May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable unto thee, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.

Matthew has placed this story of Jesus’ response to the arrest and impending death of John the Baptist. Then Matthew presents Jesus’ going forth and calling his Disciples, executing his ministry, in the context of the conversion process experience of Jesus himself.

In earlier verses in this book of Matthew, we read about Jesus making his first public witness of his faith. His willingness, his decision, to step forward in the midst of a great revival that a man by the name of John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, was holding out in the wilderness. This strange, peculiar man who had such a compelling message that people of every walk of life had left their villages, the city; they left the comfort of their synagogues to come and hear this man preach a simple message: repent, change your ways.

As this John preached, Jesus made up his mind that he was going to publicly offer himself. And that public witness, that public action was truly bold. The public witness Jesus coming forward and offering himself for baptism, the Baptism of John. But secondly, it was to join, to be a part of that community of faith of which John was leader.

You probably know that many of those disciples that Jesus eventually called to follow him (not only the Apostles but also the larger company of Disciples), that many of them had been disciples of John the Baptist. And, in fact at one point there was a kind of competitive tension and friction between Jesus’ Disciples and John’s and sometimes comparisons. Once, Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “Now John’s disciples fast, why don’t you, as Jesus’ Disciples, fast?” Or another time, Jesus’ Disciples came and they said, “You know, Jesus, John’s disciples have a club prayer, and we don’t have one.” And Jesus said, “Okay, when you pray, say ’Our Father, who art in heaven…’ “.

So Jesus came and submitted himself to this community of John the Baptist to become a part of that community. The Bible tells us that immediately after Jesus made these actions he heard the voice of God affirming him. You know, there’s nothing a son loves more than to hear his father say, “I’m pleased with you, son. I’m proud of you.” And Jesus heard those words, and it made him feel as though, yes, I took a risk to step forward publicly, and I now feel, though others may not hear it or know about it, but I feel affirmed. The Bible says, “Jesus heard, Jesus saw…..” The public didn’t know this, but Jesus in that action, heard and felt the approval of God, his father.

You know, that speaks to us. One of the first things that we have to do if we really want to be Christians who have submitted ourselves and given ourselves to God, is that we have to make a public witness. We can’t stay in the closet. Everyone else has stepped out. Christians, we have to step out! We have to be willing to publicly offer ourselves. For some of us that might be a response to an altar call, that we step publicly forward. For others of us it may be offering ourselves for baptism. It may indeed be our willingness, even this morning, to come forward and kneel at this altar railing and receive prayer, or to publicly receive the body and blood of Christ. We have to be willing to publicly make a statement.

And then become part of a faith community.

There are so many Christians who want to be Christians without community.

Now, I’ve been a pastor in three congregations, and I know why some people don’t want to be part of Christian community. I’ve heard people say, “You know, I tried that once, and I didn’t like the minister.” Or, “You know, I went in and the folks there, they just weren’t friendly.” And I think to myself, if someone who tells me how important their faith is, and they’re trying to engage and be part of a community, and it didn’t work, and now they feel as though they’re going to have private religion. And yet I’m sure that there are none of us who can say we’ve never had a bad experience with an auto dealer, that we’ve never been caught in the game between good salesman and bad salesman at a car dealership. And yet, every one of us, when we know that we need our cars repaired, or we need a new vehicle, we’ll find a dealer, we’ll find a mechanic, who can meet our needs.

And if Jesus was willing to offer himself publicly and then become a part of a community, it says something about our own formation, our own conversion process, to be useful to God.

The Bible tells us that immediately after Jesus had experienced this baptism and made his stand with the community of John, Jesus was driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness. And there in the wilderness, the Bible tells us that Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights.

Now, one of my professors at Lancaster Seminary, Doc Englert, used to say to us, “Now tell me ladies and gentlemen, how do you interpret forty days and forty nights?” And we’d all get out our lexicons and our commentaries, and we’d be looking, and he’d say, “Well, it actually just means a heck of a long time.”

