Sunday’s sermon: Thirsty Roots

Text used – Matthew 3:1-17

  • As we mentioned in our prayer requests this morning, we’ve had a stark and forceful reminder this week of the power of water. The heavy storms that have brought record rainfall to California have done an incredible amount of damage.
    • Caused sinkholes that have swallowed up cars and destroyed roadways
    • Water level of the Salinas River in central CA has been above flood stage since Friday[1] → river has inundated homes, businesses, and farmlands
    • Flood warnings and evacuation orders issued in a dozen counties all along the coastline[2]
    • Mudslides in northern CA have consumed roads and devastated homes in the same area where, just 5 short yrs. ago, a catastrophic debris flow claimed the lives of 23 people in Montecito
    • More than 24,000 people left without power[3]
    • This intense, heavy rainfall has already claimed the lives of 17 people, and there’s more rain in the forecast this week. And yet, in the midst of all this water-caused devastation, it remains a fact that California is also in the midst of an extreme drought situation. It’s such a startling, compelling illustration of both how vital and how volatile water is in our world and in our lives.
      • Press release put out by the United Nations a little over a year ago (Oct. 2021): Water is increasingly being treated as a mere commodity and even as a financial asset, a UN human rights expert told the UN General Assembly today, undermining the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation and the sustainability of the environment. Pedro Arrojo Agudo, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation, said in a report that trading of water use rights in markets has eroded the notion of water as a common good and the State as a guarantor of the general interest. The UN expert also pointed out that water trading tends to treat the environment as just another user, and not as the basis of life, forcing States to purchase flows for environmental needs, and failing to address the roots of unsustainability … The recent entry of water as a commodity derivative on Wall Street futures markets aggravates the situation by subjecting water to the forces of financial speculation and to risks of speculative bubbles, not taking into account the demands of human rights and the sustainability of ecosystems, he said.[4] → This is where we find ourselves today, friends: living in a world in which the most essential element on the planet – something necessary for all life to survive and thrive – is being used as a weaponized commodity.
        • Water scarcity is a real and imminent danger all around the world → quick Google search for “water as weaponized commodity” yields results listing actions in China, Iraq, the West Bank, Syria, and many other places in which access to clean water for drinking, for sanitation purposes, and for daily living has been restricted or outright denied as a means of punishment and oppression
    • Truly, friends, in our world today, water is power.
  • And today in our worship, we mark the baptism of Jesus – a day drenched in water and Spirit, a day in which we usually wash our own spirits and hearts in the cooling waters of reassurance as we hear John’s words of prophecy and praise … as we hear the equanimity of Jesus’ request to be baptized just like the rest – just like those who came before and just like those who would come after – just like us … as we hear the reverberating echo of God’s praise and acceptance and love: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”[5] → find all of these things in our passage today, too
    • Begins with John’s call to the people – John’s challenge for the people → John’s words at the very beginning of this passage make clear something that I think in a lot of ways we’ve forgotten in the mainline church today: baptism is a call to and acceptance of a life, a way, a faith.
      • Text: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” … 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.[6] → here reveals the requisite intent in John’s call
        • Gr. “change” = repent, feel remorse – written in the imperative form which is not a simple suggestion but a command → John is making it clear that baptism requires a response in our emotions, in our lives, and in our faith. You see, the action of repenting is not just a “one and done” sort of action. The intent of repenting implies expressing regret over our words, actions, and attitudes, yes – saying “sorry,” if you will – but also allowing that regret to shape our words, actions, and attitudes going forward. Someone who repents but then goes right back to saying and doing and being the way they were before has not truly repented.
          • Scholar sheds an interesting light on this: In most church contexts, repentance is associated with guilt. People repent because they want to absolve themselves of the guilt incurred by sins they know they have committed. John’s repentance has little to do with the guilt that causes us to wallow in despair. Repentance for John is an action. John Howard Yoder understand clearly what this repentance looks like: “To repent is not to feel bad, but to think differently.”[7] → It is that call to live differently in the act of baptism that I think we’ve too often forgotten in the mainline church. When we baptize – whether we’re baptizing an infant, an adult, or any age in between – we’re making the promise to live differently and to help the one being baptized live differently. We shouldn’t baptize because Grandma expects it. We shouldn’t baptize because “it’s what we do.” We should baptize because we feel the pull of faith and the overwhelming abundance of grace in our own lives and want to see that lived out.
