What Are You Going To Say? And When Are You Going To Say It?

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about speaking out against oppression. I challenged everyone then to do the same. (1) Today, the questions must be “What are you going to say?” and “When are you going to say it?”

It isn’t so much that there is a war in Iraq that threatens to take the heart and soul out of our future. There is fighting in Somalia, there is genocide in Darfur, there is fighting in the Holy Land. How many other wars or skirmishes take place each day that don’t make the news?

There is still poverty. New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast has yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina. I think we were lucky that there were no major hurricanes this past year. For if there had been any and the damage from those hurricanes was even half the damage of 2005, then we might have completely forgotten that awful summer and early fall of 2005. Then where would we be?

Perhaps it is because we are so detached from the problems that dominate this world. For many of us, the war in Iraq is only an item on the evening news show. For many of us, there is little impact; we do not see the dead coming home (in what is an excellent manipulation of the news media). Can you imagine where we might have been forty years ago if Lyndon Johnson and, then, Richard Nixon, had controlled the news output from Viet Nam like President Bush has done with Iraq? We might still be involved in Southeast Asia still today.

We choose to ignore the homeless in this country. The lead story on any local news item should be the opening of another Habitat for Humanity house, but I am willing to bet that most people don’t even know that such a home was built in their neighborhood.

We choose to ignore poverty. We would rather have heroes that make more money in a day or a month than many people make in a lifetime. We would rather hear preachers tell us how God means for us to be rich. We are more like the rich young ruler who walked away from Jesus when he was told to sell all he can and follow Jesus. We should be more like Zacchaeus who returned the money that he had cheated out of people four fold. (2)

While we make songs out of 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 4 through 7, we ignore the words that Paul wrote in verses 1 – 3. As long as we are centered on what the world can do for us, as long as we are centered on what we can get out of the issue at hand, nothing that we do will matter.

Our Christianity, if you can call it that, is no better than the Christianity that drove John Wesley to seek reformation in the Church of England. Neither John Wesley, his brother Charles, nor his friends ever imagined that they would create a new religion. All they wanted to do was fix the one they had.

But the 18th century Church of England that they all grew up in was in decline because it had neglected the essential doctrines upon which it had been founded. It would be quite easy to say that John Wesley was as zealous in his beliefs concerning the church as was Saul in his persecution of the early church. Wesley believed that a lukewarm Christianity was worse than any imaginable sin.

Accordingly, Wesley labored to bring every part of his life into submission to Jesus Christ. His zeal and his methods openly provoked ridicule and gave birth to the name that we so proudly wear today, “Methodist”. But, as even John Wesley admitted, the semi-monastic existence and devotion to good works left them short of what they sought, the certainty of God’s love. For all their strict self-examination, rigorous spiritual discipline, and sacrificial good works, the assurance of salvation eluded them. All that they did, they were doing for themselves and not for others; Paul would probably have said that there was no love in their work.

It was not until that night in the prayer meeting in the house on Aldersgate Street that John Wesley understood that it was not what he did in the name of God that gained salvation; it was what God had done and would do for him.

It was this transformation that brought the Methodist movement, through John and Charles Wesley’s own spiritual transformation, from law to grace and changed it from a legalistic viewpoint to an evangelical viewpoint.

This transformation gave the early Methodists the spiritual peace that they had so long sought; it gave them the impulse for evangelism and a sustaining motivation to address the evils of society. It has long been said that England did not suffer the violent revolution that occurred in France during that same period because of the Methodist revival that occurred.

It wasn’t a new church that John Wesley sought to create. All his life he would remain a minister in the Church of England. All he wanted was a church that was responsive to the needs of society, a church whose members answered the call of Christ to “feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and needy, and free the oppressed.”

But the response of that 18th century, much like the response of the church today, was anger and resentment. In the Gospel reading for today (3), it seems as if Jesus’ actions in the synagogue that day were deliberate and planned. His reading of the passage from Isaiah, that was the Old Testament reading for last week, was the point where He would begin His ministry. Jesus wanted everyone to know who He was and what He intended to do.

