Monthly Archives: January 2014

Quiet Time

Never underestimate the value of silence. As a music teacher, I rarely listened to the radio on my way home from school. I had been singing. listening, and playing music all day. What I needed more than anything was simple silence. As a pastor, I am finding that the time I spend in silence is what grounds me and makes it possible for me to listen fully to others. “Be still, and know that I am God,” we read in Psalm 46:10, but do we really know how to do that?

Of course, the moment I sit down to “be still” with God is the moment I am bombarded with thoughts that drown out God’s voice. It takes a conscious effort to stop the constant chatter of my brain, and be present and still before my Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Yet, I am learning that this stillness before the Lord is more than an opportunity to “fill my spiritual fuel tank” or reorganize my thoughts. It is the very essence of following Jesus to draw near to him and listen. As I do this, I am transformed more and more into the grace-filled creature I was always meant to be.

It would be so sweet to stay in that silent space, to remain apart and “just be” with Jesus. But I can’t do that. While Jesus often sought solitude, he never stayed alone for long. There is a tender balance between quiet solitude and the noisy, messy business of doing ministry. Following Jesus means embracing both worlds with passion and joy. Let it be so.

Come and See – Sermon on John 1:29-42

It’s easy to get John the Evangelist mixed up with John the Baptist, especially when we read a passage from John’s Gospel that describes John the Baptist as an evangelist!  But that is what we have in front of us today. Last week, we heard Matthew’s version of the Baptism of Jesus. This week, our story takes us to the day after Jesus is baptized. John the Baptist notices Jesus walking down the street, and points out the Lamb of God to a handful of his own disciples. John shares his own experiences of the day before, and his disciples take off after Jesus. What happens next reminds me of one of those spy shows, where a professional spy is being tailed by someone, and suddenly turns to confront the follower. In this story, there isn’t a car chase, and we don’t see any hand-to-hand combat. This confrontation turns into an invitation. Three simple actions, expressed in two questions and an answer, show us how to share our faith with others and point them toward Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, from the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verses 29-42:

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

There is a subtle pattern that runs through this passage. It gives us three simple actions that point people to Jesus. First, John the Baptist notices Jesus. Second, he shares his experience with his own disciples. Then, John invites his disciples to follow their new teacher. Andrew and the other disciple notice Jesus, they share time with him, and then Andrew shares his experience with his brother, Simon. Finally, Andrew invites his brother to follow Christ, and Simon is changed. He becomes Simon Peter.

Notice, Share, Invite: Three simple actions. According to Luther Seminary professor David Lose, this is the essence of evangelism. He writes, “At its heart, evangelism is noticing what God is doing in our lives, sharing that with others, and inviting them to come and see for themselves.”[1]  So why do we find it so hard to think of ourselves as evangelists?  Why are we so afraid of spreading the Good News to others?

Maybe part of our fear comes from the fact that we just don’t notice God at work in our lives. Think about it for a moment: how have you experienced Christ?  How have you noticed God working in you, or in the life of the church?  How has your life changed since you met Jesus?  And if you don’t see God at work, why not?

John saw Jesus, and openly declared: “Here comes the Lamb of God, the One who takes away the sin of the entire world!”  That’s quite a proclamation!  But John had experienced something his disciples apparently had not, and he was eager to tell them about that experience. So, John told them what he had seen: the Spirit of God coming down from heaven like a dove, and resting on Jesus. John affirmed the identity of Jesus to these disciples. He said, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  John noticed. He saw with his own eyes, and he recognized what he saw. This was the Son of God, the One he’d been waiting for, the One he’d been preparing for.

In order to notice God at work among us, we have to be looking for it. As John’s disciples went after Jesus, his first words to them were “What are you looking for?”  They had noticed Jesus, thanks to John, but his question must have brought them up short. What were they looking for?  What did they really want to find?  Jesus asks the same question later in his ministry, when John sends messengers to Jesus from his prison cell to ask, “Are you the One?  Or should we look for another?”  After Jesus sends the messengers back to John with the words, “Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have good news preached to them,” Jesus goes on to ask the crowd, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  A prophet?”  In other words, what are you looking for?  How do you see God working around you?

