The Waters of Baptism

“The Waters of Baptism”

John the Baptist – Jesus MAFA

Mark 1:4-11 (1:9) – January 10, 2021

            When you or I think of baptism today, what comes to mind? A family with a precious infant or young child, the little one dressed in a special outfit. The congregation rejoicing as the minister performs the sacrament. Such a special and meaningful way of extending God’s grace.  

            But, let’s go back to our Gospel reading, when John the Baptist preached repentance. Certainly quite a different scene comes to mind. We see John as an outsider, some say a preacher of doom and gloom, and others a mighty prophet of God.

Reading from the Gospel for today, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

            You may remember bracelets and t-shirts with the initials “WWJD” imprinted on them. The words “What Would Jesus Do?” were a Christian, and even pop-culture, trend some years ago. Remembering this trend brings up a valid question. Let’s reframe it into a question about baptism. Who would Jesus exclude? For that matter, who would John turn away from baptism?

            I’d like to develop that question. St. Luke’s Church, our church, is a member church of the United Churches of Christ. This denomination has taken the radical stand of radical welcome. UCC churches are supposed to welcome everyone. That means a radical, open-hearted, open-handed welcome to all people, no matter what. No matter who.

No matter if someone is grumpy, or mean, or stingy. You are welcome here at St. Luke’s Church. No matter if someone is painfully shy, or has some physical or mental infirmity, or has a really strong personality. No matter what your gender or sexual orientation is, either. All are welcome here, in this particular church, too.  

            As we ask “Who Would Jesus Exclude?” from membership in this church, this brings to mind what the Rev. Dr. David Handley often proclaimed from the pulpit in his long tenure at First Presbyterian Church of Evanston. I remember hearing when I was a member there some 15 and 20 years ago. Dr. Handley would often insist in his sermons that the church is not a private club for the righteous, but instead a hospital for sinners.

I mean to say that our church is not to have arbitrary, unspoken rules for who to include and who to exclude from membership. God does not discriminate. God does not blackball prospective members. The UCC has taken the stand of radical welcome to everyone. That means that as a member church of the UCC, St. Luke’s Church takes that stand, too.  

I would like to return to our Gospel reading for this morning. Can you imagine John the Baptist saying, “I’m not baptizing that person!” because John didn’t like him or her? Sure, John had a strong personality. John was headstrong, and determined, and definitely spoke his mind. Many of the Jewish leaders and bigwigs in the Sanhedrin were upset with John the Baptist.

However, I suspect many of the ordinary members of synagogues throughout the region heard John’s message. Some people who had been turned away from synagogues, too. John the Baptist extended that radical welcome – telling all to repent of their sins, get right with God, and come and be baptized as an outward expression of an inward change.

Even some Jewish leaders and synagogue bigwigs heard John’s preaching, and were convicted of their small-minded and biased point of view. Even people John knew who had bad-mouthed and shunned him. I am sure John did not turn them away, but baptized them, too.  

Do you think God was surprised about the conflict in synagogues, and at the Temple? How about the conflict in the early churches? What do you think Paul and Peter, James and John were addressing when they wrote their letters that are included in the New Testament? Sins like hatred, conflict, bitterness and envy do not somehow “scare” God.

Just as in this past week here in the United States, the heightened rhetoric and the storming of the Capitol building did not shock God. God was not surprised or scared of the massive conflict and disruption. God recognizes that people are human. People sin – that is what they do. That is why John the Baptist came, to make people aware of their sin, and to call people to repentance. Baptism lets everyone know about people’s individual, internal change.

This church baptizes infants and small children. As commentator Carolyn Brown says, Infants and children “didn’t even know what was going on; [and] God, their parents, and the congregation loved them and claimed them as their own for all time.” [1] That can be extended to ALL of us. We all have been loved and claimed by God for all time. We are all God’s beloved.

The waters of baptism are here to wash away our sin, in this day and age. And not only that, but to extend God’s grace to those who have gone through the baptismal waters. Yes, we continue to sin, and yes, God does extend grace. We do not become suddenly sin-less, but as we walk with God, we will sin less and less. (At least, that is the hope.)

            I say to you, in the spirit of John the Baptist, Repent, and remember your baptism! Determine to journey with Jesus from this point onwards. Alleluia, amen. 