Jesus might have hoped that such as announcement that the prophecies of old were filled would have been a good thing. It was made in the synagogue where He had grown up (remember that those present knew who He was and who His earthly father was). But from the establishment’s point of view, Jesus did not have the qualifications to be a prophet, let alone the Messiah. And as time went by, His actions and violation of one Jewish law after another convinced the establishment that Jesus was nothing more than an imposter and a charlatan.

The reaction of the people that day some two thousand years ago was to be expected. We do almost the same thing today. We react negatively to almost any overtly Christian message; we view such messages with skepticism and disdain. Why should we think that those hearing the first message of redemption through salvation would react any differently than we would?

We do not want to hear the message of repentance and salvation. We are quite happy with a Christianity that tells us that we do not need to do anything. We hear the call but do not understand that it is a call for action, a call to move outward.

We are like Nehemiah who claimed that he was only a boy and incapable of doing great things. (4) We are like Moses who said that his stuttering would keep him from leading the people. We are like Jonah, who upon hearing the call from God, tried to run away only to be swallowed by a fish.

Like Noah, we wonder if we can do what we are asked. God commanded Noah to build an ark because He was going to make it rain for forty days and nights. But this was an area that received at most one inch of rain a year. Surely Noah thought God was kidding. Moses insisted that he could not do what God asked him to do because he could not speak in public without stuttering. God said that Aaron, Moses’ brother, would do the speaking. Moses would deal with the Pharaoh. And God told Nehemiah that He, God, would provide the words and the thoughts that he, Nehemiah, would need.

No one ever called by God has had to do God’s work by themselves. We are presented with a unique opportunity today. This can be the day that we experience and use God’s love in our lives. This can be the week in which a single encounter might help someone find Christ, simply because they have seen Christ in our lives.

It is no doubt going to be difficult to do this. No one said that it would not be. It is going to be frustrating and we can anticipate many, many rejections. After all, the very people that Jesus grew up with were the first to reject Him. It was probably his school classmates that were the loudest to jeer Him. They were not willing to hear the message.

But Jesus was not alone that day. He had been empowered by the Holy Spirit and He would leave Nazareth that day and go to Capernaum and begin His mission, the one He announced to his friends and family in Nazareth. He would preach the Gospel message, the message that would free the oppressed and bring new life to the spiritually dead. He would preach a message that would bring hope to a world that had lost hope.

We have heard the same message. We have heard from Paul that we will not do it alone but that through the Holy Spirit we will receive the gifts that will allow us to take the message out into the world. Now, you are asked, “what are you going to say?” and “when are you going to say it?”
(1) https://heartontheleft.wordpress.com/2007/01/14/no-i-cant-and-neither-should-you/
(2) Luke 19: 8
(3) Luke 4: 21 – 30
(4) Jeremiah 1: 4 – 10

The Message Is Clear

I was preaching again at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY. Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany.
As I read the Old Testament reading for today (1), I noted four things that I felt were relevant for today.

First was the statement that the people stood during the reading of the Law. Second, there was the statement about the fact that women and those who could hear with understanding were included in the statement about who heard the reading of the Law. There was the fact that the people cried when they heard the Law. Finally, the people were told that they should celebrate, not cry upon hearing the Law.

In verse 5, we read that the people stood as Ezra unrolled the scroll. This gesture would later become characteristic of the Jewish people during synagogue services and why we stand in reverence when we hear the Gospel Message on Sunday morning.

In verse 2, we read that the assembly gathered were “men and women and all could hear with understanding. Women are often presumed to be present in group gatherings but, in this reading of the Old Testament, they are mentioned specifically. Also, older children who have attended school, i.e., those who could hear with understanding, were also present and counted. This is quite a difference from other readings, such as the feeding of the thousands where only the men are counted and the women and children are presumed to be present.

This is, I think, important, because this was a time of the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian Captivity. It was not just a rebuilding of a city but the rebuilding of a people as a community of believers. And in this new community, everyone, not just men or the elders or a select few, were a part of the community, As the Law was read to them, the people were beginning to remember who they were and what they were about.

