God Our Pathfinder!

“God Our Pathfinder!” – September 27, 2020

Psalm 25:1-9 (25:4-5)

Do you know people who do things or say things that are really hurtful, but never acknowledge the hurt at all? These oblivious people can make others uncomfortable, or downright angry. Even if they are shown clear evidence of their bad behavior or wrongdoing, they will not own up to it, at all.

Our Scripture reading today mostly talks about the flip side of this bad behavior – or living in God’s way, according to God’s paths. King David reflected on his life, and gives his readers an overview of his journey with God in this psalm. However, we are also given a few fascinating glimpses of David’s own stumbles – the sins and rebellion of his youth.

Which of us has not been foolish in our youth? Or, sometimes downright rebellious? Going our own way? Not listening to anyone or anything? Some people – even, many people stubbornly insist on doing things their way, over and over. And, they do not care or are oblivious of what happens to others who express caution or prudence. Knowing what King David was like in his youth, I can well see why David remembered certain situations (without giving us the painful details) right here in this overview.  

As I just mentioned, certain people are foolish and rebellious into middle age, and even beyond. I suspect David knew a number of oblivious or malicious people. He must have experienced them in his life, too. In verse 2, he asks God not to allow mean, malicious people to shame him.

Do you and I have rebellious or malicious people in our lives? That is the wonderful thing about poetry, like in the book of Psalms. When you and I read one of these songs to God, it is so simple to put ourselves in the place of the psalm writer and with him, ask God to protect us from rebellious or malicious words, acts, and deeds – and people.  

Today, we begin every worship service with a confession of sin. Just in case you or I have some sin or transgression in our hearts, thoughts or lives, this confession of sin helps us to clean our slate before God.

Before paper was common and cheap, and way before computer laptops and tablets, schoolchildren often used slates to do schoolwork. This was like a little chalkboard, and students could write their lessons out. Except – what would happen if you made mistakes? What if the math problem you worked was wrong? Then, you would need to clean or erase the marks on the slate. Just as we need to clean the slates of our lives each Sunday as we come before God in worship, we confess our sins, and we promise to repent.

To repent is to change your ways or turn from one thing to another.  Based on what they hear in church, most people simply assume that ‘repent’ means to be sorry for something you have done.  Today’s psalm reading implies that while being sorry is a good starting point, the real repenting doesn’t start until we start making changes. [1]

God’s rule book (the Bible) is a great guide and compass. David’s wise words help us know where to find God’s ways and paths. We can read Scripture, as we do together in church, we can study it and examine it more closely, and we can pray and ask God to help us continue to walk in a Godly manner, leaving behind the rebellious and malicious ways of the world.  

However, I wonder about those who are really hurting. Those who are in great pain, or those who are actively grieving a great loss, or the death of a dear loved one. Yes, these words of King David are fine for most of us, most of the time. But, for those who are intensely mourning, these words to study and follow and hearken to God’s Word seem to ring hollow.

There are psalms that reach right down inside of a person and speak to raw, grieving, mournful feelings. Psalm 4, 32, 54, 116, and 139 are good examples of God reaching out to hurting people. And, of course, we all can think of Psalm 23 and how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow.  

Scripture memory verses can help people when they are floundering through life. Many people remember memorizing verses of Scripture in Sunday school, and beyond. Some remember their children and grandchildren memorizing the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and even parts of different catechisms.   

In this psalm, David reminds us “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me.” This psalm calls us to look to the past to see how God has provided both growth and forgiveness. It also calls on us to be honest about our past. [2]

So different from today’s “Gospel” of a secular culture that promotes self-actualization, self-sufficiency, and instant gratification, David reminds us all that we can follow God’s ways. [3] We all can journey with God on the upward path, and receive fullness of life from God, not from online merchandise or take-out food delivered to our door.

Have you gone off the path that God has set before each of us? It is not too late to change your heart and mind. Not only say “sorry” to God, but change our ways. Get on God’s path.

David calls each of us to follow God’s way! May it be so, dear Lord.


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/09/year-proper-21-26th-sunday-in-ordinary.html

Worshiping with Children, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3905

Commentary, Psalm 25:1-10, Beth L. Tanner, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2018

[3] McCann, Jr., J. Clinton, “Psalm 25,” The New Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. IV (Abingdon, Nashville, TN: 1996), 779.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  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.

 

 

Believe the Message!

“Believe the Message!”

Mark 1-17 fishers of people

Mark 1:14-20 (1:15) – January 21, 2018

What is news? There are lots of different kinds of news. National news, local news. Partisan news, news that is slanted one way or another. What’s more, we hear so much about “fake news” today. News fit to scare the pants off of some people, and news meant to get some people really upset. News brings about all kinds of reactions. What kind of news can we possibly trust? How do we know which kind of news to believe?   

If we take a closer look at our Gospel reading for today, the Gospel writer Mark talks about news, too. Good News. God’s news—God’s wonderful message of Good News, brought by the greatest newsman, the greatest news announcer of all time, our Lord Jesus Himself.

