It starts early, real early, this distaste, this utter disregard, for obedience. All you have to do is look at a child to understand that obedience is not the favorite activity of God’s human creation.
I hope you can bear another grandson story. It has to do with our younger one, Matthew Thomas, who turned two in November. Yep, that’s what I said: TWO! A couple of months ago two years of age hit the Newberry household in Macon, Georgia with all its terrible glory. Along with his infectious grin and penetrating, dark eyes, he has learned what it means to be defiant. Just when his mama thought she was making headway in the potty-training department, Mattie T, as we affectionately call him, decided to apply the brakes hard and fast. She tried again the other day. “Matt,” she said, “if I get you a different kind of pull-ups (for the uninitiated, those are what we used to call training pants), will you give them a try?”
What’s she doing?! Has she forgotten all her psychological training? I mean, she’s got a master’s degree in the stuff. You don’t try to reason with a two year-old! She ought to know that! “Matt,” she said, “if I get you a different kind of pull-ups, will you give them a try?” Without a moment’s hesitation, without even giving his mother a chance to draw her breath, he immediately and emphatically rendered a resounding “NO!” He likes things just the way they are, thank you very much.
You don’t try to reason with a two year-old! “Obedience” is as far from their mind-set as college physics. It just isn’t going to happen.
But here’s the sad part of it: you don’t have to be a toddler not to like the word — and not just the word… the concept… the reality — of obedience. It flies squarely in the face of our desire to live life on our own terms and not those imposed by others, especially if we consider the terms to be unreasonable. For example, there’s not an employee on the face of the earth who appreciates an overbearing boss.
I hate to pick on the Yankees, I really do, if for no other reason than my friend Gerald Berry. He loves his Yankees. Grew up with them in the Tampa Bay area where they train in the spring. But if you follow the sports scene you know that the Bronx Bombers have had some ship-scuttling since they lost the World Series last fall to the Florida Marlins. As soon as the series was over — and I mean right after the last out was made — George Steinbrenner started rattling the cage, and in response players and other personnel began jumping ship. Andy Pettite, who has been one of the Yankees’ most consistent performers for a number of years, taking advantage of his free-agent status, actually took a $7 million cut to sign with the Houston Astros. I think he was tired of dealing with “The Boss,” as Steinbrenner is called.
We like to proceed at our own speed, do things on our terms, and if the waters get muddied by the pressure to conform — again, especially if we think it’s unreasonable to do so — we’ll find other fish to fry. Obedience is not our favorite game to play.
It’s just one other way that Jesus’ life was so remarkable, so vastly different from our own. By his words and by his deeds, the Nazarene modeled what it means to be wholly obedient to the desire and purpose of Another.
Even those who loved him and followed him didn’t understand his single-minded vision, and because they didn’t understand him or his mission, they lent their voices to the allure of being disobedient. Having just celebrated the Christmas season, it is interesting to note that when it comes to those who sought to divert Jesus from his objective, his mother Mary is right in the middle of the pack.
Of course, we’re familiar with the story of the time Jesus was twelve years old. The family had gone up to Jerusalem for Passover, and after they were on their way back home they discovered he wasn’t in the caravan. It took them three anxious, long days to find him, and when they finally located him, in the temple dialoguing with the rabbis, Mary chastises him for treating them this way. “Why were you searching for me?” he said. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
He didn’t even get out of the blocks in his public ministry before the pressure began, and again it started with his very own mama. It was at Cana, the wedding, you remember. Mary knows her son has an extraordinary power. When the host, to his great embarrassment, runs out of wine, she sidles up to her eldest boy and says simply, “They have no wine.” By his reaction you would think she had said something really terrible to him. “Woman,” he says rather rudely, it seems, “that’s none of your business and it’s none of mine!” (A loose translation, if you don’t mind). All she said was, “They have no wine.” But if you read between the lines you know that Mary is really saying, “Son, you can do something about this situation.” And if you read a bit further between the lines, you realize she is tempting him to steer his boat in her direction and not the one his Heavenly Father has given him. Disobedience can come dressed in very subtle clothing.
Not so subtle was what happened at Capernaum. News of Jesus’ public behavior has drifted over to home and Mary is alarmed. So she loads all her other children in the family cart and hauls it to the coast where she beckons Jesus. She wants him to come home, take up his carpenter’s tools again, and forget all this silly nonsense of being the Messiah. It’s been about thirty years since the angel visited the young maiden of Nazareth, and perhaps the message has dimmed somewhat. She’s lost sight of the vision cast in her womb on that fateful day, and now she simply wants life to go back to normal for herself and her family. And that includes her eldest son, Jesus.
“Who are my mother and my brothers? Jesus says, when he is told his family is waiting outside for him. And then pointing to those who are listening to him tell about the kingdom of heaven, he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus’ disciples got into the act on a number of occasions. When he finally thought it time to tell them what would happen to him in Jerusalem — that he would be tried and beaten and crucified and rise again — they resisted his words with everything in them. “This shall never happen to you, Lord!” But it did, and for one reason only: Jesus was wholly obedient to his Father’s will.
