GOD’S CHOSEN SERVANT, SERMON ON ISAIAH 42:1-9

Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, is the Sunday in the church year when we celebrate the “Baptism of the Lord.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all report in identical words that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and that when Jesus 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.”

That Scripture tells us who the Messiah is, and the Isaiah Scripture we read today is one of Servant Songs in Isaiah that describe what kind of Messiah this beloved Son of God will be. Listen again to what these words from Isaiah say:

I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;

In case we might miss the point this text tells us three times that “he will bring forth justice.” I’ll come back to that later, but I want us also to notice that this Servant Song not only emphasizes the Messianic purpose of justice; it also makes it very clear how justice will be accomplished, and that is in a peaceful, non-violent manner. God’s servant is gentle – does not shout or lift up her voice; does not quench a dimly burning wick or break a bruised reed.

More than ever in the nuclear age we need to remember that the ways of Christ are non-violent and peaceful.

I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Another United Methodist for Peace and Justice.” My son asked me about that slogan one day. To him it seemed contradictory to talk about peace and justice together because like many people his concept of justice was one of punishment and retribution, as in giving people their just desserts. But that is not the biblical meaning of “justice.” In biblical terms justice means wholeness, equality and fairness for all, and when we understand it that way we realize that peace and justice are not contradictory terms at all, but in fact unless there is justice for all there can be no true peace.

Here’s a case in point about what an unending cycle of retribution and revenge produces. The Treaty of Versailles ending WWI was signed 100 years ago last summer. That treaty, over the strong objections of President Woodrow Wilson, extracted harsh and unjust punishment on Germany, and just twenty years later Hitler used the German resentment of that punitive treaty to plunge the world in WWII.

I remember learning that in a college history class, but what I learned recently is that in those same treaty negotiations France also refused to give Viet Nam its freedom, which led to the communist take over there and eventually to our own involvement in the Viet Nam War. And if that’s not enough, that same treaty also carved up the Middle East into countries doomed to failure because people who hated each other like the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites were forced into impossible situations like the new country of Iraq. I don’t have to tell you how that worked out!

“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” doesn’t mean God is vengeful. It means we humans shouldn’t play God and dish out our idea of “justice” because that’s way above our pay grade. Jesus repealed the Old Testament law of “an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” in the Sermon on the Mount because he knew such misguided justice only creates a world of blind, toothless people. We can and must do a better job of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I must confess this has been a hard week for me. In addition to the all the bad news bombarding us from Australia, Puerto Rico and the Middle East I have had to deal with personal grief over the death of a friend who died suddenly last Friday and concern for our 11 year-old great niece who had open heart surgery yesterday. Such times as these make preachers dig deeper to find good news to proclaim, and when that happens there is no better source of comfort and strength than to return to the very basic Truth of the Christian Gospel found in the Sacrament of Baptism.

When my son was 7 or 8 we were attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals in a church that had a baptistery for immersion up in the chancel. As curious children are want to do my son was exploring the sanctuary after the recital, and after his reconnaissance mission he came running back to me excitedly and said, “Dad, they’ve got a Jacuzzi up there!”
How different our versions of baptism are today from Jesus’ immersion in the muddy Jordan. We sprinkle a few drops of water or use a heated pool are. We have watered down (pun intended) the significance and the way we do baptism so much that we have forgotten what baptism teaches us about the cost of discipleship.

I can’t remember the source, but I’ll never forget this story about a Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. A young couple presents their infant to the priest for baptism and the Padre submerges the child in the baptismal water and says, “I kill you in the name of Jesus.” An American visitor witnessing this sacrament is aghast, and then the priest lifts the child above his head and proclaims, “And I resurrect you in the name of the living Christ!” That illustrates the total transformation of true baptism. We literally die to our sinful human nature and are resurrected as new beings in Christ. In other words, we are saved from sin and death, but that’s just step one. What we are saved FOR is to be agents of love as citizens of God’s kingdom here on earth.

One of the things I like best about being retired is that it’s so much easier to really worship sitting out there. When I’m leading worship I am busy thinking about what comes next in the service, is my microphone turned off during the hymns so I don’t frighten anyone with my lousy singing; did someone remember to put water in the font, are my sermon pages in the right order?

I experienced real worship one Sunday recently during a service of baptism. The familiar liturgy that I’ve led many times was used, but I heard it like I suddenly had ears to hear. It was the part of the Baptismal Covenant that asks the parents or sponsors of a child or an adult being baptized, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

Let me repeat that. “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

So much power is packed into that short sentence! My first thought about it went to the phrase “resist evil, injustice and oppression.” There is so much evil, injustice and oppression filling my news feed that I want to just say “stop the world I want to get off!” Cancer and dementia and addiction attacking good, innocent people. Refugee families being ripped apart; political contributors being rewarded with government offices they are not qualified to fill, and protections for God’s creation being discarded for greedy short-sighted goals. I look at my young grandchildren and wonder what kind of a world we are leaving for them? It wearies my soul.

