the average life expectancy of men in those days was only about thirty years. These days we think of Jesus as a young man when he began his ministry. Certainly I would agree, as a fifty-three-year-old, that thirty is a very young age. But in the time of Jesus the average man did not make it to thirty years old.
So we might surely say that life was tough, and the circumstances were grim, when Jesus came up out of the water in the Jordan River that morning, and when the Holy Spirit descended on him “like a dove.” How thrilling it must have been for John to see the realization of his dream. And over the next couple of years, as Jesus gathered a following, how exciting it must have been for the people to believe that their long-awaited redemption was at hand. Finally, they must have believed, we’re going to be free of the Romans, finally we’re going to be delivered from poverty, and finally that day prophesied long before by the prophet Micah would arrive. Micah had written of the coming Messiah: “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far away. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.” (Micah 4: 3-4)
Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized the Spirit of God descended upon him and a voice from heaven announced “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Those who heard or read those words would have recognized them from the prophecy of Isaiah, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice on the earth.” Isaiah 43: 1, 3.
So what happened next?
Jesus gathered up an army, drove the Romans out of Palestine, reestablished the kingdom of David, brought an end to all wars, and established justice over all the earth.
No. That’s not what happened.
Not long after he baptized Jesus on that glorious morning, John was arrested and imprisoned. Eventually he was beheaded to amuse the family of a corrupt and immoral king.
And what of Jesus? Upon his baptism Scripture says a voice from heaven said “This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” But a few years later, as his tortured body was dying on a Roman cross, Jesus looked to heaven and uttered the only words the gospel of Matthew records him as saying on the cross that day: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
And then he died.
And so, there he was, hanging naked and dead on a Roman cross, just like all those men from Sepphoris that he would’ve remembered from his childhood.
Another dead prophet. Another “messiah,” crushed, humiliated and executed. Once again the Romans and the religious authorities in Jerusalem could look out at the people they were oppressing and say “This is what happens to your prophets. This is what happens to your ‘messiahs.’ It’s the Golden Rule. The one with the gold, is the one who rules. The sword is mightier than the word.”
A few decades later the Jewish people made another desperate attempt to cast out the Romans and win their freedom. This revolution was more successful than earlier ones, and for a brief time the Romans were evicted from Jerusalem. But the Roman army returned, as it always did, in full force. The rebellion was crushed and Jerusalem was burned to the ground. Just as Jesus had predicted, the temple was destroyed. The Romans, having had enough of these impertinent people, scattered them around the world.
No restoration of the kingdom of David. No justice among the nations. No swords beaten into plowshares. The empire wins again.
But that’s not the whole story, is it? That’s not the way God keeps score.
What Jesus brought to the world is not something that can be killed. What Jesus brought to the world is not something that can be defeated by any empire.
Unlike those other “messiahs,” Jesus did not stay dead. God raised him up and his inspired followers persevered. Yes, the empire and the religious establishment continued to kill them. But like Jesus himself, the movement he started couldn’t be killed. Whatever the authorities threw at it, it wouldn’t stay dead.
And so today, over 2,000 years after it seemed like the Romans and the religious establishment had won, there are hundreds of millions of us gathering all over the world this morning to praise Jesus, even in a little church in Danville Virginia, on the other side of the world from Jerusalem.
The Roman Empire is long gone. It eventually collapsed, as all empires do. The Pharisees who conspired to have Jesus murdered are remembered in history only as villains. But Jesus is alive, and his spirit, the Spirit of God, continues to bring hope, compassion, love, and a burning desire for justice to a broken world.
On the night before Jesus was executed, his disciple and close friend Peter denied that he even knew him. Along with all the others, out of fear, he abandoned Jesus.
But after being encouraged by the resurrected Jesus, and after being filled with the power of the Spirit of God, Peter would boldly proclaim before all who would hear him, that Jesus Christ is Lord of all.
Peter had come to understand, as we all do now, that Jesus was not sent to lead a revolution against the Romans, or to establish some new government in Jerusalem. No. As Peter says in Acts 10: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all.”
So here we are on this beautiful morning, gathered in worship as proof of Peter’s words. 2,000 years after Peter spoke those words, in virtually all the nations of the world, believers have gathered, some at the risk of their lives, and all in defiance of the world’s empires, to proclaim the truth that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. This is the blessing we have received from God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
So let us remember as we go forth in our lives, carrying the love of Christ within us and blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit of God, that we are not to judge God’s works by political power or military might. Those are the marks of empires and Caesars, not the marks of those of us who follow the example of a peasant construction worker from the sticks who spoke truth to power, and showed us that love is more powerful and resilient than anything an empire can put up against it.
So friends let us go forward filled with the hope that even now, in a world still filled with violence and injustice, the seeds of a new creation have been sown. Let us resolve to be the hands and feet of our Savior Jesus. Let us even now work with him for justice and peace, in the expectation that the day will yet arrive when the world’s weapons will be turned into farm tools, and when every person will sit under their own vine and their own fig tree, and no one will be afraid.
And so we pray, maranatha. Come Lord Jesus.
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you: wherever he may send you
May he guide you through the wilderness: protect you through the storm
May he bring you home rejoicing: at the wonders he has shown you
May he bring you home rejoicing: once again into our doors