The Things We Do For Jesus! – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

waters 4Baptism of Jesus Sermon — Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Originally preached: Sunday January 13, 2013    Listen to the sermon here

There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is neither my job nor any other priest’s job to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith by ensuring that the communities that I serve hold those mysteries sacred. It is my job to hold the mysteries in such reverence that we all remember that the reality that we call God works in with and through those mysteries. Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ, and in the water, the bread, and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.

So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the MYSTERY that likes at their very heart, the MYSTERY of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the DIVINE.

The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where, the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.” The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality. Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible, and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. Because one thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.

It happened on Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It’s been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around here gear up again after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation on Thursday, I got home at about 9:30. The house was empty because Carol was off visiting the grandchildren for a few days. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Gray’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. Buy the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello.

The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out. It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of this congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. It was dark outside.

I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left Newmarket? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break. I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was: is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help. Some of you have offered to help in this way in the past. You know who you are and you can be sure that your names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing one of you. So I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.

I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out, on what in my mind was the middle of the night, it was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. It was dark. Yeah we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I? I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help? Forget the shows, if I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep. Continue reading

The Baptism of Jesus and The Missing Verses in the Lectionary Gospel Text

JB in prisonWhile musing on the readings for this coming Sunday, I came across these notes that I made when these readings came up – Baptism of Jesus 2010. I offer them to my preaching colleagues in the hope that we might move beyond the story as it has been read during worship so that we might challenge old assumptions and images of the Divine.

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday when the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus is Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22. But what about the missing verses 18-20?

Whenever the RCL leaves verses out of an appointed reading, I can’t help wondering what they are afraid of. Could the missing verses contain some hidden information that might threaten some established Christian doctrine? 

Most of us have heard this story of Jesus baptism so many times that we think we know it all. John the Baptist, proclaimed that the Messiah was coming and that the children of God, needed to repent and be baptized. This baptism of repentance was popular among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries but troublesome to the Roman Empire. As his first public act Jesus went down to the Jordan River and even though John protested that he was unworthy to baptize Jesus, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism of repentance.

That’s how so many people learned the story and the way most people remember it. That is after all pretty much what the what the Gospel according to Luke actually says provided you leave out verses 18 to 20.   Continue reading

The Things We Do For Jesus! – a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

waters 4Baptism of Jesus Sermon — Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Sunday January 13, 2013    Listen to the sermon here

There’s a definition of what it means to be a priest that has always daunted me. A priest it has been said is “a keeper of the mysteries; a keeper of the sacred mysteries of our faith. People often confuse the idea of mystery with the idea of secret. But I can assure you that as a keeper of the mysteries of the faith it is neither my job nor any other priest’s job to keep the mysteries of our faith a secret. Yes, as an ordained pastor, one of my responsibilities is to be a keeper of the mysteries of our faith by ensuring that the communities that I serve hold those mysteries sacred. It is my job to hold the mysteries in such reverence that we all remember that the reality that we call God works in with and through those mysteries. Baptism is considered to be one of the mysteries of our faith. Baptism is a sacrament of the church and by definition a sacrament takes ordinary stuff – water – mixes that ordinary stuff with the Word and in the combination of water and the Word you have a tangible means of God’s grace. God’s grace is revealed in the sacrament of Baptism by the act of our gathering together and mixing the stuff of the earth with the Word. We have only two sacraments in the Lutheran church Baptism and Eucharist, and both of those things are sacraments because we gather together take ordinary stuff – bread and wine, or water and mix it with the Word of Jesus the Christ and in the water, the bread and the wine the means of God’s grace is made visible to us.

So, there you have it the technical definition of the sacraments, the mysteries of Baptism and Communion, in which the reality that we call God works in, with, through and under. But like all technical definitions of mysteries, these definitions fail to capture the essence of the mystery that likes at their very heart, the mystery of the reality that we call God. As a keeper of the mysteries, one would think that a priest, a pastor ought to be able to reveal, by way of definition something of the nature of the reality of the Divine.