Paul speaks to us today, just as he wrote to the Corinthians so many years ago (2), about a community of believers. Just as the people of Israel were brought together in the Spirit of the Lord, so too were the people of Corinth brought together by the Holy Spirit.

Paul points out that every individual has a vital role assigned to him or her by God Himself. It is why Paul warns us about neither boasting in what we can do nor thinking too little of ourselves. Each one of us is important in the eyes of God and the community cannot exist without each member. Because God gave spiritual gifts for the profit of all, each member of the community should have the same care for one another. Rather than being jealous of other people’s gifts or possessions, we should give of ourselves to others. When one part of the body is in need we should minister and help that part.

Today, I think the problem that we face is that we are not so much interested in building communities of believers as we are building communities of people with common thoughts. We quite easily exclude from our communities those who do not fit in or who disagree with us. But when a community is made of individuals who think alike and talk alike and act alike, there is no vibrancy or energy.

We must also remember that these communities do not necessarily have to be centered on towns, cities, villages, or neighborhoods. There are some in college, who like me, found a comfort and haven in the Wesley campus ministry. For many students, college is a time of discovery and discovery of those talents that Paul wrote about. But in a time when budgets are hard pressed to match dollars given with dollars needed, cutting money for campus ministries seems to be a logical choice. It is not much money and it does not have the immediate reward that rebuilding a house on the Gulf Coast does. But how do you measure the change in the life of someone who found God in a non-descript house two blocks from campus? How do you measure the impact that the presence of a small house of God and worship will have on a group of students when the impact will not be felt for many years after college?

We, as a community of God, should be charged with building other communities, not destroying them. That is why the people came to Jerusalem; that is why we are here today. It is what we do here that is felt in this neighborhood, in this town, in this county, and in this society long after we are no longer here.

And that brings us to the third thing that I thought was interesting about this passage from Nehemiah and its relation to today. It was the nature of the message that the people who were gathered that day heard and their response to that message.

As the Law was read and explained to the gathered people, the people wept. The people wept because they heard the high standard of the Law and recognized their own low standing before the Lord. Though it is probable that Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites were glad to see this, they urged the people to remember that this was a day of celebration. It was the joy of the Lord that the people were experiencing. It is the joy that springs up in our heart because of our relationship with the Lord. It is a God-given gladness found when we are in communion with God.

It occurred because the message was clear and those who heard it were able to understand it. This is such a contrast to the messages we hear in today’s society. The message of society, both in and out of church, clouds the true message of the day and makes it difficult to discern what is true. The message heard by the people of the Old Testament reading was clear; the message of today is muddled and confusing. It is so because people are quite often willing to let others make decisions for them; they want to simply be told what the reading means.

Some forty years ago there was a song that showed us how the message of society can easily drown out the message of peace first expressed on Christmas Day two thousand years ago. It was a version of “Silent Night” sung by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and entitled “The Seven O’clock News.”

As they sang the traditional Christmas hymn, a announcer read the evening news. There is an interesting contrast between the beauty and serenity of the song and the darkness and fear that were then and are now the components of a typical news broadcast. The problem was that you had to focus on either the news broadcast or the singing; you could not hear both and it was entirely possible that the news broadcast with its litany of violence, death, and destruction drowned out the message first sung some 190 years ago.

The message we should be hearing from the church today is the message that Jesus proclaimed in his own synagogue in Nazareth, that He had come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed free and to proclaim this the year of Jubilee”. (3)

But that message that is more often than not heard is just the opposite. It is a message of exclusion; it is a message of oppression; it is a message of ignorance and foreboding. Instead of bringing hope to people, the church seeks to take hope away. Instead of bringing in all the people, as Jesus encouraged people to come to Him, churches today tell people to stay away. If you are not the right creed, the right color, the right economic status, or live the correct life style, you are not welcome in church. That the writer of Nehemiah would count women and children, those in that society who were often ignored or forgotten, speaks volumes when compared to the rhetoric of today when we seek to marginalize those who do not fit the accepted concept.