If we are to find God, to notice God working around and among us, we need to know what we are looking for. The direction of our gaze is important. We may be looking in all the wrong places, noticing all the wrong things, and miss the Kingdom of God if we do not keep our focus on Jesus himself. I used to tell music students, “Listening is paying attention to what you hear.”  There is sound all around us all the time, so we need to be careful how we filter that sound, how we decide what needs our attention. The same is true as we look for God at work: we need to pay attention to what we see.

Let me give you some examples.
During Advent, some of us went caroling one Sunday afternoon. It was really cold, so our group was small, but we represented people of every age from seven to eighty-seven. As we stopped to sing at several homes, we were met with hugs, tears, smiles, and gratitude. The people who heard us sing were deeply moved, and the people who did the singing saw some folks they hadn’t seen for years, or – in some cases – had never met. This is God at work.

Every third Wednesday, some of us meet up at Ridgeway on 23rd, to sing old familiar hymns with residents of the memory care unit. As we sing, people who can no longer read remember all the words to “Amazing Grace” and “The Old Rugged Cross.”  We say the Lord’s Prayer together, with one voice. This is God at work.

On Wednesday nights, people come here to eat a warm, tasty, nutritious meal together. Children learn Bible stories, Confirmation students dig into what it means to be a Christian, and teenagers talk about their concerns with trusted leaders, while adults meet to study God’s Word together. God is at work.

Once a month, I meet with other pastors over lunch, as we pray for one another and for our churches. Some of these pastors come from denominations that do not recognize the authority of women in the pulpit, yet these men welcome me, pray for me, and pray for you and our ministry together. This is God at work.

We need to notice it, and call attention to it, just as John called attention to the Lamb of God, walking toward him. Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” of us, just as surely as he asked it of those two disciples who left John and followed him down the road. So, what are you looking for? Take a moment, and write down one way you’ve seen God working in your life, or in the life of this congregation lately. Go ahead. I’ll wait…

God is at work now, just as he was at work when Jesus asked those two disciples, “What are you looking for?” Their answer points to that second action – sharing. “Where are you staying, Teacher?” they wanted to know. The day before, their allegiance had been to John the Baptist, but once he had shared what he had seen when Jesus was revealed to him as the Lamb of God, there was no going back. John told them everything he had experienced, everything he knew about Jesus. Their response was a desire to know where Jesus was staying, where he was living, where they could count on finding him again and again. They wanted to share in that “abiding” with Jesus. The scripture isn’t explicit, but we are given the detail that it was about four in the afternoon when these two disciples met Jesus face to face. This would have been late enough in the day that it’s quite possible the disciples stayed with Jesus overnight, talking, listening, sharing life with their new teacher. Then, Andrew found his brother, and shared the news with Simon that “we have found the Messiah.”  Andrew noticed, then he shared. He told Simon his story, just as John had told Andrew and the other disciple the story of recognizing Jesus as the Son of God.

What is your story? I’m not talking about your church history, but your personal experience of Christ changing you.  John talked about what he had seen with his own eyes, and he didn’t mind repeating himself. Andrew was eager to tell his brother Simon about Jesus.

What’s your ‘elevator speech,’ the one you could tell on the way up to the third floor if someone getting into the elevator with you asked, “Why are you a Christian?”  Maybe you aren’t ready to give an entire speech, but we often have opportunities to share how God is working in our lives. If we don’t practice telling those stories, the opportunities may fly past us. Maybe we’re nervous about sharing our faith stories because we’ve never done it. The only way to learn how to do something is to practice. So, let’s practice for a minute. Turn to someone next to you, and tell each other one reason why you like coming to church here. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

That wasn’t so hard, was it?  When John the Baptist shared his story, he only needed a few sentences. When Andrew shared with his brother, Simon, he only needed one: “We have found the Messiah.”  It doesn’t take very many words to tell someone else about the one thing that excites you, the one reason you like to come to church, or the one way you have noticed God working in your life. And when we share that good news, we want the person listening to us to come be part of it, too.

