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Posts Tagged ‘Baptism of the Lord Sunday’

A prayer for the Baptism of our Lord Sunday

All praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
for you came to earth
to shine the light of God’s glory
in the midst of our darkness.
You came to kindle hope
in the midst of despair.
You came to claim our lives in baptism
to be your glad disciples.

By your Holy Spirit,
grant us grace to receive the light you bring:
Turn us from fear and selfishness;
turn us from destructive habits
that wound our lives and lives of those we love;
turn us from the blindness that cannot see the new creation
you are forming in our midst;
turn us toward trust and love and faith.

Pour out your Spirit upon us, we pray.
Shape our life together into a sign of your reign.
Let your glory blaze forth
so our lives bring good news
to all corners of the earth.

All praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,
for in you, we rise to new life.
In you, we live in grace.

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In the Christian calendar, this Sunday is a feast day called “the baptism of our Lord”. Jesus began his public ministry by showing up at the Jordan River and being baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer. The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord used to be a more important celebration than Christmas. A surprising number of icons painted by the early church depict Jesus’ baptism.

For early Christians, baptism was a life-defining act. If you decided you wanted to become a follower of Jesus, you presented yourself to a local congregation. They would question you. Then, you would embark on a programme of preparation of baptism that would last two years.

During those two years you would learn the stories of Jesus and participate in the worshipping community. Mentors would teach you to pray. They would help you examine your life and learn to live the odd, peculiar ways of Jesus’ community.

Being baptized was neither automatic nor easy. It was also dangerous. For much of the first three centuries of the church’s existence, Christians were a persecuted minority. You made a very intentional decision. It changed who you were. It gave you a new identity, a new life. You became different from others around you.

Then, all that changed. One night, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had a dream, or a vision, of a cross in the sky. He heard a voice that said, “By this sing you shall conquer.” When he woke up, he decided that everyone in the Roman Empire was going to be a Christian. Roman soldiers would come to a village, herd everyone into a lake and everyone would emerge baptized.

The soldiers themselves had to be baptized. They did not know much about being a follower of Jesus, but they did know that it means renouncing violence. They knew Jesus had said, “Turn the other cheek.” This created a problem for soldiers. How could they be baptized as followers of Jesus and still fulfill their duties to the Emperor?

Some of them came up with a solution: as a soldier was being immersed in the waters of baptism, he would hold his sword arm out of the waters. That meant that the soldier had been baptized — all of him except the hand which held his sword. With that arm he could serve the Emperor.

We all do it. We all hold some portion of our lives out of the waters of our baptism. God can be Lord of our lives on Sunday but, when we get to work on Monday, we operate by a different set of rules. We can let Jesus comfort us when we are troubled or suffering but, in those times when we are strong and feel like we are in control of our lives, we figure we do not need to refer to him.

In the 1940’s, Clarence Jordan founded a community in Americus, Georgia. In the deep south of the United States, he founded a community that was to be a living sign of and witness to the Kingdom of heaven which Jesus had inaugurated. It was a community where everyone was welcome — blacks and whites, rich and poor.

People ridiculed them. They found themselves embroiled in a number of legal battles because it was against the law for blacks and whites to share meals together, much less raise their children together.

Clarence’s brother was Robert. At the time he was just a country lawyer, but he would eventually become a state senator and a justice in the Georgia Supreme Court. Clarence asked Robert for help with a legal battle. Robert replied, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose everything.”

Clarence replied, “We might lose everything too. Why is this so different? When we were boys, we joined church on the same Sunday.”

Robert said, “I follow Jesus up to a point.”

“Would that point by any chance be the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not going to get crucified.”

“Well, Robert,”  said Clarence, “I don’t think you are a disciple of Jesus. I think you are an admirer of Jesus. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to and tell them that you are an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.” (Stanley HauerwasMatthew, p.57)

We are not used to making such a harsh distinction. Our traditions around baptism were shaped largely by a time when everyone was baptized as a matter of social custom. We tend to think of it as a ritual that mostly involves babies and little children.

If you ask the parents who still seek baptism for their children, “Why do you want your child baptized?”, they are, for the most part, unclear about it. They are unsure not only about why they are asking for baptism but also about what baptism means.

