Vince Lombardi was a famous NFL football coach who led the Green Bay Packers to their first Superbowl victories. His greatest emphasis in coaching was mastering the fundamentals. He coached men who had played football since they were boys and each year he began the first practice by holding a ball and saying, ”Gentlemen, this is a football”.
I could relate to the necessity for fundamentals when coaching 7th and 8th grade basketball in the mid-90’s. Most of the kids had some basic basketball talents and were eagerly anticipating the move up into higher skilled competition. They couldn’t wait to learn plays that they could show off to their parents and friends.
But it became obvious in practice that the plays being taught were completely useless without proficiency in the basic skills of dribbling, passing, and shooting. Before we can run we must learn to walk. And before we can walk, we must learn to crawl.
The maturation process of our faith life is no different from these examples. In many cases, we come to worship expecting to be recharged for the week. It’s like coming in and expecting to learn a play without investing time practicing the basics...prayer, studying the Bible, putting our faith convictions into practice in all areas of our lives. It’s like expecting to win a Superbowl without going to practice, or thinking that we will become physically fit by driving past the gym.
There are exceptions to every rule. I’ve sat in the pew when suddenly God got my attention by something the preacher said and enlightened me in one way or another. But I have also left worship services thinking that I had just wasted an hour of my time and hopefully next week’s service will be better. In those instances, I expected results without putting in the effort.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. In Luke’s Gospel we know that as a boy he spent time in the Temple learning from the Pharisees and Sadducees and that he was recognized as gifted in spiritual wisdom beyond his years. But all four Gospels describe Jesus’ adult ministry as starting when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
I find it interesting that John was baptizing for the forgiveness of sins when Jesus came to him. Why would Jesus need a baptism of forgiveness? He was sinless and blameless. John tried to stop him saying, Jesus, I need to be baptized by YOU. But Jesus responded, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
If you are expecting me to provide a theological decoding of this message, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Theologians across the centuries have debated the meaning of that statement. And while I can’t give an exact meaning, I can confidently say this. For whatever reason, whether from God or the religious traditions of that time, it was necessary for Jesus to be baptized before beginning his ministry. He had to crawl before he could walk.
And so John the Baptist dunks him. Dunks him into the dirty river water where earlier in the chapter Matthew wrote that the people of Jerusalem and all Judea had come to be baptized, confessing their sins. There were hundreds if not thousands of people in attendance who had already taken their turns. And now it’s Jesus’ turn, a sinless man being dunked in the dirty bathwater of sinful people.
Then comes the famous part of the story that we have all heard. “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. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Did you notice who saw the heavens open up and the descending Spirit? The heavens were opened to HIM and HE saw the Spirit of God descending. We don’t know if anyone but Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending. But he heard the affirmation of God that was about to send him toward his next step of preparation…the temptations. Even Jesus required spiritual exercise to mature in his journey.
Today I stand before you as your theological coach. Instead of introducing you to a football or dribbling skills, I reintroduce you to baptism, one of the fundamental themes of our faith. In your baptism, God has claimed you as his beloved sons and daughters. And while one of the fundamentals is completed in this experience, our journey has just begun.
We are called to nurture our relationship, which extends beyond worship attendance. It is a lifelong exercise of seeking God’s will and getting to know him better. Through the investment of practicing fundamentals, we will come to reap the fruits of the Spirit that bring peace and joy into our hearts and minds. Amen.