Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, The Baptism of the Lord. I will be preaching at Dover Plains UMC, Dover, NY tomorrow.
The comments between John the Baptist and Jesus (1) that are the centerpiece of today’s Gospel reading are very interesting, if for no other reason that they speak highly of how we see our relationship with God today.
John understands the relationship between Jesus, his cousin, and himself and he is not willing to baptize Jesus as he has baptized others. He understands quite easily that he does not have the stature or the ability to truly baptize Jesus. Yet, as Jesus points out, John must baptize Jesus if righteousness is to be fulfilled.
We do not make that distinction. We accept quite willingly and almost deliberately the idea that Jesus is our servant, the person who does our biding. We quite willingly place ourselves, individually and as a society, above Jesus and expect Jesus to do whatever it is we ask of Him.
We are told today by so many self-proclaimed ministers of God that all we have to do is give them, the charlatans, our money and God will return it to us seven- or ten-fold, because that is the power of the Holy Spirit. We no longer see Jesus Christ as our Savior and God as our Father but rather a means by which we can achieve money or whatever we desire or seek.
We have confused the role of God in society. God is no longer the reason for what we do but rather the vehicle for what we seek.
We hear nothing today about the mission of Christ, which He Himself proclaimed in the synagogue in Nazareth some two thousands years ago, a mission first proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah. (2) At a time when I needed to know if there was ever an answer to the problems of the world, if it was ever possible to end war and hatred, segregation and injustice, I found the answer in the church. Now, it appears that the church supports war and hatred and is moving to increase segregation and injustice.
The awe and respect that we should give God has been taken away by those who seek to limit His presence to one or two hours on a Sunday morning. We measure the effectiveness of a preacher by the shortness of their sermons, not by how they inspire us to action. In Memphis and other parts of the South, even perhaps in other parts of this country, a good service is one that lets out early enough so that the congregation can get to Applebee’s or Shoney’s before the other churches do.
We hear too many preachers and ministers preach against sin yet repeatedly get caught in the very act they preach against. It is no wonder that the cry of hypocrisy that was first voiced by John the Baptist along side the River Jordan is voiced by so many young people today. The youth of this country are turning away from the church, not because the church doesn’t care about them (which is true) but because the church doesn’t care that its message is so often empty, meaningless, irrelevant and seen as an attempt to market the Gospel instead of telling the story and spreading the Word of God.
The God who may have inspired the first successful peasants’ uprising in history (the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt) is a God of revolution. Yet, it has often been said those who make up the three faiths that He has inspired (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have failed to live up to this ideal and have transformed this God of revolution into a God of the status quo. (3)
We have been commanded to go out into the world and make disciples of all whom we encounter. And this we do quite readily, offering bribes to some and threatening others with death, so that they will convert. We do so without concern for where we are or whom we are with. We proclaim that our God is the only God, even when the historical records tell us that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all worship the same God. We expect the people whom we expect to convert to think and believe as we do. There are those who are quite willing to tell devout believers in other faiths that they, the devout believer, are doomed because they do not follow the same path of faith as others do. If we do not understand what and why others believe, then we have no business trying to explain what it is that we believe.
A person who walks the path of faith dictated by their religion is walking a different path than the one we walk. They will reach their goal if they hold true to their beliefs, just as we will. We should not be condemning them or chastising them just because their belief system is different from ours.
But those who proclaim a belief system but do not follow the belief system, those who flit between one system and another, and those who try to choose the best virtues of all systems must be shown that such an approach will not work. But to say that our system is the best system is egotistical at best and shows a great lack of understanding about what others believe.
It is true that when Peter spoke to the crowd that he repeated the commandment that Jesus had given to the disciples. (4) But Peter added two other comments that reflected what Jesus also said; respect those who know God and do it in the right way.
When mankind first came to know God, it was done with a certain amount of fear. We were to see God with a sense of wonder and awe but that was because we didn’t know who God was and what God meant. Through Jesus Christ we have come to know that God is our Father and that He loves us. Now, when we hear the word “fear”, we should realize that it means more to understand and know more than anything else. As Peter reminded the people, we are to respect those who know God.