It is a message that says it is perfectly all right to ignore the poor and blame poverty on the sins of people. It is a message that says you will get rich because you lead a righteous life. It is a message that fails to remember that those who ignored the poor, the helpless, the disadvantaged and the oppressed will not get past the doors to heaven.

It is a message that allows others to say there is no God or the hope for the future is found in other places. It is a message that allows others to say that faith is a fantasy or a delusion, not a part of one’s life.

The message heard today is one of a vengeful God, of one who will use wars, natural disasters, and the inhumanity of mankind to punish people. Yes, the God of the Old Testament was such a God but we are first and foremost a people of the New Testament. We are the people who proclaim that God is our Father. We are the people to whom God sent His only Son because He loved us.

I am not saying that every one who preaches the Gospel preaches such a litany but it is very hard to hear the message of Good News first proclaimed that day in Nazareth some two thousand years ago when there are so many others whose self-interests, greed, ignorance and hatred lead people away from God.

It is so important that that message of hope and promise be heard. As President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” (4) We cannot live in a world where the Gospel message is forgotten or ignored or cannot be heard.

When the true Gospel is read, such people will truly weep; not out of joy, as did the people so many years ago but out of fear, for they will be the ones who are left behind.

But how do we, individuals lost in the corporate collective of society bring the message that was first proclaimed in Nazareth some two thousand years ago?

The people of Israel concluded their hearing of the Law with the discovery that it was time for the Feast of the Tabernacle. This was the fourth thing that came out of the reading of the Old Testament for today.

That day was not a time for weeping and fear but a time for joy and renewal. We are reminded of that sense of joy and renewal in the communion that we are about to take. We are also reminded that we are a part of a larger community of believers united in our faith in Christ.

I have not been able to determine who Thomas G. Pettepiece is or was; I know what he wrote and I know that what he wrote affected a great number of people. But I have not been able to find out who he was or what he did that allowed him to write the following story. I presume that he was Irish because the word pronounced “jail” is spelled “gaol.” It stands to reason that he was in jail because of his beliefs and as we hear these words, we know that he was not alone. Thomas Pettepiece wrote,

Today is Resurrection Sunday. My first Easter in prison. Surely the regime can’t continue to keep almost 10,000 political prisoners in its gaols! In here, it is much easier to understand how the men in the Bible felt, stripping themselves of everything that was superfluous. Many of the prisoners have already heard that they have lost their homes, their furniture, and everything they owned. Our families are broken up. Many of our children are wandering the streets, their father in one prison, their mother in another.

There is not a single cup. But a score of Christian prisoners experienced the joy of celebrating communion – without bread or wine. The communion of empty hands. The non-Christians said: “We will help you; we will talk quietly so that you can meet.” Too dense a silence would have drawn the guards’ attention as surely as the lone voice of the preacher. “We have no bread, nor water to use instead of wine,” I told them, “but we will act as though we had.”

“This meal in which we take part,” I said, “reminds us of the prison, the torture, the death and final victory of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The bread is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents the very well the lack of bread in the hunger of so many millions of human beings. The wine, which we don’t have today, is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity, of a just society, without difference of race or class.”

I held out my empty hand to the first person on my right, and placed it over his open hand, and the same with the others: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you’ do this in remembrance of me.” Afterward, all of us raised our hands to our mouths, receiving the body of Christ in silence. “Take, drink, this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with men. Let us give thanks, sure that Christ is here with us, strengthening us.”

We gave thanks to God, and finally stood up and embraced each other. A while later, another non-Christian prisoner said to me: “You people have something special, which I would like to have.” The father of the dead girl came up to me and said, “Pastor, this was real experience! I believe that today I discovered what faith is. Now, I believe that I am on the road.” (5)

Here was a community of believers in jail perhaps only for their beliefs. Yet, as a community of believers, they so impressed others that those others were willing to risk additional punishment so that they, the believers, could celebrate communion. And when it was over, one prisoner came up and asked to be a part of the community. Another found in the depths of their own sorrow hope.

We have the bread and the juice so we will be fed today. Ours will be a celebration of community, of being a part of a larger community in the Kingdom of Heaven. And it is because we are a part of that larger community; it is because we have heard the Gospel message first proclaimed in a synagogue in Nazareth over two thousand years ago that we must take the message of Communion out into the world.

