Monday, January 3, 2011

A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany

When I started working on the story of Jesus' baptism—I remembered back to one my favorite baptismal memories. The year was 1978. It was a South Carolina Sunday afternoon. We were scheduled to baptize that evening. The Lovette family had been on vacation and just got into town that afternoon because our son was to be baptized that evening. But there was a hitch. When we got to the church someone had forgotten to fill up the baptistery. There was no water. We had planned the service carefully around one particular young man that would be baptized. His father was seriously ill with cancer. We had structured this service between chemotherapy treatments which made his father so sick. We had asked that man to have the baptismal prayer for his son and the other candidates. So, as happens so often in church, we had to come up with a contingency plan. We called a family with a swimming pool as the worshippers gathered and asked them if we could use their swimming pool for our service. They reluctantly agreed. I can just imagine what frantic preparations they made getting rid of all the bottles and cans. But I was heartsick. This was a big day for my son and the man with cancer had come with great pain to see his own son baptized. I could just see people standing around that pool snickering. But that was not the case. Something happened that sunny afternoon. The grace of God moved among us. None of us present will ever forget that particular baptism. One of the things that made the evening so special was the pale, bald-headed father, dying of cancer. He pulled from his pocket a prayer he had written for his own nine-year-old son and the other candidates. This is what he prayed:

Heavenly Father, at this time we would like to dedicate these young people to You as they choose to become members of Your intimate family through the sacrament of Baptism. Remember how You led Your chosen people out of Egypt by Your show of power at the waters of the Red Sea? Please show the same power for these boys tonight and protect them as You protect all your children. Remember how You led Your chosen people through the waters of the river Jordan to let them enter the Promised Land? please lead these boys through the trials and joys of life to the heaven You promise to those who follow Your way. Remember how You gave salvation to the world by the blood and water that flowed from Your son’s side on the cross? Please give the same salvation to thee boys as they enter the waters of baptism as Your adopted sons. Remember how You sent the Holy Spirit to Your close followers on Pentecost and gave them the courage to be brave Christians in their words and actions. Please send the same Holy Spirit into these boys tonight so that they can carry out Your teachings in their lives. Be with us all, Heavenly Father, so that we can also live out the power of our baptism in our own lives. Amen.”

No one present will ever forget that special moment. After the service this man, so sick, took all the boys baptized that evening for a celebration at McDonalds. It was this man’s last public appearance. Weeks later we would have his funeral.

What God Wants Us To Be

So when Jesus stood in the River Jordan to be baptized by John—this was no small thing. The light of Epiphany shone on this incident not only letting us know what God is like, but as Kathleen Norris puts it, here we see what God wishes us to be. Matthew realized that something profound was happening that day in the water. Something momentous was taking place when John gently placed Jesus under the water. This would become the source of all that would follow.

Years later when Martin Luther would be dogged by depression and difficulty. When he found life hard and tedious he would touch his forehead and say: "Baptismatus sum"--I have been baptized. And this simple remembering would bring him back to the fact that he was God's child and God was always with him. And I wonder is there not some holy power for us too, in times of stress and difficulty, to remember our own baptisms. The vows we made. The promises we said we would keep.

Obedience to God's Will

What did the church see in this wonderful story of Jesus standing in the River Jordan and being baptized by John? Jesus said that he did this because it was what God wills. One Sunday, long ago you walked down the aisle, they were singing: "Where He Leads Me I Will Follow." Maybe they were singing softly, “Just as I am without one plea…” And you stood there with tears in your eyes knowing you would go wherever he called and do whatever he said. We meant it with all our hearts. But they did not really know all that it meant to follow him, to follow him all the way. We would learn later of temptations and doubts and days when we wondered about all of this. And sometimes for all of us the years take their toll and we forget sometimes the vows we made back there. But let us pause this morning and remember our own baptisms. The time when we first started and what it meant to us day. “Happpy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away. He taught me how to watch and pray and live rejoicing every day. Happy day, happy day when Jesus washed our sins away.” So this morning I want you to remember that special time and the promises you made. But there is more to remember.

When Jesus was baptized it meant he was to be obedient to the will of the Father. It meant for him to live out the vision in the days that would follow. It isn't hard to stand at some altar and say: "Yes Lord I do love you. Yes Lord I will follow you always.” But saying and doing are sometimes poles apart. We all know that.

Don't you think it was hard for Jesus when the disciples did not understand, when his family turned away, when he came unto his own and they received him not? Don't you think it was hard that the longer he preached the fewer and fewer they came until there came that day when he was alone on a hill and the soldiers gambled and the crowds sneered. Hebrews would later say, when the church was tempted to turn away and leave: "...let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted."(Hebrews 12.1a-3)

What does it mean to be obedient? What does it mean to keep the vows that we made one time? We do know it means to listen, to give attention to the things he asks. It is an action word--and, as the years go by, the demands change. They do not stay the same. Someone has said that when you obey it is sometimes the only possible evidence that you believe in God.

Once James Thurber told of his friend Ross who was always there, always counted on. And he said: "He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums." This is what it means to be obedient. Like the song the missionary taught those in the village. This was the song he taught them:

Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on.”

  We Are Beloved

We learn from our Lord that to be baptized is to obey on good days and bad. But there is one more thing I see in this story.When Jesus was baptized, he heard God's voice saying: You are my beloved son. And it was this memory of a voice he heard on the day of his baptism that kept him going through all the hard things of his life. When the crowds came and pressed. When Judas and Peter denied . When he hung on the cross. He remembered that voice that told him who he was. He was God's beloved.

Baptism reminds us that we are God's beloved too. He gave his only son for the likes of us. That we should not perish--that we should have eternal life. Abundant life. Remember what his disciples there toward the end. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”(John 15.11) That we should not live our lives in someone else's shadow. That we need not try to be someone else. But we can simply come to terms with who we are and know that is a very good thing. We are beloved. Right now. Right here. We are beloved of God.

One of the great short story writers and poets of our time was a man named Raymond Carver. He had a hard life. Alcohol almost killed him. It did destroy his marriage, his relationship with his children--he lost years and years he could never recover. But later in life, he gave up drink, he sobered up, he met a young woman and they were married and he began to write again. And he began to discover some wonders about living and loving he had never known. But he developed lung cancer which would finally take his life. But the last poem he ever wrote was this:

"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth."

Like Jesus, if we ever learn that we are of worth and infinite value to God it will do for us what it did for Jesus. It will take us every step of the way. And where he leads us we will follow...and we will go on and on and on because we will know it is good and right and true.

And so I would challenge you remember your baptism. Those vows you made to love him and serve him. I want you to think back on when it was. Remember your baptism. Recommit yourself to following this will of God. To learning once more what it means to obey. To discover, even as you go that you are beloved--beloved of God. And this is why, after all these years, we still baptize people when they declare their faith. “Happy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away. He taught me how to watch and pray and live rejoicing every day—Happy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away.”

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