Tag Archives: Baptism of Our Lord

Fully Immersed – Sermon on Luke 3:15-22 for Baptism of our Lord C

January 13, 2019

Do you know your purpose in life? Do you have a clear idea of why God made you, and what you are supposed to do with this one precious life you’ve been given?

Jesus did. He understood that his primary purpose was to bring us humans into right relationship with God. That was the whole reason he came into the world – God With Us, Emmanuel – not to condemn it (John 3:17), but to save it. In order to do that, he had to become one of us. Continue reading

“A House Divided” – Sermon on Mark 3:22-26 and 1 Kings 12:1-19

 

Baptism of Our Lord C
January 10, 2016

We’re back in the Old Testament this week, returning to the sequence of events we left behind to celebrate the stories of Christmas and Epiphany. In a few moments, we will remember Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River by touching that same water and renewing our own baptismal covenant vows. But now, it is time to return to the Jerusalem of an earlier century. The great kings David and Solomon have died, and Solomon’s son Rehoboam has just taken the throne. He’s young and rash, and he’s eager to demonstrate his kingly power over the nation of Israel.

Maybe a little too eager. I get the idea as I read about Rehoboam that he’s trying to convince himself of his royal authority, as much as anyone else. Instead of showing mercy to his subjects, and gaining their gratitude and loyalty, Rehoboam acts tougher than he probably is. Instead of recognizing that his people have been overtaxed and overworked by Solomon, Rehoboam is only worried about appearing stronger than his father. So he threatens the people with even harsher conditions than they have already suffered.

It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and the people rebel. 1 Kings 12: 16 tells us, “And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”

It didn’t take long for the smirk on Rehoboam’s face turned to dismay, as he realized his mistake. He had to run for his life to escape being stoned to death. Instead of ruling the whole kingdom of Israel with an iron fist, he’s left with only two small tribes who remain loyal, as the other ten tribes head off to their own territories, following Jeroboam’s leadership. The kingdom is ripped in two, just as God told Solomon it would be.

It’s just at this point in the story that I have to wonder what God is up to here. After all, God had told Abraham he would make his descendants into a great nation, and it would be through God’s people, the nation of Israel, that God would bless the whole world. God had promised David that his descendants would rule over this great nation. But here we are, in the middle of a civil war, only two generations into David’s line. Instead of blessing the other nations of the world, Israel is torn in two, and chaos erupts. If we were to analyze the literary elements at work here, this would be the point in the story where “the plot thickens.”

On June 18, 1858, just about the time our church was being established here in the young city of New Ulm, a Republican candidate for US Senator stood up in the Illinois State Capitol to accept his party’s nomination. The speech he gave didn’t help him win that election to the Senate, but it did rally Republicans across the northern states around the issue of slavery, and it became one of Abraham Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Maybe you remember reading – or even memorizing – this passage from the beginning of that speech:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.” [1]

Lincoln wasn’t the first to quote Jesus on this issue of division. Wikipedia, that source of infinite and undisputed knowledge, tells us that:

  • “Saint Augustine, in his book Confessions (Book 8, Chapter 8) describes his conversion experience as being ‘a house divided against itself.’
  • Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 Leviathan (Chapter 18), stated that, “a kingdom divided in itself cannot stand.”
  • In Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, he describes the composition of Monarchy as having, “all the distinctions of a house divided against itself.”

There’s a reason why all these famous people have borrowed these words from Jesus: they are true. So let’s take a moment to go to the source, Jesus himself, and learn from him directly.

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” – Mark 3:22-26

Last June, we looked at this passage in its context of the early stages of Jesus’ ministry. Now, we see it in the broader context of the whole story of God and his relationship with Israel. When the scribes accuse Jesus of casting out demons by being in league with the devil, Jesus comes back at them with a reference to Jewish history. He might as well have said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come… just look at what happened to Rehoboam and the nation of Israel!”

But the scribes don’t catch the history lesson, apparently. They only care about the way Jesus challenges their authority. As far as they are concerned, Jesus is a heretic. They accuse him of being possessed by demons, trying to discredit Jesus in front of the crowds around him. They oppose his purpose by questioning the source of his power. When the scribes accuse Jesus of working with Beelzebub, they don’t realize that they have given Jesus precisely the words he needs to prove his point.