It is a message that says to those not here today that they are missed and we want them to be a part of this community. It is a message that says we need to build more, not remove communities of builders. It is a message that says we are to welcome to all who seek to hear and know the word of the Lord, not exclude and cast out those who are not like us.

We must say to those who are confused by the message of society, who cannot distinguish between the words of charlatans and fools and the words of the Gospel that there is one true message. We must say that the message is clear and it is a message that offers hope to those without hope, it offers help to the helpless, and brings freedom to the oppressed. It is a message that says that Christ died on the Cross so that we may have freedom over sin and death. Like the people in Jerusalem so many years ago, we have heard the message and we understand. Like the people in Jerusalem, so many years ago, we say in unison, “AMEN.”
(1) Nehemiah 8: 1 – 3, 5 – 6, 8 – 10

(2) 1 Corinthians 12: 12 – 31a

(3) Luke 4: 14 – 21

(4) President Dwight Eisenhower, quoted by Senator George McGovern in a speech to the National Press Club, 17 January 2007 (from http://www.truthout.org/docs_2006/011907B.shtml)

(5) From Visions of a World Hungry by Thomas G. Pettepiece

No, I Can’t and Neither Should You

Here are my thoughts for this 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
It was the opening words of Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading (1) that got my attention. I know that I spend a lot of time writing and speaking about my childhood and how I perceived many of the social problems that came with growing up in the South during the Sixties.

I may not have completely understood what was happening back then but as the years went by, especially when I was in junior high school and high school, it became apparent that there was a system involved and it was a system that worked against people, not for people. So, slowly and surely, I have begun to speak out. For what I see in the world today tells me that we have not learned the lessons of the past and are bound and determined to repeat the same mistakes of oppression and inequality.

And growing in an environment that encouraged thinking (for which I must thank my parents), I have to cry out and not keep silent when people seek to create churches that reject the poorest and the lowest. I have to cry out and I cannot keep silent when scientists attempt to say that there is no place for religion in the coming years.

There is an electronic magazine called “Edge” (2) that I receive each month. It provides some interesting reading, especially at the beginning of the year when the editors ask readers to respond to a particular question. For 2007, the question was “What are you optimistic about and why?” Many of the 160 responses that were included were, if you will, optimistic in the view of what was to come in the next few years.

But I was very much disturbed by the comments from two of the respondents.

Philosopher Daniel Denett believes that within 25 years religion will command little of the awe it seems to instill today. The spread of information through the internet and mobile phones will “gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance”.

Biologist Richard Dawkins said that physicists would give religion another problem: a theory of everything that would complete Albert Einstein’s dream of unifying the fundamental laws of physics. “This final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.”… (2)

Now, I must admit that I am not familiar with Daniel Denett’s work but Richard Dawkins is the one who has written several books that argue against the presence or existence of God.

While I have not read what Dawkins has written, I have seen the synopsis of his work. I am not sure why he has taken the approach that he has taken (but I suppose that I would if I had read some of his work). But it strikes me from the perfunctory readings that I have made that they are confusing science with scientism.

Scientism is the belief that nothing is real in the world except that which can be observed and measured. Those that hold this belief believe that science is the means to absolute truth, even if the absolute truth is that all things are relative or that there is no meaning in life. While science relies on empirical observations to describe the world, it does not seek to add meaning to what it finds. Science can easily tell a person why the aurora borealis forms but it cannot explain why one can explain the awe and wonder that accompanies such sights.

Scientism goes beyond an understanding of the role of science in society. In some ways, scientism has become the religion of secular consciousness. Its supporters attempt to do what it accuses religion of doing, supplying a faith system. (3)

I think that it is possible to be both a scientist and religious. After all, I have been both for most of my life and I know others who easily follow religious orders while maintaining interest and activity in science. So I cannot stand back and stay silent when someone says that religion will disappear in the coming years.

Of course, those on the religious side who argue for Intelligent Design and a complete distrust of the scientific method do not help matters either. If you pursue a path that denigrates or reduces science to medieval superstition, then you are no better than those who would do the same to science.

