Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism of our Lord, Epiphany One
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.

God has a voice. John writes in his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) As we look back at the beginning, we see the Spirit hovering over the formless and empty earth. The first manifestation of God’s presence was His voice. “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Genesis 1:3) God spoke and there was light. God spoke again and created the heavens and earth. He spoke and there was life. Then, He spoke to men, first to Adam and Eve, then to the patriarchs, judges, kings and prophets. And He spoke through men, putting His voice in their mouths.

It wasn’t enough. When the time was right, God sent His Son, the Word incarnate, to bring salvation and peace to His people. The Word about which John wrote is God made flesh in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. He gave up the glory of heaven and took on the flesh of man to reconcile us with our Father.

We know so little about His early life. There are a few stories about his birth and childhood. His life between thirteen and thirty is a mystery. Some have made claims – including those who say that Jesus spent those years in England, learning from the Celtic druids (who were highly intelligent educators and not blood-thirsty priests as some history suggests.) There are also claims that He went east to the Orient to learn. We simply do not know. There is no authoritative record of that time in His life. All we know is that at about age thirty, He appeared before John the Baptist to be publically anointed for ministry.

At His baptism, Jesus Christ – the Word made flesh – identified completely with you and I, taking upon himself the very nature of man and all that goes with it while still remaining without sin.. The purpose of His life in flesh was to take on the sin of the world and destroy it forever, making it possible for men to once again live in harmony with God and one another. On that day, the Spirit of God once again hovered over the formless and empty earth His creation had become, His voice spoke and there was Light. At that moment, Jesus Christ was anointed with the power to change the world, to bring us back into true communication with our Father.

Our focus for this day is definitely the baptism of Jesus, but I am fascinated by the story of one of the Saints. Adrian of Canterbury was a Christian from North Africa who became the abbot of a monastery in Italy. He was well known by the secular and religious leadership of his day. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, Adrian was offered the job. However, he felt he was unworthy for such an important position and he declined. The next person to be selected was extremely ill and could not take the position, so it was offered again to Adrian. Again he refused, but he nominated another man – Theodore of Tarsus. Pope Vitalian agreed to this choice on the condition that Adrian would serve as his assistant. Adrian agreed and they went to Canterbury.

Christianity was accepted in England officially when St. Augustine baptized King Ethelbert of Kent. Though there were Christians on the island long before that date, it was then that began to spread throughout the country. At Christmas of that year, 10,000 of King Ethelbert’s subjects were baptized. A monastery and bishopric was established in Canterbury. It was to this monastery that Adrian and Theodore were sent. Adrian was made abbot almost immediately and he ran the ministry well. Many credit the growth of Christianity in England to the work and ministry of Adrian. His students went on to become leaders in the movement. He also built up the education system in England, founding several schools around the country.

He was said to be an astonishing teacher, not only giving the students a sound religious education but also knowledge in poetry, astronomy and math. He taught his students Latin and Greek; they often spoke those languages as well as they did their own. Bede, the English historian, wrote about Adrian, “He poured the waters of wholesome knowledge day by day.”

This is an interesting image as we think about the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus was baptized, the water poured over Him. When He came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit poured over Him. It was at that moment that Jesus became His ministry. Out of His mouth and His actions the Spirit and the Word flowed to those with whom He came in contact. He poured out God’s grace to the world, as God’s voice continued to speak.

John felt unworthy to do the task to which he had been called. How could he possibly baptize the One whom he knows has no need of baptism? He would have to submit to God’s will and accept that God sometimes calls us to do things we do not want to do and that we do not think we are worthy of doing. It is through weak, broken vessels that God fulfills all righteousness.

Jesus asked John to endure what is asked of him because through it God would do a wonderful work. After Jesus came out of the water, the heavens opened and the Spirit came down upon Jesus and the Father spoke, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was claimed and anointed at that moment to be sent into the world to do the work of God. While Jesus had nothing to repent, His baptism was a turning point in His life. From that moment, Jesus was set on the path to the cross, the path that would ultimately fulfill all righteousness.

I wonder what the crowds heard that day, what kind of voice they heard coming from the heavens. It was an audible voice because God’s words address the people. He announced and identified the man Jesus as His beloved, His chosen One. Yet, as we look at the description of the voice of God in the Psalm for today, I can’t help but wonder how it sounded to those listening. David writes that the voice of God is like thunder. It breaks the mighty cedars, brings forth fire and shakes the wilderness. The voice of the LORD is like a tornado, tearing apart the forests. How could the people who were there that day listen without falling down in fear? Such a voice would make me tremble.

I don’t need to see a tornado. Thankfully, we have only experienced the fear of that type of storm a few times and it was never really a dangerous situation for us. In Little Rock, a tornado warning came about the time that Victoria and Zack were dropped off by their school bus. The bus driver had to park the bus at our house and the children stayed in our house until the threat passed. A very small tornado briefly touched down about a mile from the house. Late one night in Texas I woke to the sound of fierce winds. When I looked out the window, I saw a child’s plastic pool fly by our second story bedroom window. There were tornado warnings that night but nothing materialized near our home. It is frightening to be in the midst of the storm.

