Column by Mary Lee Talbot.
“Matthew has a very dramatic beginning. I call it the ‘smelling salts gospel.’ He says, ‘Breathe this and get into the being who will make you alive. You will be a person alive to God, self, neighbor and the suffering in the world,’” said the Rev. Mark A. Labberton, Harold F. Reed Sr. chaplain at the morning devotional service Monday in the Amphitheater. His text was Matthew 3:1-12 and his title was “Smelling Salts.”
“The people Matthew is writing to are somnambulating — sleepwalking — and he wants the people to understand the framework that leads to Jesus’ public ministry,” Labberton said. “John is the forerunner of Jesus — the end of the Old Testament prophets who talked about the consequences of the way people lived. They were overwhelmed by life and not making decisions and acts that matter.”
John told the people “prepare yourself for the God who takes your life more seriously than you do,” he said. “I see John as a Berkeley character, a bit raw and rough, edgy, not looking for easy comfort. Yet John spoke to crowds who were hungry for his message. Even the religious leaders of the day went for baptism.”
He continued, “‘You brood of vipers’ has never been my call to worship. It is not a way to make friends and influence people.”
Labberton told a story about a renowned preacher and teacher who was asked how he wanted to be introduced to a group of students. He told his host, “Tell them I am a sinner. Tell them I am a dirty, no-good sinner. Tell them if they looked into my heart, they would spit into my face.” And the host introduced him that way. The preacher thought it was a joke, but the host took him seriously.
“John was not joking. This was not a metaphor, or a stereotype or an overstatement,” Labberton said. “Something was really wrong. There was rot at the core of the human condition, and the way to prepare was not denial but to intensify the need. Your bloodline won’t protect you; God can make children out of these stones. We don’t like this kind of searchlight. We like to turn the volume down, a gentler, kinder word. John was too edgy, he was overstating the problem, he should get a grip.
“You see how the somnambulance sets in. We want it both ways. Something was wrong — Israel was under Roman oppression. But there was also something wrong in Israel at the core. We want to be made right, but we have to admit real wrong. We want a softer gospel, but John offers accountability not grace.”
John told the people that he baptized them with water for repentance but that he was getting them ready for the one who would come, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. According to John, we would have Jesus baptize us with the Holy Spirit and sugar,” Labberton said. “But it is a gospel of fire; it is a gospel not just of healing, but cleansing and purification. We want to leave harshness behind, but we need a deep process of admitting something is truly wrong.”
“The art of wakefulness is not clinging to the cultural message that all is OK when we live in systems and structures of injustice,” he said. “If I am willing to live in an unjust world, if I am willing to tolerate displays of injustice to others then I have missed the point. John and Jesus are trying to reorder all that.”
Labberton said that on a family vacation in Hawaii, his family was using a canoe to enjoy the water with a family friend. There were five of them, and only four at a time could use the canoe. Toward the end of the afternoon, the canoe slammed against some coral and threw them into the water. As they struggled in the water, his youngest son started to swim out toward them. Once everyone was safe, Labberton turned to his son and commended him on his bravery on deciding to try to help.
“I didn’t decide,” the son said, “my heart just made me.”
“I wish in a world of staggering need that more people would say, ‘My heart just made me.’ Sometimes I can do it for people I love, or people I like or even those I tolerate, but for people outside my sociological types or worldview, I wish I could say, ‘My heart made me do it,’” Labberton said.
When Jesus was baptized, he was identifying with us, Labberton said. Then the heavens opened and God said, “This is my son.” In Matthew, the whole gospel is about answering the question, “Who is this? Who is he? What does his identity mean?” In the temptation, in the wilderness, he was not just reenacting the 40 years in the wilderness. He takes the reality of the temptation seriously and asserts God’s authority over the issues of what is enough, exceptionalism and power. Jesus says that we should repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.
“We experience the Kingdom of God by following him. Who will come? Those in need,” Labberton said.
“I was groomed in a world that says, ‘You are just fine,’ and Matthew says, ‘You are not just fine, and the world is not either.’ God is doing a new thing. To admit you are not fine is not self-flagellation, it is the honest admission of the truth. Come all who really bum me out, and I will give you rest. We have to acknowledge our deep need for the one who calls us into honesty and deep faith. May we wake to that good news,” he concluded.
The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell presided. The Rev. Nanette Banks read the scripture. She is one of the co-directors of the New Clergy Conference and works on the staff of McCormick Theological Seminary. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator, led the Motet Choir in “Be Still and Know That I am God” by David Lantz.