Your list of evil and injustice may be very different than mine, but the responsibility of Christians to resist evil in the name of God is the same for all of us. The Christian responsibility I just read is not from a service of ordination or consecration for someone dedicating her life to full-time Christian service. This challenge and empowerment are for all of us at our baptism. This is a bold affirmation of the priesthood of all believers, and it makes me wonder how many Christians would agree to be baptized if we took those words to heart?

Babies often don’t take too kindly to baptism water being poured or sprinkled on their heads. A cartoon circulated on Facebook awhile back showed a baby talking on a phone to someone and saying, “You wouldn’t believe it. This guy in a dress was trying to drown me, and my family just stood around taking pictures!” I remember one baptism where a young child resisted the chilly water by pulling away from the pastor and wailing for all to hear, and I commented “Maybe he understands the significance of baptism better than we do.”

Resisting evil and injustice can be dangerous work, and the coward in me tends to see the baptismal font as half full when I focus on the heavy responsibility those words carry. But then I read the first part of the vow again and I see the meaning of those words in a whole new light. The sentence begins, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you….” Working for justice is not a burden to endure; it is a talent to be embraced, a gift of freedom and power to be accepted. God is not asking us to do the impossible all alone but is gifting us with the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit to do the work God calls all of us to do.

I am reminded of Jeremiah’s call from God when he was just a child. To paraphrase Jeremiah’s response – he says, “Not me, Lord. I’m just a little kid. Nobody will listen to a teen-ager?” And God said, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to go alone. I’ve got your back. I’ll tell you what to say.”

By its very nature, baptism is not an isolated anointing. It is a sacrament of inclusion in the Body of Christ. It is a celebration of the power of community. No one gets baptized alone. The whole congregation promises to be the village that raises a child or a newborn Christian of any age. Baptism is a statement to the world that together we who have heard the call of Christ can and will support and encourage each other. We will celebrate the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form they present themselves, even when that means admitting we are part of the injustice.
The Hebrew prophet who wrote this part of Isaiah knew that way back then. Listen to the second part of our text for today:

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.

Those words are addressed collectively to the nation of Israel by their creator and sustainer. They are God’s chosen people – not chosen for privilege like a Jacuzzi baptism, but to be God’s servants to open blind eyes, release those who are captives to sin and death, to be a light to the nations. And as followers of Christ we are the New Israel called to that same mission and purpose. Born of water and spirit we are all God’s beloved children given power and freedom by the one who makes all things new to be God’s chosen servants in the world.

This Sunday when we remember the baptism of Jesus is a perfect time to reaffirm our own initiation into the Body of Christ. I know many of you, like me, were baptized as infants or children and don’t actually remember the occasion of your own baptism. I know some of you may not have been baptized yet, and that’s ok because water doesn’t make us children of God. We are all born that way. Water used in baptism is just a symbol of the cleansing and renewing power of the Holy Spirit to make us new creatures as followers of Christ. That commitment to Christ is something we all need to recommit ourselves to on a regular basis because it is not easy to follow the narrow path of discipleship, especially in trying times like these.

So I invite you to reaffirm your commitment to be a faithful follower of Christ by responding to these questions as you are led by the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Through the reaffirmation of our faith we renew the covenant declared at our baptism,
acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy Church.
On behalf of the whole Church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?
I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?
I do.

According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?
I will.

THANKSGIVING OVER THE WATER

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit,
you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
Amen.

HEARING AND BEING THE VOICE OF GOD: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

There’s a famous line in the movie “Cool Hand Luke” where a frustrated prison guard tells the prisoner, Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”  It’s a great line but not quite true.  The problem is not communication; Luke heard the message, he just chose to ignore what the prison guard wanted him to do.  I wonder if we have a similar communication problem with God.   The lectionary texts for January 8th are all about communication, in particular about the power of the voice of God.  Literally from Day One (Gen. 1:1-5) to the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11) to Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), God speaks and big things happen.  And the Psalm for this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Psalm 29, speaks directly about the power of “Voice of the Lord” seven times in 11 verses and by implication several other times.

Communication scholars describe Speech-Act theory as the phenomenon by which language has the power to create or change reality.  Anyone who has ever stood before a clergy person or a justice of the peace and said two little words, “I do,” knows very well that their lives are forever changed from that moment forward.  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a little ditty most of us learned at an early age.  The problem is it isn’t true.  Words have power to hurt and heal.  Most bullying begins with name calling and naming our political or personal enemies in ways that depersonalize and demonize them is the first step toward justifying abusive and unkind treatment that can ultimately lead to violence and death.

The words we use are a matter of life and death, of light and darkness.  Psalm 29 contains a whole litany of things that the voice of God can do: thunder, break cedars, fire, shake the wilderness, whirl oaks, strip forests and cause floods.  This must be where the insurance companies get their justification for excluding from coverage (read the fine print) natural disasters as “Acts of God.”

I am more interested in what these texts say about the power of God’s voice to transform human lives than I am the cause of natural disasters.  Genesis 1 tells us God spoke light into darkness, and that speech act is far more important symbolically than the on-going debate between creationism and evolution.  The darkness God expelled on day 1 of creation is wonderful, but a more relevant question is “what has God done for us lately?”  There are still far too many black holes of darkness in our world and our hearts today that need the light of God’s powerful voice of truth.