The truth is I have no real definition to offer you of this reality that we call God. I read once, I wish I could remember where the wisdom of a priest far more skilled than I who declared that he’d given up trying to explain God to anyone because in the end, he said, “I cannot lead you to God, anymore than anyone can lead a fish to water.” The most important thing I learned in seminary is that “I don’t know is an answer.” The truth is the more we learn the more we know that we don’t know. But this unknowing can be so unsatisfying, precisely because we believe that God is the one in whom we live and breath and have our being, we want to know the very nature of the One who is the ultimate Reality. Now, if these words haven’t already become so vague that the veil of unknowing has begun to make any tangible means of God’s grace seem invisible and so beyond our grasp, let me leave the theology behind and tell you a story. Because one thing I do know for sure is that the shortest distance between the questions of what it means to be human and understanding our humanity is a story.

It happened on Thursday night. All week long I’ve been thinking about what I would say about the Baptism of Jesus and I wasn’t getting very far. It’s been a busy week, with lots of things to do as programs around here gear up again after the lull of the holidays. After teaching Confirmation on Thursday, I got home at about 9:30. The house was empty because Carol was off visiting the grandchildren for a few days. It had been a long day, and I quickly got into my pajamas, switched on the fireplace, and settled into my recliner in front of the television. The PVR was full of shows for me to watch and the opening scenes of Gray’s Anatomy dragged me into the complications of lives I would never have to minister to and I began to relax. The drama of medical emergencies mixed with the complications of various love affairs pulled me into a world where there was absolutely nothing expected of me and I was loving it right up until the moment that the telephone rang. Modern technology means that the name of the person calling usually appears on right there on the TV screen so that I can decide whether or not I’m going to answer the call. When the phone rang I expected it to be Carol calling to say goodnight, so I’d already pushed the pause button, expecting that after a quick goodnight I could get back to my shows. Buy the time I realized that there was no name on the TV screen but only a phone number, it was too late and I was already saying hello.

The caller was someone I’d heard from only once before. They were already halfway through a very nasty tale of woe when I realized that they were asking me to come out. It was a call for help. It was a call that I had every right not to respond to. I mean the caller wasn’t even a member of this congregation. It was late. I was already in my pajamas. It was dark outside.

I was annoyed. I mean really. Couldn’t this person have called me before I left Newmarket? What gave them the right to think that I would come out so late, in the dark, for someone I’d only met once before? The audacity. The sheer audacity of such a request was enough to make you scream. Give me a break. I listened to the caller’s plight with precious little sympathy. I asked her to hold on for a moment so that I could try to think of a way to help. What I really meant was: is there anyone in Newmarket that I can disturb at this time of night and ask them to go over and help. Some of you have offered to help in this way in the past. You know who you are and you can be sure that your names went through my mind as I tried to avoid leaving the comfort of my warm snug. It was only the thought of how annoyed I was to be disturbed at such a late hour that kept me from disturbing one of you. So I told the caller to hold on and I would be there in about half an hour.

I was cursing to bet the band as I went upstairs to get dressed. The air was positively blue. I was angry. I was going out, on what in my mind was the middle of the night, it was ridiculous. Hell, it was dangerous. It was dark. Yeah we were going to meet in a public place. But why the expletive, curse, fill in the blank your self, why the ………blanket blank, should I? I certainly wasn’t going out of love for my neighbour. I was ticked. I was going because it’s my job to go. Sure I knew that I had every right to refuse to go. But if I didn’t go, my shows would be ruined. How could I possible sit there and enjoy my shows when I knew that someone needed my help? Forget the shows, if I didn’t go, I knew darn well I wouldn’t get any sleep. Continue reading

The Baptism of Jesus and The Missing Verses in the Lectionary Gospel Text

JB in prisonWhile musing on the readings for this coming Sunday, I came across these notes that I made the last time these readings came up – Baptism of Jesus 2010. I offer them to my preaching colleagues in the hope that we might move beyond the story as it has been read during worship so that we might challenge old assumptions and images of the Divine.

According to the Revised Common Lectionary, the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday when the church celebrates the Baptism of Jesus is Luke: 3:15-17, 21-22. But what about the missing verses 18-20?

Whenever the RCL leaves verses out of an appointed reading, I can’t help wondering what they are afraid of. Could the missing verses contain some hidden information that might threaten some established Christian doctrine? 