Mark doesn’t waste any time with genealogies (like Matthew) or with long backstories of how Jesus came into the world (like Luke and John). No, Mark starts right off with a bang, with the baptism of Jesus. Then, shortly after He is baptized, Jesus starts to travel about saying, “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

I love the relevance, the immediacy of Eugene Peterson’s modern translation. How appropriate that this translation of the Bible is called “The Message.” The whole Bible is God’s Good News to humanity, and most especially right here, in the Gospel of Mark.

Here we are, right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. John the Baptist (the cousin of Jesus) was already on the scene. A sort of a warm-up act for the main event, for some time John had already been proclaiming “Repent! And, believe God’s Good News!” First Jesus came to John to be baptized, and now was the time for Him to begin His own ministry, His own preaching of God’s Good News.

What do we hear first thing in our Gospel reading today? John the Baptist has been arrested. Next thing, Jesus begins to gather a group of disciples around Himself. Mark tells us that the way Jesus does this is by proclaiming God’s Good News. The Kingdom of God has come to us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, “Believe God’s Message!”

One sure way to know when the writers of the Bible really want readers to pay attention is when a word or phrase is repeated. “The emphasis of Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ coming is the gospel, the “good news,” a term that in the first fifteen verses of the gospel occurs three times.” [1]  Today’s text continues the story from last Sunday, that is, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as He tells God’s Good News to His first disciples. In today’s reading Jesus calls four fishermen at the Sea of Galilee — Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

Our Gospel reading last week was from John chapter 1, and there are some differences between John’s account and Mark’s account from today’s scripture reading. In that sermon, I also mentioned how Jesus called several of His first disciples—this time it was John and James first, and then Simon Peter and Andrew. Some people have said, “I don’t understand. Which story is true, the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Mark?” Great question.

When a car accident happens in the middle of a busy intersection, that is a real tragedy. I understand when the accident is serious enough, the police sometimes get involved to find out exactly what happened. Imagine the surprise and even consternation when eyewitnesses on different street corners have different perspectives and impressions of the same event!

In the case of the car accident, the different people all saw the same vehicles collide, but from opposite angles and varying positions. Different things may have made a strong impression on one witness, more than another.

It’s no wonder that their eyewitness accounts are somewhat different from each other. And, in the case of the four different Gospel accounts, that adds to the richness and depth of the separate narratives. Each Gospel writer had a separate emphasis and perspective, and different things he wanted to highlight and point out.

However, we need to drill down to what is common between these readings. Jesus calls His first disciples, and Jesus tells them all, “God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.” What is the definition of God’s Good News, anyway? In Greek, the word is euaggelion, or Gospel. God’s Message of Good News to all humanity.

As we trace this Good News through the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we get some more information. God’s Good News is truth. With the coming of the man Jesus here on the earth, humanity has the opportunity to see and touch and experience what God is like. A key feature of this Good News is hope. The fallen world is pretty hopeless and dark, but Jesus brings hope to the hopeless heart. And, last, God’s Good News means salvation. Salvation is not just being saved from the negative aspects of escape from sin and death. No! Salvation is eternal life, and the power to live life victoriously. [2]

God’s Good News is something new to many; something different, even radical. Why on earth should anyone want to adopt this strange, new life from Jesus? Maybe, this way of being and living is even a bit frightening? Many people may well be afraid of taking such a big step.

As Dallas Willard writes, “when he was a boy, rural electrification was just happening and power lines were being strung throughout the countryside.  But suppose even after the lines were up and running you ran across a house where the weary family still used only candles and kerosene lanterns for light, used scrub boards, ice chests, and rug beaters.  A better life was waiting for them right outside their door if only they would let themselves be hooked into the power lines.  “My friends,” you could proclaim, “electricity is at hand!”  But suppose they just didn’t trust it, thought it was too much of a hassle, and anyway didn’t believe the promises that things might be easier with this newfangled juice running into their house.  “If it’s all the same to you, we’ll stick with the old ways.” [3]

You see the difficulty? How some people are afraid of change? Or, prefer not to change their lives? How some don’t want to accept this Good News from God because it’s different, or new, or out of their experience? Can you hear Jesus saying, “My friends, God’s Kingdom is at hand! God’s Good News of eternal life is right here, waiting for you!”

Jesus still offers this gift of God in our world today, proclaiming His Message of God’s Good News, His Message of God’s truth, hope and salvation.

God’s Good News actually makes our job simple. We need to widely and clearly communicate the Message of God. “What mustn’t be lost on us is the urgency of its communication, for the day of judgement is at hand. We point to the hope of eternal life in Christ and call on everyone everywhere to turn and put their trust in Jesus.” [4]

Have you responded as the disciples did, by dropping everything and embracing the Good News? Jesus is calling, waiting for you and for me. Jesus says, “Believe the Message! Come, follow Me.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2315

Commentary, Mark 1:14-20, Michael Rogness, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Barkley, William, The Gospel of Mark (Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1975), 25-26.

[3] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-3b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

Commentary and illustration idea, Mark 1:14-20, Scott Hoezee, Center for Excellence in Preaching, 2015.

[4] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyg/sunday3bg.html   “Repent and Believe in the Good News,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: 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!)

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!