It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing

Matthew 3:13-17
© Stacey Steck

There is a fine and often plagiarized story used for helping the chronologically challenged among us. It has made the rounds of management gurus, and I’ve seen it attributed to Stephen Covey, but I suspect it is more likely from some Zen master in the 14th century. If you have heard it before, I ask your patience, and hope the payoff will come for you in a different form than you expect.

It goes like this. A guy walks into a bar with a chicken under one arm and a ...oops, wrong Zen master story. Wait. OK. A professor walks into his classroom carrying an empty 10-gallon glass jar and dragging an obviously heavy bag. He places them on the teacher’s desk. Without a word, he begins placing rocks, just big enough to fit through the mouth of the jar, into the jar until they reach the very top. “Is it full?” he asks. The class nods.

“Maybe not,” he says. He then stuffs tiny pebbles into the jar and the pebbles find their way through the cracks in the rock. “Full now?” he asks. The whole class nods.

He then shovels sand into the jar, occasionally shaking the jar, and the tiny grains sift through the rocks and pebbles. “OK,” he says, “now is it full?” The class nods in unison.

He smiles. He then slowly pours water into the jar until it reaches the very top of the jar. Sticking his finger in causes some of the water to spill over the side.

“The time management lessons here,” the professor says, “are that if you want to move forward in your life or your business, you need to get the big rocks in first or there won’t be room for them later but also that there is always more room in our lives than we think there is. When you think you’re out of time, there is still more available if you look for it.”

Now, this is the conventional reading of this story. You may even have heard it with spiritual twists attached. But as I hear that story, I hear a different moral of the story, one related even to Matthew’s understanding of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ: “It don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in.”

Let’s review: John has been baptizing folks right and left in the River Jordan, declaring to all that will listen, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” He’s a wild man, doing a wild thing, causing people to confess their sins with his powerful preaching, and suddenly there’s this Jesus standing before him, the very man about whom he said, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” And Jesus is lookin’ to get baptized. But John recognizes that something ain’t right here, this is backwards, the lesser is not supposed to bless the greater. It is a humbling moment for John, as he realizes he is standing in the presence of the very one about whom he has prophesied. And so he says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus says to him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” And so John consents, and then the water gets poured in, and it all means something. Jesus is baptized, God’s will is done, and the amazing public ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ can begin.

Now, people throughout the centuries have paused and scratched their heads and asked themselves, “Why does Jesus need to get baptized if he is sinless? Isn’t baptism done to wash away sin?” And this is a question that even Matthew pondered and decided to address and so he includes John’s protestation. But instead of answering it head on, he reports Jesus’s words and lets them do the talking. He leaves it in the realm of the mysterious but divine when he says “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” You see, the phrase “to fulfill all righteousness,” means doing right conduct that accords with God’s will and is pleasing to God. It means being obedient to God, fully obedient, and living according to God’s plan. And for Matthew, it is more important to place the baptism in the category of God’s plan, then to answer the sin question specifically.

And that is where I want to go back to the story of the professor and his classroom tricks. You can talk all you want about which order to put in the rocks, but the truth remains that that jar simply will not be completely filled until it contains the one and only thing which can fill it. Where the fullness of that jar in the classroom is concerned, it don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in. Biblically, you can put into the jar the patriarchs, and the prophets, and King David, and even Moses, but it won’t be full until you add the Son of God. For Matthew and the people to whom he was writing, there is no question in their minds that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the divine promises regarding the deliverance of Israel. In Jesus Christ is the revealed will of God, and in Jesus’ submission to John in the waters of the Jordan is the fulfillment of his role as son of God and servant of Israel. For Matthew, the jar is now completely full because Jesus obeyed God and was baptized.

Matthew wants to demonstrate to the whole world that the jar is full, that the son and servant has come, that the Kingdom of heaven not only has come near but is now here! This is why his story is different than the other gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus. In both Mark and Luke, the announcement by the voice from heaven of the sonship and belovedness of Jesus are announced only to Jesus. But in Matthew, it is announced to all around him. “This is my son,” not “You are my son.”