That might be true for most of us. That can be partly explained because the cultural understanding of what baptism is, is changing. It is no longer something everybody just does as  matter of course. As the church moves back to being on the margins of society, we are becoming more like the early church. Baptism is again taking a more central role in the identity and mission of the church. Once more, it is becoming the gateway into a community of people whose lives are shaped by commitments and convictions that are different from much of the rest of the culture. We are a community that becomes different from the world as we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Baptism is not just something that happened to us when we were babies. It initiated us into a way of living where we are continually turning, or orienting, our lives toward to God who is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. It happens once but it takes a whole life to live into it. It shapes our spirituality. It forms our identity. We are a baptized and baptizing community of faith.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century and was a leader in the Protestant Reformation. The spirituality that was shaped by his baptism led him to confront the abuses and corruption of the church in his day. He was often in trouble. He was often troubled. When he was troubled, he would trace the sign of the cross that had been marked on his forehead in his baptism. He would say to himself, “I am a baptized person.”

He didn’t say, “I was baptized.” He said, “I am a baptized person.” It reminded him that God had called him to speak truth to power. It reminded him that the Holy Spirit surrounded him and kept him in the midst of trouble.

A few years ago, I led a study group that looked at the meanings of baptism. I invited the participants to go through the week saying, “I am a baptized person” and to trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, either literally or simply in their minds.

They came back the next week and many of them reported how amazed they were at the difference it had made in their lives. One woman said, “I was in situations where I was tempted to be petty or mean — to join in office politics and gossip. I would visualize the sign of the cross and say to myself, “I am a baptized person”. That enabled me to turn away from all of the meanness and to live into a the better standard that I cherish for myself.”

Another person found the ritual enormously comforting. It reminded her that nothing that happened to her could take her outside the realm of God’s redeeming power and gracious love.

Baptism is a gateway into a way of life that is shaped by God’s claim upon us. This is both wonderful and rightening.

It is wonderful because God has a good and holy purpose for our lives — a purpose that lifts us up and gives dignity and hope and meaning. In baptism God gives the Holy Spirit to empower us for all that that entails.

It is wonderful because, when we learn constantly to turn our lives toward Jesus Christ, we experience the presence of God in amazing and life-giving ways.

It is frightening because we are often afraid that God may demand more of us than we are ready to give. God may ask us to make changes that we do not want to make. We may be afraid that God will judge us for not measuring up, not being good enough, not doing enough.

Both the wonder and the fear are gathered into the waters of our baptism. As you live into that powerful event, you rise again and again to hear more and more deeply the words first spoken to Jesus, “You are my Beloved. You are my delight.” (Matthew 3: 13-17)

That is who you truly are. It is a gift that will see you through all your days. It is a gift you get to offer to others.  We are a community called to flood the world with the love we have received. This week, whenever anyone or anything makes you feel small or insignificant or alone, remember your baptism. Live into your high and holy calling. It is the gift of God’s grace for you. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon based on Luke 3: 51-22 for Baptism of our Lord Sunday

If someone were to ask you, “Who is Jesus?”, what would you say?

Is he an interesting human being or is he the Son of God?

Is he a great spiritual leader among the world’s other spiritual leaders or is he Lord of lords and King of kings, Very God of Very God?

Is he the person in the picture on a wall from your childhood or is he your Lord and Master and saviour?

Is he someone you have bet your life on?

When we try to say who Jesus is, we tend to use titles, names, and ideas. When the gospels try to tell us who Jesus is, they tell us stories. In those stories, it is never completely obvious who Jesus is. Different interpretations are always possible. Who he is is always open to debate.

We think we have trouble knowing who Jesus is because we know so much. Modern science tells us how the world works — what is possible and what is not possible. It teaches us to be sceptical about the claims that Jesus healed a leper or fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. Besides, we are in contact with people from other faiths who worship other gods. What do you do with someone who claims, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through me.”

We think we have trouble with Jesus because we know so much more than the people of Jesus’ time. “No,” say the gospels, “Jesus’ identity has always been contested. It has always been uncertain.” A few people believed that he was the Saviour of the world. Most thought he was crazy and wanted him dead.

A few people said, “This is God in the flesh, living among us full of grace and truth.” Most people thought he was an arrogant trouble-maker who ought to be silenced.

Even those who followed him — his friends and companions — were not always sure what to make of him. Mostly, they just caught glimpses that left them awestruck and wanting more.

The gospel writers do not just give us titles for Jesus. They do not give us definitions or explanations. They tell us stories. Stories, it seems are a much better vehicle for telling the truth about who this Jew from Nazareth is. Stories are deeper and more complex than definitions, just like Jesus is.

One story all four gospels tell is the story of John the Baptist. They all tell that story at the very beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. If you want to know who Jesus is, you have to get past John first.