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/12/year-b-baptism-of-lord-first-sunday.html

Worshiping with Children, Baptism of the Lord, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

In Whom I Delight

“In Whom I Delight”

Matt 3-16 baptism word cloud

Isaiah 42:1-8, Matthew 3:13-17 – January 12, 2020

Most people are familiar with job descriptions. A job description for a bus driver would highlight their ability to be able to transport people safely and efficiently from one place to another. A job description for a magazine editor would feature their skill at editing and synthesizing copy for publication. But, what would the job description be for the Messiah, the Chosen One of the Lord?

We turn to our Gospel reading for this morning, from Matthew chapter 3. We meet Jesus at the very beginning of His public ministry at the River Jordan. He presents Himself to John the Baptist, along with a whole crowd of other people. They all want to be baptized, yes. But, what will Jesus do after baptism? What is His ministry going to look like? Do we know the requirements of His position as Servant of the Lord?

If we step back from this close-up view of Jesus and His cousin John the Baptist, we might be surprised at what we see. John had made a big splash in Jewish society, and in fact that whole geographical region. There were many, many people coming to where he was stationed at the River Jordan. Sure, many of them had heard the fire-and-brimstone way he preached. Many others wanted the first-hand experience with a true prophet of God. He called for serious repentance! Not a simple, breezy “I’m sorry” sort of thing. No, John preached a genuine, heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching repentance.

Isn’t that what you and I are supposed to do, before we come to the waters of baptism? Repent? Follow God? Or, if we are bringing babies or small children to be baptized, aren’t the parents and godparents supposed to answer for the children and affirm that these little ones are going to strive to follow God all the days of their lives? Serious matters. Serious vows.

But, Jesus was sinless! He did not need to be baptized! Why on earth did Jesus do this? Two of the reasons I believe Jesus went through the waters of baptism: He publicly inaugurated His public ministry, and He closely identified with the penitent people of God. How better to let people know that He was one of them than to experience all things in the same way that they did, go through all of life’s ups and downs, striving to live life as God would have Him live it.

Yet, John also prophesied the coming of the Lord’s Messiah—or as translated into Greek, the Christ. The Servant of the Lord, as mentioned by several prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. There has got to be a job description in one of those Servant-of-the-Lord sections. Isn’t there?

Many organizations and businesses have detailed job descriptions for each of their positions. In want-ads on line, you can see details of each job, listing required qualifications, desired expectations, practically everything an applicant would need to know in order to apply for the featured position.

In our Hebrew Scripture reading from Isaiah 42, we see a clear description of the prophesied Servant of the Lord. In other words, a job description for the Messiah. We can also think of this as a checklist for the several years of the Rabbi Jesus’s public ministry.

The first qualification the prophet talks about? “I have called you in righteousness.” This is answered directly by Jesus, in Matthew 3. Why was one of the reasons for Jesus’s baptism? As Jesus said, “to fulfill all righteousness.” I suspect Jesus may have had this very section in Isaiah 42 in mind when he responded to John the Baptist.

We hear this job description repeated again and again, by various prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as prophecy fulfilled in the Gospels. Sort of like a first-century job board. Is it any wonder that many people already knew what was ahead of the Rabbi Jesus as He begins His ministry among the people of Israel?

The prophet Isaiah writes God “will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,” We go back to that jam-packed chapter 2 of the Gospel of Luke. After the angels and the shepherds went away, Mary and Joseph took the eight-day old baby Jesus to be presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. When he saw this Baby, the devout man Simeon also made a prophesy about this Gift from God. It is almost word-for-word out of Isaiah 42. Simeon said “For my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” As Luke said, Simeon had been told by the Lord that he would live to see the Messiah. Lo and behold, when Mary and Joseph brought the Baby into the Temple, Simeon was there, to be a witness.

Another phrase from Isaiah 42: “to open eyes that are blind.” A number of times in the Gospels, we see Jesus healing people who are blind, restoring their sight. One of these healings is recorded in John 9, where Jesus publicly heals a man born blind, and argues with the religious leaders while He was doing the healing. (Plus, an editorial comment: I cannot believe Jesus would heal anyone’s sight to less than 20/20. Perfect sight.)
The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Servant of the Lord would “free captives from prison and release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” When Jesus proclaimed in His hometown synagogue that He was the Servant of the Lord, He read from another section of Isaiah. Jesus said these same words: He would free the captives and set the oppressed free.
Last but certainly not least, Isaiah 42 begins with a summary statement: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.” Could this be any more clearly the voice of the Lord, echoing across the waters of the River Jordan? “A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” What love. What affirmation. What blessing.

