Sunday, January 28, 2018

Called by Grace

Scripture      Mark 1:21-28    NRSV 

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 
27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

A new teaching, with authority!

A couple of weeks ago, when I was working with the passage where Jesus calls Nathanael as his disciple, I was looking for more information on who Nathanael was.  Was he one of John’s disciples?  Cause if he was that would fit my focus really well.   I found an article that talked about who his parents were and his educational level and how well he got along with the other disciples (except apparently Judas Iscariot, because Nathanael was totally honest and we have all been taught that Judas wasn’t - which is a topic for another Sunday entirely).   But when I looked to see by what authority the author of the article got his information, I was somewhat amazed to learn that all of this information comes from aliens, who have taken it upon themselves to educate us about who God really is and the place of our planet (which they call Urantia) in the grand scheme of things.   Now, for me, the Book of Urantia is not an authoritative work that I can quote with any confidence.  It may very well be authoritative for followers of that tradition.  But not for me.  Regretfully - cause there was so much cool and previously unknown (to me) stuff in it - I turned away from the Book of Urantia and returned to authorities I do recognize.  

When the people in the synagogue cried out  “A new teaching - with authority!”  they are talking about an authority they accept and understand.  Here was someone who spoke, not with the book knowledge of the rabbis and priests, but with the knowledge of one who is touched by God, whose passionate belief in what he is saying cannot be mistaken.  The unclean spirit inhabiting one man went even further, recognizing Jesus for who he was.  But Jesus silenced him, and cast him out - called him forth from the man he inhabited through the power and grace of the Lord our God.   

“Have you come to destroy us?” asked the demon.  Who is the us the demon spoke of? I wonder. Jesus came to destroy, all right, but not the folks in the synagogue.  Not the righteous, not the innocent, not the obedient, God loving people.  He came to destroy demons, in their guise as attitudes of superiority and suspicion.  He came to destroy the demons of hidebound religious traditions that had grown to become the opposite of the intentions behind the Law.  He came to destroy the demons oppression of every kind.  He came to destroy everything that stood in the way of God’s kingdom on earth, everything that kept humanity and God from their covenant of love with and for each other.  And his weapons of destruction?  Grace.  Love.  Forgiveness. 

He did say, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  But he didn’t say, “Repent or all y’all are going to hell!”  Rather, his message was of a world turned upside down, where God held a preferential option for the poor, where those who were considered last - the lowest in the social order - somehow became first in importance.  His weapons in the face of all that was wrong with the world was not the sort of threat of punishment that everyone already lived with, at the hands of the Romans because the Romans were extremely serious about obedience to their laws, and at the hands of the Temple, because if you didn’t follow the Laws of Moses they way they said you could be ostracized and forbidden contact with even your own family.  Rather, his weapons of destruction were his hands, filled with God’s healing grace, placed on the hearts of those who suffered.  His weapons of destruction were his words, teaching of God’s love and forgiveness from the perspective of one whose belief was unshakable.  

If any of the demons he came to destroy sound familiar, it’s because humans tend to always return to the same things.  We do really well for a while, but then we return to the same old, same old.  For confirmation of that, read Judges.  Every generation, roughly every 40 years, they would forget all about the things that God required of them, and they would go do whatever they wanted to do and worship other gods.  They would do things that God found offensive, they would forget about hospitality and about caring for the widows and orphans and aliens the way they were commanded to, and then terrible things would happen. They would be overrun by enemies, enslaved by other nations, removed from their homes and lands.  And then they would remember God, and they would call upon God to save them.  So God would send a hero - a judge, like Samson or Deborah - to save them.  And everything would be all good for a while, and then after that whole generation had died off, usually about 40 years later, they would forget again.  And forgetting their history, they would repeat it.  But God was there for them every time.  God forgave them every time.  Because God’s love is steadfast and unwavering and eternal.  God’s forgiveness is unconditional.  And because of those things, God sent Jesus to remind us, again.  God sent Jesus to save the world, to destroy the demon attitudes of oppression and exclusion and rejection that had risen up once again.