That brings us to the third simple action: invitation. John the Baptist invited his own disciples to follow their new teacher when he pointed Jesus out to them and said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God I was telling you about yesterday.”  When Jesus caught them following him and asked what they were looking for, Andrew and his friend asked, “Where are you staying?”  Jesus didn’t tell them. He didn’t bring up the map app on his phone and show them how to get there. He just said, “Come and see.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Jesus invited them into his life, and they followed him home. Then Andrew invited his brother to come and see the Messiah, whom he had just met, and when Simon went with Andrew to meet Jesus, he was changed. He became “Peter.”  It was a little invitation, but it changed everything.

Christ invites us to invite others. It can be a little invitation. What is it about being part of this church that really gives you joy?  Who do you know that needs some of that?  If you don’t know anyone outside this church, how can you remedy that situation?

You may be surprised to learn this, but seven years ago, I was classified as an introvert. I did not spend time with anyone outside of church or the Christian school where I taught. I would much rather eat lunch at my desk than in a noisy restaurant with a table full of people, all talking at the same time.

And this bothered me. How could I share the Good News, how could I call myself a minister of the Gospel, if I insulated myself from the very people who needed to hear that Gospel?  So I prayed about it. And slowly, I started to notice how God was working on me, putting people in my path that I would have ignored before, but who needed to talk with someone about their questions and their doubts. As I shared this awareness of how God was working in me with others, I discovered that I was not alone. And I realized that, for me, being an evangelist is not buttonholing strangers on the street and asking them if they know where their souls will go when they die. It isn’t demanding that they make a decision on the spot and pray the Sinner’s Prayer after I have eloquently explained the plan of salvation. That isn’t the way Jesus worked, and it isn’t the way most of us are wired to work, though some may find those methods effective.

But I can do this: I can notice God at work in me and around me. I can share those experiences with others, and I can invite them to be part of what God is doing.

Notice, share, invite.

Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?”  Are you looking for grace and forgiveness?  Are you looking for eternal life?  Are you looking for an abiding and deep connection with the God who created you just so he could love you?

The disciples asked, “Where are you staying?”  Finding Jesus means finding the One we can depend on to remain with us, to stay with us, to share life and to change us through that experience.

And, together with Jesus, we can reach out to people who don’t know him yet, people who are looking for Jesus, even if they aren’t sure that God is the one they are seeking, and we can invite them to come and see Jesus at work among us, changing us, loving us, giving us life.

Or maybe that person is you. Maybe you are the one looking for Jesus. Maybe you are the one who needs assurance that he is with you, that your sins are forgiven, that God loves you and invites you to become his own beloved child. If that’s you, let me invite you to know the Word who became flesh. Let me invite you to ask forgiveness of your sins, and to rest assured that Jesus loves you so much, he died for you, so that you could have eternal life, rich and full, beginning now. Let me invite you to come and see Jesus. Amen.


[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3002

“Disciple, disciple, what do you see?” “I see Jesus looking at me.”

Tomorrow’s gospel lesson comes from John 1:29-42. It’s a different version of the Baptism of Our Lord than you will find in the other gospels. For one thing, the story takes place on the day after Jesus was baptized. For another, John the Baptist gets to tell his own version of the story, describing his experience to a handful of his own disciples. No water is involved.

But there’s a lot of seeing going on. John sees Jesus coming. John testifies that this is the one on whom he saw the Spirit of God descend, after being told he would see this phenomenon. “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God,” John says.

It doesn’t stop there. The next day John watches Jesus walk by, and tells a couple of his disciples, “See! There’s the Lamb of God I told you about yesterday!” They follow Jesus, who turns and sees them, then asks, “What are you looking for?” When they ask where he’s staying, Jesus says, “Come and” – you guessed it – “see.”

And that’s just the first half of the reading! It reminds me of Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle’s predictable reading primer, “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” that every preschool and kindergarten teacher knows by heart. Each colorful character in the story sees the next character “looking at me.” Except, in this case, the characters aren’t looking at, they are looking for. John the Baptist is looking for the One who has been promised. His disciples are looking for a conquering Messiah. Jesus is looking for disciples who will follow and learn from him.

