Matthew 3:1-17 (CEB)
Ministry of John the Baptist

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” He was the one of whom Isaiah the prophet spoke when he said:

The voice of one shouting in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord;
make his paths straight.[a]

John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.

People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and tossed into the fire. 11 I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.”

Baptism of Jesus

13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. 17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

Hello, God? We’ve got questions.  Can God change people’s minds about the way they act?

I read a tweet yesterday that said this, “Doubt is slander against the Almighty.  Jesus died to save you from doubt, not to make space for it.”  (2x)  I showed up today to tell you that doubt is NOT slander against the Almighty.  And Jesus died to save you from your sin, not from your doubt.  If you have questions about your faith, that is a good thing—because it means you are thinking about it and trying to make sense of God in your life!  But unfortunately some of us have been taught not to question God.  Some of us have been taught that it is disrespectful to question God or to question the one preaching God’s word.  But Methodist theology says that using our reasoning powers and asking questions is a way that we grow in our faith.  In fact, asking questions is vital to our faith development.  And God is a God who welcomes our questions and our doubts and our fears.  If you don’t believe me, I invite you to read the Psalms and witness some deep doubt and some outright anger at God.

So in this place you are encouraged to use the brain God has given you—to ask faith questions of me, and of your peers and of God, too.  Now, this is not to say that we will ever be able to figure out the answers to all our questions – because God is so big that we can never know for sure.  But part of the way we grow closer to God is through asking questions, and using our reasoning power along with tradition, experience and of course Scripture as our foundation to learn about who God is and who God wants us to be.

I asked our kids on Wednesday what questions they would want to ask of God, and they had some really great ones.  In fact, several of them cut right to the hardest question of all, and one that we can never answer, “Where did God come from?”  This week, I invite you to text me your questions, so that we can answer them and I’ll share these questions over the next few weeks!  The kids on the video have some great ones, too.  Today, we are going to talk about one of those questions — whether God can change people’s minds about how they act.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am pretty set in my ways.  I like to keep a certain schedule, and eat certain things, and drive the same route to work every day, and I’m more of an introvert, so I like to hang out with people I already know and not socialize a whole lot.  And I’m guessing each of us has his or her own comfort zone, right?  That zone where we are safe and happy, where we are doing the things we are used to doing with people we’ve known all our lives.  And typically, when we are living within our comfort zone, we are doing things we know we are good at.  Think about this – how uncomfortable was it for you that first day of a new job, or the first day of a new school, or the first day of doing something really new for you?  Can you remember feeling that uneasy feeling of being outside of your comfort zone?  It’s hard to do things that are different for us, especially if it is something we haven’t done before, especially if we feel unqualified.

And so, the question of the day is – can God somehow convince us to act differently or think differently.  Specifically, we are going to think about whether God can change our minds to serve God in new and very different ways – ways that we never could have imagined we would be capable of.  Can God get us out of our comfort zones for God’s good purposes in the world?

If you’ve been around a while, you know that there are times when our routines get disrupted, and we are forced out of our comfort zones to meet a challenge or deal with a crisis.  You may also have experienced God calling you out of your comfort zone into a place of transformation.

In today’s scripture, we hear about John the Baptist.  John had a very particular role in the story of the Christian faith.  John had a very specific job.  He was the person God had designated to come before Christ.  He was the one God sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the way for the Messiah – to announce that Jesus was coming and to tell people that it would be life-changing for all those who followed Jesus.

And so people came out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John.  First of all, he was this dramatic character, living in the wilderness and dressed in strange ways.  And people had heard that something unusual was going on with John.  I think they were drawn to the power of his message.  And he would say to them, “I only baptize you as a sign that you are changing your hearts and lives, but after me comes one whose sandals I am not worthy to carry, one who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  John knew who he was – he had this mission to tell people about the Messiah who would follow him.  John had a very focused job – and he believed that his whole life was directed toward preparing the path for Jesus.

Until things changed when Jesus appeared in the desert and asked John to baptize him.  It must have been confusing, at the very least, when Jesus, the King of King and the Lord of Lords and the Son of God, asked John to baptize him.  In the stained glass image on screen, you see the image of John standing over Jesus.  And John must have felt that he should be kneeling at the feet of the Messiah not standing above him.  It must have seemed like crazy talk for Jesus to ask John to baptize him.

The scripture says it this way:

14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

No one could accuse John of not knowing his role and his place in this life!  He knew his mission.  He knew his purpose.  And yet, here was Jesus asking him to step outside his comfort zone.  Asking him to do something he never could have imagined he would do – it was so unexpected!  And it was only when he stepped out in faith that his heart was opened for transformation to take place.

