Sermon: Scrub-a-Dub

A mosaic image with Jesus at the center in the water of the Jordan, being baptized by John.

January 12, 2020
Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17

by Eric Anderson

Jesus went to the Jordan River, to the place where John the Baptist ranted and roared about the sinfulness of those who came to hear him. Here’s what he told the most respected religious leaders of his day when they ventured to the riverside: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

That’s what he said to the good people. Imagine what he said to the people everyone considered bad.

He offered them, good and bad, a baptism for repentance. A scrub of the body that was also a scrub of the soul. “Come, snakes!” he shouted. “Scub-a-dub!”

Well. Maybe not “Scrub-a-dub.”

Bathing was an important practice of first century Judaism and remains so today. Most of the time, the ritual of water confers ritual purity. That’s not about sin. It’s about having come into something in the environment that makes one ritually unclean. That includes such activities as touching a dead animal or one of some designated creeping things. But it’s not a moral judgement. You can’t do certain ritual activities until you have washed, but washing is sufficient. Think about getting dirt on your hands while gardening. There’s nothing bad about that at all, but you don’t do certain things until you’ve washed off the soil.

John, however, announced a baptism with a different purpose. This baptism symbolized repentance, a change in direction, a commitment to a new way of living. The flowing water of the Jordan would not just carry away sin, it would carry away the practices and priorities of the past. It signaled a new beginning.

Jesus came to seek and find a new beginning.

We know so little about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood that it’s probably best to say that we know nothing about Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood. We don’t even know for certain that he worked as a carpenter. It would have been common for a son to follow his father’s trade, but the gospels don’t actually say that he did. As far as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are concerned, his life really began when he stepped down the bank of the Jordan River and asked John for baptism. The waters carried all but a few stories of angels and shepherds and wise visitors away.

That’s why John’s protest was futile. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said to Jesus. I doubt that this was about their relative states of sinfulness, but more about John’s sense of their relative authority. John had proclaimed the imminent arrival of someone more powerful than he. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals,” he said – this from the man who called the most respected religious leaders of his day “snakes.” Jesus then appeared before him and asked to be treated like anyone else. Why? Because he, too, needed to make a change in his life.

Speaking of our Christian baptism, Joy J. Moore writes at Working Preacher, “Baptism signals a journey that begins at a fork in the road where one path is chosen and another is rejected. It is our surrender to God’s righteousness that is not merely individual moral conduct but a focus on relationships restored.”

Shortly, Jesus would begin his ministry of proclamation, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”


Y’know, even in the heavy rains we’ve had in Hilo these few days, I could use a bit of scrub-a-dub.

Twenty-first century Americans are good at some kinds of cleanliness. We have one of the safest food systems in the world. Our drug stores and grocery store aisles are filled with personal hygiene products. I grant you that Japan has a lot to teach us about keeping our streets clean.

How good are we at meeting John the Baptist’s standard, of bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

Do we remember that our baptism was supposed to set us on a path of servanthood, the one envisioned by Isaiah, to not grow faint or be crushed until we have established justice in the earth?


Can we hear these words as spoken to us? Can I hear this words as spoken to me? Can you hear these words as spoken to you?

“I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”

That’s the life Jesus adopted when he returned to the riverbank. That’s the life to which Jesus summoned his first disciples. That’s the life to which God has summoned us.

Debie Thomas writes at, “God has not insulted humanity with so little agency; we get to choose.  No matter how many times God shows up in my life, I’m free to ignore him.  No matter how often he calls me Beloved, I can choose self-loathing instead.  No matter how many times I remember my baptism, I’m free to dredge out of the water the very sludge I first threw in.  No matter how often I reaffirm my vow to seek and serve Christ in all persons, I’m at liberty to reject you and walk away.”

So you are. So we all are. The world is filled with those who affirm their baptisms with their lips and reject it with their deeds. You’ve seen them treat their loved ones badly. You’ve seen them order the imprisonment of children. You’ve seen them maim and kill.

I wish I could say it was always them and never me. But I can’t. I, too, affirm my baptism with my lips and reject it with my deeds.

Kathryn Matthews writes at, “Rather than a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm (ours or that of our parents and godparents), ‘remembering our baptism’ is seeking equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, getting our bearings, remembering who (and whose) we are, and grounding ourselves in that assurance.”

Remembering our baptism is also remembering our direction, remembering our purpose, remembering our summons, remembering the One who summons us. Remembering our baptism is to let the waters once more carry away a life of missed opportunities, of wrong directions, of damaged relationships, of tolerated evils. Remembering our baptism is to let the waters renew our will and our drive and our hope and our love.

A scrub-a-dub that sends us into a new life.

Yes. I’ll take that. I don’t even need a rubber duck for that.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon


The text as prepared and the recording as presented are… not the same. Many things are never the same.

The image is the ceiling mosaic of the Arian Baptistry, built in the 5th or 6th century by Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great in Ravenna, Italy. The mosaic depicts the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist with a procession of the Apostles around. Photo by By Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 12, 2020

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