We run into trouble when we stop looking, when we decline the invitation to “come and see.” But we also run into trouble when we start looking for the wrong thing, in the wrong places. There’s an old chorus that goes, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus; look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” Keeping our eyes on Jesus, we can focus on God alone, the author and finisher of our faith. There, we find peace, forgiveness, rest, grace. Where, you ask? Come and see.

   

Water and Spirit – Sermon on Matthew 3:13-17 (Baptism of Our Lord 2014)

Can you remember your baptism?  If you were baptized as an infant, chances are good that you have no memory of the actual event. I was baptized by my pastor – who also happened to be my father – when I was a young girl. I am grateful that my baptism could happen in a clean, heated baptistery, instead of the cold muddy river our church used for baptisms in its earliest years. I remember stepping down into the water, wearing one of my dad’s white shirts with the sleeves rolled up. I remember losing my footing as my dad laid me down into the water, baptizing me in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. But Dad didn’t let me drown. He held onto me until I could get my feet back under me, and then helped me back up the steps, where my mom waited with a clean towel. It’s a good memory. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something was different about me after that. I knew I’d been changed for good.

The third chapter of Matthew’s gospel describes a slightly different process, as John the Baptist preaches a message of judgment and baptizes repentant sinners in the Jordan River. The water is cold and murky. Since John’s call to repentance inspires a spontaneous desire to be baptized among his listeners, their Moms probably aren’t waiting on the riverbank with warm towels. But the people coming up out of the water know they’ve been changed for good. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but something is different.

Then, an amazing thing happens. The long line of baptismal candidates has dwindled down to the last three, then two, then only one person standing in front of John in the river, waiting to be baptized. And John recognizes this one. It’s his cousin, Jesus. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, beginning at the thirteenth verse:

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  But Jesus answered him “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Matthew 3:13-17

Whether you were sprinkled, poured over, or dunked, your baptism required water. Water is essential to life, and we can’t live very many days without it. The average human body is about 65% water. Water plays a major role in the biblical story, all the way from Genesis, with Creation and Noah’s Flood, through the Exodus, as God provides water in the desert, into the New Testament, where Jesus lives and teaches by the Sea of Galilee, right through to Revelation, where the River of Life flows through the City of God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well that he, himself, was the source of Living Water. Water also washes us, and the origins of baptism in Jewish worship included the symbolic act of washing and being purified through water. New converts to Judaism were baptized, you may remember, as part of the initiation ritual that demonstrated they were now clean, ready to enter the Temple. As John baptized repentant sinners in the Jordan River, I wonder if anyone remarked on the irony of being cleansed from sin in one of the dirtiest looking rivers around.

There’s a story in the Old Testament about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. I have sometimes wondered why it isn’t one of the assigned readings for this Sunday, when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord. Naaman was a powerful general in the army of the King of Aram, during the time of the prophet Elisha. Naaman had a skin disease. His wife’s servant, a young girl who had been captured from Israel by an Aramean raiding party, told her mistress about Elisha the prophet, and said, “I wish my master would go to him and be healed.”  One thing led to another, and soon Naaman was on his way to Samaria with a load of gifts for the King of Israel. You can read the whole story in 2 Kings 5, but the short version is that the king sends Naaman to Elisha, and Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to meet the great warrior. He sends his servant to tell Naaman to dip himself in the River Jordan seven times. Naaman is insulted. Aren’t there cleaner, nicer rivers back home?  And why doesn’t this prophet come out and wave a magic wand, say some mumbo jumbo and make the disease disappear?  Naaman leaves in disgust. But his servants, who are traveling with him, urge him to reconsider. They remind him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’s been told to do?  Naaman changes his mind, does what he’s told, and is healed of his skin disease.

Naaman repented. He turned around and went back to the river, and did what he was told to do. He obeyed the Word of the Lord, given through the prophet Elisha, and he was changed for good. His disgust and unwillingness to submit to Elisha’s command was replaced with obedience.

Like Naaman, John also protested, but relented and became obedient. John knew Jesus. We don’t know if these two relatives spent any time together as children, but keep in mind that John was only about six months older than Jesus, and their mothers had been close. So we can speculate that they knew each other as “cousins” before Jesus waded into the river to meet John. But John knew Jesus as something more than a cousin. He recognized that the man standing in front of him was The One for whom he had been preparing the way. John knew that this was the Messiah. John knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. John knew that his own ministry was about to come to a close, because here stood the whole reason for John’s preaching, teaching, and baptizing. John knew that the Kingdom of God was looking him in the eye.

