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This Week's Sermon !

January 8, 2017, - Baptism of Jesus

Acts 10: 34-43
Psalm 29
Matthew 3: 13-17

Who IS This Man?

A few weeks ago I made a reference to the mysterious masked crime fighter from the early days of television, known to anyone of a certain age as “the Lone Ranger”. The question and answer “set”: “who was that masked man?” followed by, “why he’s the lone ranger” became the tag line to finish off the very predictable ending for each episode of that tv show.

Jesus’ initial followers had no such predictability when he came upon the scene. While the believers who eventually became the Christian church came to believe that he was the “Messiah”, Jesus re-wrote the book on what that meant. What he promised them was far different from their cultural expectations.

They expected a military leader who would bring back the glory days of King David while he sought to take them back to their prophetic and spiritual foundations and was not at all concerned with traditional views of military greatness. Nevertheless he was greatly feared by the establishment and was executed because he threatened the power and security of the state.

The passage from the book of Acts speaks to a great dilemma within the early church: “Who can belong” and, in the end, the people who sought to open the church to both Jews and Gentiles, won out.

That was close to 2 millennia ago and we in the church are trying to come to terms with a great cultural shift that has been going on since the 1960s at least, if not since the enlightenment.

What is important with regard to belief? What is important with regard to Christian practice. Who can find a home in our church?

As I was researching the background of the texts for today’s sermon, I cam across the story of Mario. He was a formerly homeless man who lived in a church shelter after having spent half his life on the streets of New York City. From Feasting on the Gospels - Matthew vol 1, Westminister John Knox Press On his 60th birthday there was a bit of a party for him at suppertime. Someone wondered out loud about his age, claiming he did not look to be 60. I am not sure if the person thought he looked older or younger than 60! He replied, “Well let me show you my birth certificate.” He was indeed 60! Then he said, “I can also show you my baptismal certificate” and he proceeded to produce that as well.

While the possession of his birth certificate may have been surprising thing for a formerly homeless man, the possession of his baptismal certificate - was downright amazing. I know lots of families who live in houses and have lots of places to put things to keep them safe and dry who lose baptismal certificates but this man who spent 30 years on the street managed to keep track of his. It obviously meant a great deal to him! A very elderly former parishioner of mine kept hers on display in her kitchen - but she had been baptized when she was in her mid 90s!! The baptismal certificate showed to Mario that he was loved by his parents, by God and accepted into a community of faith. Perhaps that is why it survived 30 years on the street.

This is Baptism of Jesus Sunday. On this Sunday we reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ baptism and on the meaning of our own baptism. They are closely related, or should be! How we see Jesus’ baptism has a great deal to do with how we see our own.

John was not the first prophet to offer baptism to those who wished to repent. It was a practice within Judaism, as it is in other world religions. The waters of baptism, like the waters of a regular bath or shower, were waters of cleansing. When one was baptized one was cleaned of a less than stellar past. Repentance was not just feeling sorry for sin, it was a resolve to go in a new direction.

There is a joke told about a lost tourist who stopped a local and asked for directions to a specific place. The answer, “ya caint get there from here “. Of couse, sometimes we have to go back the way we came and then take a different turnoff. Sometimes we can take another road. Rarely will we get where we were going if we just keep going in the wrong direction. Feeling sorry does very little for the person who has done wrong and for the person who was hurt by the wrong!

Jesus came out of the wilderness and asked for baptism. John knew somehow that Jesus has no need to change his direction or to be cleansed of any wrongdoing (or so the Christian tradition tells us) but he insisted. Perhaps he wanted to throw his lot in with the rest of humanity and take the complete journey.

The passage tells us that when he came out of the water he heard a voice affirming him as a beloved son and a son in whom the speaker was pleased. Each gospel which recounts this event recalls it a little differently, but it it forms an important part of the gospel writer’s “thesis”. Each Gospel writer attempts to convey to the reader an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus and what does he want from us.” One of the things that is made clear in this passage is Jesus’ full humanity. This was a “for real” journey; Jesus was not just pretending to be human.

The other thing is God’s assessment of him - God is pleased. God is pleased not only with what he is doing, here and now, but with his direction in life.

Soooooo? What does our own baptism mean to us? In our baptism we are given the identity as God’s beloved child? Baptism is not so much a cleansing of sinful acts but a reminder that we are creatures who need from time to time look at our destination in life and make an intentional decision to allign our goals and aims with what we perceive to be those of God?

While we baptize only once, many churches take this Sunday as a reaffirmation of those vowe we made, or our parents made on our behalf.

Yet, in our denomination, there is another group making a promise: the congregation! Each and every time a child, or adult, comes here for baptism - you - yes YOU - promise to support that couple, that child, that person, in their Christian journey. WE promise to work on our faith and faithfulness together.

What does it mean to us, as a community of faith when parents bring their young children for baptism?

As a denomination that baptizes infants and confirms young people as teenagers, we can see this two stage process as part of the same thing.

No matter our age, in baptism we are affirmed and identified as God’s beloved. Just as baptism was, more or less, the beginning of Jesus ministry so too baptism is the beginning of our own.

In our denomination we baptize infants and then “follow up” with confirmation, or with the child, still growing up, making those promises and standing on their own, as it were, to do so - but we still make the same promises - for Christianity is not a solitary religion it is a communal one. To be Christian is to be part of a community.

Unfortunately, confirmation is often seen as the end of something - in other words “graduation FROM Sunday school” rather than the beginning of an intentional commitment to the way of Jesus. Not only is confirmation often seen as graduation from Sunday school; it becomes graduation from “church” itself!

On this Baptism of Jesus Sunday I pose the question, “what are we doing as a community to take these promises seriously?” How do we, as a very small congregation, offer what is needed to support our young families. When young families are so busy and we are all busy supporting the children on our own biological families, how o we find the time and energy for the kids in the church family? It’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not always true to say, “if we build it, they will come.”

Indeed, how do we support one another - AS ADULTS - in our journey of faith?

Robert Fulghum rocketed to fame a few years ago with his little book, “All I Really Need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” It was on the New York Times’ “Best Seller” list for two years! Yet despite the importance of “play fair” and “say sorry” I don’t want to go to a doctor who hasn’t been to Medical School or be a client of a lawyer who has not passed her bar exams or hire a carpenter who hasn’t learned a little more than how to tell if this stick was longer than that one! I once had a colleague who felt he learned everything he needed to know about ministry when he was in seminary!

I could not disagree more! One of the characteristics of this generation is the assumptions that we have to become life-long learners. Not only do we have to learn new things, we have to un-learn old things!

It’s the same with faith-based learning. This learning does not stop with confirmation - or rather, it should not!

We talk about a journey of faith as if we know what will happen every step of the way - but of course we don’t. Just like it is in regular life, our life of actively engaged faith may well take us places we never thought we would go but at each step of the journey we can hear God’s voice telling us that we are beloved and as long as we are truly seeking to follow God’s lead and not our own - we will hear the voice that God is pleased.

May it be so for us as we contemplate our own baptism this day.


1995- 2017 The Rev. Beth W. Johnston.

For some good stuff go to:
journeywithjesus.net-a weekly webzine for the global church

The United Church has a great online bookstore and here is the link. If you live in Canada they will even send you a book display for your event and people who dont get to see that many books at once can have a ball!

Links to My Other Pages at this Site

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