Last week we started a conversation about the gospel—
a series of sermons that will take us through the end of May.
We’re calling it “The Shape of the Gospel.”
That seems important, right?
After all, we throw around that word (“gospel”) a lot in the church—
“Have you heard the gospel?”
“It’s important to share the gospel”
“They came to believe the gospel”
But if you ask people in various churches,
“What exactly do you mean by ‘gospel’?”
you’ll probably get a whole range of responses.
People will say everything that the gospel is
“primarily about us being forgiven of sins and going to heaven after death”
or “primarily about us stepping into God’s will and receiving his blessing”
or “primarily about us loving others like God does and healing the world.”
But are these answers really what the gospel is primarily about?
About getting individuals golden tickets for glorious afterlife?
About God wanting everyone to experience “The American Dream” right now?
About us fixing the world right now if we’ll all just work hard enough?
Not only do these answers make us the center of the gospel—
about us safe in the future
or us prospering in the present
or us doing good in the world—
but these answers also sound different than the way the Bible itself actually talks.
We said you can scrapbook each of these stories together from Scripture,
snipping a sentence from here, a verse from there—
but you have to leave a lot of the Bible on the cutting room floor.
“If only there were cliffsnotes,” we said, “because when our literature teacher handed us a big book back in high school, cliffsnotes could help us get our heads around what the story is primarily about and helped us begin reading Faulkner or Dostoevsky or Shakespeare for ourselves.”
And then we suggested that the early church may have developed some cliffsnotes—
what has been called the Apostle’s Creed.
I didn’t grow up in a church tradition that used the Apostle’s Creed—or any “creed.”
The very word “creed” sounded a little mysterious—a little murky.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties as I began really reading the Bible myself
and wrestling through these questions for myself,
that I discovered the Apostle’s Creed.
There’s really nothing mysterious or murky about the Apostle’s Creed.
Creed just comes from the latin word “Credo”
which means “I believe.”
It’s comes from the same place as the word “credible.”
If something is “credible” that means it’s “believable.”
A creed is just a statement of beliefs.
We believe this.
For the early church, the creed was a way of summarizing what it meant to belong
to these new Jesus-communities that were popping up all over the Roman empire.
“These are the things that shape us.
this is why we break social barriers,
this is why take care of the sick and the poor,
this is what causes us to care for abandoned babies,
this is what informs everything that we do.”
“This is the story that we’re a part of—this is the good news.
We believe this.”
We’ve never done this before as a community,
but I’d invite you to say these words along with me:
We believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
This is what Christians throughout the centuries
have considered the gospel to be primarily about.
You can see that these ancient words tell a short story—
a story that begins before the birth of universe,
and that runs through world history (the world of Pontius Pilate)
and that eventually ends with a brand new beginning.
This is a short story about the deep mystery behind universe.
This is story about God—and primarily what God has done in history through Jesus.
The early church said this story is good news—
that this story is gospel.
These are the cliffsnotes that make sense of Scripture’s story
without leaving anything on the cutting room floor,
and we’re going to be exploring these cliffsnotes
through the end of the May.
And to start us off this week, we’re going to be in Matthew 3.
As we’re starting to listen to the story that the creed is telling,
perhaps we should notice the way the story itself is structured.
According to the church’s ancient cliff notes,
the story of good news can be told in three movements—
each one of them beginning with God.
This is a story primarily about God.
The story of the good news is shaped by what God does in three persons—
Father, Son, and Spirit.
We believe in God, the Father almighty…
We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…
We believe in the Holy Spirit…
God working in three persons
is the foundation of the good news.
The Triune activity of God as Father, Son, and Spirit
is what the entire story flows out out of.
Triune activity? Oh man… do we really have talk about the Trinity?
Oh man, Brett, that sounds like a terrible idea.
One God in three persons?
One ousia and three hypostases
as the early church would eventually, technically, laboriously hammer out.
So much ink has been spilled over this—
so much energy and effort has been put into this over the centuries—
and why do we have to talk about the Trinity?
“The Trinity is a riddle we’re never going to solve.”
And I would agree with that.
If we approach the Trinity as a riddle to solve,
we’re going to be endlessly frustrated.
But like it or not, Christians believe in the one God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.
The Trinity is foundational to the historic, orthodox Christian faith.
If you want to be a Christian in any century—
if you’re going to be a part of the universal church
(that’s what the word “catholic” means by the way: “universal”)—
then you’re always going to confronted with the God
who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit.
That’s why it’s here in the creed—it’s pretty central.
And the reason the church has always done this is because of Jesus.
When you believe that God has become a human being,
it begins to really stretch your understanding of God in a lot of ways.
The reason we embrace God as Trinity
is because we embrace Jesus as God.
