Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sermon: Glimpses of God's New Day

Matthew 3:13-17
Glimpses of God’s New Day
James Sledge                                                                                       January 8, 2017

I have a number of books featuring sermons by Barbara Brown Taylor, along with a book by her on preaching. She’s famous for being a great preacher, and I’ve quoted her in sermons often. But a few years back she wrote a very different book entitled Leaving Church: a memoir of faith. It is about just what the title suggests, and here’s a bit from the introduction.
By now I expected to be a seasoned parish minister, wearing black clergy shirts grown gray from frequent washing. I expected to love the children who hung on my legs after Sunday morning services until they grew up and had children of their own. I even expected to be buried wearing the same red vestments in which I was ordained.
Today those vestments are hanging in the sacristy of an Anglican church in Kenya, my church pension is frozen, and I am as likely to spend Sunday mornings with friendly Quakers, Presbyterians, or Congregationalists as I am with the Episcopalians who remain my closest kin. Sometimes I even keep the Sabbath with a cup of steaming Assam tea on my front porch, watching towhees vie for the highest perch in the poplar tree while God watches me. These days I earn my living teaching school, not leading worship, and while I still dream of opening a small restaurant in Clarkesville or volunteering in an eye clinic in Nepal, there is no guarantee that I will not run off with the circus before I am through. This is not the life I planned, or the life I recommend to others. But it is the life that has turned out to be mine…[1]
When the book came out, many of the pastors I socialized with agreed with one colleague who labeled Taylor “a whiner who never should have entered ordained ministry in the first place.” But I could not dismiss her so easily. I resonated with some of her frustrations with church and the world. And if anything, this last year has left me with an even more skeptical and frustrated view of the world, its institutions, and humanity. 
This can prove challenging for faith, and the combination of post-Christmas let down, winter doldrums, and news of the latest shooting doesn’t help. Christmas speaks of peace on earth, of God decisively entering into human history, and God’s new day beginning to appear. But all these centuries later and the kingdom seems a long way off. The world is still a place of horrible suffering, violence, greed, and selfishness. And the church often just shrugs. Worse, the church is too often an agent of prejudice, greed, hate, and violence.
Today, barely out of the Christmas season and moving into the heart of winter, we hear once more of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry as he comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. It is a strange story, one that troubled those early Christians who wrote the gospels. After all, John the Baptist said quite plainly that he baptized people for repentance. So why would Jesus come to him for baptism?

Matthew says that John objected, but Jesus insists. It is necessary in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” It’s not certain what this means, but it’s clearly about being connect to God’s plans, to God’s will, and by his baptism, Jesus forever transforms the meaning of baptism. 
Previously baptism had been a cleansing ritual. Water symbolized being washed of sin, made pure and spotless so as to stand clean in the presence of God. Christian baptism still preserves this symbolism, but Jesus’ baptism adds much more. Here Jesus is publicly named and claimed as God’s own. Here he is empowered by the Spirit. He is marked for his ministry as God’s Son, a ministry that confronts power and so leads to rejection, derision, and a cross. 
Here Jesus is connected to the long narrative of God’s purposes being worked out in the world, to the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation, to Israel passing through the Jordan from slavery to freedom, to the pouring out of the Spirit onto ancient prophets. Here the story of Jesus’ ministry begins, a strange story about a strange Messiah who looks nothing like the Messiah was supposed to, or like the Messiah I’d prefer, one who ends hate and war, violence and suffering, greed and oppression with the snap of a finger.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church celebrated Jesus’ baptism as a special feast day of great significance, unlike Christmas which they largely ignored. That’s unimaginable in our world, but the centrality of this passage for early Christians may perhaps guide me through my post-Christmas let-down, winter doldrums, and a faith challenged by a world and a church that so rarely look like the kingdom of God.
 As those early Christians realized, Jesus’ baptism was not the coronation of a hero Messiah who would magically produce the peaceable kingdom. Rather the kingdom, the new day Jesus inaugurates, is about God’s will done here on earth. And that begins with Jesus being marked in his baptism as the one who will do God’s will, who will refuse to be the conquering hero, remaining completely loyal to the often inscrutable purposes of God. Jesus will not substitute his own images of the kingdom, his own desires for world peace, his own temptations to use his power. He will trust himself entirely to God.
My own baptism, and all of yours, is modeled on that of Jesus. It is not a magic potion, a holy inoculation, or a guarantee of a trouble free life. Rather it is an adoption, a joining to Christ. It connects us to the long narrative of God’s purposes being worked out in the world. In baptism we are named as a children of God and marked for life that does God’s will over all else. It is a life of service, a life of ministry, a life of putting God’s will over our own, a life modeled on the life of Jesus, a life where others glimpse Jesus in us.
And in baptism, God give the promise of the Spirit, allowing us to know the presence of the risen Christ within us as individuals and as a faith community. The world may not look much like God’s new day, but when we live into our baptisms, when we allow the Spirit to strengthen and guide us, God’s new day becomes visible in us, present in us.
But not always, or even often. Very often our fears, our desires for comfort and safety, our preference for power over the way of Jesus, cause us to turn away from the new life promised in our baptisms. As the writer G.K Chesterton once observed, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Too often, the Church has led the way on this, and so it is hardly surprising that people turn cynical, leave the Church, or struggle with faith. But here and there, individuals and faith communities make the choice to live into their baptismal identities, their joined-to-Christ identities. It’s never perfect, never without missteps, but when it happens, there is a glimpse of something beyond the way things are. Many of us, maybe most, have caught such a glimpse in some person’s faith, some congregation’s work. For some, it’s the clearest glimpse of Jesus, the clearest glimpse of God’s new day, that we have.
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved.”  God still speaks at baptism. “This is my son; this is my daughter.” God’s grace envelopes us. God’s Spirit is poured out onto us, and we are marked for new and transformed lives in which the hope of a new day is made visible to the world.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: a memoir of faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2006) pp. x-xi.

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