The name Beelzebub[2] comes from a Hebrew play on words. By the time the scribes use it, Beelzebub is just another name for the devil, and they may not have even known about its origins. But those origins go right back to the Old Testament.

Be-el-ze-vuv sounds an awful lot like Be-el-ze-vul, which means “Ba-al the exalted.” It’s what the Canaanites called their god, Baal, back in First and Second Kings, and you will read more about Baal and his prophets next week in Chapter 15 of The Story. While Be-el-ze-vuv sounds a lot like Be-el-ze-vul, it means something completely different. It means “lord of the flies.” And we all know where flies like to congregate. Around dead, smelly things.

Beelzebub is the lord of death, and his defeat is in division. Jesus names the blasphemy of the scribes for what it is: defiance against God. Claiming that God’s saving grace is the work of demons puts the scribes in opposition to the One who saves. Just as Rehoboam’s arrogance cost him the chance to rule over the entire nation of Israel, the scribes miss an opportunity to align themselves with God’s purpose in Jesus. A house divided cannot stand.

This is the point in the story where we come in. Just like Rehoboam, we are given a choice, and the decision we make will determine whether we find unity with God in Christ Jesus, or falter and tumble under our own arrogance. Our choice will either unite us with God or against God.

Abraham Lincoln said, “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.” Lincoln was not so much afraid that the United States would be torn apart, the way Israel was, but that it would be unified around the wrong ideal: slavery instead of freedom.

We face the same dilemma in our own lives. Will we follow Jesus in full obedience, even as Jesus was obedient in his own baptism, ministry, and death on the cross? Or will we follow Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, who leads us only to eternal death and separation from God?

Our spiritual integrity is at stake. If Rehoboam’s folly teaches us anything, it is that breaking apart what belongs together is much easier than restoring what is broken. Jesus came to earth in human form for that very reason – to heal our brokenness, mend our divisions, and restore us to unity with God.

Long before Abraham Lincoln gave his “house divided” speech and this congregation was founded in New Ulm, Charles Wesley wrote a hymn called, “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love.” The words go like this:

Blest be the dear uniting love that will not let us part;
Our bodies may far off remove, we still are one in heart.

Joined in one spirit to our Head, where he appoints we go,
And still in Jesus’ footsteps tread, and do his work below.

O may we ever walk in him, and nothing know beside
Nothing desire, nothing esteem, but Jesus crucified!

We all are one who him receive, and each with each agree,
In him the One, the Truth we live, blest point of unity!

Partakers of the Savior’s grace, the same in mind and heart,
Nor joy, nor grief, nor time, nor place, nor life, nor death can part.

The psalmist writes, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name” (Ps 86:11).

This is what it means to follow Jesus with an undivided heart. It means giving ourselves completely to him, so that he can fill us completely with his love and grace. Each of us was created with a space in our souls that only God can fill. We can try to fill that space with other things, just as Rehoboam tried to fill it with his desire for power, but nothing can fill the emptiness inside us except God. Everything else we try will only separate us from God, and tear us up on the inside.

You’ve probably experienced this in your own life. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place inside you with things that promised to give you pleasure, only to experience pain and emptiness. Maybe you’ve tried to fill that place with doing good deeds, so others would think highly of you, or working long hours, or accumulating material goods. None of these things will satisfy the longing you have for God. Maybe you have given up, and decided that the hole in your heart can never be filled, so you’ve dumped bitterness and envy and disappointment into it, hoping that these things will get swallowed up like dying stars in a black hole in outer space.

Only one thing can fill that place in your life. Only one thing can satisfy your longing. It is Jesus, who came to earth as a tiny human child, and grew in favor with God and people, who taught that God’s radical love is available to all who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus, who died in our place, so that our sins might be forgiven, and we might be restored to the God who created us for just this purpose: to be loved so completely that our only desire is to love God back with all of our being.

If you have never accepted this precious gift of God’s grace, I invite you to do it now as we pray A Covenant Prayer together. If you have been letting other things try to fill the God-sized hole in your life, I invite you to surrender them to Christ right now, as we pray this prayer. You can be made whole. You can be united to Christ by giving your life completely to him. God wants you back. Let us pray.

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition     (UMH #607)

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee,
Exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

[1]  The Annals of America, vol. 9, 1. Source document: Political Speeches and Debates of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas 1854-1861, Alonzo T. Jones, ed., 52-74.

[2] http://www.behindthename.com/name/beelzebub

 

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.