The problem for those in the modern church is that people today see church as an exclusionary and oppressive organization that speaks one language but holds to another. It does not help that there are pastors today, just as in the Sixties, who used the Bible to justify racism and sexism. If this is all the public sees, it will be the view that they have.

As Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today (4), we have kept the good stuff for ourselves and not shared it with others. We know that the fruits of the Gospel make the future possible but we are not always willing to help others to share in the Good News that the Gospel brings. We hide the good stuff and say to those outside the walls of the church that they can’t have what we have because they are not worthy. But then again, we are not worthy either. And when we hide what we know from others, we are at risk of not having anything.

But how do we let others know of the Good News? How do we let others know of the saving Grace found in the Gospel? Paul, writing to the Corinthians (5), noted that everyone has a particular gift and each person’s gift is different. And since we have these gifts, we should be using them to the Glory of the Lord.

We look around and we see injustice in the world. We look around and we see people oppressed. We look around and see people hungry, sick, and cold. We can walk on by and say nothing. But Martin Niemöller reminds us

First They Came for the Jews
First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

I am reminded also that Jesus came to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and bring hope to the oppressed. I am also reminded that we are charged with that same task today. So, I cannot keep quiet when it comes to speaking out. And neither should you.
(1) Isaiah 62: 1 – 5
(2) http://www.edge.org/
(3) Adapted from The Left Hand of God, Michael Lerner (page 130 – 133)
(4) John 2: 1 – 11
(5) 1 Corinthians 12: 1 -11

The Rock and Roll Revival Continued

Back in November, I posted my thoughts about rock and roll songs that could be used in an order of worship in the posting “Rock and Roll Revival”.

I would like to add to that list “Fly Like An Eagle” by the Steve Miller band. The lyrics are
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till Im free
Oh, lord, through the revolution

Feed the babies
Who dont have enough to eat
Shoe the children
With no shoes on their feet
House the people
Livin in the street
Oh, oh, theres a solution

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till Im free
Fly through the revolution

Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future

I want to fly like an eagle
To the sea
Fly like an eagle
Let my spirit carry me
I want to fly like an eagle
Till Im free
Fly through the revolution

Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future
Time keeps on slippin, slippin, slippin
Into the future

You’re welcome to add your own thoughts about songs that we grew up with that carry the message of the Gospel

The Power of Water

Here are my thoughts for January 7th, The Baptism of the Lord Sunday. I know that they are late but we were preoccupied with the birth of our latest granddaughter, Casey.
A question that I used several years ago in my science methods classes was, “What are the two most important liquids in west Texas?” Generally, my students (being from west Texas) understood that the answer which I was looking for was “water and oil.” For without the one, the other was not possible. I have thought about this question in the context of other localities and I think that one could easily argue that water is the most important liquid in our lives.

From a personal standpoint, without water, we would not live very long. From an historical standpoint, it was the waterways of this country that helped the economic development of this country. And for a long time in our country’s history, it was the fact that our eastern and western boundaries were large oceans that offered some degree of security. Of course, it might be pointed out that these two oceans also lead to a degree of close-mindedness in our country. Having these natural barriers lead us to believe that we were cut off from the rest of the world and that we could use the oceans to cut off the rest of the world from us.

Water has always played a major role in our lives. Abram, before he became Abraham and the father of many nations, lived in the part of the world that we have come to call the “Fertile Crescent”. We do so because it was a crescent shaped land bound by two major rivers of ancient civilizations, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The silt carried by the waters of the rivers led to an abundance of food.

And when individuals such as Abram or later Jacob, Joseph, and the Israelites, would begin their travels to and from the Promised Land, it was the location of the wells that would define their journey. Before the people of Israel cried out for food, they cried out for fresh water. It would be the barrier of the Red Sea that would demonstrate God’s power to liberate people and it would be the Red Sea that would protect the Israelites as they began their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land from the Pharaoh’s armies.