And so Jesus was in the wilderness a heck of a long time! And he was fasting and praying, struggling with his interior life, his internal demons. And there as Jesus is in the wilderness, Satan comes to him. And he says to him, “Jesus, I know you’re hungry. I want you to turn these stones into bread . and anyone who’s been to Palestine knows that there are stones everywhere. Now, he wasn’t just speaking about physical hunger. For like all of us, Jesus also had a hunger to be accepted. And he had to make a decision how he would use the gifts that God had given him. Would he be known as ’the Miracle Worker’? Would Jesus be known as ’the Magic Man for the Masses’? Or would he submit himself to the yet unknown meaning of being the Christ of God?

It was an option; Jesus had to make a choice. He could take what Dietrich Bonhoffer called ’cheap grace’; he could take a cheap shortcut and play to the peoples’ desire for a sign. Oh, what a great man! We’d be reading about him in our books today in World History Class. They wouldn’t be saying you couldn’t read about Jesus. We would be reading about this great magic man, one greater than Nostradamus, who did great miracles and great signs. Jesus could have been known simply for his wonderment. How many times did they come to him and say, “Jesus, you know, we would believe in you, and we would accept you. Could you show us a sign? Pull a rabbit out of a hat, Jesus. We know you can do it!” And he knew he could do it.

But he was not willing, and he said, “There will not be a sign until God’s purpose in me has been fully revealed, then tell me if you will accept me.”

It would have been easy, an easy road to fame and popularity, rather than to choose the path of shame and of rejection and ostracism. We all would like to be seen on MTV or CNN. But Jesus made the choice that he would be the Christ of God. That he would take the way that God would give him.

Secondly, Satan asked him, “You’re really not going to die, Jesus. I know you’re a little nervous about that, but how does that fit into God’s plan? How could you be the Christ of God and die?” My friends, Jesus was afraid to die! So, it’s all right for you and for me to be afraid to die. Jesus was afraid to die.

I heard Bishop say to me once, he said, “You know, heaven is my home, but I’m not homesick.”

The fear of death was real for Jesus. And he also asked the question, “If I am to be the Christ of God, what good am I if I die? Would this not make my Christos witness a mockery rather than an act of saving grace?”

Mohammed, and our Islamic brothers and sisters, share a lot in common with our understanding of Scripture. But one of the things that is so hard for them to accept, that they in fact reject, is that God did not mean for Jesus to die. Mohammed taught that Jesus did not die; it was only apparent. And it was hard for the Disciples, not just our Muslim brothers and sisters. Remember when Jesus told them that the son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men? Or as my grandson would say, ’bad men’. And he would die. And Peter said, “Oh no, no, no, Jesus, there you go again. You’re so morbid. That’s not going to happen.” And what did Jesus say? He said, “Get behind me! Not Peter . get behind me, but get behind me, Satan.” Jesus, even then, was still struggling with that temptation long after this wilderness struggle.

So the temptation the Devil offered was, look, just throw yourself over. The Bible already tells you that if you cast yourself off, the angels will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You know, Christian friends, it’s so important to remember that Scripture can be used a lot of ways. I don’t have to tell you, you’ve witnessed its abuse and misuse.

But Jesus made the decision that he would risk death. He didn’t know what it would all mean, but he was going to be faithful. He was going to be faithful.

And then the temptations of kingdoms of the world, he said, “Look out, you see all of this. If you just go my way, you could become the Jewish Caesar. You could be an emporer Charlemagne, rather than this risky business of being the Christ of God. Could Jesus by his natural charisma and his supernatural powers, have led a revolt such as the world had never seen? And could he conquer the known world. I believe he could have. As he said to his Disciples when they pulled their swords to defend him in Gethsemane, and Jesus said, “Don’t you know that I can call to my Father, and he would send ten thousand legions of angels?” Jesus had options.

But he chose not. He chose not. He chose not to use the currencies of power so desired and affirmed by the world, the currencies of radical politics, of economic power, of military currency. As Paul wrote, “He chose a more excellent way. The way of love.”

