January 2013 Sermons:
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
We love hearing the stories and the carols of Christmas. Our expectations are pretty high on Christmas Eve. The gospel text for today isn’t as well-known. But it’s a good scripture lesson to talk about when we are ordaining and installing elected officers. Our expectations of these six people are pretty high, too. Ordination and installation is about the incarnation of Jesus. Church leaders are special children of God---they are much more than just the people who said “yes” to the Nominating Committee. Continuing the work of Jesus—that is what ordination is all about.
As far as the ministry of Jesus goes, it starts when He’s around thirty years old. He walks into the Jordan River to be baptized by His cousin, John the Baptist. John has become a celebrity around the Sea of Galilee. He’s very charismatic. John has been preaching God’s Word and calling for repentance. Every day, hundreds of people line up by the riverbank, to be baptized by John—even Roman soldiers and tax collectors. “The people were filled with expectation,” Luke tells us.
The power of John’s preaching of the Word is fed by those high expectations. People have been wondering if John could be the Messiah. They are thrilled to meet him. Just like the excitement I remember, going to a Bruce Springsteen concert in the mid-seventies. The anticipation of hearing the E-Street Band, live, had started to feed us. We chanted, “Bruce! Bruce!” and the first song was all the more exciting to hear because we were so pumped up about hearing Bruce.
The crowd at the river bank is pumped that way. They’re seeing a man who could be the messiah—in the flesh. Then, John lets a big bombshell drop. He says to the crowd, “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” John is telling them that this Messiah will not only bring them joy, but will also deal with sin. They can expect this long-awaited Savior to separate the good from the bad. He will come into the wilderness, like a refiner’s fire. He will consume human sin as if it were twigs in a tinder box. This is terrifying message for them. The people of ancient Judea will have short lives, and they know it. They know what salvation is, and they want it. Being saved and going to heaven are huge concerns for them—literally, matters of life and death.
And now Jesus, the mysterious newcomer John’s been talking about, has appeared, and people see Him for the first time. The Mighty Messiah can’t possibly be John’s country cousin, a carpenter from Nazareth… not a military leader or, as far as they can tell, a charismatic preacher at all. And John is baptizing Him, so doesn’t that mean John is more holy?
Jesus wades into the muddy water. Luke writes of this moment, "…and the heavens were opened. And the Spirit descended upon Him as a dove. And a Voice came from heaven saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"
Why do you suppose God sends a dove to Jesus? Why doesn’t God represent the Holy Spirit as a butterfly or a ray of sunshine? Doves were sacred symbols in the Old Testament. These beautiful white birds were sacrificed on the altar as sin offerings. A dove flies over to alert Noah with an olive leaf, when the flood waters recede. In the fifty-fifth psalm, King David cries out for the “wings of a dove” so he can fly away from danger. A gentle, harmless dove settles on Jesus’ shoulder after His baptism and brings Him new life and peace.
Almost all we know about Jesus’s ministry happened after He was baptized. The church claims the same descent of the Holy Spirit, the same opening of the heavens, whenever we baptize, ordain or install. Those are times of calling.
In ancient times, only adults were baptized, and they came to the river by choice, so they knew what they were doing. Do you remember your own baptism? I’m guessing that most of you don’t. At some time in your distant past, a voice spoke your name and said, "This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased." I was six months old when I was baptized. I didn’t say or do anything; probably didn’t even cry. Remember, Jesus didn't say or do anything at His baptism either. The sacrament comes from the top, down—at least, in the Presbyterian Church it does—when young children are baptized. It’s a matter of God claiming us before we have done anything to earn God’s love.
The theological term for that love is grace. "This is my beloved child, whom this day I choose as my own.” That's what God said to Jesus at the river and it’s what God tells you and me. I choose you as part of my family, God says. I choose you to be my disciple. I choose to "walk with you through the waters, and the rivers shall not overwhelm you ... and to walk with you through the fire, and the flames shall not consume you, You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you. So fear not, for I choose to be with you" in all things, in all times, in all places, in all circumstances, now and forever. God is saying, “I choose to love you.” That's the message of baptism and also the message of ordination: we are claimed as Jesus’ disciples, for very special work. Church officers are usually adults, but even they don’t always know what they are getting into.
