January 2014 Sermons:
Americans value privacy very highly. We live in an entirely different social climate from the one in which Jesus lived, two thousand years ago. The concept of privacy was virtually unknown in the ancient Middle East. Working class families slept in the same one-room house—parents, children and animals together. And yet, for the common people of Nazareth, support from the faith community was important. Jesus wanted a public baptism. He was quite decisive about that. Why did He even need to be baptized? He had never sinned, nor would He sin for the rest of His life. He was God’s Son! But He walked to the Jordan River that day and let his cousin baptize Him there.
Commissioning for leadership in the Jewish faith was never private. The Jews practiced baptism for the remission of sin, and they anointed their leaders. They did both in full public view. Jesus had grown up in a close-knit faith community. He realized that His ministry would affect the lives of hundreds of others. Jesus’ faith was deeply personal to Him, but He wanted other believers to witness His baptism. He knew how much He stood out from the general population. He knew that He was without sin. But He asked John the Baptist to baptize Him, in the presence of the synagogue leaders, the outcasts of His society, and everyone in between. And when Jesus stepped into the river, God’s little dove told that crowd—all those Pharisees and Roman centurions and beggars-- "This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well-pleased!"
Privacy and solitude can be dangerous things. When we try to go it alone, temptation hits us. Remember the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness? It happens right after His baptism, in all four gospels. Jesus heads straight into the desert to be alone for forty days and forty nights. As He crosses the sand dunes, tired and hungry, He hears another voice. It’s Satan, quoting scripture, twisting it out of context. Jesus resists the temptation to sin. He comes out ahead in that story.
Our society puts huge emphasis on prestige and power. So did the Roman conquerors of Nazareth. By contrast, Jesus was humble. The Son of God submitted to His cousin’s authority as His baptizer. "Let it be so now . . .to fulfill all righteousness," Jesus said. Imagine the awkward situation in this story. John felt he should be giving in to Jesus. He knew Jesus was the Messiah. But, on the other hand, Jesus insisted on handing Himself over to John. Fortunately, they worked it out. Jesus took the inferior position----maybe even stood behind other people in a long line, to be baptized! Talk about humbling experiences.
Not many of us Presbyterians have been baptized by immersion, as Jesus was. I have talked to a few Baptists about how it feels. People say that being dunked makes them feel that they have lost all control. Jesus, who had the power of God, gave in to the power of John that day. He allowed Himself to be completely immersed. Most of us are baptized as babies. And yet, what we do today in baptism is not a lot different from what John the Baptist did for Jesus. Little children must feel a loss of control when they are baptized—even though I don’t dip them into the font. Think of how a baby must feel, going from his or her mother’s arms to a strange pastor’s arms, and being sprinkled three times with water! No wonder they cry. Their lives are in my hands. And they don’t even know me! It must be scary for a baby to get passed around like that, and carried through the congregation. But I haven’t dropped anyone yet.
Drowning was the worst nightmare of every desert dweller. The idea of swimming, as a sport, would have horrified people of the Middle East in Jesus’ time. Jesus had no fear of immersion in the Jordan River, nor was He too proud to have an ordinary man baptize Him. Can we surrender to God’s will for us, just as Jesus did to John during His baptism?
When church officers are ordained and installed, Jesus is calling them to fulfill their baptisms. Our officers are servant leaders. When one of our members faces the death of a loved one, a family trauma, or a medical crisis, we support that person, led by our officers—not just the pastor. We try to do what Jesus would have done.
Being a Christian is a blessing. As theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, “To bless means to say good things. We have to bless one another constantly. Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, husbands their wives, wives their husbands, friends their friends. In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings. We forget so quickly that we are God’s beloved children and we allow those social curses to darken our hearts. Therefore, we have to be reminded of our belovedness, and remind others of theirs.”
In today’s gospel story, it was not only God’s representative, that little dove, but also Jesus’ community, and the prophet John, who supported His baptism. He wanted it that way. God’s own support for church leaders is made manifest in the support of their faith community. And that’s still true today.