If only we all could have that approval from our earthly parents and families. As one of my favorite commentators David Lose said, “Baptism is nothing less than the promise that we are God’s beloved children. That no matter where we go, God will be with us.” [1]

Certain job descriptions designate people with specific titles or names. I suspect you are familiar with a number of them, too. “Nurse,” “doctor,” “judge,” “teacher,” and even “pastor.” Jesus had the job titles “rabbi,” “teacher” and even “Messiah” or “Christ.” Names or titles are important; some lifting up, and others tearing down.

Think of the various titles or names you have had in your life, as will I. Were all those names or titles positive, good, or helpful? Or, were some of these hurtful, hateful, or demeaning? Some of these names or titles can stay in the memory for years, or even longer, when said in a mean or nasty way. Think of names or titles like “Stupid” or “Egghead,” “Fatso” or “Ugly.” Names like “Loser” or “Prissy,” “Know-it-all” or “Victim”.

As I remind all of us about these negative, hateful names or titles, and we sit with them for a moment, it is just for a moment. Each of us has a God-inspired job description, too. Each of us has the title or name of beloved child. Think about it. We may hold this title, this name, to our hearts—Christian. What an affirmation. What a blessing!

Just as Jesus had the title God’s beloved in His job description, so do we. We have God’s word on it.  

(I would like to thank the commentator David Lose for his article on the Baptism of Jesus and Matthew 3 from Dear Working Preacher. For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from this devotional. Thanks so much!)

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1580

“The Power of a Good Name,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2011.

 

 

Baptism: A Gift of God

“Baptism: A Gift of God”

luke 3-21 african depiction baptism

Luke 3:21-22 – January 13, 2019

When I was a small child, I remember being so excited about gifts. Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, it did not matter. I remember how wonderful it was for me to receive gifts. I also remember when I was in middle school, when I first bought my mother a birthday present, a little vase from a gift store. I believe it was the first birthday present I had ever bought and given to anyone. I really hoped she would like it.

I also remember when I was a little older, being so excited to share my newly-opened gifts with one of my best friends. I would bring over to her house the sweater or special socks or wonderful book I had received, and be so happy when she rejoiced with me over my awesome gift. Can you think of any wonderful gifts that you wanted to share? Perhaps a brand new bicycle, or an engagement ring, or some extra-special news from far away. The wonderful joy of receiving the gift was made even more special by sharing the joy.  

One very special gift-giver is God. God gives wonderful gifts to God’s people. We can hear about that gift in our Gospel reading from Luke 3. “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” When John the Baptist urged people to come forward and be baptized, Luke’s Gospel says all the people were baptized. That means all of them. All who heard John’s message and invitation came forward to receive God’s wonderful gift of grace through baptism.  

Who among us is perfect, here? Who never sins? Who never does anything wrong or never says mean or angry things, or never steps out of line? Not me. I know I fall short of where God wants me to be. I am hesitant to accept this free gift of God’s grace, at times. I know I sin, I know I miss the mark of God’s righteousness that is set for me in the Bible.

This is the case with you, and with everyone in the world, whether they admit it or not. Romans 3:23 tells us “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” This is a heavy burden to lay on anyone. Yet, what does the Apostle Paul tell us in Romans 6:23? Yes, the wages of sin—our payment for sinning—is death. Yet, the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we watch in the baptism service, some may wonder. As we see, in Luke 3, some wondered there, too. Luke tells us they were questioning in their hearts whether John the Baptist might possibly be the Messiah. John redirected their questioning and their gaze by pointing to one who would come after him. John pointed to Jesus.