I think that most all of us know people who, for one reason or another, have been rejected even by their church family.  I once worked with a woman who refused to have anything to do with any church, because of something that had happened to her parents.  They belonged to a very strict congregation, with rules against pretty much everything fun.  On their 25th wedding anniversary, in the privacy of their own living room, her father embraced her mother and they danced to the music on the radio.   A church member walking by saw them through the window, reported their scandalous behavior to the church leaders, and they were expelled from the congregation.  For dancing.  In their living room.  On their 25th wedding anniversary.   I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have been casting out some demons in the leadership of that congregation!  

We aren’t likely to have problems like that here at First Christian Church.  Those who have accepted God’s call to serve in leadership in this congregation understand that we are called by God’s grace to serve in love.  We are called by God’s grace to reach out to the least and the lost - those who are most in need of our help because of poverty and hunger, but also those who are in need of our help because they don’t know God’s love, because they have not felt God’s grace, because they have been rejected and ejected by church and society.    Those who have accepted the call to serve this congregation as Board officers and team directors and deacons and elders know that the two most important commandments are to love God with all our hearts and souls and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  They know that all persons are our neighbors, and that in this congregation, all means ALL.  

Let us now install these officers, and celebrate that they have been called by grace to serve our Lord in this place.  

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Follow the Leader

Mark 1:14-20     (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Our annual Congregational Meeting is today.  We’ll be electing leaders for the next year or two or three.  Let me tell you what the process is like.  A  group of people gathers around a dining room table. We have a list of the positions we need to fill, and job descriptions for each of those positions. Some of the people at that table have been around here a long time, some just a couple of years.  But we all know what the work of the church is. We all know how important it is to find people who care about the church, and about each other, and about caring for God’s people.  We want to get as many people as possible involved, but we also know that we have to be careful in our selections, so that the people we name will find a blessing in the work they are called to.  So we start with prayer.  We start with carefully, prayerfully considering each job, and each member of the congregation.  Is this a person who will suit this job?  Is this a job that will bring joy to this person?  And then - each of the people around that table takes some of the names on our lists and asks those people, “Are you willing to serve Christ by doing this work for the church?  Are you willing to accept this calling?”   

And if they didn’t ask you that way, I’m sorry.

Because don’t be mistaken - this is a calling. Serving a congregation in any way at all is a calling.   There is not one single position on this list that is unimportant.  There is not one single person who was asked to serve who is just a body to fill a slot.  The fact that you have accepted this calling is a big deal. It is important to the congregation, and it is important to God.  And if you were asked but declined - that’s important too.  It’s important to be true to your own needs, and if you need not to do this work right now, it’s good that you declined.  Another time, perhaps, when you are ready.    And if you have accepted a call, and now are feeling a little nervous, a little as if you don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into, don’t worry.   There are others here who have done this job before you, and they will be happy to help you as you move into this new thing.

Jesus called these fishermen to do things they had no idea about.  He said - come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.  Come, follow me.  And they did.  They followed him.  They didn’t even get a job description.  They hadn’t been sitting here watching other people do the same thing.  There wasn’t anyone around who had done this thing before.  They just up and left everything they knew how to do and followed this stranger, this preacher man - and they followed him.  They went where they were called.   

Now, because I have been dealing with humans for my whole life, I suspect there was a bit more conversation between Jesus and the people he called to go with him than the gospel writers reported.  I somehow can’t imagine anyone saying, “Oh yeah.  I’ll just walk away from my home and family, leave my father here to do all this work by himself, desert my wife and mother-in-law, and go who knows where with this dude I never saw before.”  I mean, Jesus needed people who cared about other people, and who were responsible adults.  Just dropping everything to follow a random stranger isn’t really responsible or caring.  I mean, Jesus probably knew them, knew their hearts, but they didn’t know anything about him.  I think, probably, there was just a bit more contact before Simon and Andrew dropped their nets and the sons of Zebedee left their father there mending nets alone.  I mean, Jesus wasn’t just going to the marketplace to pick up some olives and bread for dinner.  He was going to wander around the countryside, preaching and teaching and healing the sick.  Don’t get me wrong - I am a firm believer in miracles and things happening that we really can’t explain.  But I also know that the gospel writers could only tell so much of any story.  They could only report what they knew about the events in Jesus’ life.  So maybe Andrew said to someone, “Yeah. When Jesus asked me and Simon Peter to join him on the road, we dropped everything and went.”  And later that story became part of the narrative.  It was true.  But maybe not the whole entire story.    

