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Knee Deep
January 10, 1999

MATTHEW 3:13-17

When you visualize Jesus, how do you see him? Hanging on the cross? Sitting with children on his lap? Standing on a hillside teaching? Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane? Partying with common folk? As I prepared this sermon, I discovered an image I had never thought of before, and it is powerful. Can you see Jesus standing knee deep in the water of the Jordan River being baptized?

Now, letís not get into a disagreement over the mode of baptism. There are some who strongly believe that John the Baptizer immersed Jesus in the river. Personally, I believe Jesus stood knee deep in the river while John sprinkled water on top of his head. If there is interest in discussing the mode of baptism further, let me know and weíll have a one-session class on biblical baptism. For the purposes of this sermon, however, the mode is incidental. Even if Jesus were immersed, he had to walk into the river, stand knee deep, and wait for John to immerse him. If he were immersed, did John immerse Jesus face up or face down? When I have baptized by immersion, I immersed them face down, which is a lot more comfortable for the baptizee and easier for the baptizer. Incidentally, in a United Methodist Church, you may be baptized by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion.

Regardless of the mode, back to the sermon, I find the image of Jesus standing knee deep in the Jordan River intriguing, because Johnís baptism was for repentance and forgiveness of sin. When Jesus stood knee deep in the water, John didnít want to baptize him. John said, "I need to be baptized by you." Then Jesus, whom we believe was without sin, answered, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness." This is the first time Jesus speaks in the gospel of Matthew, so this is important. Matthew uses the word "righteousness" seven times in his book. Righteousness is an act of human obedience that carries out a divine demand. By being baptized, Jesus is "fulfilling all righteousness," meaning that the righteous demands of God are being fulfilled. Jesus, in submitting to Johnís baptism, is showing to all the world that we need to submit to and obey God. When the voice spoke, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," the voice was saying that God is pleased with Jesusí complete obedience.

Jesus, who was without sin, stood knee deep in the waters of repentance, along with all of us sinners. The unfamiliar hymn we have just sung expresses this theology well.

When Jesus came to Jordan to be baptized by John,

he did not come for pardon but as the sinless one.

He came to share repentance with all who mourn their sins,

to speak the vital sentence with which good news begins.

He came to share temptation, our utmost woe and loss,

for us and our salvation to die upon the cross.

So when the dove descended on him, the Son of Man,

the hidden years had ended, the age of grace began.

Jesus didnít need to repent. Jesus didnít need to admit his sin, confess his sin, and turn from his sin, to seek forgiveness and a new, fresh start. But, Jesus shares in our repentance. He stands knee deep with us in the water of repentance, helping us admit our short-comings, helping us confess our sin, encouraging us to turn from our self-centered ways and to turn to God, who forgives us, and gives us new, fresh starts.

What a Savior we have! A Jesus who takes on the sins of humanity, who stands knee deep in the mire with us, who shares our tears, who comforts and encourages, who carries our burdens, and who carries us, leaving footprints in the sand.

Where is Jesus when Lillian is told her cancer is spreading? Jesus is standing knee deep with her, knee deep in the disappointment, knee deep in the pain, knee deep with her as we all hold her in prayer.

Where was Jesus when Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Civil Rights revolution which led to his assassination? Standing knee deep with the victims of segregation and prejudice, knee deep in the injustice.

Where is Jesus when children are abused? Standing knee deep in their pain and disillusionment.

Where is Jesus when you struggle with a decision, or a temptation, or a rejection, or a failure, a disappointment? Jesus is not "in the distance watching you." Jesus is not far off somewhere in a place called heaven. Jesus is not sitting on a throne somewhere judging you and passing sentence. Jesus is not waiting in the wings for the grand entrance which we call the second coming. Yes, I believe there will be a final victory, but Jesus is not off somewhere preparing the troops, leaving us here all alone. No, Jesus is standing knee deep with you, knee deep in the temptation, the rejection, the failure, the disappointment.

Now, notice however, that Jesus did not stay knee deep in the river! He got out of the river, walked into the wilderness where he spent 40 days by himself getting clarity and direction for his mission, and then he walked through the villages and countryside of Galilee. He didnít stay knee deep in the mire, he went on with his life, he went on with his mission, and he calls us to do the same.

My favorite movie of Jesus was made many years ago. I havenít seen it lately, I canít even remember the name. It was made by an Italian director and it was in black and white. What impressed me about the portrayal of Jesus is that he was constantly on the move. It did not portray Jesus sitting on a hillside with his disciples gathered around him, calmly philosophizing, teaching some abstract principles. The movie portrayed an agitated Jesus, on the move, walking rapidly with the disciples staggering along behind, trying to keep up. As Jesus walked, he would turn his head, and shout back to the panting disciples, "You are the salt of the earth....you are the light of the world."

Jesus was on the move, and he upset a lot of people in the process. In particular, did he confront the religious hierarchy of the day. In my sermons last Sunday, to you in the morning and in the afternoon ordination sermon, I said that the role of the ordained minister is to equip, challenge, and inspire the members (the ministers) with the vision of what God is doing in our midst, and what God is calling the church to be and do. Sometimes, a pastor upsets and agitates his/her people. Jesus certainly led by agitating! Quoted in Forbes magazine, Tom Peters, the popular business consultant, says,


"In my professional service, The Tom Peters Group, I urge my colleagues to push all clients so hard that we provoke several into running away screaming. We are hired to agitate, and if we donít annoy the sleepiest fraction of our customers, we wonít do the job I demand for the pioneering clients we do wish to serve."

"We are hired to agitate," he says. This afternoon we gather to discuss the proposed After School Ministry (or more correctly, as the planning has evolved and needs are being discovered, we should say "Before and After School Ministry"). We met with several church committees this past week, and, shall we say, we have agitated! This afternoonís All-Church meeting promises to be a lively, animated discussion-- which is as it should be! Little of significance is ever accomplished without struggle. There would be no pearl if the oyster were not agitated by a grain of sand! When Christians, seeking the will of God, care about the church and its ministry, there will be controversy. If not, someone is making decisions and forcing them on the rest. None of us have the inside track to Godís will; together, in love, respect, and prayer, we can discover what God is calling us to be and to do.

Two pastors were talking. One, surprised, asked the other, "You donít celebrate Pentecost in your church?" "No," he replied. "Why not?" "Because itís been so long since this congregation has attempted anything for which we would need the Holy Spirit, we just donít bother asking anymore!" I believe that people want a faith and a church that trusts not in their abilities and strengths, but in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe a church needs and wants agitation. I believe people want Jesus to stand knee deep with them in their troubles, and then to lead them, even if they are kicking and screaming, into the future. On the east coast, a company called Flamingo Flats sells spices with the motto, "Life is too short to eat boring food." The names on some of their hot-pepper jars include, "Sting and Linger," "Daveís Insanity Sauce," "Hell in a Jar," but their number one bestseller is "Religious Experience," which comes in Original, Hot and Wrath!

In my personal experience, I find the adventure with the Lord never boring; frustrating at times, disappointing at times, but never boring. I find life with Jesus to be spicy, invigorating, renewing, and joyful!

Jesus stands knee deep with you. Jesus takes you by the hand, helps you out of the river, then rapidly walks on ahead, calling you to follow--catch up if you can, but follow.

ã 1999 Douglas I. Norris