The Rev. Jeff Campbell relates, “A loving God is constantly reaching out, wanting to be at the center of our lives. And although we might still have questions, we are directed to Jesus, just as John directed those gathered who were seeking a Messiah.” [1]

Baptism is a sign of this marvelous, free gift of God. God’s rich and abundant grace is poured out. As we can see from our reading today in Luke, all the people present received this marvelous gift. Jesus was an extra-special case, since He already had an intimate relationship with His Heavenly Father. Looking at today’s reading, we can see what happened, from Luke’s account: “And as [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus showed, in part, that by being baptized He was dedicating His whole life to following His Heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit descending on Jesus was a visual sign of the gift of grace freely given that descends upon each one who is baptized. What a marvelous visual sign for all of us to treasure!

Then, as a sign of love and response, we strive to love and to serve God in Christian fellowship and service, all the days of our lives. Freely and without obligation.

I want to caution everyone here. Baptism is not something we do on our own, not some rung of the ladder we are building to get into God’s heaven. No, us building a ladder of good works will never work. God’s grace covers everything, and the free gift of God is given on our account. It’s not us at all. It is all God. God’s amazing love and indescribable gift.

When a baby is baptized, the parents tell God and the church, “Our child belongs to the Lord.” When an adult is baptized, he or she tells God, “I belong to you. I trust you with my whole life.” At Jesus’s baptism, God’s voice said aloud that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Jesus is God’s well-loved Child. It pleases God that Jesus trusts and obeys God. That makes God glad beyond measure. [2]

Rev. Janet Hunt, ELCA pastor from DeKalb, relates the following: “Jesus’s life did not measure up to much by those standards you and I often hold dear. He never married or had a family. From all we can tell he owned no property, had no wealth to pass on once he died. The results of his work were awfully hard to measure: unless you kept track of the numbers healed and taught and fed. A whole lot of the time the crowd he hung around with was not the sort that could help him ‘get ahead.’ In fact, they were those most respectable folks then and now might mostly avoid. In the end, Jesus died a painful, shameful death, abandoned by his closest followers….being claimed and loved by God brings power and purpose — to Jesus, yes, but also to each and every one of us who have heard even a whisper of the promise Jesus hears today: “You are my Child, the beloved…” But that power and purpose are not only for this life alone. Oh, these must be promises which extend far beyond the physical and must carry us not only through this life but into life eternal, don’t you think? And isn’t it ours to begin and end each day wondering at the meaning of having been called by name… and belonging to God.” [3]

What wonderful gifts, to all of us. What an indescribable gift of grace, given freely in baptism, to us all!  

As the Holy Spirit descends like a dove from heaven, we all can hear the voice of God, whispering to each of us, “You are my son. You are my daughter. My beloved one. With you I am well pleased.”

Each of us can say, “I am God’s beloved.” Remember our baptismal vows, and rejoice!

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-13-baptism-of-the-lord-sunday-year-c/baptism-of-the-lord-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-13-baptism-of-the-lord-sunday-year-c/baptism-of-the-lord-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] God’s Claim, God’s Protection…

http://dancingwiththeword.com/gods-claim-gods-protection/  January 6, 2019

Water Drop Words – Star Words

Marci Auld Glass is the pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho. She wrote a post several years ago in her blog Glass Overflowing where she said, “The premise is this: the magi followed the star to find baby Jesus, bringing their gifts. We are also seeking Jesus, trusting God can/does use many signs [or gifts] to guide us closer to the Divine presence.”

Marci says, “People are invited to take a star in worship. On each of the stars is a word. I invite people to trust the word that selects them, but we do not police the star choosing, so if people need to trade out a word, they are free to do so. When we first started doing this, people weren’t sure they wanted to trust the words they drew. Now it has become an important part of our congregation’s liturgical year.”

Here at St. Luke’s Church in Morton Grove, for the past few years we have been celebrating a Reaffirmation of Our Baptism on the second Sunday of January, the Sunday after Epiphany. Instead of star words, some churches have used water drops, and passed out water drop words to their congregations. That is what we are doing today.

The water drop gifts are passed around to the congregation using the same offering plates that we use later on in worship to gather up the tithes and offerings. As people help themselves to a water drop word (without looking—just reach in and grab!), the significance is not lost. In this moment, people are not asked to give; they are invited to receive. It reminds us that this is always the order of things in God’s kingdom—God always gives first, and then we are invited to respond with our gifts and ourselves.

As the Holy Spirit descends like a dove from heaven, we all can hear the voice of God, whispering to each of us, “You are my beloved one. With you I am well pleased.”