And it was Jesus who urged him to go along with the spirit of the moment and to be the instrument of God – to baptize the Messiah.  Verse 15 says:

15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”

It was Jesus who asked John to try something unexpected.  It was Jesus who reached towards John and challenged how he supposed things would be in his life.

But John gets part of the credit, too.  Because he was willing to embrace change.  And because he listened and trusted and obeyed – because he was willing to do something he never felt worthy to do, he was transformed by what happened next:

So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him. 17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”

Because John was willing to be God’s instrument, he witnessed heaven opening up, he saw the Spirit of God and heard the voice of God from heaven!

The world has changed a lot since John the Baptist wandered the desert and baptized Jesus at the River Jordan.  But God has not changed one bit.  God still calls us to do crazy things for God’s good purposes in the world.  God still asks us to step outside of our comfort zones.  In fact, I think God demands that we step outside of our comfort zones.  God demands that as disciples of Jesus Christ we do things we never supposed we would or could.  But the good news is that we don’t do these things on our own power.  We receive the power of the Holy Spirit in our baptism and God’s spirit is always leading, guiding and empowering us to do God’s work in the world.

I think God can change our minds about how we act.  God can inspire us to change our hearts and lives and do things we never thought we would do  — things small and things large.

On New Year’s Day it was really cold – it was about 15 degrees I think.  And my mom called me and asked me if I wanted to deliver food with her.  You may remember – my mom gathers leftovers from hotel breakfasts and other places around Russellville that would just go to waste, and she takes the food to people who are in need of a meal.  I’ve been telling her for a long time that I wanted to go along.  And so New Year’s Day was the day.  Well, I was really comfortable (and warm) sitting on my couch eating pork rinds and watching college football.  And so I grudgingly put my cuddle duds on and bundled up in my coat, and we headed out with my mom’s backseat full of meals.  It was definitely an uncomfortable thing to do sure.  We visited several homes and neighborhoods, but the family that sticks in my mind most were the young couple who had a new baby.  My mom knew the boarding house they lived in but not which apartment they were in.  So we just started knocking on doors to find this family.  The first door was a man she knew- and we left four meals there.  The second door was someone she didn’t know, but we talked with her and left her a meal.  The third door we knocked on was the family we were looking for.  The family was living in a one room area and cooking on a camping stove.  They were warm, and they were happy.  And they were so grateful for the new life they had been blessed with – baby Emily, and they were thankful for the people who were being God’s hands and feet and helping them.  Someone had brought them a heater.  Someone had brought them the cook stove.  And we had wandered in with some food.  Not only that but the dad had been offered a job.

When I got home, I realized our efforts were just a drop in the bucket toward loving others in God’s name.  I realized how my day had been given a sense of purpose and joy by meeting a few new people and sharing some food.  I was forced outside of my comfort zone, and the result surprised me.  I still got to have my day of Sabbath—there were plenty of pork rinds and football when I got home.  But for an hour I feel like I lived out my baptism in this small way.  I felt like I was being a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes God comes to you in the form of a request for help and urges you to try something hard and maybe even something that seems distasteful.  And when you say “yes” to God, or even if you say like me, “well, ok, I guess I will” to God, your eyes and your heart may be opened.  And your transformation moves to a whole new level!

God can change us.  God can open our eyes to see new ways to love God and love one another.  God can help us to see people with new eyes.  God can change our unforgiving hearts.  God can change our hobbies and our occupations.  God can help us to stop being mean to each other as the child on the video asked.  But you know what — God doesn’t want unwilling participants.  God gave us brains to ask questions, and God also gives us freewill.  So the choice is ours.

And so it all comes back to our baptism.  In our baptisms the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within us.  And the question then becomes, will we remember our baptism every day.  Will we remember who we are as the body of Christ and live with the power of the Spirit that’s within us?  Will we change our hearts and our lives?

When God is in the process of changing us it is uncomfortable and unexpected – it can be painful and hard to accept.  But hear the good news!  We can trust God to lead us where we did not plan to go.  And who knows what can happen if we do what Jesus asks of us!  We could see the very heavens open up and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.  We might hear the voice of God speaking!  We might find our whole lives transformed!

Let us pray,

Mighty God we are not worthy of your love.  And yet you love us without strings attached.  In response to your divine love, O God, we offer you our lives.  We want to change our hearts and our lives.  We want to live out our baptisms – we want to serve you and only you.  We want to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  And so may we listen to your Spirit and be unafraid to change.  Amen.

Benediction

The Holy Spirit work within you,

That being born through water and the Spirit,

You may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.