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"Untying the Thong"
Luke 3:15-17; 21-22

Our world is filled with awards and special recognitions. It is difficult to read a daily newspaper or watch the evening news without learning of someone who has won another award.

Even the numerous football bowl games were in themselves awards for the teams that played in them.

And soon we will begin hearing speculation regarding the Academy awards for the best in motion pictures, to say nothing of the awards for television, the awards for theatre, the awards for the best books of the year, and the awards for the best music.

And is there anything more exciting than being recognized for who we are and what we have achieved? I must admit that I am not immune. I get a special joy from learning that someone thinks I have done something well. And I suspect that it may be within our human nature to feel that way.

At least, I suspect that--until I consider John the Baptist. And then I begin to wonder. Was John any different from the rest of us? Was there something SPECIAL about him that would make HIM immune?

We learn from the fifteenth verse of the third chapter of the gospel according to Luke that, "...the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether HE might be the Messiah."

What a compliment! To have folks even THINK that he was the Messiah. And what an opportunity! Why, if these folks THINK he might be the Messiah, why not take advantage of the situation and ACT as if he were? Even if fame is fleeting, why not grab for it? History is FILLED with multitudes of would-be leaders who, on seeing the possibility of a following, leaped to the front--often just long enough to prove that they weren't really what people thought they were.

John has that opportunity. He has the FOLLOWING. He has the leadership skills. In fact, he doesn't even have to LIE to the people. He doesn't have to CLAIM to be the Messiah; he can just use that ASSOCIATION as a stepping stone to establish his own power base with his followers.

Now all of this may sound a bit weird for John the Baptist, but does it sound too unusual for many OTHERS? I rather suspect that it is more often than not the USUAL way for people to behave who seek to advance themselves socially and professionally. We always seem to be looking for those associations and contacts that will advance us.

But that's not John. Yet, what are his OPTIONS? What are the responses that he MIGHT MAKE to this situation? Well, first of all, he COULD just ignore it. He could just sit back and smile and bask in the glory of folks THINKING that he might be the Messiah.

Much like possible presidential contenders who do not ANNOUNCE that they are running for office, but allow others to spread rumors that they MIGHT run for office. Then, when asked, they neither AFFIRM nor DENY the rumors. But they LOVE the publicity.

Then, there is a second option. John could simply DENY that he is the Messiah, quickly putting an end to the rumors, and then go on about his business. Of course, there goes a lot of fame out the window, but it would be the HONEST thing to do. And for most folks, it would be the SUFFICIENT thing to do. It would be enough to squelch the rumors and be done with it. But it isn't ENOUGH for John. For John there is here a THIRD option which he chooses. Not only does he tell folks that he is NOT the messiah, but he also tells them that he isn't GOOD enough to be the Messiah.

"John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

And John takes a back seat to Jesus. John moves off center stage. John tells his followers, "Folks, there's only so much I can do; and it's a whole lot less than what the Messiah can do and will do." And as if that isn't enough, John also tells them that he isn't even WORTHY to be the LOWLIEST of servants to the Messiah. Now that's going some. That's a LOT of humility. In the midst of the opportunity of grabbing for the title of the Messiah, John has told his followers, "Folks, what you're looking for and waiting for, I can't even BEGIN to touch."

And we know from Matthew's story of the baptism of Jesus that John said to him, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

So John breaks all the rules of our self-help books, all the rules of how to climb the corporate ladder, all the rules of so-called contemporary success. He admits his weakness. And he puts in a plug for the competition.

Now, he could have stopped with that third option, telling folks that he's not good enough to be the Messiah. After all, they don't know WHEN the Messiah WILL come. And until the Messiah DOES come, John could let them be satisfied with what HE has to offer. But John is not satisfied with that. And he goes on to a FOURTH option. He actually ADVERTISES for the competition. Like I said, he's breaking ALL the rules.

But for John, there IS no competition. Rather, there is a GOAL to be achieved; and he knows that his role in achieving that goal is very limited. But he is eager to PLAY that role. And the only way he can adequately and honestly play that role is to admit what he is and what he is not, to admit what he can do and what he cannot do.