For example—at one in the later chapters of the gospel of John,
where you’ve got Jesus is standing in front of the disciples saying
that he’s about to return to God
and he’s about to send God to them.
The Son is returning to the Father,
but (don’t worry) he’s sending the Spirit.
The Trinity is the place we end up when we follow Jesus around long enough.
Matthew 3 is a story where this is pretty clear. So let’s read it:
[this is John the Baptizer speaking:] “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
So this is the first appearance of adult Jesus in the gospel of Matthew.
With the way the gospels have been ordered,
this is the first appearance of adult Jesus in the entire New Testament.
And he’s approaching a terrifying figure—
a wild-and-wooly and half-crazy prophet
named John the Baptist
John the Baptizer is calling all of the Jewish people to change their lives.
Because, he says, the ancient God of Israel
is about to do something new.
“So change your thinking. Change your living. Change everything.
Turn away from evil of any kind, and repent.”
And he was inviting people to return to one of the places where their story began—
to the Jordan river that their ancestors had crossed so many years ago with Joshua—
and wash themselves off and get ready for a new beginning.
And here comes Jesus to the river.
John the Baptizer has been waiting for this moment—
he’s been getting everyone ready for this guy.
When he sees Jesus, he sees
the person is going to restore their fortunes,
the person who will bring forgiveness to their sins as a people,
the person through whom God will fulfill the promises of the prophets,
and establish the rule and reign of God (“the kingdom of God”) over all the world.
He’s the one who’s going to clean up the land—who will clean out the barn—
with a dazzling explosion of power and holy wind and fire,
burning away anything dead and useless, and harvesting wheat for a grand feast.
He’s got a lot riding on Jesus.
And here he is!
So why is Jesus talking off his sandals?
Why is he slipping and sliding down that muddy bank?
Why is Jesus wading into the water?
No, no, no, no.
This washing is for us, Jesus—
this baptism is for repentance.
For those who need to change.
For those who need to repent.
So John tries to deter Jesus.
“I can’t baptize you, Jesus.
I’m the one who needs to change.
I need to be washed by you.”
And Jesus says, this is the way to fulfill all righteousness.
There’s no mistake, John. This is the right thing.
This is the way forward. This is what should happen.
And so Jesus wades deeper into the river.
And with a certain degree of confusion—
I mean, the guy he’s been waiting for is absolutely insisting—
John the baptizer does his thing—he plunges Jesus into the water.
And then what happens next is absolutely baffling.
Jesus goes under the water, and when he comes out,
we catch a glimpse of the One God revealed as Three Persons—
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The heavens open (v16)—I don’t know what that looks like—
and the Spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove,
and then (v17) a voice from heaven—presumably a Father—says,
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
These are the sort of astonishing things
that we run into when we follow Jesus around.
Imagine for a second.
a voice from heaven—delighting.
Like a lot of things in the Bible—when you actually imagine it—it’s absolutely astonishing.
This isn’t the sort of thing that you see everyday.
This isn’t the sort of thing that I’ve seen any day.
If we’re not astonished by this story—
if we’re not shocked by it, not surprised by it—
I think we’re either not listening to it
or we just don’t give a rip about it.
This is utterly mysterious stuff.
This story astonishes me in at least two ways.
First, it allows us a glimpse behind the curtain of what God is like—
to see glimpse that God is a community of love.
Throughout his entire life, Jesus is revealing God to us.
With every healing, with every parable, with every rebuke,
with his self-surrendering journey to the cross,
Jesus shows us what God is like.
And here in baptism, we catch a glimpse behind the curtain
at something we never would have guessed:
God is in relationship with himself. In community with himself.
I don’t understand this. None of us do.
And any explanation can only hint at what it means.
But I find one of C.S. Lewis’ hints in Mere Christianity helpful:
He says that if we only lived in two dimensions
(if we were stick-people on a sheet of paper)
that it would be impossible for us to imagine one square that is really six squares.
One and six? That makes no sense.
And it doesn’t make any sense… until someone shows you a cube.
It’s six squares but only one square.
What’s totally impossible in two-dimensions,
is not only possible but makes total sense in three-dimensions.
And Lewis says, “In God’s dimension, so to speak,
you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being.”
We don’t quite get it, but it’s because
we’re stick-people on paper.
This baptism of Jesus isn’t a performance—
it’s not just a light and laser show.
We really are getting to see something true about God—
a glimpse at God interacting with himself.
When Scripture says that God is love,
the church says this is the heart of what that means.
It’s not that God is always and forever
a warm and fuzzy feeling.
The One God of the universe is endlessly and eternally
relating and giving and delighting within himself.
God is overflowing with limitless love within himself
(from the Father to the Son through the Spirit) and everything in the universe
was birthed out of that love.
