In the lesson from Matthew for this Sunday, we learn that John the Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, even though Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is there at the River Jordan for just that very reason. I can almost imagine John, looking at his cousin and saying, "You want me to do WHAT?" Maybe there was even a back and forth, after all this is not how it is supposed to be. "I am inferior; you are the Messiah, and this is not how this works. I won't do it."
As Jerry Goebel has stated, one possible translation of what Jesus says next about fulfilling righteousness could sound like this," Suspend your rational thinking for the moment, God is doing something deeper here than you could possibly understand."
For a moment, I remembered back to my days as a child when the black and white screen began to playing the haunting music, and a man's voice begins," You unlock this door with the key of imagination, a dimension of sound, sight and mind…a land of shadow and substance, of things and ideas, you have just crossed into..The Twilight Zone."
With my apologies to Rod Serling, I would like to suggest that instead in Matthew, we are entering the "Spirit Zone." God's demonstration of radical love which challenges what "should be." Long before this day at the River Jordan, Jesus has already challenged and been challenged. Born to a teenage mother, who was not married when she became pregnant, born "on the road" in a "temporary shelter." Having to flee violence on the streets, being raised by first time parents. Having learned a trade, his hands were callused. A mighty God; a simple man.
His baptism at the age of 30 consecrated his ministry and the paradox between this ministry and who the long-awaited one "should" be was just unfolding. It was the tradition for a rabbi to be baptized at the age of 30 to solemnize the beginning of ministry. This should occur at the temple, a work of ritual and purification. Not just anyone could be there, only the clean, the holy, and the righteous. A triumphal beginning all according to a well-planned, orchestrated proper ritual. This day at the Jordan was not how it was supposed to be.
In the river, where men AND women came, to be baptized, to repent as sinners, those not worthy to enter the temple, Jews and Gentiles. Where maybe laundry was washed; animals may have languished. Where the coarse and the common, the inferiors, came to hear the prophet. He just showed up, without pomp, to fulfill the ritual in a new dimension.
He didn't need to repent, to be adopted, to receive the Spirit. But we did- not just some of us, but all of us. And this time the dove, did not just symbolize a cleansing of the flood, that was good for a time, but a cleansing for all time to come. Not just for Jews, but for all. Not just for those who looked like they had it all together, but for those who definitely did not. Not coming in power and majesty, but humility. And so Jesus' ministry began, and the Spirit Zone was alive.
So what does it mean for us here and now, to live in the Spirit Zone? What does it mean to do what God requires? Luther, in his sermon for this day, indicts us, stating, "Jesus does something here that is not required of him, whereas we do nothing that is not required of us." Harsh words. But, maybe for starters, this Word means, as Brian Stoeffregen has suggested, that as Jesus made himself available to us, we should make ourselves available to others. We should take the time to listen for our purpose, and then walk in this path. Maybe this will unfold and change over time.
I think of my own experience, being told that ministry by women was just not how things were done. For many years, I believed it. I believed that the rules were well established and I should be faithful to them. Did I waste my time as a lawyer? By no means. But there came a time when the message changed, or else I heard it more clearly. As one writer put it, the beginning three words of this text, "Then Jesus arrived.." could be translated "Then I got it."
So what does it mean to live in the Spirit Zone? I think it means doing more than just "meeting needs", instead giving of ourselves, becoming more humble, more determined. It means more than institutional survival, more than being efficient. It is struggling with good and godly things, discerning where God is leading us now. It is a lifetime of discerning, not a singular moment. And just as Jesus took risks, so too there is a risk for us. It means unlocking the door with the key of imagination. After acknowledging the Spirit within, we may hear God asking us, just as He asked Jesus, to step into some new form of ministry. Maybe even one that popular voices say, " isn't how we do things." Then what?
Then hopefully, in prayer and in community we strive to go there. And hopefully we do not let ourselves get sidetracked over the "correct way" to do it. And just as Jesus was not baptized in solitude, but in community to undertake exciting ministry, so we to must work in community. And like John, let us work set aside our needs about how "it is supposed to be" and let it be according to God's will. Our needs tell us, we can't teach, or reach out to the immigrant, or witness to the Gospel. But the Spirit says, "Yes, you can." And we are never alone in .. The Spirit Zone.