            • As parents who baptize their kids, we make that promise in regards to how we will raise them
              • Talking about God
              • Making space for God
              • Helping to foster their relationship with God
              • We don’t promise that we’ll have all the answers to the myriad of impossible questions that kids have about God (heck … even I don’t have a lot of those answers!), but we do promise to let those questions deepen our children’s relationship with God as well as our own.
          • Portion of “Theology of Baptism” from the Book of Order: [read from W-3.0402] → The waters of baptism flow abundant and pure, free and refreshing. The waters of baptism engulf us in the grace of God and immerse us in the movement and work of the Holy Spirit. Truly, friends, remember your baptism and be thankful, and know that the Holy Spirit is at work within you.
  • But at the same time, there’s another part of our passage this morning that we don’t normally hear on this Sunday – a part of the passage that brings contention to those reaffirming and holy waters, a part of the passage that reminds us that water and challenge have gone hand-in-hand for as long as humans have sought out the water.
    • Text: 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. 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.”[8] → It’s certainly not the only time that Matthew calls out the Pharisees and Sadducees in this gospel account, but it is the first time. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time that it feels so harsh, or maybe it’s because John’s judgment in this passage is juxtaposed with the beauty and acceptance and joy of Jesus’ own baptism just a few lines later. But in actuality, it’s because of that beauty and acceptance and joy that this part of the passage is so important.
      • As we said, John’s call to baptism = call to change our hearts and minds, to truly repent not just in word but in deed and in dedication → It’s a called to a renewed and authentic relationship with God.
      • But we know that throughout Matthew’s gospel narrative, this is a change that the Pharisees and Sadducees refuse to make. They are the quintessential lived example of those who refused to see Christ for who he was and to receive the grace of God when it was literally walking and teaching and loving and breathing in their midst.
        • Important to point out – this is not just about the Pharisees and Sadducees à scholar: The message is not some distorted rejection of Israel, in the form of the Pharisees and Sadducees, as the divine judgment of the gospel. We are included among any who hold the divine call for repentance and new life in disdain or contempt.[9] → John uses the Pharisees and Sadducees as his illustration in that moment because they were there. They were the material he had to work with. And he knew – because he was a prophet, because the Holy Spirit was speaking through him, because he was already being hassled by the Pharisees and Sadducees for his own ministry – that they would not accept the coming Messiah. He knew that their baptisms would just be lip service, not a true and genuine change that seeped into their very souls.
          • John’s imagery = that of an ax and a tree that bears no fruit → And what’s one of the main reasons a plant – be it tree, tomato, or tulip – bears no fruit? Because it’s lacking the basic necessity of life: water. The roots can’t access the required moisture the plant needs to survive, so first it stops producing the fruit it needs to make more plants. Then, it begins to wither. Eventually, it dies. Though it may be a stark image, friends, our faith is no different. If we can’t let the waters of baptism seep into our very souls – into the core of who we are … if we can’t let those promises and that grace and that call from God effect real and lasting change in our saying and doing and being, then our faith will stop producing fruit and wither.
  • This morning, during worship, we’re going to be remembering our baptisms. As we do so, I invite you to immerse yourself once again in those promises, in that grace, in that call from God. As you feel the coolness of the water on your skin, feel also the wholeness and restoration that God’s grace brings. Feel also God’s pull on your heart, your soul, your life. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Alleluia. Amen.

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/64265510.

[2] https://www.npr.org/2023/01/14/1149304548/california-storms-flooding-newsom.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2021/10/water-not-commodity-and-financial-asset-be-exploited-says-un-human-rights.

[5] Mt 3:17.

[6] Mt 3:1, 5-6.

[7] Laura C. Sweat. “Matthew 3:1-6 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 34.

[8] Mt 3:7-10.

[9] Dale P. Andrews. “Matthew 3:7-12 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – Matthew, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 41.

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