God is on the move. The Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is, in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. And that means that God is on the move. Now, sometimes people are on the move just to move. Some of us can’t stand sitting still, so we move around, we fidget, we get in our cars and drive, just to keep moving. It doesn’t matter where we’re going or why; we just want to move.
That’s not how God is on the move. God isn’t flitting around, like some out-of-control moth bouncing from one light to the next on someone’s back porch. God is on the move, with a purpose. A purpose, a reason, a goal. God has a mission. In Jesus Christ, God is on a mission. And that mission is nothing less than the redemption of the entire created order, the putting to right of everything that has gone wrong because of our sin.
God’s mission is part of who God is; it’s not just something God does. In God’s own life, outside of creation, the Father begets the Son and breathes out the Holy Spirit; the Son worships the Father; and the Spirit unites the Father and the Son in an eternal movement, a mission, really, of divine love. God creates the cosmos, everything that exists that is not God, so that everything that exists that is not God could flourish in relationship with the rest of creation and with God. Already, then, even at the very beginning, God created with purpose, intent, reason, and a goal—already, God extends the eternal mission for the sake of God’s creation. When angels and human beings introduced sin into the creation, when we turned away from God and broke off the relationships intended to give us life, the Lord’s creating and sustaining purposes became a rescue operation, a restoration and renewal mission. So even in Genesis 1 and 2, God is on a mission. And certainly in Luke 1 and 2, the mission of God is on full display in the birth of Jesus Christ.
Still, it is at Jesus’ baptism, as we have it in Luke 3 this morning, that the mission of God takes on a new, definite shape within creation. When Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, he finds himself claimed: the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“You are my Son, the Beloved.” That’s not just a little note of encouragement. It’s not a cutesy mark of identity—aww, look at little Jesus. It’s a claim: you have crossed the Jordan, you have moved from the wilderness to the Holy Land, and you are now on a mission. My mission—God’s mission, that is. From this moment on, Jesus’ full attention is to be directed toward the mission of God. No more increasing in wisdom and years, no more growing in divine and human favor. All that work is done. At his baptism, Jesus is claimed as God’s Son, publicly, and that claim carries with it a purpose, a mission, that drives Jesus from the river to the cross.
Baptism is not just about forgiveness or becoming children of God. Baptism is about having our feet set on a path. Baptism is about us getting pointed back in the right direction, heading off to the same goal that God’s mission in Jesus Christ seeks to accomplish. Baptism is God’s way of recruiting us into God’s mission. We United Methodists only baptize once, and we baptize anyone of any age, because we believe that it is God who is doing the recruiting. None of us, not the smartest or the most confident or the wisest, has any idea of what we’re getting ourselves into when we are baptized, but all of us, no matter our age or ability, are baptized into God’s mission. When we follow Jesus through the baptismal waters, we don’t follow him into a state of religious bliss. We follow him into a mission field, into a mission that is already going on without us and that will likely continue long after we’ve gone.
This sermon is the first in a four-week series I’m doing on missions. I’m not starting where sermons on missions usually begin. The tendency is for us to think of missions as something we do for God. Missionaries are women and men who go off to distant corners of the planet. They’re like the vanguard of the church. Missions are projects we do so that we can point to some result as evidence that the kingdom of God is real and powerful and present among us. “Missions” is about what we’re up to in the name of God. In fact, sometimes we even like to think that “missions” is how we go ahead of God, clearing the path so that God can come along and do his thing.
There are so many things wrong with this way of thinking about missions, which has infected the church for at least the last 200 years or so, that we could sit here all day sifting through them. But here are three of the worst problems. First, most of us do not think we have the courage to be in the front, the vanguard, of anything. So thinking about missions this way gives us an out: missions is for specialists, people called to exciting things, but it’s not for everyone. Certainly not for me. I can support missions, but I don’t have to do missions. Nonsense. If you’ve been baptized, you’ve been baptized into God’s mission. Baptism makes us all missionaries. And if you aren’t doing things for God’s mission, then you are being unfaithful to your baptism. You are failing to follow Jesus.
Second, thinking about missions as us going out ahead for God means that we get to define what “missions” is about. And that’s dangerous and foolish work. Most of the time, what we would do for missions is not what God would do. That’s called sin, and we fall into that trap all the time. We identify what we’re passionate about, what we’re interested in, what we think matters, and we say, “That’s missions. And the rest of it is just a waste of time.” But the mission isn’t ours; it belongs to God. And if God is up to something, we need to be doing that, too. And if God is saying no to something, we need to give it up, too. This means that things like giving up violence, welcoming strangers and immigrants, and fixing the injustices that lead to racism or poverty are just as important and just as essential to mission work as evangelism efforts or preaching the gospel with words.
Third, this wrong-headed way of thinking about missions leads us into some pretty stupid mistakes. You’re going to the prisons to work with residents there. You’re not “bringing God to the prison.” God is not in your pocket, or even your pocket Bible, so you can get him in past security. God is already in the prison, working where you would never have imagined you should go. If you are fortunate, God may use you for God’s mission while you’re there. But don’t ever think you can get out ahead of God. Don’t think that it’s your ideas or your motivation or your abilities that will make this missions thing a success or a failure. In everything we do, we participate in a mission that God is already doing. God is ahead of us, and with us on the way, and behind us, too, to push us to where we need to be, and to clean up after us when we’ve made a mess of things.
In Jesus Christ the full extent of the mission of God is on display. Jesus preaches the gospel and heals; he feeds bodies and souls; he risks rejection and criticism; he enters dangerous places and does not emerge unscathed. Will we follow his lead? Will we say “yes” to the mission of God and “no” to doing missions our way? Will we embrace the baptismal claim God has placed upon our lives? Or will we dig in our heels, stick to the ways we know best, and watch in amazement as God carries on redeeming this world without us?