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In our tradition, when we baptize someone, the congregation promises to nurture that person in the Christian faith. However, when the person being baptized is an infant or small child, and the parents seldom bring that child to worship after the baptism Sunday, congregations can struggle with how to fulfill that promise.

I read the other day (I hadn’t marked down the source) about an African-American congregation that held a family-night event with the focus on “Stories In and Through Hard Times”. Participants were invited to recall proverbs, sayings, or songs that hey had heard while they were growing up. They were then to share a story of how that wisdom had helped them through hard times.

Some of the proverbs shared were, “God didn’t bring us this far to leave us,” and “Hold on to God’s unchanging hand”, and “Sorrow may endure for a night, but joy comes in the

The children and youth were then invited to ask questions of the adults and to add their own stories.

I am thinking that this might be a way for congregations to live into the promise they made at baptism. In the “Children’s Time” spot in worship (or before or after a psalm that prays to God about trouble), the people in the congregation could be invited to share a proverb or phrase from a favourite hymn that has helped them hold on in difficult times. If they were comfortable doing so, they could tell the story of the experience in which that proverb or hymn was helpful. If the musician(s) were comfortable with playing hymns without much notice, the congregation could also sing the hymn. The children could be invited to ask questions.

And then, what about creating a “wall of hope” on which was written the proverbs or phrase from the hymns that people shared. The wall of hope would grow over time as the proverbs/phrases were shared.

 

 

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A prayer based on Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Great is your faithfulness, O Lord, our Saviour,
Faithful in loving us
Faithful in finding us when we lose our way
Faithful in forgiving us
and healing us
and bringing us home to you.

Great is your faithfulness, Lord,
and we are grateful.

There are times when each moment
shines with your grace and your goodness;
we know ourselves bathed in your holy care
and our hearts sing out your praise.

There are times when we struggle
to keep going
and you shepherd us,
holding us with a love
that does not let us go,
feeding our souls
with your presence,
speaking your truth
that gives us strength and courage
for one more step,
and we gasp out our
‘thank you’, ‘thank you’, ‘thank you’.

But there are also times when we
barge through our lives
oblivious to your presence,
your gifts,
your call;
unaware of all we have received
from your abundant love.

Speak to us today:
speak the words that
draw us back to you;
words that recall all you have done;
words that deepen and renew
our love for you.

We open our and our minds
to your Spirit’s work,
for you are the one
whose broken body
and poured out life
are the food and drink
we need.

Amen.

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God of mercy,
Saviour of the world,
Healer of our souls,
you come to us in our brokenness and sin.
You invite us to follow you into your realm of
love and reconciliation.

We open our lives to you
so that your Holy Spirit may do for us
what we cannot do for ourselves.

There are days,
weeks,
sometimes months,
when the sin and violence of this world overwhelm us;
when the hurt and anger silence our songs of praise to you.

On those days, Lord Jesus,
take us with you as you pray.
Show us your glory that even death cannot defeat.
Write deep into our lives your truth and love:
the truth,
the love,
that will one day
rule the world
and is
even now
making all things new.
So may we receive your grace and your courage
to keep us on this journey in faith.

As in our baptism you cleansed us and made us new,
so, today, we ask you to cleanse us again:
heal our lack of trust in your grace;
help us to start again where we have stumbled and fallen down;
restore in us the joy you have prepared for all your children.

Your claim upon us summons us into your promised newness.
Now we live in the wide open spaces of God’s steadfast love and mercy.
Thanks be to God!

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A prayer for the Baptism of our Lord Sunday based on Psalm 9 and Luke 3: 15-22

Lord, we lift your name on high.
We sing your praises.
We tell of your wonderful deeds.

We are your creatures
met by your holiness
in ways that surprise us
yet give us life and hope.

You take our fatigue
and give us strength;
you take our despair
and turn us toward hope;
you take our dead ends
and bring your new beginnings.

By the cross of Jesus,
through the brooding of your Holy Spirit,
you ache and hurt and care over us
and with us
and beyond us
till we are made new;
till we are drawn deeper into your love.

So, we lift your name on high,
yielding our lives to your good care,
in the name of your Beloved,
your Delight, Jesus,
who draws us into the waters of baptism
where your love floods over us
and give us Life.

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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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Larry Walters was thirty-three years old, living in Los Angeles, when he decided that he wanted to see his neighbourhood from a new perspective. He went to the local army surplus store one morning and bought forty-five used weather balloons. He strapped himself into a lawn chair. Several of his friends filed the balloons with helium and then tied them to his chair. Larry took along a six-pack of beer, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a BB gun. He figured he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.