John’s question has troubled Christians from the beginning. Why did Jesus think he needed to be baptized?  He had never sinned; he didn’t need to repent. Yet, here he was, asking John to baptize him along with all those repentant sinners. It’s quite possible that Matthew’s first-century church had argued over this question, and that is why Matthew makes a point of explaining a motive for this peculiar behavior by the Son of God. Jesus tells John, “Allow this to happen for the time being, to fulfill all righteousness.”  “Trust me on this one,” Jesus says to his cousin John. “Even if it seems weird to you, just trust me. God has a plan in mind, and this is part of it.”  So John is obedient, and baptizes Jesus, and righteousness is fulfilled.

That word, “righteousness,” is loaded with meaning. Matthew uses it seven times[1] in his Gospel, and each use signals a slightly different understanding of the word. For Matthew, righteousness is more than “being good.”  Righteousness is closely connected to an awareness of the coming Kingdom. Righteousness means following Jesus as a faithful disciple, and participating in that kingdom. Righteousness is becoming aligned with God’s deep desire to save us. When Jesus tells John, “permit it to be so now, to fulfill all righteousness,” he’s saying, “Let’s do this!  It’s part of God’s plan to redeem the world from sin!”

It’s important to see that Jesus includes John in the plan. They have to do this together. This moment when John lowers Jesus under the water connects the ministry that went before, preparing the way, with the ministry that is just beginning – that is the Way. As Jesus submits to baptism, he puts himself in the same position as the people he came to save, and he does it in a very literal, tangible way that they can see. Three years from this moment, he will take on the sins of the entire world as he hangs on a cross at Golgotha. But in a very real way, his baptism serves as the initiation for that saving work.

So, just as Naaman obeyed Elisha, and John obeyed Jesus, Jesus becomes obedient. In their obedience, Naaman and John are changed for good. In his obedience, Jesus changes us for good.

And then something else amazing happens. The heavens are opened, and Jesus sees the Spirit descend on him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The Spirit moved over the waters at Creation, and over Mary at Jesus’ conception. Now the Spirit moves over the waters of Christ’s baptism, labeling him as God’s own beloved Son, and anointing him as both King and servant of all. When we baptize an infant or a new believer, we lay on hands and breathe over the one being baptized, to signify that a New Creation has begun in us. We anoint the newly baptized with oil, as a symbol that the Holy Spirit has marked this one as God’s own beloved child.

Theologian Greg Garrett writes that baptism symbolizes birth and rebirth throughout the Bible, and whenever this happens, “people enter the water as one thing,” [slaves out of Egypt, or wanderers entering the Promised Land, for example] … and emerge as something entirely different”[2]. Jesus entered the water as ‘just another guy’, as far as the crowds around John were concerned. But when he emerged from those baptismal waters, he’d been changed for good. Christ’s baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry on earth, but it also marked him as God’s own Son, the Beloved, in whom God took great pleasure. If Jesus was going to baptize with the Spirit, as John had announced, he had to first experience that anointing himself.

Baptism marks us as belonging to God. The old catechism calls it a visible, outward sign of an invisible, inward grace. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit does this work in us; it is not some transaction we perform. It is also important to remember that, once we are sealed with the mark of baptism, that seal is a permanent one. We belong to God, now and forever. He has claimed us as his own.

In a moment, we will renew our baptismal vows using a distinctive Wesleyan liturgy. As we each reflect on our own baptism, we must also consider how we ended up here, in this Methodist Church, living and working together for Christ’s kingdom through this particular congregation. How are we being called to obedience by God’s Spirit working among us?  What is the outward sign of our inward grace, and how are we to show that grace to the community of New Ulm?

You may have noticed that several elements of our worship this morning have drawn on the Wesleyan heritage that marks the United Methodist Church in a unique way. For over three hundred years, the Methodist movement has been “seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.”[3]  John Wesley held three simple rules that have become known as “The Wesleyan Way.”  Those rules are to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. They are reflected in the Minnesota Annual Conference Gospel Imperatives to reach new people, cultivate spiritual vitality, and heal a broken world.