Always remember that you are baptized—even if you don’t actually remember that event because it happened so many years ago. It was your first call to ministry. Confirmation and ordination come later in the Christian faith, but they’re part of the process that begins with baptism. Today, we are ordaining and installing five church officers. God has chosen members with whom He is well-pleased, and will anoint them with the Holy Spirit for ministry. As a congregation, we will confirm God’s choice.
A pastor friend forwarded this story to me. A woman had recently been baptized. One of her co-workers asked her how it felt to be a Christian. She was caught off guard and didn’t know how to answer. It was a few days before Halloween. She saw a jack o’lantern on a desk. She answered, “It’s like being a pumpkin!” The co-worker asked her to explain. “Well,” she replied, “God picks you from the patch and washes off the dirt on the outside of you. Then He cuts off the top and takes the yucky stuff from inside you. He removes the seeds of doubt and greed. He carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside of you for all to see. It’s our choice, either to rot on the vine or to be something new and bright.”
Ordination and installation recall Jesus’ baptism and our own. God calls church leaders to do as Jesus did: to tell the truth in a world that lies, to make peace in a world of conflict, and to give, in a world that always wants to take. May the Spirit guide us all in finishing the journey we began at our baptisms.
Evangelism has become a scary word. In general, it’s a word with which Presbyterians don’t want to be associated. We don’t care for stereotyped evangelists—the kind of people who accost you on the street and push flyers into your hands, or people on television who beg you to send money to keep their soul-winning ministry on the air. Maybe you haven’t been threatened with fire and brimstone, but you’ve probably had a few door-to-door encounters with evangelists like that.
Maybe your idea of an "evangelist" was the friend who was one of the kindest people you've ever known. She spoke to you in a gentle, condescending tone of voice. She was sure she knew how to live, and you didn’t. Every now and then, she dropped hints that your faith in Jesus wasn't as strong as hers. She quoted Bible verses in a righteous way that made you feel inadequate. You sensed she was concerned about your eternal fate, but not her own. That kind of evangelist is not my style.
What if being an evangelist is not about being pushy or being a religious know-it-all? What if it’s not about standing on street corners, spouting doctrinal theology? Many of us prefer a style that is lower-key. Do you know whose brand of evangelism I like? Not Billy Graham, just because I could never be like that. Andrew is an important character in today’s gospel lesson. He pops up a lot in the gospel of John. Andrew had followed John the Baptist before meeting Jesus. Andrew was standing with John when Jesus walked by. John pointed Jesus out and told them, “He’s the one. I’m not worthy to tie that man’s sandals.”
In the first chapter of John, Andrew introduces his brother, Simon Peter, to Jesus. Andrew appears again in the sixth chapter, to introduce the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus. Then, in chapter twelve, Andrew introduces some Greeks to Jesus. He isn’t a loud, self-righteous person. Andrew, the quiet missionary, is a wonderful model for the rest of us.
Epiphany is the time in the church year when we proclaim God's love, as revealed in Jesus Christ. The word, “Epiphany,” means a manifestation of God. The three scripture passages we heard today are about sharing the Good News. That’s what the word, “evangelist,” means: a bearer of Good News.
Paying attention to the way God has shown up, in your own life, is where evangelism starts. My guess is that at one time or another, you have had an epiphany---an experience of the divine presence in your life. Because I’m a pastor, people share their epiphany moments with me. These stories deserve respect, but they don’t always get respect, even from other believers. Instead, they often get frowns and skepticism.
I had an epiphany on the day my brother died of brain cancer—probably at the exact hour of his death in 1993. It wasn’t a visitation of God or of Jesus Christ. But you could call it an appearance of an angel. My brother, Ralph, came to me in peace, in the hour of his death, to say goodbye. I was walking at our favorite cottage by the lake where John and Laura and I happened to be staying, and Ralph appeared. He started walking with me around the lake. My brother and I had had many disagreements in our childhood because we were so different. At that moment, we forgave each other without words. It was like a dream, and it was in color, but I wasn’t asleep. He died that same hour in Boston—two hundred miles away from the cottage by the lake—and I got the phone call later that day. Meeting his spirit by the lake and saying goodbye to him in peace, after his long battle with cancer, was one of the experiences that called me to ministry.