Larry assumed that the balloons would lift him about one hundred feet into the air. He was caught off guard when the chair he was seated in soared more than fifteen thousand feet into the sky — smack into the middle of the air traffic at Los Angeles International Airport.

He shot a few of the balloons but then dropped the gun.  He stayed airborne for more than two hours, eventually landing in Long Beach neighbourhood.

Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by the police, reporters asked him three questions.

Were you scared? Yes.

Would you do it again? No.

Why did you do it? Because you can’t just sit there.

(http://www.markbarry.com/lawnchairman.html)

The writer of the Gospel of Matthew would have liked Larry’s answer. When God invades the world in Jesus Christ, Matthew says, “You can’t just sit there. You have to do something to respond to this amazing event.” Matthew tells the Christmas story differently from Luke. Luke’s story has  Mary receiving a visit from an angel. It has  a decree from Caesar Augustus  that sends Jews across the country. Shepherds hurry to a stable after receiving news from angels in the sky.

Matthew, on the other hand, tells us a great deal more about Joseph, Mary’s fiancé. For one thing, Joseph is a dreamer.

Three times, Joseph dreams a dream. Three times, in response to the dream, Joseph changes his plans and gets moving in a different direction.

Joseph is a devout Jew and so, when he finds out that Mary is pregnant, he is prepared to follow Jewish law. He makes arrangements to break the engagement. However, as a devout Jew, he also knows that mercy is to temper justice. Out of love or consideration for Mary, he decides he will break the engagement quietly. He will save her from public humiliation. Then, the dream changes his carefully made plans. In obedience to the word he receives in the dream, he marries her and calls the child his own.

After the baby Jesus is born, it appears that Mary and Joseph have settled into life in Bethlehem. Then, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, warning him of danger. He finds himself taking his young family on an unexpected trip to Egypt.

They settle into Egypt. Again, an angel in a dream sets him on the move again. This time, they are headed back to Israel. Even then, they do not go back to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee. All of this is done in obedience to a word from God.

When God comes onto the scene, says Matthew, nobody remains untouched. Nobody remains unchanged. Joseph finds his life turned upside down. Magi from Syria find themselves on the move to worship and bow down to a Jewish baby. Even Herod, ruler in Israel, cannot ignore what is going on. He is moved to murderous jealousy and resists God’s invasion with all the powers at his disposal.

In Jesus, people are confronted with the truth of God. You can trust and obey him or you can reject his rule but you cannot remain neutral.

This is a very hard word for us to hear. We are not accustomed to hearing truth talked about in this way. The prevailing myth is that all truth is subjective. Truth is relative. It is something we choose. You may choose differently from me and it does not really matter as long as we are tolerant of one another.

Matthew says truth is not a collection of statements to which we might give assent and others might not. Truth is not a group of convictions we choose according to our personal inclinations. Truth is a person we encounter. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We do not shape our truth. Truth shapes us and leads us where it will. We don’t ‘have’ the truth. The truth possesses us and transforms the direction of our lives.

When we encounter the truth that Jesus is, we can be rather like the officer in the navy who had always dreamed of commanding a battleship. He finally achieved his dream and was given command of the newest and best ship in the fleet.

One stormy night, as the ship plowed through the seas, the captain himself was on duty on the bridge. Suddenly, off to port, he spotted a strange light, rapidly closing with his own vessel. Immediately ordered the signalman to flash a message to the unidentified craft. The message read, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the south.”

Only a moment passed before the reply came, “Alter your course 10 degrees to the north.”

The captain was determined that his ship would not take a back seat to any other ship. He ordered a second message sent, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am the captain.”

The message cam back, “Alter your course 10 degrees. I am Seaman third class Jones.”

Infuriated, the captain grabbled the signal light with his own hands and fired off, “Alter your course. I am a battleship.”

The reply came back, “Alter your course. I am a lighthouse.”

We live our lives, choosing its course, commanding it values and goals. Then, we encounter the Light that Jesus is and discover that he is truth which cannot be shaped for our own purposes. Rather, he is Truth that shapes us.

In baptism, you decide to adjust the course of your life to the lighthouse of Christ. He gives your life direction that it would not otherwise have. Then, you are no longer just sitting here, putting in time. You let his truth shape your life and the little story you call “my life” gets caught up in the great and holy work God is doing in human history. You become a part of God’s work, healing God’s world and bringing the lost home.

 

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