Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, 7 January 2001. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Acts 8: 14 – 17; and Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22.
All through my preparation for this sermon I kept asking myself why Jesus would come to John the Baptist and asked to be baptized. After all, as John himself said, Jesus had no need to be baptized for He was without sin.
To answer this question, we have to first understand the nature of the baptism that John was offering. The Jews of that time were familiar with the baptism of Gentile proselytes to Judaism but what John the Baptist was doing was something totally new and different. John was asking those who were baptized to renounce their old way of life and prepare their hearts for the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus neither had to prepare His heart nor did He have to renounce His sins. But by being baptized by John, Jesus joined those who had been baptized. In doing so, Jesus also showed his support for John’s ministry and message of repentance. Finally, it fulfilled the Father’s will as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of the Dove.
It is important to understand the importance of Jesus’ baptism to His own ministry. For it showed to the people that Jesus’ ministry was for them.
It is possible that Jesus could have accomplished what He came to do on this earth, but it would not have had the same impact. Leaders who cannot do what they ask their followers to do often are not leaders very long. And the people knew that Jesus was true to His word. And Jesus’ actions were backed by His words.
Jesus sought common ground with us. Walking in handmade leather sandals, scraping his knuckles working with the wood in his father Joseph’s wood shop, he sought the common ground with us. I suppose that he would have impressed more people had He appeared in more kingly attire or draped in armor prepared to battle, or with the halo the size of the rings of Saturn. But those who He converted who have been converted out of awe and fear, not on the relationship of love between the Father and His children, which is wanted he wanted.
He did not come to this earth hurling thunderbolts though his disciples often urged him to do so. He did not point out the numerous flaws, sins, and inadequacies of those around him though they were obvious to many. He sought the common ground with people so that He could reach them, so that He could teach them and love them where they were, not where He was.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus made it clear that his message was for all, not just a select few. The Jewish leadership of that time was particularly incensed that Jesus would preach such a message of openness. After all, they had preached that salvation could only come through a strict adherence to the law and an upholding to common societal values. Only those who understood the law and followed it religiously should be allowed to enjoy salvation. To preach a Gospel message of hope and promise to all was totally out of the question.
And I admittedly say this was a certain degree of sarcasm because it seems that many religious leaders today preach the same message. The church today often fails because it too often holds to its old ways, of telling people that the way to salvation is the way that they describe, not by letting Christ into one’s heart.
Only instead of following the law, there is a rigid belief that you must follow. In parts of the church today, there are groups that emphasize holiness and purity as the Christian way of life. In doing so, they draw their own sharp boundaries between the righteous and the sinners. It is a sad irony that these groups, many which very earnestly seek to be faithful to the Scripture, end up emphasizing those parts of the Scripture that Jesus Himself challenged and opposed. If we are to interpret the Scriptures in a manner that is faithful to Jesus, it must be with compassion in our hearts, not an adherence to laws and structure.
If we profess that the church is to be a sanctuary for those who seek peace and freedom, how can we then turn around and shut our doors to them? The Samaritans had been shut out of worshipping in Jerusalem because they were not considered pure enough to enter the Temple. Peter and John, as we read in the second lesson this morning, were the official messengers from Jerusalem sent to tell the Samaritans what had occurred at Pentecost. The Samaritans had to know that salvation came from the Jews; the Jews, in turn, had to understand that the same salvation had come to the Samaritans. With the tremendous hatred that existed between the Samaritans and the Jews, God demonstrated to both sides that they could and would be united as one church. The dependence of the Samaritans upon the Jews to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit was the healing sign that the two sides were to become one. When Peter later preached to the Gentiles, they immediately believed and received the gift of the Holy Spirit without the laying on of hands. This served as a sign to the Jews that the same gift was being given to the Gentiles as well. The Holy Spirit was the unifying factor that would bring the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles into one body.
The passage from Isaiah is a good one to begin the year with. It is about the return of God’s children. When we meet at Charge Conference in four weeks, we will set as our primary goal for the coming year, the goal of "remembering" all of those members of this church, of this family of God, who, for whatever reason, have stopped attending.
Some of these cannot attend because they live elsewhere or are physically unable to come. Through visitation and the newsletter, we can still let them know that they are not forgotten.
For those who have stopped attending, we need to make every concerted effort to let the know that they haven’t been forgotten and that they are still a part of this church family.
Those where God’s words to the people of Israel back then; they are God’s words to us this day. Even when you feel lost and forgotten, God never forgot you. Even when everything seemed hopeless and the obstacles too great to overcome, God will be there to help you. And by sending His son, who paid the ultimate price with His blood for our salvation, God showed that He was prepared to pay the price to get us home.
The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.
And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, "I called you our from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life."