As we renew our baptismal promises, we need to make them count for something, to honor them in spirit and in truth as we live out our faith together in this time and place. If this is something you haven’t considered before, or if it’s been a while since you consciously thought about your own discipleship, I encourage you to focus first on Wesley’s third rule: stay in love with God. Cultivating a deep and rich friendship with God gives us a reason to do good, to reach new people, to heal a broken world.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water in a moment, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.


[1] Matthew 3:15; 5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33; 21:32

[2] Greg Garrett, Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 1, 239.

[3] 2012 Book of Discipline, ¶121.

Remember your baptism

A picture hangs in my office, taken sometime in the mid-1950s. A young boy is standing waist-deep in a river, holding a list of names, candidates for baptism.  Next to him is his father, a pastor, preparing to baptize a young girl. The busy river flows around these three figures, and makes me grateful that, by the time that same pastor, who also happened to be my father, baptized me, it was in a heated baptistery filled with clean water.

This Sunday is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday in the season of Epiphany. Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus going down into the Jordan River, where John was baptizing repentant sinners. Matthew makes it clear that Jesus wasn’t asking to be baptized because of sin, but in order to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:13-17).

There’s a story in the Old Testament (2 Kings 5:1-14) about another man, Naaman, who also walked down into the Jordan River. But Naaman didn’t do it voluntarily. In fact, he was angry that the prophet Elisha had told him to do such a degrading thing, and turned away in disgust. But his servants reminded him that he would have done a great thing if he’d been asked, so why not do this little thing he’d been told to do? Naaman changed his mind, and was healed of his skin disease.

I see a connection between John’s baptism “with water for repentance” and Naaman’s repentant plunge into the Jordan River. But I see an even stronger connection between Naaman’s “baptism” and the baptism of Jesus, who had no need to repent, who knew no sin. Naaman may have balked at first, but in the end, he did what he was told to do.  John may have balked when Jesus came to him to be baptized, but in the end, Jesus did what he was told to do, too. Naaman was cleansed of his disease, while Jesus took on the sins of the world. Both  were obedient to God.

Baptism won’t save you. Baptism isn’t some secret initiation rite with magical properties. Baptism is a sign of obedience. As you touch the water this Sunday, maybe making the sign of the cross on your forehead with a wet finger, remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember the promises you made, or the promises that were made on your behalf by your parents and the congregation that witnessed your baptism. Renew those promises to be faithful, to love God and neighbor, to seek righteousness, to be a true follower of Jesus. Then go out, marked by grace, to be obedient to God.

Glory Next Door – Sermon on John 1:1-18 (Christmas 2A)

The prologue to John’s Gospel is one of the most read – and perhaps least understood – passages in Scripture. We hear part of it every Christmas Eve, just before the Christ Candle enters the room. The poetic structure of the first few verses has led some scholars to believe that it was  a hymn already being sung by the early church before John set down his version of the gospel story. Others, of course, dispute that theory. Whether the Evangelist borrowed this ‘Hymn to the Word’ from another source or composed it himself, countless Christians have been moved and encouraged by John’s simply worded, yet deeply profound, introduction to the story of Jesus, the Son of God.

John tells his gospel story differently than the other evangelists do. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is no “birth story” in John’s gospel. Unlike Mark, John does not begin with an explanation of the ministry of John the Baptist, though the Baptizer does have an important role to play in this prologue to the gospel. We might wonder, “Why did John find it necessary to write  a gospel at all? Mark had already set down his urgent rough draft, and both Matthew and Luke had refined that telling, filling in gaps and explaining the confusing parts. And why did John begin his story in such  a peculiar way, leaving out those shepherds and magI we enjoy remembering during this season of Christmastide?

Ancient tradition holds that the Evangelist wrote from Ephesus, near the end of the first century. The temple had probably already been destroyed by the time John wrote, and the Jews had been dispersed, leaving Jerusalem behind as they resettled in other cities. John’s story is directed to these Jews, who have been scattered throughout the provinces, bereft of a location they could call their spiritual home. John also was writing for Greeks who had been converted to the Jewish faith.

