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In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
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.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man who walked into his kitchen and saw an old pastor. The man greeted the pastor and confusedly asked, “Good morning, pastor. Might I know what you’re doing in my kitchen?” The pastor replied, “Good morning, child. Forgive me for not asking first, but I need to use your stove in order to quickly make holy water for this morning’s baptism.” Intrigued by the pastor’s response, the man said, “That’s great to hear. I always wanted to learn how people make it, so is it okay if I help?” The pastor said, “No need, child. The process is quite simple that even I could do it alone. You see, all you have to do in order to make holy water is you just boil the hell out of it!”
Huh…who knew?! Well, truth be told, it’s even simpler than that. All one needs to make holy water is water and God’s words of love and forgiveness to be spoken over it. Thus is the power of God’s words. No need for boiling, only words, to forever change something. God’s words change things. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but changed nevertheless. Can any of us claim to have such powerful words? Of course we can! Anyone who’s ever been entrusted with authority and responsibility can attest to the power of their words. Anyone who’s ever been a parent or teacher or supervisor can attest to the power of their words. Words have great power to change things! Only a fool would consider otherwise. Only a fool would choose to misuse their words and/or fail to consider the effect their words have on the world around them. Words matter…they change things!
Just listen to the words spoken in today’s reading. Right at the start, we heard how the prophet Isaiah had at some point spoken the words, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Like many prophetic words, Isaiah’s words meant little to nothing to most people who heard them. But to a select few they meant a great deal. John heard these words and was given the single greatest purpose to his life. He was to use his voice and cry out to the world, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John heard these words and knew what he needed to do with his life. He needed to help others prepare for the coming of our Lord. He went on to interpret that word “prepare” to mean “repent” and worked at getting people to ask for forgiveness for their sins. But Isaiah’s words had a life-altering effect on John and he was forever changed having heard them.
Then we hear the words spoken after Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Again, words that meant little to nothing to most people who heard them. But for Jesus they meant all the world to him. Sure, he knew who he is as God’s most beloved Son but the world certainly didn’t know. And God the Father just haaaad to go and out Jesus for who he really is! Well, Jesus could no longer remain in hidden obscurity. He had to thereafter live up to the Father’s revelation. He had to begin his earthly ministry. Words forever changed not only John’s life but Jesus’ as well.
Now then, why is it important to lift up the power of words as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism? Not only did they change both John and Jesus’ lives but they forever changed our lives too. I’m referring specifically to all the words spoken to us through Jesus himself. Jesus’ words were great and mighty words, arguably the greatest and the mightiest. And I like to believe that it is his words that make up John’s distinction of baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s baptism consisted of water while Jesus’ baptism consists of words. Jesus baptizes us through his mighty and powerful words, even mightier and more powerful than John’s water. Why? Because Jesus’ words actually provide life and death. John’s water only prepares us to receive Jesus’ life and death. It’s Jesus’ words that actually give life and death to those who receive them. And yes, Jesus’ words can give death as well as life. I know we don’t like to think of his words as anything other than loving and life-affirming. They are loving and life-affirming to some while condemning and destructive to others. But wait! We hear Jesus say in John 3:17, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Isn’t this contradicting what I just said about Jesus being condemning and destructive? Not so! Jesus’ WORDS can be condemning and destructive, certainly to the sin and evils of this world. Jesus says in John 12, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (vs. 47-48) Jesus’ words are like fire itself: warming and sustaining to some, agonizing and destructive to others. And not to the people themselves but the sin within them. Jesus wants us to live and have eternal life through him. But in order to have such life the sin must also be destroyed. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians, “for all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (5:10) Friends, we all must be cleansed of the sin within us if we’re ever going to receive true life, eternal life. In that cleansing there will be death. But have no fear, there is new life after death! Jesus’ resurrection affirms this! In the book of Acts we hear, “because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (17:31) There IS life after death! Jesus showed this to be true! Simply trust in it…trust in him…trust in his words!
So as we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, we are ultimately celebrating the power of words. They truly do change the world. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Jesus’ words are no different, equally affirming and condemning. Let us rejoice in the gift of his words. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.