Anxiety decreases clarity.
34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. 43All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Anxiety decreases clarity.
Anxiety among the people of Galilee in the first century had steadily risen from one decade to the next, from one generation to the next. It wasn’t so much the spike of anxiety that had come with war 300 years before when Alexander the Great marched through the known world and turned it upside down.
And it wasn’t just the flare-ups of armed conflict between the Roman army and small bands of Zealous Jews who occasionally tried and failed to throw off the yoke of Rome.
Matthew and the other Gospel writers saw those armed rebellions more as symptoms of a much larger and longer-lasting malignancy. It was a chronic anxiety that grew over time gradually as Jews found themselves surrounded by Greek culture. Greek philosophy began to shape conversations in the synagogue. Jewish children grew up speaking Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic. It felt sometimes to the Jewish people that Judaism was doomed to be subsumed by this Greek culture and philosophy, displaced by a more powerful political force.
And always, the threat of violence from a capricious emperor or king hung over them—Herod slaughtered toddlers; Claudius ordered all Jews banished from Jerusalem. The emperor Nero ruled with unbelievable cruelty. After Nero took his own life, another Emperor, Vespasian, filled the power vacuum. Vespasian saw the Jewish religion and culture as an existential threat against his throne, so he sent an army led by his son Titus to burn Jerusalem and destroy the temple.
Galilee was far removed from Jerusalem—about a week to ten days of travel time; it was even farther from Rome. And yet, even in the rural districts, even when the internet was down, word seeped out of the seat of power and throughout the Mediterranean world. All of the machinations of power and palace intrigue among the leaders fed the chronic anxiety of the age until it haunted every town and village like an unpredictable lion that could pounce at any time.
This is the world in which Matthew wrote and circulated the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is striking to me that Matthew did not write a gospel of anxiety. He did not write a call to arms against Rome or a screed against the enemies of Israel and the early church.
Instead, he wrote the story of Jesus, God in human flesh, entering the world with clarity of purpose.
Matthew’s antidote to the anxiety of his age is the clarity of Jesus’s vision.
Jesus walks up to John standing hip-deep in the Jordan and says, “Baptize me.” When John objects, he answers with a clarity of purpose, vision, and mission that was unique in an age of high chronic anxiety: “Let it be so now.” Jesus’s words about fulfilling all righteousness may sound enigmatic in translation, but Matthew’s intent is clear. He tells us that Jesus stepped into the Jordan knowing that his destiny, his journey to Jerusalem, passed through the Jordan river.
The Holy Spirit descending like a dove to pronounce the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, and the approval of God as Jesus began his ministry, further clarifies Matthew’s purpose:
Into an anxious world that seems to be falling apart at the seams, Matthew reminds his people that kings and emperors and armies and their commanders are not ultimately in charge of the world. God still holds this fallen world in hands of grace.
In Jesus, God stands with us, mourns with us, and even dies with us.
Baptism in the gospel serves as a metaphor of death and re-birth. Paul spells it out specifically:
“we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
I want to be careful not to say “we live in an age just like the first century.”
We don’t. Communication technology has made leaps and bounds since the first century traveling heralds and couriers. Our first century ancestors could scarcely have imagined the printing press, much less radio, television, and the internet.
First century healers who cast out demons and unclean spirits from ill people could hardly imagine the hidden world of bacteria and viruses now visible through a microscope.
We live in a different world 2000 years later.
And yet, we are still human. We are still mortal. We are still frail flesh.
And, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a prediction: that 2020 will be a year of high anxiety in our nation and the world.
And anxiety still decreases clarity.
Despite all the changes that have come throughout the last 2000 years, and perhaps because of some of them, anxiety fogs our vision. Whether it is personal anxiety over our own health, relationships, or financial prospects, existential anxiety over climate change, wealth inequality, or the ongoing wars in the world, anxiety clouds our vision.
As anxiety increases, it becomes more difficult to understand the political or theological viewpoints of others. It becomes more difficult to discern our own purpose and calling to faithful discipleship. It becomes more difficult to tell right from wrong.
But, there is good news.
The good news is that the Gospel still offers clarity.
Here’s a story about my own discovery of some clarity in the midst of anxiety.
I began studying family systems theory back in 1990. I had begun to serve a congregation in Colorado that had come through a difficult and ambiguous separation from the previous pastor. Most of the members were very gracious and welcoming. However, I quickly discovered that there were many members of the congregation who resented my presence. Some of them had fully expected the previous pastor to return to them as pastor after an interim period.
Others had fallen in love with their interim pastor and wanted her to stay until the second coming of Jesus.
This old song from Don McLean went through my head all the time during that first month: “Everybody loves me, Baby, what’s the matter with you?”
It all felt very personal.
In the midst of my confusion and anxiety, a friend and colleague lent me a book written by a rabbi who lived in Bethesda. Rabbi Friedman’s book, “Generation to Generation, Family Systems in Church and Synagogue” hit me right between the eyes. It clarified some things for me about the system I had walked into that helped me decrease my own anxiety and quit taking everything so personally.
So, I enrolled in his clergy seminar.
I continued to travel to Bethesda a couple of times every year as the community I served saw the steel mill declare bankruptcy and the railroad lay off hundreds of people. The first Gulf War came and went, and some of you may remember the political upheaval of a president getting defeated after only one term.
Whenever I found myself getting caught up in the anxiety of the church or society, I tried to remember what this rabbi taught: that the best hope for the world is a faithful church led by clergy with clear vision.
We may pin a lot of hope on politics, and certainly what happens politically matters. But the Gospel will not let us mistake politics for salvation.
So, here is my vision and sense of call for 2020: to nurture clarity.
I am so blessed to serve this congregation. I am the envy of my peers. Really. The competence, talent, desire for faithfulness to God, and love for one another makes this congregation one of the jewels of our denomination.
As we move into our new and renovated space this year, I anticipate that we will have a lot to celebrate and also some challenges to meet. While we had a good year financially in 2019, this year we will begin making interest payments on the mortgage for the BEAR project, and it will take some adjustment.
I see my calling as your pastor to continue to nurture disciples; to cultivate our clarity of vision, purpose, and mission. I will do my best to stay focused on my call, and to help you carry out the mission God has called this congregation to do.
The story of Jesus’s baptism indicates that clarity of mission is the anchor that the world needs, especially at a time of growing anxiety. I am sure that the election this year, whatever the result, will not eliminate our nation’s anxiety.
But I am also sure that the steady proclamation of the Gospel that we are called to carry out in word and deed—welcoming all, sharing the Gospel in what we say and do, and building community—will provide a counterweight to this world’s anxiety. Christ is still the hope of the world, and we will find great joy and meaning as we follow in his footsteps.
Thanks be to God. Amen.