John’s purpose for writing his distinctive gospel message is woven throughout today’s passage, but he states it most clearly in chapter 20, near the end of the story: “These things have been written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” This phrase “that you might believe” may be interpreted two ways. First, that you may come to faith, believing in Christ for salvation, but also, that you might persevere in faith, continuing to believe. John wrote the gospel story to convince those Jews who remained skeptical, that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah for whom they longed. And to those who already believed, John hoped to encourage their faith and sustain them through the hardships the early church was beginning to face. Those Christians needed – as we often do –  a reminder of what they had first believed: that Jesus was the Christ, and that they belonged to God.

Today’s passage is the introduction, the prologue to John’s story. Let us prepare our hearts to hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us by John the Evangelist.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

He was in the world,
and the world came into being through him,
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him,
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God;
who were born,
not of blood
nor of the will of the flesh
nor of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of  a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth;

 (John testified to him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me, because he was before me.'”)

From his fullness we have all received,
grace upon grace.
The law indeed was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God;
It is God the only Son,
who is close to the Father’s heart,
who has made him known. – John 1:1-18

Scholars have puzzled over this prologue to the Gospel of John for centuries. John opens his story the same way Genesis starts; “In the beginning…”, drawing his Jewish readers into the creation story that is, for them, familiar, comfortable ground. Ah yes, “in the beginning” – we know how this goes, they think.  But John adds  a shocking twist to those familiar thoughts: In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word WAS God. The Evangelist uses simple vocabulary, but his message is far from simple.

The Greek word ‘logos’ means ‘word,’ but it can indicate the action of speaking a word as well as the actual word being spoken. John’s use of logos to describe God’s act of creation draws on this idea. Both Jews and Greek converts to the Jewish faith would connect the action of God, speaking the world into existence, with the word God had pronounced to accomplish this creative act. The Word as  a flesh-and-blood person, however, would have been  a startling idea to both Greek and Hebrew readers. I think that was John’s intent. Identifying the Word of the Creation story with  a real human ought to have grabbed the attention of the Fourth Gospel’s first readers– and it should also grab ours.

Sometimes we need to be shaken up a little. We need to be reminded that this miracle of grace we have experienced cannot be taken for granted. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming complacent, lukewarm. So John the Evangelist uses language meant to grab us and shake us up. First, he uses poetry when referring to the Word, then he interrupts the poem with a story about the witness of John the Baptist. Or maybe it’s the poetry doing the interrupting, giving us a summary of the whole gospel’s message. That message is this: God has broken in on our everyday lives, just as John’s poem about the Word breaks through the story of the Baptizer’s witness to the Son of God. God has come among us, interjecting himself into human lives through the person of Jesus Christ. John was among the last alive who had seen and known Jesus, and he feared for a church that might forget what it was to personally know the Savior. “I have seen him,” John says. “ I bear witness, just as John the Baptizer did, that this man who lived among us is God.”

A few years ago, archeologists uncovered a small house, about 900 square feet, in the old city of Nazareth, dating from the time Jesus lived there. Nazareth was a small village of maybe 50 families, probably very poor, and quite likely related to one another. As the archeologists were digging, it was easy to speculate how Jesus might have played and worked in the very spot where they were standing. The personhood of Jesus seems more real when holding a shard of  a pot he might actually have touched. The Word became flesh, John writes. And we have seen his glory.

Imagine, if you can, being told that a guy who went to high school with you, graduated in your class, grew up with you and hung out with you under the bleachers while your brothers played Little League together, spitting hulls from sunflower seeds  – that guy … is God. John was doing exactly that in this introduction to his gospel. John was bearing witness to what he himself had seen and heard. He knew ‘that guy’ – and he recognized that Jesus was more than just a buddy hanging out under the bleachers: he was God, and he was God from before the beginning, before the creation of the world. John’s point is that God has revealed himself in one very like us, and yet not like us at all. The light has come into the world, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory.