You may or may not be aware that I select a theme and scripture readings for each month well in advance, so that DeeAnne has the information for the Caller and the music staff has it for their own planning, for help in selecting choir music among other things.  This month is about Discipleship and membership, and the title “Follow the Leader” just made sense for this particular story, especially as it fell on the day of our congregational meeting.  And when I looked for images for “Follow the Leader” I fell in love with this group of sculptures by Stanley Proctor showing children playing Follow the Leader.  In the children’s game, everyone does whatever the leader does.  Anyone who can’t do whatever has to drop out.  The game continues until only one person is left, and that person becomes the next leader.  Sometimes the leader will do things no one has any trouble with.  Sometimes the leader would do something that very few others could do as well, and anyone who failed had to drop out of line.   Sometimes, the leader might do something dangerous or potentially harmful, and people will copy her so they don’t have to drop out.  This may be where that famous parent line, “If you friends all jumped off a cliff, would you?” came from.   

And because I am who I am, and I have all sorts of strange things wandering around my head, I spend most of this week humming Eric VonZipper’s theme song, “Follow your leader.”   Who was Eric Von Zipper, you ask?  Eric Von Zipper was the leader of the comical biker gang in the 1960s Beach Party movies starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon.  In all seven Beach Party movies, Von Zipper led his hapless followers from one hysterically disastrous plan after another to defeat the surfers!   He was pretty much dumb as a box of rocks, but convinced of his own superior intellect and leadership ability.   As the song says, “He is his ideal.”   His followers may have been smarter than they looked, because they usually managed to pick up the pieces when his plans inevitably blew up in his face.   But they kept following him in all seven movies, so I don’t know.  Anyway . . .

It is critical to be careful about who you are following.  Because this is neither a children’s game, where the last one standing becomes the next leader, nor a 1960s comedy where everything turns out perfectly in the end no matter what.  This is real life.  I promise you that the nominating committee has done their best to select responsible, caring leaders for the church, who will always listen to your suggestions and concerns.  

If you are a person in a position of leadership, it is important to make sure your desires and plans line up with what is best for the people you lead.  If they don’t match, choose to go with what is best for the most people instead of doing what you please.  That’s not easy for anyone to do.  We all have our own ideas of what we think would be best, for our family, for our friends, for our place of employment, and for our congregation.   And that is why here we work in teams.  No group or individual - not even the pastor (or maybe especially not the pastor) - gets to run over everyone else and have their own way.  We work together to serve the church, to build up our faith, to build God’s kingdom on earth.  We may not always agree with each other about how those things should happen, but we work together, in unity, for the good of all of God’s children, especially as they are represented here, in this church, in this city, in this time.

Jesus was going to lead his followers into danger, because he was going to lead them in opposing the ways of the world.  He was going to preach against the status quo, and remind people what it is that God requires of God’s people.  This is not conducive to an easy life.  In today’s passage he chose people to follow him who had proven their willingness to face difficulties and to make hard choices.  Fishermen,  accustomed to facing violent weather, changing tides, seasons of plenty and seasons of want, times when prices were good and times when prices were terrible.  He chose followers who were good people, responsible people, courageous people - and he led them to places they couldn’t imagine.   

May we also follow Jesus as closely as his first called disciples did, going out into the world to do only good, to do God’s will and work, to change the world through an outpouring of the love that God has showered upon us.   