John is always out in the wilderness, in the desert. The wilderness is a place where survival is at risk. There are not a lot of resources easily available for you to live. When the gospels tell you that John is in the wilderness, they are not speaking about geography as much as they are doing theology. They are saying that you probably won’t really figure out who Jesus is until life takes you to a wilderness place. There is something about Jesus that is simply not compelling to people who are comfortable with the way things are. People who are at ease in the world do not seem to find him of much interest.

You don’t really start getting to know who Jesus is until you get news from the doctor that shatters your comfortably settled world and you find your life turned upside down.

You don’t really start wrestling with this Saviour until you realize that there is a dark and dangerous wilderness in the middle of a quiet city where innocent people can be kidnapped and killed.

You don’t work too hard at figuring out who Jesus is until your church is two thirds empty Sunday after Sunday and all the programmes and solutions you try don’t work to turn things around and you start wondering whether or not your church is going to survive.

That’s when you really start having to have an answer to the question, “Who is Jesus?”

The gospels take you deeper into your wilderness and introduce you to Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer. John the Baptizer was a wild, eccentric character. He was preaching out in the wilderness, saying out loud what everybody knows: “Things aren’t working anymore, folks. The economy isn’t working and there is no easy fix. We’ve messed up creation with our greed and carelessness and now floods and storms and earthquakes are shaking up our world. Relationships are broken — between individuals and between communities and between nations. If we keep heading in the direction we are heading, we shall just encounter more troubles. It is time to turn around. It is time to head into a different direction.”

The crowds loved it. They go worked up and started thinking, “Maybe he is the one. Maybe he will be able to lead us out of the mess we are in. Maybe he will be able to fix what is wrong.”

John says, “Not me. I am not your Saviour. I am just here to point you to the one who is your Saviour. He is mightier than I am. His power is so great that I am not worthy even to be his slave. When he shows up, then things will really change. He will tell truth so scorching that every feeble excuse you make, every lie you have been telling yourself, will burn up and blow away. The words he speaks will expose your idolatries. He will shake your world and disrupt all the complacent defences you are putting up against God. That’s who Jesus is.”

Then there comes the best line in the whole story: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.” Does John’s speech sound like ‘good news’ to you?

Not everybody wants a Jesus as powerful as what John describes. Herod didn’t want as much truth as even John told and Herod put him in prison. Within three years, he would do the same and worse to Jesus.

It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus, don’t you think? If I were going to introduce you to Jesus I would tell you that Jesus is a steady anchor when everything else in your life is in chaos and turmoil.

I would tell you that Jesus, the living Christ, can be your sure and steadfast friend when life takes you to the depths of loneliness.

I would tell you that the resurrected Christ is God’s promise that even our dead ends won’t stop God’s good and loving purposes.

But, I am not the one telling the story here. The gospel writers are. They are people who bet their lives on this Jesus and they begin by telling you that Jesus will tell you the truth about your life so powerfully that he will knock your socks off. It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus, unless this Jesus really is God’s beloved Son, with whom God is well-pleased. It is a curious way to introduce us to Jesus unless Jesus really is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit rests and the truth he tells is the truth that will give you life in all its fullness. The truth he tells is truth that heals your brokenness and sets you free from the fears that bind you. The truth he tells gives us God’s glory and power and love.

If that is the truth, perhaps then, the real question is not “Who is Jesus?” Perhaps the real question is, “Will you let him near?”

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“Resolutions Worth Keeping”

A sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday.

Mark 1: 4-11

Did you make a New Year’s resolution? Did you resolve to lose weight? To get out of debt? To learning something new? Have you kept your resolution so far? What do you do when you fail to keep your resolution? Do you hit the restart button and start again?

I don’t know what time of year it was when John the Baptizer showed up in the wilderness but it sounds like he knows about the drive that pushes us to make New Year’s resolutions. He knows about the desire to improve our lives. Mark says that the John shows up in the wilderness places of our lives proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”.

“Repentance” and “forgiveness” are about making changes in our lives so that we can experience more life, a better life, a blessed life — life in all its fullness. John has something larger in mind than just losing a few pounds or exercising more. Mark says John’s message is the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. Before we are through Mark’s gospel, we shall have been caught up in a great adventure. We shall have experienced a life lived with such courage and passion and hope that the whole world is changed and transformed.

When John calls you to repent, he is not scolding you for bad behaviour. He is not talking about your moral failures and telling you to behave better. John calls you to repent, to turn around, because God is on the move in the world. God, the ruler of history, is about to do something new and, if you want to get in on it, you have to get ready.