Each of us can say, “I am God’s beloved.” Remember our baptismal vows, and rejoice!

 

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

 

 

Prepare!

“Prepare!”

Mark 1-3 prepare, road

Mark 1:1-8 (1:3) – December 10, 2017

This is the second weekend in December, a time of year that many people consider festive, merry and bright. The holidays here in America—with Christmas quickly approaching—are associated with tinsel, holly, and bright lights. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, silver bells, and jingle all the way.

But, that’s the secular way of welcoming the holidays. When we think of religious Christmas carols, we can remember O Little Town of Bethlehem, Angels We Have Heard on High, The First Nowell, and O Come, All Ye Faithful.

Except…it isn’t Christmas yet. We are still on the second Sunday of Advent. We are still preparing our hearts and minds for the coming of the Baby in Bethlehem. Sort of like in George Frederick Handel’s “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts’s verse “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

The first two Sundays in Advent are more prophetic in tone. The bible readings for these two weeks look at prophecy referring to the coming of the Lord. In the case of the Apostle Peter, he is talking about the second coming of our Lord Jesus. The Gospel reading from the first chapter of Mark is about the forerunner of the Lord, John the Baptist. Mark starts off this gospel with “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet.”  John the Baptist cries, “Prepare! Prepare the way of the Lord!”

What are we supposed to prepare, anyhow? That was always a question I asked myself.

Let’s back up. We learn more about John the Baptist from the Gospel of Luke. He was Jesus’s cousin. We know about John because his older mother Elizabeth was pregnant at the same time as the young Mary, the mother of Jesus. I suspect John and Jesus grew up fairly close to one another, perhaps even seeing each other on a regular basis.

What about the people at the time of the John the Baptist and his ministry, in the first century? What did they think of him? John comes across as—what some today might call—a lunatic or crazy person. Some homeless guy, spouting weird religious stuff about the coming of the Lord, or something. Really wacko, and not very appealing. Look at what he wears! Look at his weird diet, too!

John had quite a prophecy to live up to, as well. Listen to what Isaiah the prophet has to say! “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Yes, we can compare John to one of those doom-and-gloom prophets with a long, bushy beard. We might see them in cartoons, walking around a downtown area with a large sign that says “Repent! Prepare! The end of the world is near!”

I know I’ve heard street preachers downtown who preach fire-and-brimstone messages, warning everyone of the judgement to come, telling people to clean up their acts. Isn’t this similar to what John was preaching? Telling people to repent and to prepare for God’s coming?

Although, God did not just send a preacher like John the Baptist one time only, two thousand years ago. No, God regularly sends those preachers into our lives today to remind us that God’s arrival is indeed just around the corner.

What’s more, we hear from one of those preachers in the New Testament lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent. In Eugene Peterson’s great modern translation “The Message,” the apostle Peter asks, “Since everything here today might well be gone tomorrow, do you see how essential it is to live a holy life?” [1]

Living a holy life? That is exactly what John the Baptist wanted people to do, too. That is why he told people to clean up their hearts, and clean up their lives. Prepare! Get ready! John told people they had forgotten how to live like God’s people and needed to make changes. So, he baptized people who heard him, changed their minds and hearts, and wanted to make those changes permanent in their lives. [2]

We know that many people did change their hearts and minds, and did start living the way God wanted them to live, back in the time of John the Baptist. We know that many people repented and got baptized as an outward sign that they were repenting, and that God forgave their sins.

There are certain people who do not want to change. Certain people are stuck in their imperfect but familiar ruts, stuck doing the same thoughtless things, saying the same hurtful words, thinking the same inconsiderate thoughts. Everyone remembers Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s story A Christmas Carol? Remember how mean and sour and nasty Scrooge was? He had absolutely no intention of changing his ways and becoming a kinder, more compassionate person—becoming more Christlike.

The people who John baptized certainly wanted to change, and they told John the Baptist so. They had a change of heart, and turned around to go a different way. They were preparing for the coming of the Lord. They were preparing the way for the Lord to work in their hearts, minds and lives. Can we do the same thing in our hearts, minds and lives, today? Or, will we cry, “Bah, humbug!” with Ebenezer Scrooge and continue on our stubborn way, away from God?