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Decisions, decisions

Scripture John 1:43-51  NRSV 

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Nathaniel had to make a decision - follow Jesus or not.  Go with this person from Nazareth, of all places, or keep on doing whatever it was he was doing . Studying Torah, no doubt, in the very traditional ways. Certainly not roaming all over the countryside with an itinerant preacher.  But here is a man who knows him - someone he is quite certain he has never met and who can’t know anything about him, yet somehow knows that he is a scholar (because the whole “saw you under the fig tree” comment is a first century Jewish idiom that referred to someone who was a serious student the way we talk about some academics as living in an ivory tower)  His choice entailed making a sacrifice that I can’t even imagine making.  I like living in a house and having bed and comfy covers and books right at hand ready to read whenever I want.  But he made that decision.  And he became one of the Twelve -  the first followers of Jesus and, after the resurrection, one of the Twelve Apostles who formed what is now the Christian Church.  

We don’t know much about Nathaniel.  He’s only mentioned twice in the Gospels, and not at all in Acts.   There’s this, his introduction and in Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel Nathaniel is mentioned as one of the four disciples present when Jesus appeared at the Sea of Galilee after the resurrection.  Because he was known to be a friend of Philip, he may also have been associated with John the Baptist, but that’s not certain.   Some scholars believe he is known as Bartholomew in some of the other Gospels, but can’t produce any evidence for that opinion except that the name Nathaniel only appears in John’s Gospel and Bartholomew doesn’t.   As most of you know, I love researching stuff, especially historical details, so I went digging and I found a site that had so much information about Nathaniel that I was totally blown away.  I mean, this site had his exact age and his father’s name and how many siblings he had, and his occupation, and even went on at some length about his relationship with the other disciples, who all loved and respected him for his honesty, his sense of humor and his knowledge of scripture and the Law - except for Judas Iscariot, of course, because Nathaniel could see right through him.   Then I looked for their sources for all this awesome information and discovered that it all came from a book that the founders of this organization had received from aliens.  *sigh*   OK, fine.  So, we don’t know much about Nathaniel.  He was from Bethsaida, he was well educated, and he was a friend of Philip.   That’s about it.  AND we know that he made a decision that would change his life, the lives of the people close to him and, eventually, the entire world.   

It probably didn’t seem like such a big decision at the time. I mean, it was big in terms of giving up the life he knew for something unknown.  But it wasn’t all that uncommon for people to decide to follow one of the many roaming teachers or healers.  We know, for example, that John the Baptist had a number of disciples, and he was only one of many holy men roaming the countryside.  But Nathaniel and the rest of those first disciples had no way of knowing where that decision was going to lead them.    

That’s the thing about decisions.  Even the smallest decision can have a huge impact on our lives.  We all have stories about “small” decisions.  Like deciding to answer the phone even though it meant leaving the house late and then passing a terrible accident that might have involved us had we left on time.  Or deciding to go on a mission trip and meeting our future spouse.  Some decisions are easy, others are more difficult - and some day I will figure out why it is so hard for two or more people to decide where to go for dinner!  I mean, seriously, that should not be so hard.  

So, this month we are talking about discipleship and membership.  We are talking about following Jesus and belonging to him, and to his family.  This is the decision that Nathaniel made on that day in Bethsaida, to follow Jesus and become part of the family that surrounded him - the men and women who chose to be part of his daily life and his ministry, to learn from him and to serve him.    That’s what it means to be a member of a church, of a particular congregation.

A number of the folks here today grew up in this congregation.  They sit in the same pew where their mothers and grandmothers sat, and have children and grandchildren of their own.  Some came as young married couples, and have been coming long enough to raise their own children and grandchildren here.   Others are newer, having moved to Selma from somewhere else, or changed church membership when they were no longer comfortable in the churches they had been attending.  Some of you came here because a friend asked you to come to Youth Group, and you decided that you wanted to make this church your home.  Or because a friend you know from work or bowling or volunteering at the Animal Shelter invited you.   Some of you are pretty new to the whole church thing, and some have been church folks since before you were born. (And if you don’t know that’s possible, just ask anyone whose mom was a member here while she was pregnant.)   Some of you are still looking.