But after Jesus was resurrected and returned to sit at the right hand of the throne of God in the heavenly kingdom, and he had left the mission of the church in the capable hands of his disciples, everything was hunky-dory, right? Not exactly. A clue is found in the New Testament gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ baptism. The evidence is clearer in Luke’s story than in the others.
John the Baptist has come out to the wilderness proclaiming a baptism that is to be in response to the repentance of one’s sins. Yet, Jesus — who the early Christian community is working hard to picture as having been sinless — comes to John for baptism. The question on the mind of the church is, why? They can’t get around the question. It happened. So the story has to be told. Yet Luke couches the baptism in a way that reveals that perhaps the early church is somewhat embarrassed by all this.
Luke refers to Jesus’ baptism almost as an aside. He doesn’t tell us directly that John baptized him, although the context certainly implies it. He doesn’t mention the Jordan River. Instead, he focuses on the Voice from heaven affirming Jesus as the Beloved of God. The early church, it seems, is far more interested in the exalted Christ than in the obedient baptismal candidate.1
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Most folk in this place have experienced baptism, and a high percentage of you entered the water with the understanding that it was believer’s baptism. In other words, you were supposed to know what you were doing. You knew that the waters represented cleansing, that as you stood in the baptistry before the immersion you were illustrating your life before Jesus came into it, freeing you of your sin and offering eternal life. You were dirty from your disobedience. But once you descended down into the depths, Christ cleansed you of that which had before kept you from the promises of God. And when you emerged you were clean! Your heart no longer belonged to any other than the One who died on the cross to save you.
You also knew the waters of baptism represented a grave. Again, as you stood there before being taken down, you were drawing a human picture of your life before the grace of Christ had been received and affirmed. You were living, as the scriptures say, “in your trespasses and sins.” But as you were slipped below the surface of the water, you died… died to your old self, to your old desires, to that which once had claimed you. And as you came forth, like Lazarus — even more, like Jesus! — you were alive again, ready to live in Christ, the One who gave his life so unselfishly for you!
This you knew when you submitted yourself for baptism.
But how long has it been since you considered that in those baptismal waters you committed yourself to a joyful obedience that transcends all your personal desires, and goads you and pushes you to higher and deeper levels of faith and discipleship? How long has it been?
If you’ve got much age or Baptist experience on you at all, you’re familiar with the hymn “Trust and Obey.” We Baptists may not have invented that song, but we’ve surely worn it out! The words, even the tune, come across as rather drudgerous…
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way,
To be happy (frown) in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.
It’s still in the hymn book, but we would gladly assign it to the eternal musical scrap heap, if we could, because it conveys a sentiment that hardly is held dear to our hearts. Well, you can forget the song all you want, but the issue won’t go away… and shouldn’t. If there is a day and time that needs to give its heart more fully in obedience to the will of God, it is now. The manner in which to do that, however, might just surprise you.
At the risk of reading too much into one word, I find the key to the story of Jesus’ baptism, at least in Luke’s gospel, in what the Voice from heaven calls Jesus. He is referred to as God’s Beloved. I believe the source of obedience, especially obedience to the will of God, is intimacy.
That is a surprise, isn’t it? Who would have thought that obedience and intimacy go together? But think about it. Francine Klagsburn, in her book Married People, discusses the key factors in intimacy.2 As I recite them to you, think of them not in the context of marriage but of one’s relationship with God.
First of all, intimacy requires a complete acceptance of the other person just as he or she is, so that each person is unafraid to be open and honest with the other. Intimacy implies that each person feels important to the other. It means the creation of an environment in which secrets can be shared with complete confidence. It accepts the fact that there will be periods of distancing as well as closeness, and that the distancing will not destroy the relationship. Intimacy means truly communicating, listening with sensitivity, and assuring the other that he or she is safe in the exchange.
Does that not describe what we know to be the relationship between Jesus and his heavenly Father? The question is, to what extent can it be indicative of how you and I relate to God as well? Obedience is not drudgery, it is intimacy. And true intimacy is built on the willingness of one person to give himself or herself wholly to the love and affection of another.
That is indeed what Jesus did in his relationship with his Heavenly Father. It was obviously quite hard for his mother to understand. It was difficult for his followers to comprehend. It was a struggle for the early church to convey when it came time to compile its sacred writings. And it is the greatest challenge that confronts you and me when it comes to our faith in Christ.
But the One who died for us on a Roman cross, because he was so doggedly obedient to the will of his Father, is the One who beckons us to be obedient to him to the very end and offers us an intimate relationship that transcends all others. The joy of the journey that leads to eternal life is that such obedience is found in having that intimacy with him along the way.
Do you have that intimate relationship with Christ? Can you think of any better time to begin than right now? The answer you give is what will make all the difference, for now and forevermore.
Father, may we be obedient to your will. We ask that you come close to us, that when it comes to walking in faith we will know your nearness and accept your presence fully in our hearts. Through Jesus our Lord we pray, Amen.
1R. Alan Culpepper, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume IX (Abingdon Press: Nashville, Tennessee, 1995), p. 90, and Fred B. Craddock, et. al., Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year C (Trinity Press International: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1994), p. 76.
2Francine Klagsburn, Married People, quoted by John Killinger, “Intimacy With God,” (unpublished sermon, June 11, 1989).
— Copyright 2004, Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.