“A Lifelong Spiritual Adventure”

Scripture – Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones

Sunday, January 8, 2023


Three days ago, several of our members undecorated the church. They pulled the ornaments and Chrismons off of our four Christmas trees and took down our beautiful wreaths. I suspect most of us have accomplished the same in our homes, although a stray angel might still be lurking on a shelf.

We are just two weeks out from Christmas Day when we celebrated the birth of Jesus, and what does the church calendar prescribe for today? The baptism of Jesus when he is 30 years old. I know some kids grow up quickly, but this is ridiculous!

Of course, it is no miraculous growth spurt in Jesus. The problem is with the gospels. There is only one story – over in the Gospel of Luke – about Jesus between birth and 30 years old. What a pity. Wouldn’t you love to know the scoop on his formative years?

Was he a delightful child who needed no discipline or did Mary and Joseph have to apply a heavy hand? How did he interact with the other kids in the neighborhood? The scriptures fall silent.

And not only do we have no information about his teen years, but there is not a single verse about Jesus in his twenties. The speculation is that he was a carpenter or stone mason because that was the profession of Joseph, and there was a great deal of building occurring in the nearby city of Sepphoris.

But it seems to me that Jesus must have done more than working with his hands. How did he obtain such a grasp of the Jewish Scriptures? Did he have an exceptional rabbi at his small synagogue in Nazareth, or might Jesus have been a part of a monastic group whose members spent hours each day in study and prayer? It seems likely that John the Baptist lived in the community of the Essenes in Qumran. Might Jesus have spent time there, too?

Interesting as it may be to ponder the missing years of Jesus, the Scriptures do not provide us with a single scrap of information on him between the ages of 13 and 30. That is why the church calendar jettisons us forward from the birth of Jesus to his baptism as an adult. So, today is Baptism of our Lord Sunday, a time to ponder the day that Jesus stepped into the Jordan River, which means it is also a chance to reflect on the significance of our own baptism. Do you have any memories of your own baptism? Have you been told who was present?

The gospels inform us that John the Baptist was in the wilderness by the Jordan River preaching fiery sermons that challenged people to turn their lives around. Matthew portrays John as a no-nonsense prophet with no constraints on his tongue. A few verses prior to today’s reading, John greets the crowd who came to hear him with these cordial words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

It’s fair to say that homiletical technique would be a non-starter today. Blood pressure would rise, people would pivot, and head back home. But that was not the response to John. What do you suppose persuaded people to trudge down to the river to hear that their lives were a mess and they needed to make a change?

For some, it might have been a sense of guilt. They knew in their hearts that John was right about their lives being off track and they were seeking forgiveness. However, I wonder if the primary lure was that John was cracking open a door by telling them it was possible to make a new beginning. Remember the first New Year’s Resolution from last week? Never stop starting over. The possibility of turning in a new direction presents itself each day. Perhaps that’s why people were in line to wade into the Jordan to be baptized.

Yet that raises a thorny question. If one of the significant meanings of baptism has to do with forgiveness, then why did Jesus need to be baptized? Matthew recognized this dilemma. When John the Baptist suddenly found himself face to face with Jesus, he balked. John said, “Hold on, here. I need to be baptized by you!”

However, Jesus insisted and John consented. Why? Jesus was declaring his intention not to stand above us or separate from us, but rather beside us in both the glory and the muck of life.

It is also essential for us to note the timing of Jesus’ baptism. Before he had preached a sermon, before he had healed anyone, before he had shared a parable, before he had faced down a corrupt leader, Jesus was baptized. He was baptized before, not after he had accomplished anything noteworthy.

It is exactly the same with us. God does not wait for us to accomplish something worthy before saying, “You are my beloved child.” God says, “You are my daughter,” or “You are my son” before we utter our first word.

Some people treat baptism as if it is a milestone, such as receiving a diploma or crossing a finish line. Some parents have their child baptized simply to please their own parents. Other parents do it as a way of celebrating the birth of their child. Some feel that it is something they are supposed to do, but cannot articulate why. Could we think of our baptism as the beginning of our spiritual journey? In the same way that Jesus’ baptism launched him on his mission, our baptism is intended to launch us on our lifelong spiritual adventure.

Presbyterian minister, Scott Black Johnston, tells of writing a letter to Oliver, his eight-year-old son. He wrote the letter because he knew about the letter that Richard Dawkins had written to his ten-year-old daughter a number of years earlier. Dawkins is a prominent scientist and well-known atheist who believes his life calling is to battle organized religion.

In his letter, Dawkins drew a strict line between science and tradition. He informed his daughter that science is based on evidence and tradition is simply stories that have been handed down for generations. The stories may have been made up by someone, but people think they are special because they are old. That’s tradition.1

Johnston asks, “Is Dawkins right? Do we pass tradition along to our children without thinking about it? Is tradition a bad reason for believing something?”2

In his letter to his son, Johnston tells Oliver that because they love him, he and his mother have certain hopes for him. They hope he will be a good thinker and act with integrity. They hope he will be part “of a community of trusted companions who will always surround him – especially when times are hard. They hope he will be courageous, compassionate, and creative…They hope he will have faith.”3

Johnston then tells his son that when he was baptized, he and his mother promised to raise Oliver in the Christian faith and to teach him the Christian tradition. The tradition includes Bible stories, praying before meals, singing hymns, lighting candles, caring for people in need of help, seeking fairness for everyone, and working for peace.

Tradition is not perfect. Just like science is not perfect. We know that in the past, some Christians argued that slavery was acceptable. Of course, other Christians argued that God wants all people to be free. Some in science believed that certain races were inherently inferior. Tradition, like science, can be used for good or evil.

But science and religion do not have to be at odds with one another. Science helps us figure out the world and has generated many advances. But science doesn’t answer questions such as: What is my purpose in life? How can I create a rich life? Those are questions that religion answers.

When we baptize, we declare that God loves us before we are even aware of it. Earlier in the service, Elisabeth’s parents promised to live the Christian faith and to teach the faith to their child. You promised to support her parents and to help Elisabeth become a faithful follower of Jesus.

Our faith teaches us that we will make mistakes – some minor, some consequential – but God forgives us and can help us turn to the right path. Our faith teaches us that it is better to forgive than to get even. Our faith teaches us that life is more rewarding if we cultivate a grateful heart, that generosity is superior to greed, that telling the truth matters, and that the most important thing in the world is love.

We do not bind ourselves to the Christian faith because we are fools or because we have not given any thought to what we believe. We bind ourselves to the Christian faith because it helps us make sense of life, because it provides insights into what will give us true joy, because it will give us the strength and support to weather dark times, and because our deepest, truest hope is in God.



  1. Scott Black Johnston quoting Dawkins in his book, Elusive Grace, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2022), p. 33-34.
  2. Ibid., p. 34.
  3. Ibid., p. 35.