Not only have we seen the Light, John tells us, that Light coming into the world, invading our reality, cannot be overcome – or even ‘understood’ by the darkness. But that light can transform our darkness, if we believe. Last week, we considered how God is present with us, even in the face of great darkness, even in the midst of unspeakable evil. While God is continually present with us in the brokenness of our world, God’s presence can only begin to change us and the darkness around us when we trust in God, when we believe in the saving grace God offers us through his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the question each of us must answer: Do you believe?

Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth – that guy – is the Son of God? If you have not yet made that leap of faith, I urge you to take up John’s gospel and read it through, today. Football can wait. And if you haven’t taken down your Christmas tree yet, another day is not going to matter. It is John the Evangelist’s deepest desire that you come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. As we approach the Communion Table today, this is also my deep desire for you.

John writes, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Names mean something in the Bible.  A name represents all that a person is; it reflects a person’s character and identity. God’s name was considered sacred by the ancient Hebrews because it represents all that God is. For John, believing in the Name meant believing that Jesus bore God’s name, that he was, in fact, divine.

“… he gave power to become children of God.” We who believe in his Name, who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we have the power to become children of God. This word, translated as ‘power’ in the NRSV, and as ‘right’ in the NIV, is the Greek word for ‘authority’. We have been given authority to become children of God. 1 John 3:1-2 exclaims, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God – and that is what we are!” God has granted us authority to claim God as our Father. And this authority bears with it some responsibility.

Just as Jesus humbled himself to go into the world to seek and to save that which was lost, so he calls us to go into the world, seeking out those who need God, who hunger for truth, who could use a little grace in their lives. Claiming our authority as God’s children, we have a job to do: we are to be salt and light in the world around us. And we are to be grace and glory for one other, too, as we receive grace and truth from our brothers and sisters within this faith community.

The language is simple, but the truth it expresses is deeply profound. It may be difficult to understand completely, but our task is not to try to make sense of it. Our task is to let it make sense of us.[1] As we submit ourselves to the Word of God, the Word that was made flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, we are changed. We become the children of God. This transformation is grace. We dare not keep it to ourselves. Like John, we must eagerly share this good news, so that others might come to believe, and might keep on believing.

Amanda Highben puts it another way in her poem, “Let us believe”. She writes:

Let us believe in the bright light now before us.

Brighter still is this—
the knowledge that I have placed your love
like  a smooth seed in my heart, and there it pulses
and stirs in  a hope-hollowed space,
deep in dark soil cradled.

We have not come so far, this far, for nothing.
We have come that we might be changed.

And let us believe that, in time, we will come to love
our bright and curving world
without inclining towards fear.

For I have come to believe in this bright truth—
quietly, from the core, we change
and quietly, from the core, we love.   – Amanda Highben (b. 1978)

God calls us to be transformed, so that we can go out into the world, bearing his light and his truth. Our transformation begins in God’s mercy and grace. It develops through our belief in his Son, Jesus Christ. And our transformation is made complete when we can love, as Jesus loved, those around us who need God’s saving grace. Quietly, from the core, let us grow in faith and love. Openly, as children of God, let us share the good news that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Almighty God, you have filled us with the light of the Word, who became flesh and lived among us; let the light of faith shine in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


[1] (William H Willimon, Pastor, 150).

Rubbing Elbows

“Nothing gives an arts donor greater pleasure,” the consultant said, “than rubbing elbows with the sweaty artists.” The topic was post-concert receptions, and the consultant was encouraging performers to spend time with the patrons who support them.
“I thought about going into music,” the insurance agent said, “but there was this guy in high school who just blew the rest of us out of the water. I knew I could never compete with talent like that. So I majored in math instead of music.” The classmate went on to become a world-famous orchestra conductor. The insurance agent enjoyed telling stories about rubbing elbows with the famous conductor when they were in high school together.
A few years ago, archeologists found the remains of a small first-century house in the village of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. It might have even been the same house where Joseph and Mary raised their family. At the very least, given that Nazareth probably had no more than fifty homes in it, this little house belonged to someone Jesus knew when he was a child. Imagine what it must have been like to live right next door to the Son of God! What would it be like to rub elbows with the sweaty carpenter’s kid, to hang out as a teenager with the smartest guy in Hebrew class? I wonder…
“The Word became flesh and made his home among us.” – John 1:14