The Old Testament reading for today (1) tells of God’s children returning. God, through Isaiah, reminded the people of Israel that He called them by name. And He just doesn’t call us by name, He stands by us so that we will not be overwhelmed by the rivers we must cross or the fires that we may endure. Isaiah reminds us through his words that God places us in a unique position and that He will be there by our side, no matter what may happen. (2) We may fear the power of the water, remembering how the Israelites felt when they first approached the Red Sea and when they watched the Egyptian armies drown in the turbulent waters. But we are told that God will be with us and that we need not fear the power of the water.

It is the power of the water that allows John the Baptist to baptize people and call for their repentance. (3) Those that heard John’s call of baptism knew that Gentile proselytes who wished to convert to Judaism needed to be baptized. But some were having problems understanding the need for baptism as a way of renouncing their old way of life and as a preparation of the coming of the Messiah.

The people of John’s time would have heard a message that said that salvation came only through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding of common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously would be allowed to enjoy salvation.

Now, Jesus did not need to either prepare His heart or renounce His sins before being baptized by John. But by doing so, He joined those who had been baptized. He showed His support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. And it was seen by all that Jesus’ baptism was a fulfillment of His Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

There is probably no doubt that Jesus could have accomplished what He was going to do on this earth without this baptism but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do are not leaders for very long. In His baptism, those who followed Jesus understood that Jesus was true to the Word and that His words were backed by His actions.

Jesus sought common ground with us. He might have impressed more people if He had dressed more like a king than a peasant or perhaps dressed in armor and prepared for battle. He might have made more of an impression if he hurled thunderbolts at those who argued against Him; His disciples often wanted Him to do just that. He certainly would have been more like the leaders of the time if He had pointed out the numerous and obvious flaws, sins, and inadequacies of the people around Him.

But then people would have followed Him more out of fear and awe, not because of the love that exists between the Father and His children. By ignoring the trappings and glory that many wished that He would have, Jesus was better able to reach those around Him. He came to them, not the other way around.

In Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded that His message was all the people, not just some of the people. The leadership of the time would repeatedly complain because Jesus preached a message of openness and inclusion. They preached a message of strict adherence to the law. The message of hope and promise contained in the Gospel was totally out of the question.

It is important for us today to remember what Jesus’ baptism represents. The church fails today because it often holds to the old way, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way they, the leaders, describe and not by letting Christ into one’s heart. The Epistle reading for today (4) reminds us what happens when one group of people exclude another group.

The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping at the Temple in Jerusalem because they were not considered by the leaders in Jerusalem to be pure enough. There was also a disagreement about where the Temple should have been located. As a result, generation after generation had been taught to view the other as incapable of receiving God’s grace.

Peter and John, as we read in the Epistle reading, were sent by the early church in Jerusalem to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from Jesus and that the salvation that Jesus offered was open to all, not just a select few. In sending Peter and John, God was saying that Jews and Samaritans alike could and should be united in one church.

Isaiah’s words today tell us that we are not forgotten by God. Even when everything seems hopeless and the obstacles of life are too great to overcome, God is right here t o help you. By sending His son to pay the ultimate price of His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to bring us home.

In a world that seems to focus more on exclusion and close-mindedness, Christ offers an acceptance. In a world that denies individuals dignity and self-respect, it can be found through Christ. In being baptised by John in the waters of the River Jordan, Jesus showed to us the power of water that allows us to begin anew.

Throughout the ages, communities have been founded on the shores of rivers, lakes, and streams. People came because of the power of water. So too is it the power of water that allows our community to open up and welcome people in, not shut them out.
(1) Isaiah 43: 1 – 7
(2) Adapted from “Naming names” by Jack Good, in Christian Century, 27 December 2003
(3) Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
(4) Acts 8: 14 – 17

Just A Thought

If you lead a life based solely on empiricism and have no faith, you will lead a life without vision. You may be successful in what you do but you will not know where you are going or if you are ever going to get there.

If you lead a life based solely on faith but ignore the world around you, you will have a vision of what you want to be and where you want to go but you will not have the means to fulfill your vision.

Life is both faith and reason – the day-to-day activities of life hand-in-hand with one’s vision of the future.