“Well Pleased…” (Sermon on Matthew 3:3-17) #berkshire #pittsfield #sermon

Biblical scholars love to debate, and when they do, for a church geek like me, it’s kind of fun to listen to. I know this isn’t true for everyone, but at some point, watching a good debate is almost more like watching sports. You can almost imagine a sports announcer:

“That round goes to the Old Testament scholar from Yale. Next up, a debate about ECONOMICS IN THE BIBLICAL WORLD between the scholar from Emory University and the scholar from Chicago Theological Seminary, followed by a debate about Old Testament punctuation between the scholar from Harvard and Saint Pius the Tenth Seminary.”

By the way, those two debate topics are actual debate topics from recent in-person or online gatherings. I’ve been in conferences (or a bar or two after the conference day has ended), and they’ll continue to debate about the translation of this word or that. They’ll debate about where punctuation or accent marks were placed and how it changes the meaning of a sentence. They’ll debate the historical and social context of this story or that story. They’ll debate about what pieces of the bible are likely to be historically and factually true and which parts they believe are intended to reflect poetic, traditional, or theological truths.

Watching biblical scholars disagree is kinda fun and enlightening. There has been more than one time when, at the start of a formal or informal debate, the point being made can seem mind-numbingly small or unimportant, but by the end of a debate, you can begin to understand its general importance or, at least, its importance to the debater. Again, biblical scholars like to debate. So, what’s just as significant, is when they don’t. 

One whole area of conversation is about what in the bible has a high likelihood of being historically true. Almost everything in the bible tries to point toward some sort of truth, but not every story or incident was intended to portray a historical occurrence.

In the gospel accounts, two incidents are generally agreed upon as being historically true events. There’s debate about the details, but the highest level of agreement is around the crucifixion of Jesus. But right behind it is the baptism of Jesus. Three of the four gospel writers – Mathew, Mark, and Luke – agreed that this story was so important that it needed to be included in their accounts of Jesus’ life. Up until this point in these three gospels, Jesus didn’t seem to have been doing that much that the gospel writers thought was worth recording except being born. 

All three of the gospels that included this story likely used the same source or a related source because all three include a similar sentence from God that concluded this account and launched Jesus into his ministry. In Matthew, in a recent translation, the sentence is shared like this:

Matthew 3:16-17 (NRSVue) “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.””

  • Matthew 3:16-17 (NRSVue)

This was God’s benediction, blessing, and endorsement. This was the phrase that launched Jesus’ ministry.

But what was God pleased with? Again, all three of the gospels that include this story don’t have Jesus doing much of anything before this account. What was there to be pleased with?

In last week’s sermon, I talked a little about the difference between “thanks” and “praise.” Biblically, “thanks” was used for something God or someone had done or agreed to do. “Praise” was used to celebrate who God is or who a person was or for what a person was created to be or created to do. These words spoken at Jesus’ baptism were words of praise, celebrating who Jesus was and what Jesus was called to do.

I don’t know about you, but I think one of the places New Englanders and Midwesterners sometimes can connect is around our attitudes around thanks and praise. It’s nice to be thanked but not too much and praise sure can feel like a lot of pressure. 

Jesus was Jesus, so we’re OK with God giving him some praise and such a ringing endorsement. But, as people collectively called to become the body of Christ, we’re called to take on some of this responsibility through praise, too. We’re called to collectively embody the expectations that came with God’s praise of Jesus. We’re called to become that healing, teaching, and liberating presence in the world that was included in God’s expectations of Jesus. Not only that, but by collectively taking on the expectations that came with God’s celebration of who Jesus was created to be in that moment, we can move through the weight of the expectations and move toward something else. We can trust that we were created to do this work and that, collectively, we have what it takes to follow through.

In the same way that Jesus was created to be a healing presence in the world, I think we are, too. I truly believe that, as our two congregations gather today, we’re involved in healing work. Did some of the energy for our conversation come from the economic reality that there were some things we could do better together than apart? Sure. However, as we talk about reunifying our two congregations, we’re also talking about healing somethings that separated us in the middle of the 1800s. We can read a hint of it here and a hint of it there in the historical accounts, but it’s hard to say, with certainty, if it was one particular thing or another. More than likely, it was a collection of differences that, in a moment of time, may have seemed significant enough that celebrating the start of a new church seemed a far better use of time than bridging the divide. I am certain that, at the time, it was a faithful thing to do because what have become the fruits of the ministries of First and South may not have emerged otherwise. Our separation was important.

Now, we’re at another moment, and Spirit has called us to work together again. I have no doubt that God is “well pleased.” As with Jesus, we are called together to be the churches God needs us to be at this place and this time. Looking forward, we may have uncertainty at times. Going forward, there are going to be moments that will be difficult. But, God is pleased with us. God has made us for this moment and will help us through it. As when Jesus was baptized, there will be moments we feel as though we’re dipped into Jordan-like waters that will sometimes seem murky, but there will also be moments of Holy Spirit clarity when the heavens break open. For the next few months, we’ll be diving into some of these waters but, as we do, remember, it’s all baptism. We are created for this moment. 

You, beloved, are created for this moment. My siblings in Christ, today, remember your baptism. (share the waters)

The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of First Church of Christ (UCC) and South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!

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