Sermon Transcript 1.8.23 Behold! Beloved!
Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit. Forgiven. Invited to wholeness. Baptism, and remembrance of Baptism, is an Epiphany. All four gospels tell of the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. One of the things I think is delicious about these four tellings is that it's not entirely clear who sees or hears or experiences what. In the Old Testament Hebrew and the Net Testament Greek, pronouns are not always clear. In the English translation, it says, “he,” a lot. And it's not quite clear if “he: means John or Jesus as they talk back and forth. Who sees this dove? In John's gospel, John the Baptist testifies, this is the one on whom I saw the spirit descend. In Mark's gospel, it seems to be Jesus having this experience and nobody else seems to be aware of it. In Luke's gospel, some hear and see but Jesus is told that you are my son, the beloved, but here in Matthew's gospel, it says, this is my son, the beloved, which would seem that he's not speaking just to Jesus, but to an audience. Is it just John? Is it others who have gone for baptism, baptism? Is it us? Here today?
On the second Sunday of a new year, We who sometimes go through the motions, we who often stand in need of an epiphany, an aha moment, a moment which makes clear the next step on our path of faith. Do we see the Spirit descending? Do we experience our own baptism anew? I think the lack of clarity in these stories is intentional, I think it is designed to draw us into mystery, awe and wonder.
Epiphany. We usually limit that to one day - usually the Sunday before January 6th, that's usually the Sunday we celebrate the Magi and sing “We Three Kings.” This year, I spread that story out. I made it a focus for Advent. I invited us to enter into the story, to identify with the characters of the wise men, with those who search and seek, who are willing to change their path. Who aren't quite sure where they're going - but they know that they are called to pay homage, to bear witness, to be transformed. And last week, if you were here with us, I introduced an ancient practice that is probably new to most of us. That is often done in various traditions on the Epiphany, the chalking of the doors. It's a very simple ritual. You can make it fancy with lots of words. You can just do it in silence, but the idea is that you write in chalk on your door doorpost either at the header or along one of the frames, these symbols.
The beginning of the year. So, for us, two zero, a sign or cross and there are four of those plus signs or crosses and they remind us of the birth, life, and ministry, suffering, and death, and resurrection of Christ. Then you mark three letters, C, M, and B with a cross or a plus sign between each one and then you close out the year, in our case, twenty-three. So, two zero plus C, plus M, plus B, plus twenty-three, on your doorpost. Now, it's not a mathematical formula. Don't worry, I'm not introducing holy algebra. but it is a way of centering ourselves in the tradition in Christ's presence and the CMB stand for one of two things depending on what tradition you draw from. It's either the traditional western names of the three Magi: Casper, Melchor, and Balthazar or it's a shorthand for a Latin phrase. Christus, Mansionum, Benedictus. “May Christ bless this dwelling.” It's a simple practice, that each time we go in or come out of that door, we will be reminded of Christ's presence of our identity in Christ. It is something I picked up a few years ago, and have practiced since and I invite you to make that part of your new year and yes, the actual day of epiphany has passed but you could do this at any time. May Christ bless this dwelling. May Christ bless us as we enter and as we go forth.
The calendar is an interesting thing sometimes. We get very fixated on dates and I am forever thankful that our tradition kept Easter as a lunar feast. It moves a little bit each year. It reminds me that things aren't set in stone. The things haven't always been the way I expect them to be or want them to be. I mentioned that Epiphany is the older feast and it covered a number of stories. It was about Christ's birth. It was about the Magi. It was about the baptism of Christ and for gradually those celebrations and those stories were given their own feast days and over the years, Christmas, the birth of Christ, for some very good reasons, became the bigger feast.
The birth of Christ was set on December 25th for a variety of reasons. Not because we knew when Mary gave birth but it had to do with when we told the stories and particularly for those in the Northern Hemisphere, when the darkest nights of the year were. It's unsettling to some of us to think that we haven't always celebrated Christmas on December twenty-fifth.