In part, that is why we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Last week we celebrated Epiphany, the Magi’s recognition of the true nature of the Christ Child. These are occasions that illuminate God’s nature. These are occasions when God chooses to reveal who He is. These are also occasions that not only demonstrate what God is like but also who God wishes us to be.
Baptism is like so much of the church today. It is something we desire but it is something that we don’t understand. We often forget that baptism is the celebration of the incomparable gift we have received from God. It gives us an identity. But it is also about fully engaging the responsibility that this identity entails.
Just as the baptism of Jesus initiated his public ministry, so to is it our call to the community of the church. It means that together as a church we are meant to be witnesses for peace in an often cruel and violent world. We are to bring a message of hope in a world of despair. Whoever the worldly powers may be, Christians are called to witness to another, greater power. (5)
It has often been said that Christianity began as a way of life, an alternative to a set of creeds and doctrines that demanded total agreement. Christianity was a reaction to a religion narrowly defined by law, by ritual, and by an angry God. It was a way of life that demanded radical inclusion, not exclusion, as an expression of faith in action. It offered hope and aid to those who needed it.
Yet today, we see a church that is becoming increasingly rigid and orthodox, a church that is becoming more and more exclusionary in nature. What we were taught by Jesus before Easter has become less important that the things the post-Easter church insists that we believe. We have created a God in our image.
God sent His Son as a sign that He cared about us. He did not send a substitute but the best. Are we able to say that when we represent the church in today’s society we show the best?
The readings from Acts (6) and Isaiah (7) offer us a glimpse of that quality that we profess but do not possess. We do not have a God who is limited by our understanding of baptism and what it signifies; we have a God who created humanity in His image and whose love for us is so great that it embraces all people with no exception. (8) He has given us His best and He expects us to do the same.
I have seen churches, both large and small, that were built by their respective congregations who gave of themselves in terms of time, money, and energy all for the Glory of the Lord. But I have seen too many churches, both big and small, that were built to glorify the building and the congregation.
I have heard and sung music that reflects the joy and power found in the Glory of God. I rejoice in music written and played that uplifts the congregation. But I have also heard music played in churches and in religious situations that is only played for the glory and enjoyment of the player. I have left those performances wondering why there was no feeling in the songs that were sung or the music played.
When He first articulated His mission, He proclaimed that He had come to feed the hungry, heal the sick, and bring hope and freedom to the oppressed. He stated that the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled in His presence. Yet, today there are still homeless and we probably have only an estimate as to how many there are.
The infant mortality rate in Orange County (and perhaps elsewhere in this country) rivals that of many third world countries. This country’s overall healthcare system ranks nineteenth among the major industrial nations in preventable deaths. I won’t even begin to comment on the ranking of our educational system when compared to those same countries. For a country that is so often pre-occupied with being number 1, we have a rather dismal record. We say that we are a Christian country but we are more interested in ourselves than we are others.
To give your best is probably the hardest thing you will be asked to do. But God sent His Son knowing that His Son would die on the Cross for us. His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, began His ministry at the River Jordan knowing full well that the path He walked would take Him to the Cross.
We are called to give our best, not just part of it. We are called to give our best each day, not just one day a week. It is a call that says “in the years of your despair, I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and are formed by love; but now the hour has struck for you to see the signs of new hope that I am giving to my people in the world; and to join me in the midst of the struggle, interpreting 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 lives?” (9)
Too many people today see Christianity as a part time thing, a hobby at best. But to be called by Christ is a full-time experience. It does not matter what you do in life, for each person’s role in life is different. But as Paul wrote to the people of Colossus, “whatever you do, do it from the heart, as though you were working for God and not men.” (10)
God gave us His best, so why should we not also do so?
(1) Matthew 3: 14 – 15
(2) Isaiah 42: 1 – 9
(3) Adapted from Karen Armstrong’s History of God, page 20
(4) Acts 10: 34 – 43
(5) Adapted from “Marked for a purpose” by Kathleen Norris, Christian Century, December 25, 2007
(6) See footnote 4
(7) See footnote 2
(8) See footnote 5
(9) Adapted from “Evangelism in Our Day”, Faith in a Secular Age, by Colin Williamson
(10) Colossians 3: 23