And so, from these hard decisions, these wrestling with the dark night of the soul, Jesus emerges, he emerges feeling as though he can do the ministry. And as he comes back into the community, they tell him that John the Baptist, his cousin, the one he’s going to follow, whose message he’s going to pick up, has been arrested and is facing death. And the Bible says, “Jesus withdrew.”

Now the writer of Matthew decided he would interpret it, and say it was so that he might fulfill an Isaiah prophecy. But Jesus was taking that emotional step of dealing with a face to face experience, with what the cost of faithfulness could be, if he picked up John’s message. But the Bible tells us that, Jesus, after withdrawing from the shock, Jesus then stepped forward and affirmed what he had believed, and began his ministry of preaching, of calling for repentance, the same message that got John put in prison and cause John to lose his head. Jesus preached the same message boldly. And he invited others to join with him in that ministry.

What does this say to us? Every one of us here who claims the faith of Jesus Christ, or even feels an inkling of Christian faith in our hearts, God has given and called us to a ministry. It doesn’t necessarily mean being in ordained ministry, but God has called you to be a minister in the world, to make Christ known. People can contort the Bible, but when Christ lives in your life, when the hope, the joy, the love of Christ is reigning in you, it gives you the power to draw others to Christ. But we have to go through those times and moments that shape us and enable us to make the decision.

I’ve talked to you about the need for us to submit ourselves to baptism, the need to be a part of an ongoing faith community. But we also have our wildernesses. Our willingness to submit to the love of God and the power of God, to face the fact that the grace that we received from God is costly grace, that it is not easy to be a Christian, and it costs something of us. In fact, it costs our very lives.

I love that cartoon when Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown. And she said, reciting the poem, ’If,’” she said, “Charlie Brown,’ if you can hold your head when all around you are losing theirs’, then you don’t understand the situation!”

If we feel like to be Christian is simply to find comfort and solace, simply something we do by showing up at church every now and then, then we don’t understand the situation. For there is a world that is torn, that is hungry, that needs to know that there is another way, that there is another power, which we must reveal it in our lives.

And so we, too, must struggle and decide, will we simply seek to be those persons who are always popular, always socially acceptable, or will we be the ones that will find courage to take a more excellent way? Will we be the ones who . sometimes looking out, (and I know you’ve experienced this), you see someone who makes a stand for Christ . and it frightens you? You look out, and you see someone who decides in the school cafeteria they’re just going to say their grace, and we see how their fellow students might laugh at them, and we feel, ’Oh my God, you know, I’ll never do that!’ Or maybe we might be in a Boardroom and we’ve seen someone who is made a stand for something that they know is morally right, something that is matter of justice and truth, even though it may not be economically prudent. And see what happens to their career. We see how those around them, withdraw from them. And we say, ’Oh my God, it’ll never happen to me.’ Or we’re somewhere in a social gathering and we hear someone tell a gay joke or a lesbian joke, or we hear someone say something about a minority, or we hear someone take an arrogant position about what we should be doing in relationship to other countries around the world, just because we have the power to do it. And I’m sure you’ve heard someone speak up and say, ’You know, I don’t think that’s an appropriate joke; I don’t think that’s the kind of thing we should be talking about as a part of this social circle.” And I know you’ve seen what’s happened to them.

You see, what we have to understand is that giving our lives to Christ and accepting even that we may die is not just physical death. It’s the death of our pride. It’s the death of acceptance. It’s the death of our sense of self-esteem.

I remember my daughter getting ready to go to school and her mother telling her something that she should wear, and she said, “Oh, no, mother, if I have to wear this to school, I’ll just die.” What she meant was she would rather be dead than to suffer the rejection that she would experience by wearing what her parents thought was cool. There are deaths in our lives that we dread more than physical death, and God is saying to us, “You are my ministers. You are my servants, and you must be willing, even when you see the consequence of what could be in your life, if you totally submit yourself to the will of God. You must be willing.

Let me close with the words of Jesus. Jesus said in Luke, Chapter 9, verse 23, speaking to the Disciples, speaking to you, speaking to me, Jesus said, “If anyone.boy, girl, man, woman.if anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up the burden of their cross everyday, and follow me. For those who want to save their life, will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sa