Another aspect of Scrooge’s life bears looking at. Another of Ebenezer Scrooge’s problems was that “he thought everything he had – his money, his possessions, his business – were the things that brought meaning to his life.” [3] The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future could be viewed as preachers. They came to him that evening and reminded him that all of those earthly things could be gone tomorrow. Sure, Scrooge had prepared all his earthly assets, but he had not prepared the inner sanctuary of his heart.

In the first century, in our Gospel lesson today, John the Baptist encouraged the crowds to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We have preachers today to encourage us to do the same thing. We have the witness of conscience and the Holy Spirit to do the same thing—encourage us to change. By repenting; literally making a 180 degree turn. By stopping dead in our tracks, like old Ebenezer, and re-evaluating the course of our life.

What is more, John promised that someone was coming from God who was going to be very important. John told people that they could change and that Jesus would give them even more power to make even bigger changes.

What about us, here and now? We can hear the call of John the Baptist. We can prepare for the coming of the Messiah. We can prepare Him room, just as the Christmas Carol “Joy to the World” tells us. We can prepare the sanctuary of each of our hearts to welcome the Baby in Bethlehem who is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Won’t you prepare the way?

[1] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

[2] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/11/year-b-second-sunday-of-advent-december.html

Year B – The Second Sunday of Advent (December 7, 2014)

[3] From An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide, Week Two. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry.

(A heartfelt thank you to An Advent Journey: Devotional Guide. Some of these sermon ideas and thoughts came directly from this guide.  I appreciate this intergenerational curriculum, which is the basis for my Advent sermon series. This curriculum comes from Illustrated Children’s Ministry. Thanks so much for such great ideas!)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Baptized, Beloved

“Baptized, Beloved”

luke-3-21-baptismchrist2

Matthew 3:13-17 (3:16) – January 8, 2017

Water. Water is used for a great many things. For washing and cleaning, certainly! Washing clothes and dishes, washing hands before dinner, washing cars in the summertime. Cleaning things, too, like brushing teeth before bed, and cleaning instruments and tools. Water is used for a special, cleansing purpose in the Christian church, too. Water is for cleansing of people, and washing of souls, of body and spirit.

The Gospel of Matthew begins our Scripture passage today with Jesus at the very beginning of His ministry. He comes to the River Jordan, to see His cousin John the Baptist. And what is John doing at the Jordan? Baptizing people, cleansing them while they confess their sins, washing their souls, inside and out.

Let’s back up a bit, and take a look at the passage from Isaiah, from the Hebrew scriptures. Here we have a prophetic suggestion of what is to come; the prophet tells us here in the book of Isaiah about the Sent One of God.

Did you know that God deeply cares about the Sent One? The prophet says so! Listen again to verse 42:6—“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you;” We see that God is faithful to God’s promises, and will care for those whom God loves. In fact, God is within the Servant the prophet speaks of, And, God means for this Servant to transform and cleanse the mess the world has been in. [1]

This is awesome news! The mixed-up world will finally be washed and cleansed. Except, Jesus does something completely unexpected. Jesus does not come to cleanse the world, at first. No, Jesus comes to John to be obedient and go through the waters of baptism Himself.

We can see from the Gospel passage that John is really hesitant to baptize Jesus. He says, “No way, Jesus! I oughta be baptized by You! And here You are, coming to me to be baptized?”

I want to remind everyone that Jesus had no sin. He was both God and man at the same time. Yet, Jesus came to be baptized by John. Jesus wanted to identify with sinful humanity in every way. Plus, Jesus wanted to fix the mess the world was in.

Look at verses 6 and 7 of the passage from Isaiah: “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 sounds like washing and cleansing this fallen, mixed-up world. That sounds like the mission Jesus had in His ministry here on earth.

But, Jesus is not there yet, at the beginning of Matthew 3. Jesus needs to be baptized, to fulfill all righteousness. And, what is righteousness? “Compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized, humility and faithfulness that always point to God as the One who is at work in this transformation, and the hope—the promise—of new things that will dazzle us and rattle the foundations of our safe little worlds. When read, and heard, together, the texts from Isaiah and Matthew dramatically illustrate God’s own deep faithfulness and care.” [2]

We can see from the Gospel of Matthew how God has deep faithfulness and care for Jesus, God’s Son. After Jesus convinces John to baptize Him, the heavens open, the Spirit of God as a heavenly dove descends, and God the Father says, “This is my Beloved!”

