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Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Did He See? (Sermon - Matthew 3: 16)

Then Jesus appeared – coming from the soft, green hills of Galilee down to the Jordan River valley, to the river – which was not much of a river, not more than a stream in many places. He came to be baptized by John. But John objected, “I should be baptized by you.” Jesus insisted, “Let this be done to fulfill all the demands of righteousness.”

So he was passed through the baptismal waters and God was with him (Isaiah 43:2). He went down into the waters that were at the same time embryonic and chthonic - a symbol of both his new life as a prophet and his coming death. As Jesus was immersed in the swirling, muddy waters of that narrow stream, he closed his eyes and held his breath. He felt the firm press of John’s hand, holding him under for a timeless fraction of a second, then raising him up again. The water streamed from his hair, down his face and beard. Jesus sputtered for air, wiped his eyes and looked up toward the sky. And suddenly the heavens were opened.

“Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down
- in your presence the mountains would quake…” (Isaiah 64:1)

And what, besides the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, did he see when the sky was ripped open? What did Jesus see when the One “who created the heavens and spread them out” (Isaiah 42: 5) now ripped them open? What visions did he see? Matthew’s gospel does not say – not specifically. But I would like to hazard a guess.

In that moment, as he stood up from the river with the water pouring from his face as the heavens were opened for him, I think he saw the brilliant, blinding light of billion dimly burning wicks. (Isaiah 42:3) I think that he saw the Kingdom of Heaven in all its righteousness, in all its varied splendor and in its many forms of suffering.

He saw “the masses of men live[ing] with their backs constantly against the wall…the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed” (Thurman 3). He saw the tired, the poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of a thousand teeming shores, and the homeless who are tempest-tossed from one place to another, never able to settle or find a home.  (Lazarus)

He saw the widows and orphans of every unjust war. He saw the massacred innocents, the displaced refugees, the frightened and the terrorized. He saw the helpless and the powerless and the desperate.
He saw women weeping and little children going hungry. He saw men going to prison, in and out, in and out. He saw drunkards and poor lost girls upon the streets and dark souls lost without the light of God. (Booth) He saw walking lepers and lurching bravoes from the ditch. He saw the dribs and drabs of drug fiends with pale faces and minds still ridden with corrupted passions, and soul-powers frail. He saw vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath, and the unwashed legions of the ways of death. (Lindsay)

He saw people lingering in, and dying from illnesses that could easily be treated and cured if not for the greed of powerful and wealthy men. He saw hungry children. He saw mothers and fathers out of work. He saw the illiterate struggling to fit in with the rest of society. He saw the immigrant struggling to speak a second (or third) language along with the people of their new country. He saw the mentally ill and the learning disabled. He saw the lonely elders in nursing homes and sterile hospital rooms.

He saw the “wretched of the earth,” all the disreputable people piled on top of one another in crowded slums and barrios and ghettos, living in shacks squeezed tightly together in a world with no space, famished and hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light, crouching and cowering on their knees. (Fanon 4 – 5)

He saw all of the people, in every part of the world, who are “tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression,” who are “tired of being flung across the abyss of humiliation” and tired of experiencing the "bleakness of nagging despair” (King “MIA Mass Meeting”)

He saw “the slow, the suffering, the quick, the dead” (Rice) He saw nuns and priests assassinated in South America, and black American prophets gunned down in Harlem and in Memphis. He saw husbands and wives struggling to keep their love for each other alive. He saw children used and abused and pushed into prostitution.

He saw the poor and the poor in spirit. He saw the gentle. He saw those in mourning. He saw the hungry and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He saw the merciful and the pure in heart. He saw all the struggling peacemakers living in a world of war. He saw the persecuted and the oppressed, the abused and maligned. (Matthew 5: 3 – 12)

He saw the gentle ones – the crushed reeds and faltering wicks – struggling to keep the flame of faith alight. He saw the blind and captives in prison and the ones living in dark dungeons without light (Isaiah 42: 3, 7)

He saw them in the east and the west, the rich and the poor, the despised, the distressed (Gowans #1011) a huge number of them, impossible for anyone to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language, standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7: 9). He saw the serried ranks of countless millions - billions of children, women, and men unknown and unnamed by history – but known, and named, and loved by his father in heaven. And he saw the against-the-evidence hope for triumph over evil (West 35) in each of their lives.

He saw all of this but did not balk at the pressure, he did not recoil from the demand, or hesitate at the thought of countless, inevitable failures along the way, or the long, long delay before full and final glory. He did not grow faint and would not be crushed until he had established justice and righteousness on the earth (Isaiah 42: 4)“Oh it is hard continuing believing, continuing loving, continuing resisting all that opposeth! We are subject to be weary of well doing” (Bunyan 193). He knew that “the time may be long, the obstacles great, and the chance of success dim,” but he knew that, “the servant continues to perform his mission, conscious of his election and calling and endowment” (Coffin 466).

Coming up out of the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus saw all of this and he knew what he had to do. He knew what he would do: he would be the Servant of the Lord. He would give his life in service to all of these, and in this way fulfill all the demands of righteousness.

Booth, William “While Women Weep – I’ll Fight” - this may be one of the apocryphal quotes, something the founder of The Salvation Army never actually said, but is very much in line with all that he did and said in his life. 

Bunyan, John. “Christian Behavior.” The Practical Works of John Bunyan Vol. VI.

Coffin, Henry Sloane “Isaiah: Exposition” The Interpreter’s Bible Volume V.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. 1956. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. “On Violence” The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York, NY: Grove Press. 1963. Print

Gowans, John and John Larsson. “They Shall Come from the East” The Salvation Army Songbook. London. The Salvation Army. Print.

King, Martin Luther. “MIA Mass Meeting” Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama: 5 December, 1955. Speech. 

Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus” 1883. 

Lindsay, Vachel. “General William Booth Enters into HeavenGeneral William Booth Enters into Heaven and Other Poems. Doylestown: Wildside Press. 1913. Print. 

Rice, Tim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. ”HosannaJesus Christ Superstar. 1970. 

Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. New York: Abingdon – Cokesbury Press. 1949. Reprint Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 1996. Print

West, Cornel. Prophesy Deliverance! Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1982. Print.

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