You repent when you say, “I refuse to settle for merely holding on. I refuse to cling to a past that is familiar and comfortable but is now disappearing. There is no life in that.”

I have heard someone confess that kind of repentance. She did not use that language, but the action was there. She was ninety years old. In the past, when I had visited her, she talked about her church: how she liked the old hymns and the old liturgy and the dressing up for worship. She did not like all the new changes that were being made in other churches. Then, her church died. There were no young people. There were not enough people or money to keep it going. She joined with another congregation. The ushers wore jeans. Music was played on keyboards and rhythm instruments. The minister did not preach three-point sermons. It was not what she was used to. It was not what she liked in a worship service. However, this time, she said, “There are lots of young families. There are lots of activities going on.” She liked the ‘life’ that was present, even though she still missed the old familiar ways. She was glad that there was ‘life’. That’s repentance.

Repentance is saying, “I refuse to frame my life by despair.” Despair is a common response these days. We face huge challenges and there are no easy solutions in sight. Many people believe that the future is bleak. They feel that there is nothing to hope for, nothing to live for. Repentance says, “I refuse to give up expecting that God will do a new thing. I refuse to stop looking for signs that the risen Christ is on the premises, bringing new life where death seems to prevail.”

To repent is to go out to the world wasted by violence and greed and to turn your life consciously and intentionally toward hope. Mark’s gospel says that hope is not a concept or an ideal or some power of positive thinking. Hope is a person: the person of Jesus who shows up unexpectedly in the midst of your ordinary life with the power of God’s Holy Spirit. Whatever God is up to in Jesus, that is our hope.

The Church has now entered the season of Epiphany. Epiphany begins on January 6th, when the Church marks the visit of the magi to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. On the first Sunday of Epiphany, the church marks Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Epiphany begins with God’s voice saying, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” (Mark 1:11, The Message)

The season of Epiphany will end on Transfiguration Sunday when the Church heads up a mountain with Jesus and again hears God say, “This is my Son, my Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 17:5) From that place, Jesus will head to the cross and the culmination of his ministry here on earth. Jesus’ life is framed by God’s word to him: You are my Beloved.  Jesus is beloved at the beginning. He is beloved at the end. Every moment in between is bathed in the love of God.

To repent is to turn, consciously and intentionally, day by day, towards the voice that also call you “My beloved.” It is to keep remembering that that is who you are. You belong to the One who calls you “My beloved child.”

That was the truth that was proclaimed at your baptism. It is the truth that undergirds every moment of your life. It is your most fundamental identity: “Beloved of God”. Nothing in all creation can separate you from that great love.

This is not a love that is tame or comfortable. It is a love that is powerful beyond our imagining. It plunges you into a life shaped by God’s grace. The psalmist tells us that the voice of the God who calls us Beloved shakes the mountains. It makes the desert shake. (Psalm 29)

Karl Barth once said that it is not God’s wrath that you should be afraid of, but God’s love. God’s love will change you. It will change your world. It is God’s love that will set you free from destructive habits that diminish your life. God’s love will lead you into developing the courage and commitment you need to become the kind of person who lives life to its fullest.

God’s love draws you into God’s new creation. God’s love plunges you into the great adventure of trusting radically in the living Christ so that you find your place in God’s salvation work in the world. The world is not without purpose. Our lives are not pointless. You and I can live in hope.

It all begins with soaking in God’s great love for you. It all begins with your receiving the grace of God that Jesus brings. It all begins as you surrender to the mystery of the Holy Spirit blessing your life.

Will you repent? Will you turn from anything that makes you disbelieve that God loves you with a deep, abiding love? Will you turn day by day toward the life-giving embrace of Jesus Christ? Will you receive the Holy Spirit’s work to claim your true identity as God’s beloved child?

Those are resolutions worth keeping.

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A prayer for the Baptism of our Lord Sunday.

You summon us to gather at the river
to be bathed in your grace and your love.

And we have come, longing to hear news
that quenches the thirst in our parched souls.

In your great mercy, turn us:
turn us away from the despair and cynicism
that has given up on your creative power;
turn us away from the aimlessness
that will not risk anything daring and bold.

By your powerful Holy Spirit,
turn us toward Jesus when he shows up
unexpectedly, bringing new beginnings we had not expected.

Turn us toward Jesus who comes to make all things new.

Turn us toward your voice
and open our ears to hear you
naming us “Beloved.”

Then, plunge us into a life of trust and faith,
creating, creative God,
for you are the One
whose voice speaks into chaos
and makes a new start.  Amen.

 

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