“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, 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.” (Matthew 3:13–17 NRSV)
Have you ever said no empathetically, because you believed that you were without a doubt right, only later to learn that saying no was going to be a big mistake?
I had a “No” like this that I said to God’s face once. When I was first called into ministry I flat out said to God, “No way, no how.” I felt kind of bad because of my attitude. [After all, my parents taught me to talk respectfully to my elders. If God wasn’t one of my elders, who was?]
So I back tracked a little and said,
“Okay God, I hear what you are saying. But here’s the thing, there is no way on earth that I would ever want to be a pastor — don’t you know I want to be a musician, an artist, a film-director, pretty much anything but a pastor. So here’s the deal. You are going to have to make me want to be a pastor, actually make me desire it and see how I fit with it. Because there’s no way on earth I’m doing something I don’t want to do like that.”
This was only a mildly better than my first response. That’s because I still felt strongly about holding down that “No!”
But you know how the stories ends, or you can assume the ending. It didn’t take to long to learn that if I held onto my no, I was going to prevent a lot of things happening that I would later regret.
Have you have thought about that simple, but all powerful, two letter word, “no?”
I talked a little about improv last week. In improv, if you have a group of people who are developing a storyline on the fly, with no script, no master plan, and someone says “No” to an idea put forward, what happens? No, ends a scene. It prevents forward movement in the story line.
In improv they call this blocking. “Blocking” is the cardinal sin of improv acting.
Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation instead of accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation.”
For me, my “no” to God was out of fear of the unknown, out of a change I wasn’t sure about. What if I fail, is it worth this risk?
Think of all the ways the word ‘no’ holds power in our society.
What is almost every baby’s first word?
What is the response you always heard from your parents growing up?
What is the answer you always get every single time you call the insurance company?
What about when a new idea rises? Or you are given the chance to take a risk?
What happens for you when the possibility of change presents itself?
Are you the improv actor saying no, stopping the scene?
In Matthew 3, we see John the Baptist initially committing the cardinal sin of blocking.
If we think about this scene as an improvisational skit unfolding – because that’s what’s happening, there’s no script here, they might have had an idea about where they wanted to go but they aren’t given specific lines roles and lines beforehand, they get to figure it out as they go – then we see that in the first scene John is active, baptizing and preaching, talking about “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.”
Jesus takes this as his cue and enters stage right. Jesus approaches John near the part of the stage that is painted blue like a rive. John sees him, he turns and then Jesus delivers a line, “John I am to be baptized.”
John’s character, played by one of the communities longstanding improv actors chokes, and laughs, “ha ha, You should be baptizing me, not me you.”
And in improv that would be where the scene ends. John blocked the scene, rather than building on what came before it. Where do we go next if the last line was basically, “No, I won’t go in that direction.”
And let’s face it, Isn’t this how much of society, in our families, careers, and often even in church? It is much easier to say no, to block, than it is to build on others’ ideas, allowing the scene to unfold.
- When you are poor, and you are hungry, you are used to hearing the word, no.
- People who are on the margins of society, whether black, gay, immigrants, all get used to hearing the word, “No!”
- When you are considered by others to be a “sinner,” all you hear is, no.
- When you are struggling to patch together days recovery, it is often “no” that you hear.
- When a new idea or suggestion is put forward to do something differently, it is quickly shot down.
The human condition has come to accept that no is as inevitable as the rain,
and so people dish it out as swift as the arctic winds.
There’s a story about a man who lived in Birmingham, Alabama and drove out of the city one day to buy some firewood. He stopped at a rundown house in the country, which had a sign out front: ‘Firewood 4 Sale.’
‘Friend, I’d like to order a load of firewood,’ the man said to the patriarch who was dozing in a rocker on the front porch. The old man roused himself and sneered back, ‘No! You can’t order me to do nothing.’ [Taken from article in Century Magazine]
If “No” is the wall we use to block others, then “Yes” is an opening in the wall. And it is yes, that we all long to hear.
If we go back to our ancient improv skit for a minute we see that Jesus was the king of the Jews, he’s also the king of improv.
He doesn’t allow John to end the scene, he doesn’t want it to be blocked, because he had an idea about the direction he wanted this play to move. So he throws a line in there that he knows John’s fiery role will have to pickup on,
“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus’ catches John with these words “fulfill all righteousness” so John decides to see where Jesus is going to go with this so he then “consents” or says “Yes!” to Jesus.
The way of the kingdom of God is not through no, it is through a yes. We don’t become disciples of Jesus by saying no to him.
Jesus’ line that he must do this to “fulfill all righteousness” means, as Will Willimon puts it, “ an act of obedience to a divine command,” is actually a clue for us not just in thinking about improv, but how the kingdom of God itself works. Jesus demonstrates that obedience to God is not about “blocking” – as John may have thought – but about “Building” on what is already there.
He might have said: “John, I must be baptized so as to build upon, while adding my own flavor to, the work that you have begun.”
Jesus’ building upon John’s call to turn towards God is what creates the beloved community where all are welcomed and forgiven. Jesus building upon, rather than blocking, demonstrates how we as disciples are to live out our own “obedience to God’s command.”
How might we live lives that build upon rather than block God’s work? Where do we need to say yes, where we have been offering a steady supply of no? What risk is God laying before you that you that you have been blocking?
But there is more!
By building rather than blocking another character is now able to enter the scene – the Spirit descending. You should have seen the rig it took to get the Spirit up in the rafters in the first place, let alone the people behind making her descend upon the scene so gracefully…
In the closing of the scene we see one more character played by God himself and God offers a really big yes.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16–17 NRSV)
By saying yes, we open the scene to the “and.” Yes creates an opening for the next possibility. It creates room for new characters to enter the scene, and play important parts. The yes, leads to the rest of the story, of which all of you are a part.
Patricia Madson says,
This is going to sound crazy. Say yes to everything. Accept all offers. Go along with the plan. Support someone else’s dream. Say “Yes”; “right”; “sure”; “I will”; “okay”; “of course”; “Yes!” Cultivate all the ways you can imagine to express affirmation. When the answer to all the questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure. Molly Bloom’s famous line from Ulysses draws us into her ecstasy. Humans long to connect. Yes glues us together. Yes starts the juices rolling. Yes gets us into heaven and also into trouble. Trouble is not so bad when we are in it together, actually.
John’s yes, allows Jesus to build upon the work. It is not just a turning point for Jesus, it is a turning point for the whole world because of what will follow from it.
Jesus is God’s yes to the world.
Jesus is for us a yes, in a world of no’s.
And that yes, not only opens up the possibility of new life for all of us, but invites us to add to the story. This story is open-ended and you are invited to find your part in God’s improv play.
What does it mean to you to have God say yes to you? “I accept you.” “I love you.” “You are my beloved.” “I want you to be a part of this play but it’s going to require that you say yes, and that you build upon the work that has already happened.”
And what does it mean for you to say “Yes, And…” to God? To embrace chance? To follow the story line that is unfolding. [I think that’s all baptism really is, it is when we decide that we will be committed to “Yes, and…” to be obedient to the divine command, to build upon, rather than block the work of God.]
To follow God is to say “Yes, and…” The work of God is always building upon the previous work of God. Accept what is there and then add to it.**
Because here’s the thing, what’s happening right now – there’s no script. You might have some idea about you would like to go but there no one has been given any lines beforehand, you get to figure out where this goes together by saying yes, and…
Are you ready find your part and say yes, and?
Let’s be people who build a story together, with one another. And more importantly with God.
Let’s work to say Yes, and and live into that and…
[Flickr Credit to Laura Gilmore](# On Quaker PR: Salt, Light and Transformation