Most of us have heard this story of Jesus baptism so many times that we think we know it all. John the Baptist, proclaimed that the Messiah was coming and that the children of God, needed to repent and be baptized. This baptism of repentance was popular among Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries but troublesome to the Roman Empire. As his first public act Jesus went down to the Jordan River and even though John protested that he was unworthy to baptize Jesus, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism of repentance.

That’s how so many people learned the story and the way most people remember it. That is after all pretty much what the what the Gospel according to Luke actually says provided you leave out verses 18 to 20.  

         Why don’t we read those verses during our worship on the Sunday that celebrates Jesus baptism? What’s in those verses that caused the folks who decided what is read in church on a Sunday morning shouldn’t include those particular verses?

Well if you consult the lectionary commentaries most of them will tell you that these verses are left out so as not to confuse the people in the pews. These verses are left out to protect worshippers. The so-called “experts” believe that if these verses were read worshippers might become confused and their childhood memories of this story would be challenged.

So here is the story as it appears in print:

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. With a winnowing fork in hand, he will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his granary, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

       Note well the missing verses:

“But Herod the ruler, whom John rebuked because of his wickedness, including his relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias—committed another crime by throwing John into prison.”

Those are the two missing verses. The two verses that the experts decided should not be read this morning lest they confuse you.    Herod throws John the Baptist into prison, but we leave that out and without a buy your leave, we read on:

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven,  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I AM well pleased.”

If John was thrown into prison when Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized, who baptized Jesus?  Now you could say, as many interpreters have said, that the order is not significant and that the writer of the Gospel of Luke didn’t really mean to say that John was already in prison when Jesus was baptized. But if that’s true, then how can we put any faith in the writer’s ability to get the order correct in the other stories he writes about the life of Jesus?

HMMM, as Luther would say, “What does this mean?” Could it be that we don’t know everything about this story? Could it be that there’s more to learn? Could it be that the writer is trying to say something that we’ve failed to consider in the past? Is the writer trying to distance Jesus from the teachings of John? Could it be that the writer of the Gospel is trying to let us know that the Baptism of Repentance practiced by John is different than Jesus’ actual baptism?

John proclaimed that the Messiah will baptize with fire. “The Messiah will carry a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” As soon as we hear this, we begin to wonder if we are wheat or chaff and being raised as good Christians we know that we are unworthy and we can almost feel the unquenchable fire singeing at our heels. But according to the writer of Luke, Herod tosses John into prison and we don’t hear from him again until just before his head is lopped off and served up on a silver platter and John sends his disciples to inquire as to whether or not Jesus is the hoped for Messiah. With John in prison the writer of the Gospel according to Luke, has Jesus go down to the Jordan for a different kind of baptism: Not a baptism for the repentance of sin, but a baptism in which God claims Jesus as his beloved son, in whom God is well pleased.

The best kinds of parents that I know, don’t keep their children in a state of constant fear and guilt. They don’t use the treat of punishment as a way to encourage their children to grow. The best kinds of parents encourage their children to grow by loving, nurturing and encouraging them. Really good parents know the importance of empowering their children.

If you read this story carefully you can almost hear the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be beaming with pride as he says, “That’s my boy! My beautiful child!  Just look at him! Isn’t he marvelous!  I get such a kick out of him.  I could watch him for hours!  I’m so very pleased with him!” No wonder the skies opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on him! What parent wouldn’t empower a child that pleased them so?

If we insist on anthropomorphizing the Creator of all that is and all that ever shall be, then shouldn’t we at least create an image of God that reflects the best in us? Forget the image of God as an abusive parent and begin to see God as the best parent we know how to be. That image will still fail to reflect all that God is, but surely it will give us a better glimpse of some of what God is. And then we can begin to see that like any good parent our God is a God who empowers us. Then we can begin to see that in our baptism the power of the Holy Spirit was given to us. That we too are children of God, and that God delights in us. Maybe then we can begin to claim our inheritance as children of God. Maybe we will see that the power of forgiveness has been given to us and that mercy is ours to bestow. And empowered by the Spirit God we can grow into all that God created us to be.