A little fear can be healthy and life-saving. For those who live in tornado alley, it is the fear of the tornado that makes us prepare. It is fear that makes a bus driver take his kids off the bus and into a safe place during the threat. It is fear that puts us in our safe room during a warning so that if a tornado comes, we will get through it. While fear is a healthy and life-saving thing, through our storms we can look to the One who will be with us through it all. God is in control. He is more powerful than the most dangerous tornado. He is stronger than the trees, deeper than the oceans. He can shake the deserts. His voice may sound like thunder or blow like a tornado, but His voice gives us peace and strength through out storms.

David writes, “And in his temple everything saith, Glory.” In the sanctuary of God’s presence, the people need not tremble with fear despite the apparent turmoil on earth. Jesus, the living and breathing temple in which the fullness of God dwelt on earth, is the sanctuary in which we can take refuge. Perhaps the voice of God that day was like thunder, but Jesus was there to bring peace and calm to the world.

We are taught very early in our lives not to just a book by its cover. Sometimes something that looks terrific is not so and sometimes we find exactly the opposite. A grubby homeless man can teach us far more about life and grace than a seminary professor with a doctorate of theology. A prostitute might teach us more about virtue than a prim and proper lady. Our impressions of people aren’t limited to their appearance. We see people through the eyes of our biases, too. We are more likely to commune with people who are like us. We choose our acquaintances by age, race, gender, geography, education, career, hobbies and religion.

Jesus presented His message with gentleness and love to all who would listen. He did not bring further hurt to those who were wounded, but rather spoke healing into their lives. He did not snuff out the passion that burned in the people, but fanned it with the truth so that it would burn brightly and rightly. He did not force His message on any; He simply spoke the truth and moved on. Those who did not listen to His words suffered the consequences of their rejection. Our passage from Isaiah describes the one whom God has chosen to lead His people. Jesus was not expected to be a man with a sword, but with an even more powerful weapon – love. Too often people are destroyed by our lack of gentleness when sharing the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus brought justice with gentleness.

At first Peter preached to those who adhered to the same religious ideas and practices as himself but then God spoke to him in a miraculous way. Peter had a vision that showed him that God does not choose people just because they fit in a certain category. He wanted to be offended because Cornelius was not a Jew, but he realized that God’s mercy is not given just for those we want to receive it. God loves all nations. Christ does not play favorites. The wisdom of heaven is impartial. Jesus Christ did not come for only a few people or a chosen race. God’s mercy reaches farther than our corner of the world. He came for our family and friends, our neighbors and even our enemies. He came for those people we like and for those who drive us crazy.

Peter says, “And he charged us to preach unto the people, and to testify that this is he who is ordained of God to be the Judge of the living and the dead.” Peter and the disciples were the first witness, but God continues to charge us to preach the Gospel to the world. He calls us to share the story of Jesus with all, including those who do look or act the way we think they should. Rejoice when God has mercy on your enemy who turns to Him in faith, for in Christ you are then no longer enemies but rather you are brothers. The world would truly be a much better place if we all loved our enemies enough to share the Gospel of Christ with them so that they will become our brothers in faith.

The Old Testament lesson ends, “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” God will make all things new through a suffering servant whom He has sent to save the world.

Jesus’ identify is more than a son, He is the chosen one. Isaiah writes, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles.” The image we have is of a powerful man. Yet the prophet writes of a suffering servant, a man enduring pain and persecution. “He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law.”

This description of the servant is followed by a promise. “I, Jehovah, have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thy hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house.” God will be with the One He has chosen and He will accomplish amazing, miraculous things. The blind will see and those held in bondage will be set free. As we continue through the church year we will see the stories that tell of the things Jesus did while He ministered. But He did more than heal those who were physically blind, He revealed God to world giving sight to those who were blinded to the truth. He set the people free from a bondage more difficult to overcome than the chains of prison or of illness. He set us free from sin and death to live and love in this world.

On this day as we look at the baptism of Jesus, we are reminded of our own baptisms. When we came out from the water, the heavens opened up and God spoke our name. He anointed us with the same Spirit that gave Jesus His strength and sense of purpose in this world. Our ministry is different. We are not called to die on a cross, Jesus already did that for us. In our baptism we identify with Jesus and we receive the promise of eternal life that He won for us. We are called as Christians to live in our baptism. The Spirit that poured on Jesus, then to the world, was poured on us and we are sent out to take it to others.

Martin Luther lived in his baptism. When confronted by the devil, he did not try to turn him away with words or reject him by his own power. When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, “I can avoid this” or “I can make it go away.” No, Luther knew he had no power over sin by his own will. He answered the temptation with “I am baptized.” He knew that it was only by the power of the Holy Spirit, by the mercy of God, that the devil could be turned away. The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God.

Luther lived in his baptism by remembering it daily. Luther taught that all Christians should wake to the remembrance of that moment when they became children of God and that we should go to sleep with that same thought. In his small catechism, Luther writes that as soon as we get out of bed in the morning we should make the sign of the cross and say, “Under the care of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.” We should do the same in the evening before we go to bed. Living under such a remembrance helps us to realize that God is with us daily, walking with us, guiding us, and helping us to serve Him in this world. This is the kind of life Jesus lived, the life we see modeled in the scriptures. It began with His baptism and then again with ours. He began something new, made a new covenant with His people. The voice of God calls us to this life and sends us out to be His voice in the world.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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