Now, you must know what’s coming next, right, because it’s just a short leap from “It don’t mean a thing ‘till you pour the water in” to the jump jivin’ of Duke Ellington, who along with Irving Mills, wrote in 1932 the immortal jazz classic, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” Hear now the words of that standard:
What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain’t possessin’ something sweet
It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing

Ol’ Duke Ellington was onto something. He knew that it took more than notes on a page to make a tune complete, more than having the instruments tuned just right -- that there was one thing needed to put it all together and make the music righteous. It’s intangible, that swing, but ya’ gotta have it, or the song just kinda lies there flat and lifeless, kind of like the difference between me reading the lyrics and Ella Fitzgerald singing them. Now, supposing we took that jazz standard and made a spiritual out of it. Then we’re not talking about a song but about a life, and the swing is just as intangible, only this time you don’t call it swing, you call it Holy Spirit. And you recognize that life without Spirit is like life without music, or love, or ice cream sundaes, and you rejoice that Jesus convinced John to baptize him so that the jar might be full and we might have life, and the spirit might come at God’s command to fill us up as well. That, my friends is the fulfillment of all righteousness, the will of God for our lives, and the very purpose of the incarnation. Thanks be to God for the swing in our lives, the swing that makes them mean something.

This morning we will be doing something together that will put a little swing into the life of the church, namely, we will ordain elders and deacons. And to do it on this particular Sunday is appropriate for there is more than a passing resemblance between the baptism of Christ and the ordination of officers in the Presbyterian Church. In the first place, we believe that just as God appointed Christ for his ministry, God calls men and women for ministry in the church and world today. And so, to ordain them is to demonstrate publicly that they are obedient to God not only in their response to the call, but that the church is obedient in cooperating with the call God has extended to these individuals. This is, after all, what John did, as he baptized Jesus, he and Jesus together doing what was in accordance with God’s will and pleasant in God’s sight. Ordination is, in a very real sense, about the fulfillment of all righteousness, in this case for the life of the church.

Furthermore, for Matthew, as Jesus rises from the cold waters of the Jordan, there is nothing different about him just because he has been baptized; it is simply announced to all that “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is no transformation of Jesus’ consciousness of his mission or granting of power to him. The only difference in Jesus after his baptism is that everyone around him knows that he has been sent by God for the purpose of being an obedient Son and servant. And likewise, when these Elders and Deacons rise from under the crush of hands laid upon them, there will be nothing visibly different about these children of God. They will continue to be the faithful disciples of Christ who have, in the words of Presbyterian poet Kathleen Norris, “already incarnated the love of Christ in ways that have touched people and enhanced the life of the church,” the evidence by which this church has recognized that they have been called by God for these specific duties. And though we may not hear it, we might expect that somewhere, a voice from heaven is saying, “These are my servants, my beloved, with them I am well pleased.”

Finally, just as following his baptism Jesus begins his public ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit, these deacons and Elders will leave this place empowered by the Holy Spirit to undertake the common ministry of First Presbyterian Church. They will be exchanging their comfortable places in cushioned pews for the rough and tumble world of ecclesiastical politics and governance, ministry and mission, but they have been prepared, they have been called, and they have discerned that this act is God’s will for their lives for the next little while. They will continue to do what they have always done as people of faith, but now they will do it more visibly, more communally, and hopefully with the same sense of awe and purpose we might imagine Jesus felt when he saw the Spirit of God descend and alight upon him.

One of the key points that Matthew brings out in his telling of the story of the baptism of Jesus is that John cooperated with Jesus in doing God’s will. “It is proper for us,” Jesus says, and John consented. Jesus made John a partner in fulfilling God’s plan. And this is where the shoe leather meets the road less traveled, for what cooperation and partnership are all about is response, response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ, response to movement of the Spirit swinging in our lives, response to the call to ministry that God extends to each of us, and not only officers. For what is life without God but a jar not quite full or a tune that lacks a certain oomph. In the words of that old jazz spiritual,
What good is melody, what good is music
If it ain’t possessin’ something sweet
It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes the tune complete

It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing
It don’t mean a thing, all you got to do is sing
It makes no diff’rence if it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm ev’rything you got
It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing

May each of us cooperate with that swing that God grants so generously, and may we give it everything we got. Amen.