The Triune God is like this this eternal dance of joy and love.
I don’t understand all of it,
but that. is. astonishing.
Behind the curtain of creation—in the deepest dimensions of the universe—
God is boundless love and endless relationship and infinite delight.
And that’s what makes this story astonishing in a second way.
Because in this story we have
Jesus slipping and sliding down the muddy bank
and wading into the water.
That’s our water.
That’s our baptism.
We’re the ones who need to repent,
to change, to turn.
But here comes God—wading deeper and deeper
into the darkness of the world.
Into this hate-filled land that looks nothing like boundless love.
Into this fractured world that looks nothing like endless relationship.
Into this despairing world that looks infinite delight.
What is God doing?
In Jesus, he’s slipping and sliding down
into a place that he shouldn’t be.
No, no, no, no—this is our mess to fix, Jesus.
And often we come into church, it seems like we often get the impression
that our world is a mess, and we’ve got to clean it up.
I’m hopelessly stuck in this thing.
This addiction, these circumstances,
this pain, these patterns.
My life is broken—my habits are often hateful,
my relationships feel fractured, my heart can’t even imagine delight.
We’ve made a mess of things, and it’s important that we repent—
we better clean things up so we can to be close to God.
This is our bed so we’ve got to lie in it,
this our baptism so we’ve got to endure it.
But the good news about God.
That God slips and slides into the mud, and joins us where we all are—
in need of change and in need of forgiveness and in need of healing.
God chooses to join us.
God has chosen to be with us.
God has chosen to be for us.
Baptism isn’t just a picture of cleansing.
Baptism is a picture of death—and the how far God goes in joining with us.
He joins us in the mud of our lives,
he joins us in the water of Jordan,
and he joins us in even the darkness of death.
God decided that this is what should happen,
it was no mistake, it was the right thing, it was the way forward,
because the Father, Son, and Spirit knew
that death couldn’t stop the dance.
In fact, the dance destroys death.
God the Son wades into this world, plunges beneath its dark surface,
and then—after a breathless Saturday—bursts out in resurrection,
with Father, Son, and Spirit still rejoicing, still celebrating, still delighting.
It’s absolutely astonishing.
This is a good story. This is good news.
I like the way that one scholar puts it:
“Christians are… people who claim to live within a story whose protagonist is God.”
This scholar goes on to say:
“[We have] been caught up—somehow—in an intricate drama
as one of its very minor characters—caught up halfway through the play,
told only snippets of what has already transpired,
and asked to play a role for a scene or two before departing stage right,
still not knowing how the play turns out, much less who wrote it or for what reason…
We do not know much at all.”
The creed tells us what the play is about.
We don’t know much at all.
So much of life is an absolute mystery.
But the good news is about God—
that God is creating and redeeming and restoring the universe—
and how amazing is it that we (we!) have been written into this story?
A lot of us didn’t even exist 50 years ago—none of us existed 100 years ago—
but we’ve all been brought into this story.
And I think the Trinity makes the most sense of the mystery we call life.
Because the Trinity whispers that goodness and relationship and joy—
that moment of delight when we’re laughing with a child,
that moment of fullness when we’re serving someone,
that moment of joy when we’re at a table with those we love—
these moments are not meaningless mirages in an empty universe.
The Trinity whispers that these moments
are the truest and realest things we experience of life.
The Trinity whispers that this is what the story is about—
this is why God wrote the play and it’s why he included us in it.
The Trinity is not a riddle we solve.
The Trinity is a dance we join.
God wants to draw us into something new—
wants to renew our lives and retrain our feet.
We’re good at kicking and stomping and running,
but our lives aren’t very good at dancing.
And that’s why Matthew’s gospel ends the way it does,
Jesus is telling his followers to baptize people into a new way of living—
and to do it in the name of the Trinity (Matt 28.19).
In the name of the One God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God invites everyone one of us to come to a different kind of baptism.
A baptism into his community of love.
He’s taken our baptism, our repentance, our death—
he has made these things his own.
And God invites us to enter into his very life—
his boundless love and endless relationship and infinite delight.
To receive his very Spirit into our deepest selves, to call him Father,
and to hear him say, “I love you child and delight in you (cf. Gal 3.26 – 4.7).
And then celebrate this life and to spread this good news
for the scene or two that God gives us,
and until God makes all things new.
This table is the place we return each week
to remember that God takes our death,
and gives us his very life.
The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread,
and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said,
“This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood;
do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Our table is an open table—open to all who want to join in this dance—
you’re invited to come down the center aisle,
receive a cracker, dip it into the juice,
and return to your seats along the sides.
As you come, may you recognize and remember
that the Father, Son, and Spirit—one God, now and forever—
welcomes us and (if we’ll let him) will teach every last one of us to dance.