“That's when it is!” It wasn't even the bigger feast. One of the things that I think makes Robin and I's marriage work fairly well is that she is a linear thinker who is set on some routines. All the time we were dating and even when we first had kids, one of the things that had to happen in her world for her world to be okay was she had to be at her mother's house on Christmas morning. This was non-negotiable. Another thing is that there is a Thanksgiving tradition that her family has. People from as many as 17 states will come in and that happens on the Thursday of Thanksgiving and that is not negotiable. In a lot of marriages, those dates would be conflicts. We're, our eldest is now married. We're in that stage. Where we're negotiating new routines. Who goes to whose house, when?
In contrast to Robin’s family, my family is a mess. Parents were divorced. I've done my birthday as early as April. It's in May. I've done it as early as April and as late as July. We've done Christmas in November and February. I don't care.
And so when Robin and I got together, it was like, you can have your dates. Yeah. We'll go, we'll go to your mom's house on Christmas morning. We'll do that on Thanksgiving because my family will gather whenever.
But collectively, our sense of dates often gets more fixed… and so I like the interplay between the secular calendar and the Christian calendar and how the seasons invite us to renewal. All it really is is how do we tell the story of Christ's birth, of his life, and ministry, of his suffering, and death, of his resurrection, of the difference those stories make in our lives.
Stories that are not merely “things that happened a long time ago” but things that are real and present for us all the year round. And we have different ways of telling the stories, seasonal traditions, practices. Next week these paraments will turn to green for ordinary time. And yet we are still in the presence of the holy. We are called to *be* the presence of the holy in this world, in this time. In this world Christ so loves.
I’d also suggest that as we tell the story of Epiphany and we've made it comfortable. Wise men from the east, they come, they kneel, they bring gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh and we talked about those gifts. Fit for a king, those gifts, foreshadowing Christ's death and resurrection.
We talked about how in the east, they tell different stories They're not fixated on it being exactly three magi because Matthew never tells us how many they are. Just that there are these wise men from other places. Very reasonably, we settled on three because there's three gifts, gold, frankincense, myrrh, but in the Eastern tradition, they tell of as many as 12 wise men, echoing the twelve tribes of Israel, the twelve disciples.
All the world coming to kneel to pay homage but even then, I think sometimes, it's too comfortable. They're a lot like us and the whole point of Matthew's story is that they were others, outsiders. So, I think it's helpful to look at other images of the Magi sometimes. Magi that aren't so familiar to us. This image, for example, is from an artist in Puerto Rico. This image is by one of my favorite liturgical artist, a Chinese American named He Qi.
How do you react when these different folks come to the manger, to your celebration, to your traditions, and bringing their own? Are we willing to be disrupted? To recognize that other people tell the same stories in different ways. And that they too, are seeking holiness and wholeness. That they too are beloved of God?
n August, I think it was. I preached our second scripture reading, but that's the lectionary today, Acts 10, that God has no partiality and Peter is amazed. He is leading this new group of Christ followers but they are seeking to remain faithful to their Jewish heritage. They're trying to figure out what applies, what doesn't. They're trying to convince their fellow Jews that this is the way forward. Yet, ACTs tells us that Peter has a dream. He's on a housetop in Joppa. He has a dream. Three times this great sheet descends. “Peter, kill, and eat” and filling the sheet, dropping from the heavens are unclean animals. Those things that Jews are forbidden to eat. And Peter, in the dream says, no Lord, I keep your commandments. I have never eaten of the unclean animals.
“Peter, kill, and eat.” And he wakes from this dream and men from Cornelius' house have come to seek him. These Gentiles, these Romans, the oppressor have come seeking his wisdom, his input, his blessing. Freshly awake from a dream about what is kosher, he understands that God is calling him to go to Cornelius' house. To bear witness that the Spirit falls on these Gentiles just as it did, he and his Jewish colleagues. And he celebrates with them and he recaps the stories of our faith - that Christ was baptized by John in the River Jordan, that he responded to that anointing by healing, by sharing God's presence, by bringing sight to the blind. That later he was hung on a tree, crucified by Jewish authorities, by the Romans, and yet, he lives!