The Greek word for baptism means: "To dip, to immerse, to submerge—and my favorite—to saturate." God takes pleasure in saturating us with water, with grace, and with blessing. Rather than saving us from original sin, Jesus’ baptism mirrors for us our original blessing—encouraging us to become servants of Jesus—offering blessing to others—and, occasionally, judgment on God’s behalf.
The Holy Spirit descends upon you and me, calling us not simply to be God's children, but also to help heal a wounded world. That's the power of the ordination ritual we will be observing today: that we—and these people--- are claimed, perhaps in spite of themselves. God has, chosen them in the first place. We’ve shown our confidence in them. That’s what it means to be called. It’s that simple. God loves us into loving. Ordination and installation confer on them the honor of being Christ’s disciples.
God’s act of grace, in calling us, reaches far beyond our congregation. The Spirit will descend like a dove today and settle into the hearts of these church leaders, as they take their vows. They will help to shape the future of our church. May they pay forward the grace of their calling, and share its power with others.
Something always goes wrong at a wedding. I have a theory about the reason for this. The people in the wedding party barely know each other, and they have to work together, handling many details in a short period of time. But the biggest problem with weddings, I think, is that the couple’s expectations are so high. If any little thing goes wrong, the whole day can seem to be ruined. That’s why some pastors prefer funerals to weddings. That’s not true for me; I really enjoy officiating at weddings.
Get a group of pastors together and they start telling stories about awful wedding mishaps. One pastor I know, got the time wrong for the ceremony and showed up an hour late. Another one got nervous at his son’s wedding and said the vows incorrectly. I know a matron of honor who had just had surgery, and she collapsed in the front of the church after the wedding march. I heard about an organist who dropped a hymnal on the lower register of keys during the vows. Suddenly the wedding was interrupted by what sounded like scary music from a horror movie. There are often problems when children under five are in the wedding party. Little kids get confused. Ring bearers lose the ring, and flower girls drop the flowers. For our own wedding, the flowers for the bridesmaids never arrived—but to us, it didn’t really matter.
Here is my all-time favorite wedding story. Video filming can be a nuisance during wedding ceremonies. Before the service the pastor had told the video cameraman to stand in a spot out of the way. As the service progressed she put up with him marching right up front, putting his camera into everyone’s faces. But when he stood on the cushion of the front pew and blocked the view of the bride’s parents, the pastor stopped her sermon in mid-sentence. She suggested that he should have more respect for God’s house. Then, she asked the ushers to escort him to the back of the sanctuary. She told the cameraman to stay there for the rest of the service. The congregation and the bridal party applauded.
Jesus told many wedding stories, mostly parables. This wedding, in a small village four miles from Nazareth, is the only one we know He attended because it is the only one recorded in the Gospels. Weddings were a big deal, just like they are now. The groom’s family was responsible for food and drink at a Jewish wedding. It was a major social event and often lasted an entire week. Any lack of hospitality would cause the hosts a great deal of embarrassment.
In this gospel story, Mary is there, and yet she isn’t there. She couldn’t have been an official guest at this banquet, because women weren’t invited to sit with the men at the table. Maybe she’s standing on the sidelines. She sees that the wine supply has run out and then tells her son. He answers in a way that sounds rude, saying: "What’s it to us? Why are you telling me about this, Mother?" He’s insisting on being guided by God, not His mother. And, by now, she knows that even she can’t control the Son of God.
Mary doesn’t lose her cool. She instructs the servants to do whatever He tells them. Jesus says “Yes!” to her request. The water jars are filled to the top, and then the liquid is poured out and tasted by the steward, who is amazed at the excellent quality of the wine inside the jars. And that’s Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John.