Let us imagine ourselves in that crowd on the banks of the river, watching the baptisms, as people are cleansed from sin. John is washing their souls, inside and out. Hear the sound of the rushing water. You and I, all of us are crowded together, jostling each other. We watch John the Baptizer, with that new rabbi Jesus, in the water. Suddenly, the heavens break apart! Everyone, all of us in the crowd know the Spirit of God is present, in the likeness of a dove coming down from the sky.

What do you think of when you hear the voice of God saying, “This is my Beloved!” What goes through your head? What kinds of feelings are going through you? Are you scared? Excited? Puzzled? Confused? Or, all of the above?

Think of baptisms we have seen, even participated in. Do you think baptisms are just an excuse for gifts and a party? Or, does baptism mean much more? Consider your own baptism in light of this Gospel reading. Now, think of the others in this congregation, too. Close your eyes. Think of God saying to you—yes, to you in particular—“You are my Beloved!”

            God is saying that to each one of you. Really and truly.

I found this story on a pastor’s sermon board, online. It was written a number of years ago by a Pastor Del in Iowa. He tells the story of his grandmother’s death, and his subsequent desire to find out more about his grandparents’ families.

“I began to ask questions about my genealogy… about my great grandfather (whose last name was Fahling) whom I remember well from my childhood.

“As I questioned my mother about the family history on my father’s side, she indicated to me that my great grandfather’s real last name is unknown. It seems that he left the old country and came to the New World as a boy, his journey paid for by a farmer with the name of Fahling. Upon crossing the waters of the Atlantic, my great grandfather took up residency with this farmer, labored on his land and took upon himself his sponsor’s name and identity and became part of the Fahling family. He even receiving a share in the inheritance of the family farm.

“At first I was disappointed with the loss of a history, but then I realized that in many respects this is the meaning of our baptisms. Crossing the waters, we take on different residency, ordained labors, and new identities and begin a new history. We become an integral part of the family of God through sharing in the baptism of Christ who sponsors and pays for our journey.”[3]

We have several different ways to come to an understanding of baptism. Yes, we have been washed and cleansed from our sins. We have crossed the water. Yes, each of us has been adopted by God. Yes, each of us has a new identity. And, yes, each of us is Beloved, much loved by God, our heavenly Parent.

Consider this last understanding of baptism, about each person, child or adult, in our congregation. And then about each baptized person you know. God considers each one God’s Beloved. Do we consider each one Beloved? Do we treat each person as God’s Beloved? How would that understanding change the way we treat each other?

Not that baptism magically changes us and—presto, change-o—causes us to become Beloved in some magical way. No! We are Beloved because God says we are. Just as God called Jesus Beloved, God refers to each of us in the very same way.

Praise God! I know I am God’s Beloved, the same way you are, too. What a marvelous name. What a fantastic feeling. What a wonderful God we serve.

 

(Thanks to Kathryn Matthews and the United Church of Christ’s Worship Ways for several ideas used in this sermon.)

[1] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[2] http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_january_8_2017   by Kathryn Matthews

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htm

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Well Pleased

“Well Pleased”

Baptism of Jesus Coptic icon

Baptism of Jesus
Coptic icon

Luke 3:22 – January 10, 2016

It’s a joyful day indeed when we celebrate a baptism in church.

We follow the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, showing to all an outward sign of an inward change. Here in this church, we often celebrate infant baptism, showing the sign of God’s grace to all who are present. The congregation has an important part, too. They promise to teach the little one the ways of God, and to help the family bring up the child in a manner pleasing to God. Truly, a joyful, grace-filled sign and sacrament!

Well, that’s today, here and now, a long time after the first century. That’s one common understanding we now have of baptism.

Our Gospel reading today features John the Baptist, baptizing people in the wilderness. John was a prophet of God. He was set apart for a special purpose, to give out a special message from God. Here John the Baptist preaches to the nation of Israel, before our Lord Jesus has even started His ministry.

This message ought to be familiar to most of us. We heard some of John’s prophetic message read as our Gospel lesson only a month ago. Doom and gloom! He identifies everyone in the crowd as part of the brood of vipers—as sinners! Exactly what John the Baptist has been saying to the people of Israel for some time.

