Matthew 3:13-37 “On Plunging…and Gasping into New Life”
January 9, 2011 – Caitlin Trussell
Lutheran Church of the Master
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today we gather on the festival of the Baptism of Our Lord – the day when Jesus plunges into the waters of baptism. In this plunge, all righteousness, all that is pure, sacred and holy, flows from God. Jesus’ plunge into the waters of baptism is a saturating and surprising immersion into the flow of God’s righteousness. And, as Jesus gasps up from the waters, the Spirit claims him and God names him as God cries, ““Jesus, my Son, the Beloved.” Just as we are claimed in our gasp out of the waters of baptism, “You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. Alleluia!”
Lately I have been caught up in the imagination and powerful writing of the novel The Count of Monte Cristo. I dove into the book after being pulled into the story by the movie that was released a few years ago. The tale begins by introducing us to Edmond Dantes at the age of 19. Through a series of events that include a conspiracy of vicious betrayals, he is wrongly imprisoned in the dungeon of the Chateau D’If – an island prison that housed the worst of the worst. The reader, along with Edmond, descends into the dark, wet, cold isolation of the dungeon cell where the terror and sheer loneliness of being a prisoner almost overtake sanity. And then one night, through the wall of his cell, another prisoner, a priest named Abbe Faria, emerged during an escape attempt that had led him by mistake into Edmond’s cell. Their powerful friendship of 14 years transitioned at the death of the Abbe. Because of the Abbe’s death, an opportunity was created for Edmond’s escape. Edmond sewed himself up in the Abbe’s shroud, and with heart pounding in fear, was carried by the guards to the edge of the cliffs of the island, thrown off and plunged into the February cold water of the sea for burial. Edmond rises up, gasping for air, now 33 years old and pulled in the direction of a new identity and a new life with his new found freedom.
Edmond’s plunge under water echoes for me the Lutheran confession of baptism in the Small Catechism. “It signifies that the old creature…is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance, and… that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” I do have to confess that once Edmond begins his life as the Count of Monte Cristo, this metaphor of baptism easily breaks down. However, the themes of baptism that include wild ideas around judgment, dying to self, setting the prisoner free and God’s righteousness are compelling both in the story of Edmond and in the scripture read for us today as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus.
In Isaiah we encounter the poignant imagery of the Suffering Servant as the Lord says, “Here is my servant…I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…I am the Lord, I have called you to righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; …to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” The Hebrew word for justice in Isaiah can also be translated as both judgment and mercy. Additionally, in Acts, we hear that Jesus is ordained as “judge of the living and the dead.” The word judgment used to terrify me. Raised in a tradition that wielded messages of judgment in terrifying ways, I have little good to say about the experience.
What is this judgment and why is it sloshing around with the waters of baptism in our readings? The Apostles Creed, pouring our voices together with our ancestors of the faith, also says that Jesus comes “to judge the living and the dead.” That sentence stymied me for a long time. What’s good news about that?! Let’s think about the Hebrew of Isaiah again – justice can also be translated as judgment and mercy. So, in a sense, during the Creed we can also hear that Jesus comes to “mercy” the living and the dead! The reading from Acts raises the issue of judgment in verse 42 but gives the final word on the issue in verse 43 naming and claiming Jesus Christ as the forgiver of sins. In the waters of baptism, through the plunge into death and the gasp into new life, the Spirit unleashes the full magnitude of Christ’s saving grace and forgiveness in and through the baptized.
Which raises another question…what is this sin that needs forgiving through the power of unleashed grace? Sin as a discussion topic isn’t very popular. These conversations make us nervous and slightly twitchy about what’s coming next. Who’s going to start judging who with a finger pointed and who is being pointed at with that finger? If we get into a discussion about sin at all, it is usually to talk about sin as if there is a moral problem to untangle. We use questions like, “Should he?” or “Shouldn’t he?” Or, “What does it mean if she does?” The Ten Commandments reinforce this focus on behavior as they mandate the ways in which we are to love God, each other and ourselves. In the midst of these moralizing conversations it becomes easy to miss the deeper, conditional nature of sin – that it courses through our very being. Sometimes this looks like an attempt to feel better about ourselves through the acquisition of self-power, self-righteousness, or self-knowledge. At other times, it takes the form of extreme self-deprecation – the extreme belittling of your self that fails to acknowledge that God has given you gifts for God’s purposes. The self-deprecation can be just as self-involved as the self-righteous path. Regardless of how the self-involvement of sin looks on the outside, the nature of the sin inside of us is the same.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor who conspired against Hitler, argues that the original plan for creation places God at the center of all things and people are then created in the image of God.  He claims that people replace God with themselves in the center of being and set themselves up to be “like god.” This is what sin means. Sin is humankind located right in the middle where God should be.
What is the obvious conclusion of humankind’s replacement of God with the self? The death of God as Christ crucified. It’s as if God said, “Okay humans, so you think you want to be “like God”? Well, have at it.” And the cross happened. But the resurrection is the final word. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ bring the sin of humankind back into the image of God. This is a radical, destabilizing claim. God is the source of our proclamation that “Christ is Risen”, and in it we claim Jesus Christ the conqueror over our very own selves, our frailty, our self-involvement, our sin. We proclaim our desperate need for His Grace. That Holy proclamation poises us on the brink of the font, plunges us into the waters and brings us up gasping in the breath of the Holy Spirit.
And we rise gasping out of the waters of baptism with the freedom of a Christian – perfectly free, subject to none; perfectly servant, subject to all. Freedom that unleashes the servant described by Isaiah…“Here is my servant…I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; …to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Freedom that unleashes you to seek justice and mercy for each other and for the world. And so it is that…
Through the waters of baptism,
Christ forgives you.
Through the waters of baptism,
Christ claims you.
Through the waters of baptism,
Christ frees you.
Through waters of baptism,
Christ loves the world through you.
 “Holy Baptism” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 230.
 Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (1845), (New York: Modern Library, 1996).
 Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 360.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall, (Mineapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 113.
 Bonhoeffer, 113.
 Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (1520) in Three Treatises (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1970), 277.