Are you like John the Baptist? In a moment of epiphany, did you see Jesus as the one who takes away our guilt and shame? Maybe, like Andrew, you have come to know Jesus through the teachings of a church leader. Andrew learned of Jesus from his friend, John the Baptist. Maybe you have felt God’s power lifting you up at difficult times, when your burdens were too heavy to carry alone. God is the one who makes us look beyond our computers and our coffee cups into the enchanted possibilities of grace. God draws us into faith, even when we don’t realize it’s happening. He uses others to call us onto paths that lead to the meaning of life.
There are as many kinds of epiphanies as there are people. Even if we don’t say a word, our lives can speak The Message. Have you ever heard the proclamation of Saint Francis of Assisi? “Preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.” When God's love claims us, our lives preach the Good News. Sometimes, though, we have to give voice to our stories with words. Telling your faith story is evangelism, even if you’re not quoting the Bible or telling someone how to live. It’s developing a relationship, making a connection.
Besides telling others about God's love with our own lives, we evangelize if we are really attentive to those people. Remember the story in Chapter One of John’s gospel. Jesus was walking along and two people started following him. He turned and saw them. He paid full attention to them. The same thing happened later when Andrew brought Simon to Jesus. First Jesus beheld Simon. He looked at him with His mind's eye and His heart's eye. By contrast, stereotyped evangelists are people who don’t see other people. They simply roll over those people, with what they see as their superior faith and knowledge. The people around them are simply conquests, maybe even just numbers to them.
As Jesus beholds the two men in this gospel story, He asks them, “What are you looking for?” Evangelism begins with genuine interest in another person. It begins with beholding that person. It invites people to look in a deeper way at their lives. I wonder about your story. What are you looking for? Who has really seen you and asked you questions about what life really means? Who has taken the time to behold you? Who has asked the questions beyond: What do you do? Where do you work? Where did you grow up? Has anyone ever really seen you and asked what are you seeking? Who invited you to “come and see”? Who invited you into a church, where God is at work and people are serving together?
Whoever those people are, they are evangelists. Simon Peter turned out to be one of the greatest evangelists who ever lived. He did so much telling about Jesus, that he’d become the foundation upon which Christianity would be built. Jesus saw the potential in this fisherman. He stopped and listened to Peter, and got to know him. God did the rest. We need more people like Peter, who love because they have been loved. We need more people who welcome because they have been welcomed. If that's what it means to be an evangelist, which of you would like to be an evangelist? Raise your hands. Amen.
Fishing is a popular hobby for people in our congregation. People find a great deal of spiritual satisfaction in fishing, too. But, for Andrew and Peter and James and John, fishing wasn’t a hobby or a spiritual quest. It was a family business. They went out on the Sea of Galilee in good and bad weather. They worked hard to maintain their equipment and to repair their nets. They weren’t poor, but they weren’t wealthy either. They weren’t brilliant scholars. They didn’t have political power. They were just ordinary working people.
Helen Keller once said that life is either an amazing adventure or nothing at all. I think Peter and Andrew and James and John felt that way. When Jesus offered them a new adventure, they accepted His challenge, and they did so immediately. I wish someone had interviewed those men at the end of their lives, and asked them, "What was the best part? What did you learn? How did you grow as disciples of Jesus? And if you could do it over again, would you decide to drop your nets and follow Him?" We know that following Jesus didn’t make life easier for any of them.
Jesus tells the four fishermen that, "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Matthew uses the expression, “the kingdom of heaven,” in contrast to the other gospel writers, who say “the kingdom of God.” Matthew was a good Jew. He was careful about not using God’s name in vain, so he quoted Jesus as saying, “heaven,” instead. But the important thing to remember is that Jesus wasn’t talking about the after-life. He was talking about all the good things God has done on earth in his own time and in ours. The kingdom of God encompasses the places and people and events where God is working right now.