“and we are witnesses to these things,” Peter says. We who are called to eat with the resurrected Christ. We who the Spirit has fallen on. which means his audience, these Gentiles, are included. That you and I are included. That you and I are called to the table to share and break bread with our creator, with our redeemer, with our sustainer, with Christ,
Our reading from Isaiah is one of the ways that the early church made sense of who this Jesus is. This one who was born and lived a human life, who performed miracles and taught counterintuitive blessings. Who was crucified and who yet lives. And so they turn to their Scriptures. What we call the Old Testament, particularly to the book of Isaiah.
“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him. He will bring forth justice to the nations.” Those are the first verses of five different readings from Isaiah that we usually hear in Lent and Easter. They are known as the Servant songs of Isaiah or the songs of the suffering servant. They are well worth our reflection, our reading, our pondering, our proclamation
They helped define for the early church and for me, who Jesus is. I mentioned a few weeks ago that when we found the Dead Sea Scrolls and we found some additional ancient texts at Nag Hamadi There are all kinds of things in those precious jars but by far the most common thing that we've found is dozens of copies of Isaiah. Written by different hands from different communities, united in proclaiming Isaiah's visions and promises, telling the story of the suffering servant and of God’s promises. Now, we can read these things several ways. You can read it, I think, simplistically I think, by saying, okay, God revealed this to a prophet and then it was fulfilled in a literal way. And so, it's prophecy fulfilled and that is a valid way of reading the text. Matthew often uses that fulfillment framing – although often in non-literal ways.
Which suggests You can also read it as these things have happened that I'm trying to make sense of and I turn to my history and in this text I find a description of what is happening. This text helps me make sense of my experience. So, it's history turned to prophecy. I think that's a valid way of reading these texts.
Because ultimately, what we're proclaiming is something beyond our understanding. Beyond our experience. Beyond our capacity to contain. Our creator, our redeemer, our sustainer, God's presence with us that none of us will ever see completely, at least not in this lifetime. Because we are finite and God is infinite. We are time bound and God created time. And yet God loves us. We are beloved. We are anointed. We are called to be witnesses.
Jesus goes to the Jordan and John protest, “you come to me? I should, I should be baptized by you.” John has a moment of epiphany. He knows who this Jesus is. This man that has led a human life in intersecting circles with John's family, Mary and Elizabeth were relatives. They know each other well but now, John sees more fully.
and Jesus says, “let it be this way for now to fulfill all righteousness.” Our Creator, our redeemer, our sustainer becomes flesh, dwells among us, lives a fully human life, submits himself to our rituals, not because he needs to be forgiven for sin, but that we might walk with him through the waters. That we might walk through him, through our humanity, that we might have the courage to walk with him through even suffering and death. Confident that we will walk him in Resurrection. That our baptism means something not as a magic ritual, not as a mathematical or liturgical algebraic equation. But it's a fulfillment of what God intends us to be. Bearers of grace, sharers of living water. “Behold the former things have come to pass. And new things I now declare.” We are not called to be trapped in doing things the same way, always and forever. But to do things that draw us closer to God, closer to one another, and send us forth into the world as living witnesses.
Over the next several weeks, we're going to be working with our mission statement that we've had for about 10 years now. I'm going to be encouraging you to memorize it and think about how you live it out and to help us do that, we're going to be working with the definition of spiritual formation. Our task is not to learn the right answers and stay there. Our task is to grow in grace, always.
Several years ago, I was at a presentation by a man who was serving as the dean of the Upper Room which is the devotional publisher for the United Methodist church and he challenged this group of men that were in the room and he said, hey, my task is to become like Christ, to be Christ like – right? We all agreed with that.
Then he said “so…Christ is the son of God. God, Christ is the Word made flesh. Fully God, fully human. Born, lived, suffered, died, is resurrected. Sits at the right hand of the father, eternal, begotten not made. My job is to become like Christ. So… When am I done? When am I finished with my task of becoming like Christ, the holy one?
Not in this human lifetime will I ever be finished. I always have another step on the path to faith. I always have more to learn and grow and share. That was a profound in sight for me - and so I offer this definition of spiritual formation.
“Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. By the gracious working of God's Spirit, for the transformation of the world.”
We'll be unpacking that and our mission statement over the next several weeks. As we think about how we have been anointed, how we live out our baptismal vows, how we behold god's presence, how we experience being beloved, and sharing that others are beloved because of god's grace. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.