Not too many YouTube videos get 139 million views. But, one of my favorites has. For a real treat, search YouTube for “Stand by Me – Playing for Change.” In 2009, the Playing for Change team traveled the world recruiting musicians for a re-do of the classic 1961 song by Ben E. King.
This song — especially as it’s presented in this video — reminds us how music has the power to break down boundaries and overcome differences between people. And if you allow your mind to be stretched just a little, it’s also a beautiful prayer especially appropriate for baptisms.
I thought of that video last week as I was preparing for my Sunday sermon. In my faith tradition, baptism is a big deal. Like most mainline churches, we recognize baptism as a great gift of grace. Through baptism, you are adopted into God’s family and become part of the local community of believers. Whether it’s for infants or adults, baptism is one of God’s gifts worth celebrating.
During the first few weeks of the New Year, our worship in the liturgical church focuses on different ways Jesus was made known to the world. One of those ways was through his baptism. The Bible tells us greats crowds of people were coming from all over Jerusalem and Judea to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. He called it a baptism for repentance. People were coming from all over the region to be baptized and confess their sins.
John said, “The Kingdom of God was coming.” People needed to get ready for it by putting their sinful past behind them and changing their ways. John’s message was hitting home. Throngs of hurting people streamed out into the wilderness to hear him preach and to be baptized. And among that throng, came Jesus.
The Bible says Jesus left his home in Galilee and went to the Jordan specifically to be baptized by John. This comes as a surprise to John. He immediately recognizes Jesus as the Messiah and at first protests. It would be more appropriate he said if Jesus were baptizing him.
But Jesus tells him rather cryptically, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” It must have been quite a scene. Jesus, standing in the shallows of the Jordan river — his feet in the mud like everyone else. Wading toward John, he is surrounded by the confused, the wandering, the lost, the broken and the fearful. People just like us.
The people come, confessing their sin and hoping it is still possible to change their empty lives and know the fullness of God welling up inside them. Of course, Jesus does not come to John to repent or to confess sin. He did what no one before or after him has been able to do. He led a sinless life. There would have been nothing to confess. But, Jesus comes to be baptized nevertheless. His baptism is an act of commitment to God’s purpose for his life.
A great story is unfolding in which both he and John must play their parts. John’s part was to prepare the way. He called people to remember who they were as God’s chosen people. They had to get ready because their King was coming to them. If they wanted to live in the Kingdom of God, they needed change their ways. They needed to remember that job number one for them was to love God and their neighbor as themselves.
Jesus’ part was to stand there among the people. Though he, himself was sinless, his part was to stand among and with sinners who lose their way and forget who they are. Jesus had a mission to fulfill that is written into the names by which we know him. His very name, Jesus, or Yeshua, in Hebrew, literally means, “God saves.” He comes into the world to fulfill God’s promise of one who would be Immanuel, “God with us.”
As the babe in Bethlehem, Jesus is Immanuel. And here he is, at his baptism, standing among the people, God with us. And just before he’s about to be taken up into heaven after his resurrection, Jesus promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Jesus begins and ends his mission fulfilling all righteousness by being Immanuel, God with us.
As he’s coming up out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove. The divine voice tells both Jesus and us what we need to know, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Beloved comes to stand with us so that all the love in him may flow into our hearts. Our prayer is simple, “Stand by me, Lord. Stand by me.”
The lyrics of the classic “Playing for Change” video make more sense than ever. In the natural, we invent ways to separate us one from another. In the supernatural, with God standing by us, we find ways to bless one another. May we receive and share God’s richest blessings as we move forward into 2020.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.