So - How do you decide which church is right for you?

Leah found some excellent pictures for today - a megachurch, a small country church, and a downtown big steeple church.  All we really know about these three things is what they look like from the outside.  Well, ok.  We know a lot more about the Crystal Cathedral than just how it looks, and we all know this place pretty well - some of you are even intimately familiar with what it looks like up inside the ceiling!  But generally speaking, when we are looking for a congregation to join, we might have in our mind what kind of place we are looking for.   Each of these has its attractions.  You might want to be part of a megachurch because you can hide in the crowd, or because they excel in entertaining worship services.  You might prefer a smaller church so that you can get to know everyone really well and really be part of what is going on there.   You might be looking for a place just like the church you grew up in, or the exact opposite of the church you grew up in.  You might be looking for an established congregation where you can just slide in to an established tradition, or a new church start, so you can be part of deciding what those traditions will be.  The thing that you are for sure looking for, though, is a place where you fit.  A  place where you can come on Sundays - or any other day of the week, actually - and know that you are welcome.  And a place where you can hear the stories of Jesus and Paul and folks from the Hebrew Bible, and learn more about God and about faith.    A place where you can be who you are, and you don’t have to pretend to be someone you are not.  

Joining a congregation is not a decision to be made lightly or quickly.  You may have heard the old saying “Marry in haste, repent at leisure”?    While church membership isn’t exactly marriage, it kind of is.  Although it’s more like becoming a new in-law in an existing family.  And what person, having fallen in love with their soul mate, doesn’t look at their family - the prospective in-laws - to try to get an idea what the future might bring for them.  In-laws, any family, really, tend to be kind of a mixed bag.  There are the ones we love and get along with, and then there’s the uncle or aunt who you just can’t get along with.  You just can’t agree with anything they say because everything they believe to be true is pretty much the opposite of what you believe to be true.  Their whole attitude is pretty bad, frankly.  They complain about everything.   Or, there’s the aging hippy Pollyanna type, who sees rainbows and unicorns everywhere, and you wonder how she manages to dress herself in the morning.  But it’s family.  It’s not going to be perfect.  And you can always avoid conversations with the family members you don’t like that much, but you will hug them when you see them because . . . family is family.  You don’t have to agree with each other. You don’t even have to like each other.  But you do have to love each other.    Jesus said so.

I know there are folks here who’ve been showing up for a while and haven’t made that scary walk down these really long aisles to receive the right hand of Christian fellowship and become an official member of this congregation.  I know that some of you are still deciding, and some aren’t sure why you need to do that. Because you can do everything here without being an official member. You can come to all the worship services, and receive communion, and be part of all of our volunteer efforts and social events.  You can be in the women’s group and Bible study and help out with the Youth and preside at worship and do all sorts of things. You can pledge your money and time.  There are, in fact, just two things you cannot do if you are not a member.  According to our by-laws, if you are not a member, you cannot vote in congregational meetings, and you cannot serve as a Deacon or Elder or Board member - or any other elected capacity.   So next week, when we vote on whether to approve the budget for 2018 and elect new officers, if you have not joined the congregation, you cannot vote.   And for those of you who may want to be a member here, but don’t want to give up membership in your long-time home church - you don’t have to.  There is such a thing as dual membership.  

You may be wondering who these Disciples of Christ I keep talking about might be.  Those of us who have been around this church for a while say “Disciples Rock!”  But we know this denomination.  We know how it works in this particular congregation, or maybe even several different ones.  But what if you have no idea who we are - you just came to check out this church, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Selma, California.  What makes the Disciples different?  Why are we right for you?  (or not.)  If you want to know those things, talk to me.  Talk to some of the long time members.  Better yet, sign up for a Pastor’s Class, where we will talk about what it means to be a Disciple of Christ.   We’re pretty cool, actually.  We even have a joke book . . You might be a Disciple if your Elder prays about wine but the deacon serves you grape juice.  You might be a Disciple if you don’t want the sermon to last more than 20 minutes so you can beat the Methodists to the restaurant.)   If more than two people want to learn more about the Disciples, we’ll set a time and day that works for everyone, and we’ll have a class.  It’ll be fun.