Another way of looking at John’s message is: “You are dirty, inside and out! Come get clean, both symbolically and physically!” Through God’s grace, John offers the people the opportunity to be obedient and to clean up, to show God and to show others that they repent and turn from their sinful, wicked behavior, speech and thinking. Many people respond. It’s a mini-revival going on at the River Jordan. Amen! Hallelujah!

Let’s pull back for a moment, and consider the larger situation.

At that time, the nation of Israel was an occupied country. Under the boot of the Roman Empire, the people of Israel were oppressed and subjugated. Many people in Israel were looking for the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who would be a Savior for Israel. We can see from our Gospel reading today. Verse 15: “The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.”

John does not mince words. He does not pull punches. John identifies his listeners as a brood of vipers, as sinful and separated from God.

Just think about identity today. How do people identify themselves? In an excellent commentary on this Gospel passage, David Lose says many of the traditional elements of a person’s identity have been diminished. Think about it. The majority of people today change jobs and careers frequently. The majority of people live in multiple places and different residences rather than growing up and living for their whole lives in a single community. He comments, “fewer families remain intact – there is a craving to figure out just who we are.” [1]

John tells the people of Israel straight out, ““I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John the Baptist responds with a clear message: he offers the people baptism to remedy that flawed, sinful, separated identity. They can identify themselves with God, and be identified as God’s beloved children.

And then—and then—Jesus shows up. Jesus is about to begin His public ministry. But before that happens, He comes to the River Jordan to listen to His cousin John the Baptist. And, to get baptized.

Lo and behold, the companion Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark tell us that John is surprised to see Jesus there. But Luke’s account makes Jesus’s appearance natural. The next right thing that happens. Verse 21 says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.” At first, John is the star actor, the one doing the main action of baptizing. Jesus is the next one baptized, along with many others. However, what happens next?

The spotlight shifts in the following sentence. Dr. Luke turns his focus on Jesus. “As [Jesus] was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily form like a dove.”

Can you see this on a movie screen? We open to a wide shot of the River Jordan. Large crowd of people on the river bank, and a number lined up in the water, waiting their turn. John the Baptist in a rough woven tunic with a leather belt around his waist. John is doing his thing—baptizing people who have repented of their sin. And—Jesus is one of them.

The camera pans in to a close-up shot on Jesus. Next in line. John slowly takes Jesus, baptizes Him. We are not sure whether John dunks Jesus in the water, or whether he pours water over Jesus’s head. (I prefer the idea and the image of pouring the water.) Regardless, everyone gets pretty wet. Next thing we all know, the heavens open wide.

Can you see it? The bright light from heaven? Perhaps sound effects, too? Heavenly music? Maybe even a low rumble of thunder? Dr. Luke paints a show-stopper of a scene. He tells us the Holy Spirit appears as a dove, descending on Jesus. The capper of the scene is the voice of God. Quoting from Luke’s account: “A voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased.’”

Just in case anyone was not sure, God’s own voice tells us the identity of Jesus.

Jesus is God’s own beloved Son. Not only that, but God is well pleased with Him, too. Plus, the Holy Spirit as a dove is a visible and physical sign of the presence of God.

Here in this act of baptism, we find out about identity. As the commentator says, “The voice from heaven is addressed to Jesus in the first person: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Baptism teaches us who we are – God’s beloved children – and confers upon us the promise of God’s unconditional regard.“ [2]

God not only proclaimed Jesus’s identity, on the banks of the Jordan River, God also proclaims our identity. We belong to God. It is not our doing, but God’s, instead.

Did you hear? Do you understand? No matter what happens, or how often we fall short, we cannot erase or eradicate God’s love. We love God because God first loved us. God has given us that sign, that seal of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit.

It does not matter whether we have been brought to baptism as a baby or a child, or have come as a young person or an adult. Perhaps there are people here who have not been baptized yet. God calls for all to be baptized. God calls for all of us to remember our baptism, as well.

God’s arms are open wide. God’s grace is abundant, for you and for me. God’s grace is poured out freely upon us in baptism. We are cleansed to do God’s gracious work in the world. Can you hear God’s voice talking to you? Telling others about you? “This is my beloved child. With you, child, I am well pleased.”

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism – David Lose, https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624 .

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my sometimes-blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!