John becomes for us a role model; obviously not for the competitive secular world, but for the unity of God's eternal world. For the competitive secular world, we find a continual seeking for the "better than"; while in the unity of God's world it is altogether fitting that we should confess to the "less than."

So what is the advertisement that John makes for the Messiah who is to come?

"He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

And John is telling his followers that there is a power beyond the simple cleansing symbolism of the waters of the River Jordan.

When he speaks of baptism with the Holy Spirit, he is telling them that while HIS baptism is of THIS world, the baptism of the Messiah is NOT of this world.

As John continues, creating the imagery of the Messiah on the threshing floor, there is the temptation to read into this picture the eternal punishment of hellfire and damnation. That is, if we like to think of SOME of us as being wheat and OTHERS of us as being the chaff. But I don't see it that way. I don't believe that John is posing a THREAT to his followers; rather, I believe that he is presenting PROMISE to them. That the one who is coming will CLEANSE our lives, PURGE them, of the chaff, while CARING for the wheat of our lives.

The fire by which the Messiah will baptise is NOT the fire that destroys; it is the fire that REFINES.

And what John prophesies, what he promises, does come. The Messiah appears, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, John's cousin, and John baptizes him in the waters of the Jordan.

Matthew would have us believe that John was reluctant to perform this baptism, believing that their roles should be reversed; but Jesus replied: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

So what did the baptism of Jesus mean? What did it mean for the one born of God, the only begotten of God, to be baptized?

Well, for one thing, it meant the same thing that it has meant for two thousand years since: symbolic entry into the church, into the community of believers.

And just as Jesus did not suddenly appear on earth a full-grown mature person, but was BORN into humanity; likewise, he did not suddenly become a preacher and teacher, but, like other seekers, was baptised into the community of believers.

Now, all this seems simple enough, but when Jesus was baptized, something else happened.

"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Now, this is pretty dramatic, for a number of reasons. First of all, it is probably one of the LAST baptisms that John performed; for shortly thereafter Herod imprisoned him. Next, it marks a turning point in Jesus' life.

It is the first we know of him in his adult life, and the starting point of his ministry. But beyond the history of the moment, within that moment, lies the meaning of what baptism should be for us.

Although we many not experience the descent of the dove, when we bring our infants, or ourselves, to be baptised, and when the words of the traditional trinitarian formula are pronounced, "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," the Holy Spirit DOES come into our lives and into the lives of those who share this event with us.

We are RE-LIVING Jesus experience of baptism with water.

And although we may not HEAR a voice from heaven, as we celebrate our own baptism or the baptism of others, we should be ASSURED that in this act God is reaching out to us to say, "This is one of my beloved children. With you I am well pleased."

The baptism of Jesus of Nazareth, the only begotten child of God. On the one hand, to our rational mind, it seems so unnecessary. But on the other hand, where would we be without it? If it had not happened, how would we know of the work of John and his prophecy? If it had not happened, how would the start of Jesus early ministry have been marked?

It if had not happened, how might God have chosen to announce God's adult child to the world? If it had not happened, how would we look upon baptism with water now?

I can't help but conclude that it was MOST necessary. And although we could ponder at length all of these questions, I would draw your attention to one in particular: If it had not happened, would we have the same example of the HUMILITY of John the Baptist?

For it was Jesus baptism that brought this remarkable humility to light.

John did not simply IGNORE the rumors that he might be the Messiah. John did not simply DENY that he was the Messiah. Instead, John said that he COULD NOT BE the Messiah because we wasn't GOOD enough; and he went on to tell his followers what they could expect when the Messiah arrived.

John could have basked in some temporary glory. He could have selfishly manipulated the needs of others for his own gratification, but he didn't.

Instead, he ABASED himself and ADMITTED who he was with all his shortcomings, while promising his followers the Messiah who WAS to come.

It is a marvelous example for ministry, both for the laity and the clergy. And I must ask myself, "Am I ever tempted to bask in UNEARNED temporary glory? Do I ever selfishly manipulate the needs of others for my OWN gratification?" Or do I, like John, admit that I am UNWORTHY to untie the thong of the sandals of the Messiah? And do I do JUSTICE to God and humanity in attempting to clarify WHO the Messiah is and HOW the Messiah works in our lives?

Let us ever be mindful of the example of John, and let us seek to lead lives following that example.

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