Being a member in a congregation is not a once and done thing.  You can’t just shake my hand up front one Sunday and think that’s all there is to it.  It’s is more than sitting in your favorite pew on Sunday mornings.  It is more than putting money in the collection plate or singing in the choir or helping out at events. It is a commitment to be part of Jesus’ family here, in this place, at this time.  It is agreeing to embrace this body of people as your family, and to be embraced by them in return.   Membership in a congregation is a covenant to be there for each other, in whatever ways you are able - from something as simple as praying in the privacy of your home to serving as Chairperson of the Church Board.  (Which isn’t really all that difficult a thing.  Our Board meetings are really quite civilized, and our teams work well together.)  Even those of us here who have been members for a long long time continue to commit to serve each other and the church to the best of our ability - because it is what Jesus wants us to do - to love one another and take care of one another, as he commanded us to do.

Nathaniel had a decision to make.  It wasn’t an easy one, and yet he made it quickly.  Because he recognized that Jesus was the Son of God, the King of Israel.  He may not have been entirely certain what that meant, and he certainly had no idea what was ahead for him and for the other disciples Jesus had chosen, but he made the decision.  He made the decision to follow Jesus.  Let us also make that decision, today and every day.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


 Mark 1:4-11 NRSV

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

I imagine that some of you showed up today hoping to hear the Gospel story from Matthew about the arrival of the Wise Men and the gifts they brought, or maybe Luke’s story about Anna and Simeon in the Temple, and the very first time when Jesus was recognized as the Messiah that the people of Israel had been awaiting for so long.  If you are of a theological turn of mind, you may even have wondered whether I was going to talk about how when the Wise Men came it was a sign that Jesus was for the whole world, not just for Israel.  Or maybe about the prophetic nature of the gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Instead, the Gospel reading for today came from Mark, who didn’t speak at all about Jesus’ birth or childhood.  Rather, he started telling the Good News from the first day of Jesus’ ministry in the world - the day he was baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer.  In fact, Mark begins with these words:  
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,    
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’ 
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

On this particular Sunday we celebrate, not the Epiphany of the Lord, but the Baptism of Jesus.  When I told someone that earlier in the week, she was disappointed.  For most of us, the arrival of the Three Kings is an important part of the Christmas story.  But I have a secret to share with you.

Epiphany is not a day.  It is a season.  Just like Christmas.  Christmas doesn’t end on the day Jesus is born.  Christmas continues for 12 days, ending on the day that the Wise Men appear.  Epiphany begins on that day and continues until Ash Wednesday.   (Which this year falls on Valentine’s Day . . . so if you usually give up chocolate for Lent you might want to reconsider . . . .  just sayin’.)   This year, during the season of Epiphany here at First Christian Church, we will be focusing on Discipleship - on baptism and church membership and reaching out into the community.   

Baptism.   Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin John, just as many others were coming, even from Jerusalem.  They came in droves, to repent their sins and have them washed away in the water.  And John said to the people, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”   When Jesus had been baptized and came up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descending, while God’s voice filled his head saying, “You are my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.  It is not written that anyone else saw this, but at this point, really, no one else needed to see.  This was a moment between Jesus and God.   