I have often wondered why Jesus would have turned water into wine, as his first miracle. Jesus was compassionate. Obviously He wanted the wedding party not to be humiliated. But why water into wine? Why didn’t He start out by healing a leper colony? That would have gotten a lot more attention than this playful parlor trick. I think it was impressive for the disciples, who were the main audience for Jesus’ first miracle. Wine is a powerful symbol of blessing. This sign was a spectacular show of His power. By the way, you won’t find the word, “miracle,” in your pew Bibles. The New Revised Standard Version never uses that particular word. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word for miracle, as “sign” in English.
In both the Old and the New Testaments, lavish food and wine symbolize the grace of God. Those water jugs would have held nearly two hundred gallons of wine- quite a bit more than any small-town wedding party could drink. Wherever Jesus goes, abundance follows…..enough wine for everyone, and then some, at the wedding, and enough grace, and then some, for the whole world! Jesus is the gift that keeps on giving.
Most people in the ancient Judea were very traditional. They believed that “old” is best. Some scholars say the water in this story represents Judaism, and the wine represents Christianity. The water in the six jugs was being kept in the banquet hall so people could wash their hands and feet and stay ritually acceptable to God, as they came and went from the ceremony. The old laws and customs weren’t corrupt or evil. But now that Jesus had come, the laws of Leviticus would seem incomplete. The change from water to wine symbolizes the change from living by the Torah, to life in union with the Holy Spirit.
Jesus invites us to see the world in a new way. Through Christ’s love, a window has been opened for the disciples, and for us. We are called to share God’s gifts, just as the wedding guests enjoyed the two hundred gallons of good wine. Living in the extravagance of Jesus doesn’t mean that things will always be easy. But we are always loved and always forgiven. One day we’ll enjoy a wedding feast to top all wedding feasts, where God’s forgiven people will celebrate eternal life together.
Throughout His ministry, Jesus celebrated people—people getting married, enjoying meals together, and being healed of their diseases and disabilities. He proclaimed a God of joy. We’re in the season of Epiphany—the time of year when the church celebrates the wonder of “God With Us.” Bring the empty “container” of yourself to Jesus and He will fill the old jug with new wine. Let us all accept His gift of abundant life in this New Year.
Presbyterians are called the “frozen chosen,” and not only because the gas line broke on Tuesday, leaving all the buildings on Front Street with no heat! We want to tell people what we believe, and we want to act on those beliefs, in obedience to God. And yet, we hold back from expressing our faith.
We have many excuses for keeping silent. It’s not dangerous to be a Christian in our society. But on the other hand, it’s not considered polite to discuss our faith in public. When we mention the church, our friends and business associates look embarrassed. Back in New Jersey, when I was at a school board meeting a few years ago, I asked a school administrator who was a member of our church, if he planned to attend our Bible Study the next night. A teacher from his school had been standing beside him as we talked. He gave me an angry look for mentioning our Bible study group in front of another person. Religious beliefs are supposed to be kept private, so we learn to avoid mentioning them in public.
Our Old Testament lesson for today tells how God called Jeremiah to preach to his people in the seventh century B.C.E. He was only eighteen years old and afraid to accept this assignment. God noticed that. He told this young man not to fear. But God didn’t say he had a choice, because there really was no choice. God didn’t say to Jeremiah, “Go and think up at seven-page sermon and type it double-spaced.” But God promised to tell him what to say and how to speak. So Jeremiah stopped making excuses and obeyed the call of God. He was a towering leader for the people of Judah for 40 years, after Babylon conquered Jerusalem.
Let’s go back a thousand years before Jeremiah. You may remember another reluctant prophet in the Old Testament, a man named Moses. When God called him at the burning bush and commanded him to lead the Hebrews out of slavery, he was tending sheep. Moses tried to resist. He said something like: “I have a speech impediment. I stutter. I am shy. I have this brother by the name of Aaron. He is good at talking and I will persuade him to talk for me.” God didn’t buy any of his excuses.