Jesus uses the word "repent." He means something different from what you might expect. The Greek verb, “to repent” (metanoeo), is like the Hebrew verb, “to repent” (shub), which means “to turn around.” Repentance, in the New Testament, means a complete and immediate change of direction! For the ancients, repentance was a doing word, not a feeling word. Repentance didn’t necessarily mean ending a bad habit, or stopping a sinful behavior pattern. If an ancient Galilean said, "I’m a bad person. I need more self discipline!" he would not have been repenting. That would just be talk, nothing more. For people in Jesus’ day, the word, repent, meant to “take action.” It wasn’t about what you felt. It was about the positive things you did.
Most of us don’t do things spontaneously. We look at weather forecasts before driving to work. We set our GPS before we go to restaurants. We check reviews before going to movies. For a second career, if we wanted one, we would make plans over several years. So imagine just packing up, saying goodbye to your family, and following a strange man, to go preaching and teaching and healing! Peter and Andrew and James and John repented, in a big way. And they went on an amazing adventure with Jesus in the lead.
In Jesus’ day, rabbis never advertised for students. Instead they waited for potential students to come to them. When rabbinical student “wannabes” showed up at the synagogue, they had to convince a particular rabbi that they were worthy of his time. Jesus didn’t act like a normal rabbi would. He didn’t wait for students to come to Him. He went out looking for followers. And He didn’t look in holy places. When He found Peter and Andrew and James and John, He didn’t make small talk about the weather. He didn’t ask if the fish were biting. He just said, "Follow me."
This may not have been the first time Peter and Andrew met Jesus. When we heard John’s gospel last week, we learned that they were already disciples of John the Baptist. But in this moment, Jesus issued a direct invitation for Peter and Andrew to throw their lot in with Him. When He approached James and John, they walked away from their father who was in the boat. We know that Peter had a mother-in-law, so presumably he had a wife too. There’s no mention that he said goodbye to her. Something about Jesus’ presence evoked this immediate response. I’m guessing it was His charisma and His total commitment to His mission. Following Him, they went to places they’d never been before. They met people they would never have met on the Sea of Galilee. On occasions, they encountered hostility and found themselves on the wrong side of the law. Following Jesus, they adopted a new and risky way of life.
Many Christians have forgotten how to follow Jesus. The church has become an institution with budgets and documents and rules and a form of government. And as a power in our society, it has been sinking. We don’t want to rock the boat, much less try to walk on water! Jesus said that He came, that we might have life, and have it abundantly. But for some, following Jesus has been reduced to a creed, to a test measuring what you believe and how you fit in---not how you live and love.
Here’s a story that inspired me, Jack McConnell, an 81-year-old medical doctor, retired a few years ago, and planned to play golf every day in Hilton Head, South Carolina. He got bored very quickly. He discovered that people in the community had no health care. So he started a free clinic for them. He sought out retired doctors and nurses to staff the clinic, and they went to work. Now his Volunteers in Medicine Institute has a network of fifty neighborhood clinics in South Carolina. Dr. McConnell credits his parents for raising his consciousness about others’ needs. “When I was a child, my parents asked me, at the end of every day, what I had done to help someone,” he remembers.
I’m feeling frustrated with the general reluctance of Christians to take risks for our faith these days. It has a lot to do with the economic crisis. It is hard for parents to support their families. Risk-taking feels foolish, because most of us have fewer resources than Dr. McConnell does. But Jesus did say, "You must lose your life in order to save it. Follow me.” We may not be called to start a health network. We don’t have to give up our livelihoods. But Jesus has called us to come down on the side of grace.
Many Christians accept Jesus’ invitation. But others lose track of His call. It happened to Peter. After Jesus was crucified, Peter was confused and afraid for his safety. He didn’t want to follow Jesus anymore. So Peter told the others, "I’m going fishing.” And of course, Jesus found him in a boat by the sea. Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him. Peter said yes, so Jesus told him to tend His sheep. Jesus said to Peter, "Follow me." And Peter did.
Our choices, all through our lives, define what we become. You don’t have to keep on being what you decided to be when you were 21 years old, or 40, or even 65. Working with Jesus, we Christians can cast a different kind of net -- one that frees us for amazing adventures. God feeds His children, always. Thanks be to God.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | email@example.com
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