The history of baptism is filled with controversy and change.  In the early days of the church, whole households were baptized together and we assume that infants were included, although the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically whether or not that was the case.  Baptism took place pretty much as soon as someone said “I believe that Jesus is the Messiah.”  Like the three thousand new believers on the Day of Pentecost, and the household of Cornelius, and the eunuch Philip baptized on the road out of Jerusalem.  But as time passed it was determined that new seekers should be better informed before they were allowed to become full members of the church.  So they would spend a year learning Scripture and learning the history of the Church, and even have to leave worship when it came time for communion, until they were baptized - often on Easter with many others.   The new member would stand on one side of the baptistry, which was a pool with stairs on both ends, and remove their clothing.  Entering into the water, they were immersed and baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  They were then anointed with oil, and came up out of the pool, where they received new clothing and a new name - their Christian name.   More time passed and the belief arose that baptism was necessary for entrance into heaven, and since so many died in infancy or childhood, by the year 250 ce, it had become the custom to baptize infants with water, then confirming them in their belief in the Christ by anointing them with oil when they reached the age of decision.  That practice continues down to today in many Christian traditions.   In about 1523 ce some of the leaders of the Reformation rejected the concept of infant baptism, declaring that only believers baptism was Biblical.  These Anabaptists (re-baptizers) were considered heretical by both Protestant and Catholics, and were executed as heretics (usually by drowning) well up into the mid 1600s.   In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we practice believers baptism by immersion, but in most of our congregations we do accept as valid baptism by any other denomination, including infant baptism.  So if you were baptized as an infant, that counts here.

This is a bigger deal than one might think.  I read a story recently, about a couple who were getting married in Kentucky.  They both loved their congregations and neither wanted to leave their church. So, they came to the agreement early in their marriage that they would attend which ever church was closest to their home. Joyce’s church was closest to their first home together so the plan was that Louis would join her church and that is where they would raise their children. However, when Louis went to visit with the minister about moving his membership, the minister informed him that he would have to be baptized. Louis said, “I have been baptized.” The minister replied but for membership here, you will be required to be baptized in this church, in this denomination.   Some of their family and friends thought that Louis should just be re-baptized. Joyce taught Sunday school and sang in the choir.  She was an integral part of the congregation and it was closer to their home. For Louis, the point was that this church did not recognize the holy event that had already taken place. They took something away from Louis and from God by suggesting that his baptism was not valid. So, Joyce joined Louis’ church which did accept her baptism. Baptism can bring us together and it can keep us apart.    Here at First Christian Church, we are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.  We will not let differences in practice keep us from being one with Christ.

Baptism is about repentance.  When we enter the waters of baptism, we are washed clean of our old ways, but not in some sort of miraculous event.  I had a person come to me once complaining that her life hadn’t changed after her baptism. She thought when she was baptized that she would suddenly no longer crave alcohol, that her marriage would get better, that she would be happy.  I tried to explain to her that these changes happen because we are willing to make changes.  We are washed clean because we have made a decision to change our lives, to turn them over to God, to be a follower of Jesus because we believe that he is the Messiah, the anointed one, Son of the Living God.   We come into the waters of baptism willing to become the best persons we can be, willing to look closely at ourselves and to reject the ways of the world that keep us from doing what we know God wants us to do.  We become willing to be made new, and open ourselves to direction from the Holy Spirit.   This isn’t easy.  We can’t just say, “I repent.”  We must reach into ourselves, find those sins which keep us from happiness and peace in Christ, repent and remove them, making space for the Holy Spirit to work in us and with us, to make us new in Christ.  

Baptism in the Holy Spirit empowers us to go out and do God’s work in the world.  It gives us strength to face difficulties with serenity, knowing that God is in us and with us.  It is more than a rite of passage.  It is an opening of ourselves, our own spirits, so that we may receive the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)  

 I have no idea how Jesus may have felt when he heard God’s voice speaking to him, saying “You are my beloved.  In you I am well pleased.”  I don’t know whether this was an epiphany to him.  I do know that he immediately went out into the wilderness, to pray, to meditate, to consider the path ahead of him. I do know that from that moment forward his life was different.  No longer a carpenter, no longer a resident of Nazareth.  From here forward he would be a preacher, a teacher, a healer.  From here forward, he would be filled with the Holy Spirit.   Jesus’ baptism changed his life and sent him out to do God’s will in the world.  May we, today, remember our own baptism, and let the Spirit fill us with gifts we need to do God’s work in our world.  May we look into our hearts, finding those things that keep us from being the people God wants us to be, and say to God and ourselves, These I lay down.