Remember how startled Mary was, when the angel Gabriel told her she would be the mother of Jesus. She was only thirteen and just a peasant girl. Mary was shocked to be called by God for such a challenge. Mothering the Messiah—imagine that! But unlike Jeremiah, and unlike Moses, she didn’t make excuses. She knew that her life and her time and her gifts weren’t necessarily her own. Mary responded, “Let it be with me according to your Word.” Now, there’s an example to follow.
Jeremiah, Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel were ordinary people when God called them—not priests or kings. They made excuses for remaining silent about their faith. But God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. So these men had to trust a higher power they couldn’t control and make radical changes in their lives.
One of the reasons our church exists, is to announce that God loves His world and His people. There are places in our community where people aren’t showing much love for others. Even just before Valentine’s Day, is love really important to the shoppers in the mall, or the people in line to buy lottery tickets at the Mini Mart, or the drivers on the Turnpike extension? I doubt it. So many people are angry and in a hurry. This church is one place where people care for each other. Why? Because we know God loves us so much that He sent His word of love in the form of a perfect human being. God calls us to love in our daily comings and goings. Not to honk when the driver in front of us takes two seconds to go after the light turns green. Not to gnash our teeth when the person in front of us in the express lane buys more than fifteen items. Jesus saves. We can help.
The creator of the Universe used Jeremiah, Moses, and Mary. None of those people had public speaking skills, and neither do most of us. God calls us to lead lives of compassion and justice, not because of who WE are, but because of who GOD is. We have plenty of opportunities to do small, faithful deeds. We don’t always do them. Are we buying into the materialism and the hypocrisy around us. My extended family thinks nothing of spending five hundred dollars when we go out for dinner. For just the cost of the wine, could we help a poor family to survive another day?
To answer God’s call, you don’t have to be a preacher, or a missionary, or an architect of church buildings, or a doctor at a free clinic. Opportunities come to us every day. Yesterday morning, I saw a poor old woman shivering in front of the Allentown Public Library. She asked me for two dollars. I went back to my car and got the money, and said, “God bless you.” I was sure she wouldn’t use the money to pay overdue fines, but I didn’t care. Unfortunately there was a time in my life when I had called street people, “panhandlers,” and looked the other way when they asked me for money. I assumed they wanted to buy drugs. Now I try to help whenever I can without judging motives. God calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. It’s like giving a couple of cans of ravioli to the Food Pantry--- not a big deal.
God called Jeremiah not only to “build and to plant,” but also to “pluck up and pull down.” The prophet had to preach messages his people didn’t want to hear. The “pulling down” may have to happen before planting can take place. Jeremiah’s job became a lot tougher when he spoke truth to power. Christians have to “just say no,” and speak words of judgment on occasion. For example, people of faith have gotten more forthright about speaking for or against violence in our culture, after twenty people were killed in Newtown, CT. Is it political? Yes, it is, somewhat. But it’s biblical too.
Ten years ago, I had the good fortune to meet a remarkable man who set a Christlike example for everyone he knew. The Reverend Robert L. DeWitt, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, was my parents’ next door neighbor when I was in seminary. He had served as the Bishop of Philadelphia in the sixties and seventies. During his time in office, Reverend DeWitt spoke out against racism and gender bias in the church. In 1974, he was disciplined by the head of his denomination for ordaining eleven women to the Episcopal priesthood when it wasn’t officially approved yet. Reverend DeWitt was a quiet, wise, gentle man. I could tell what it had cost him, emotionally, to take the stands he took. I cherish a figure of Christ on the cross that I display in our kitchen, because it once belonged to him. He died in 2003.
I truly believe that, even before we were born, we were part of a bigger story that had already taken shape in the mind of God. Acting as God’s children can be a challenge in this crazy world we live in. Listen when God calls you to speak your mind about an injustice. He will touch your courage and put words into your mouth. As Jesus says in our gospel reading, “My teaching is not mine, but His who sent me.” God is with us. We are His messengers. Thanks be to God for this privilege.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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