I love this parable by an anonymous author:

A pilgrim asks a wise one about the moment when we can tell darkness from the dawn.  “Is it when I can tell the difference between a sheep and a goat?” she asks.  “No.”

“Then is it when I can tell the difference between a peach and a pomegranate?”

“No,” says the elder. “When you can look into another’s eyes and say, ‘you are my brother, you are sister,’ that is the dawn.   Until then, there is only darkness.”

Both the Mark 1 text and Acts 19 deal with hearing God’s voice through the sacramental act of baptism.  Both texts tell us that John the Baptist preached and performed a baptism of repentance and belief in Jesus as the anointed one who came after John.  Mark doesn’t address the perplexing question of why Jesus needed a baptism of repentance because that’s not the point of that text, and not the full meaning of baptism.  Repentance is a critical first step in transformation, but only a prelude to what an anointed, spirit-led disciple can do.  When Paul asks the Christians in Ephesus “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” they reply, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul proceeds to fix that problem but in doing so creates a theological dilemma for us.  Paul baptizes those Ephesians a second time.  To this day rebaptism is a controversial issue among Christians of different persuasions, along with what kind of baptism counts, how it’s done, at what age, by whom, etc.

Our different opinions on such matters can sometime be humorous.  One person, when asked if he believed in infant baptism replied, “Believe in it!  I’ve seen it.”   Or when my children were young and we were visiting a Baptist church where my daughter was playing in a piano recital.  After the recital our son went up to explore the chancel area and came back to excitedly report, “Dad, they have a Jacuzzi up there!”

Let’s put the debates about sprinkling or pouring or immersing aside for now and focus on one key point of the Acts text and Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism– what the power of the Holy Spirit does to transform lives.  It’s not the water or how or when it’s applied that matters, it’s the voice of God and whether we hear it.    Jesus’ public ministry begins from the moment he hears the voice of God saying “You are my son….”   The question is have we heard God say, “you are my daughter, you are my son, and with you I am pleased?”

Gospel interpreters sometime wonder if Jesus was the only one who heard God’s voice there beside the Jordan. Given God’s propensity to speak in parables and metaphors and in “a still small voice” (I Kgs 19:12), I’d bet he was.  And so would Fred Craddock, I believe, who loves to say that when it came to his call to ministry it would have been so much easier if God had called him in a voice loud enough that his friends and relatives could have heard it too.

We liberal, sophisticated Christians are often afraid of the emotion associated with Pentecostal Christianity.  But we dare not let that fear make us miss the positive power of the voice, breath, and spirit of God to transform lives.    Jesus is transformed into the Messiah at his baptism and empowered by the voice of God to resist every temptation that Satan can throw at him in the wilderness.  God’s voice enables Jesus to find his voice to speak truth and salvation as God’s messenger.  We don’t know where Jesus was hanging out till he was 30, but we do know that at this pivotal moment Jesus emerges to “shout from the housetops what the Spirit has told him in a whisper” (Matt. 10:27).   By the power of God’s voice he is inspired to go public with his ministry with a passion that enabled him to set his face toward Jerusalem’s cross and never look back, even when his closest friends try their best to persuade him to renounce his calling and take an easier route.

And here’s the important point so don’t miss it– it’s not just Jesus who is transformed and empowered by the voice of God.  In the text from Acts 19 we see how the ordinary folks in Ephesus are also changed into God’s messengers. “The Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (19:7).   Those are loaded terms that may need clarification.  Speaking in tongues for many of us conjures up images of ecstatic nonsense speech that is unfamiliar and incomprehensible.  But what if we interpret tongues to mean that these people were on fire for God and spoke with passion about their faith in ways that people of many different cultures and ethnic groups could understand, as they did on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2)?   Acts 19 also tells us these new baptizees “prophesied,” another term that can have negative connotations if we take prophesying to mean what psychics who advertise on late night TV do.  Biblical prophets are not fortune tellers or crystal ball gazers.  A biblical prophet is simply someone who speaks for God.  They are those who know God’s truth and are emboldened by God’s presence in their lives to proclaim good news to a world starving for some.

The world needs people in every walk of life who have heard the voice of God and are willing not only to talk that talk but to walk God’s walk.  To do that takes incredible courage and faith in a world where people of faith are often aliens in a strange land.  To have the courage of our convictions means that all of us, clergy and laity alike are called to witness to our faith by word and action, even when we know the dangers and risks involved in speaking an uncomfortable truth – in love.  The risks of that kind of truth are exemplified quite simply in the fact that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.”

All baptized Christians are called to be witnesses and prophets for God, and the enormity of that calling means we all need to be anointed by God’s spirit.  We cannot hope to fulfill the ministry we are baptized into without the power of God’s spirit to guide and direct us.  God knows we all need a baptism of repentance, but we also need the power of the Holy Spirit to move us from repentance and forgiveness to become proactive messengers who dare to become the voice of God that transforms lives and the world.