Year A — The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for February 6, 2011
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Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12)
Alicia Silverstone made the phrase ubiquitous in the film that was to become (sadly, I suppose one could say) the pinnacle of her acting career: “AS IF!” (Clueless, 1995, check it here.) The term is defined charitably in the Urban Dictionary as, “an expression used to display disbelief.” There are probably other similar phrases we could call into service: yeah, right… yada, yada, yada…same old, same old.

Isaiah indicts Israel’s empty religious practices by saying, “as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness.” (v.2) Yeah, right…yada, yada, yada…same old, same old. 

When is it time for us to evaluate our practice of worshiping and serving God? When do we need to be reminded of the sacrifices that God truly desires? Verse 7 is pretty straightforward: “share your bread with the hungry…bring the homeless poor into your house…cover the naked…do not hide!” 

Let us not be clueless, church!
Psalm 112:1-9 (10)

One of the themes of our times is uncertainty. There’s plenty of it to go around in our world, and sure to be a healthy dose amongst the people in our pews each Sunday. Psalm 112 is centered on the thought in v. 6 — “the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.”
Looking for a little certainty, for a foundation on which to stand? It’s found by those “who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in God’s commandments….[who] are gracious, merciful, and righteous.” (vv. 1,4)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
The proclamation (and living) of the gospel is not about “lofty words or wisdom.” (v.1) In fact, writes the Apostle, it’s not really about anything other than “Christ, and him crucified.” (v.2)

In the sermon below, Dr. Chilton explores the seduction and danger for preachers (and congregations) when we think that we must find some other way to proclaim the gospel — to “make it relevant” for our age — than to preach Christ, and him crucified.

May your preaching be filled with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v.4) as you seek to proclaim Christ this week.
Matthew 5:13-20

Sometimes, there is a divide among Christians over just how much, and to what degree, we are “under the law” of the Old Testament. We probably make too much of the issue, if the truth be told, but the logic goes something like this: “Christ came to set us free from the law, so we don’t really have to pay much attention to the Hebrew scriptures. They’re just there as a guide, to point the way to Jesus.”

Okay, but Jesus himself says, in our piece from the continuing Sermon on the Mount passage in Matthew, that he did not “come to abolish the law or the prophets… but to fulfill.” (v.17) Perhaps we should give that a little thought, eh? How is the foundation of our faith both begun and completed by the Living Word of God, at work by the Spirit through the holy written word of God– all of it?

by Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Christ, and Him Crucified”
Have you ever heard the old story about the woman who found her great- grandmother’s handwritten recipe for rabbit stew? It begins with the words, “First, catch a rabbit.”
Or, are you familiar with the sports legend about Coach Fielding Harris “Hurry Up” Yost, who led the University of Michigan Football team from 1901 until 1926? They lost badly at Notre Dame once and the train back to Ann Arbor was silent for several hours as the team waited to be yelled at for playing so poorly. Finally, Yost stood up with a football in his hands and said, “Gentleman, THIS is a football.”
I have struggled with my weight most of my adult life. I frequently launch a new plan to create a thinner, healthier me; especially around New Year’s, after Thanksgiving and Christmas and Bowl games, etc. I have read a lot of diet books, gone on a lot of web sites. 90% of what any of it says can be summed up in four words, the basics of weight loss and fitness: EAT LESS; MOVE MORE.
Paul, in First Corinthians, has come to an “EAT LESS, MOVE MORE,” moment in his evangelism strategy.
He has realized that before he can cook a stew, he must first catch the rabbit, before his team can play the game, they have to know the rules; it’s time to get back to basics,which for the church is Christ, and him crucified.
I have been a pastor since 1977. In that time a new program for making the church grow, for expanding the Sunday School, for getting people to give a lot more money, for starting small groups, for growing a vital youth group, etc., has come across my desk or my computer screen at least once or twice a week.
I’m sure one or two of them worked somewhere, sometime; but really, none of them has ever worked anywhere for me. I don’t know; maybe my heart wasn’t in it.
What I have learned is pretty simple: if the gospel of Jesus Christ, and him crucified, is at the heart and core of a church’s life within the walls and is the motivation and content of its proclamation outside the walls, the church is a happening place full of joyful and motivated people.
And if some other agenda takes center place in a church’s life together and its mission and message to the world, it won’t matter what programs they try; the church will be somewhat unhappy and struggling.
Christ, and him crucified, is the EAT LESS MOVE MORE of the church.
That’s not to say that putting more current and popular themes at the center of a congregation’s life and ministry won’t work for a time and for a season, but it usually doesn’t work for the long haul.
Recently Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy, did you know that? Remember Schuller, the smiling TV preacher with the drive-in church in Garden Grove, California?
Things have gotten tough for him and his church. The magazine Christianity Today had an editorial reflecting on the congregation’s hard times. After exploring the ways the Pastor had adapted the gospel to the “wisdom” current in California in the 1960’s and 1970’s — that is the “human potential movement” — and how the self-esteem issues Schuller emphasized so strongly to build that church no longer ring true to many in the 21st century, the magazine goes on to say:
Robert Schuller is not the problem . . .(he) was only leading the parade of those who believe they are responsible for MAKING the gospel relevant. The lesson is not that Schuller got it wrong or that his theology is out of date . . .The lesson is that our attempts to find and exploit a point of cultural contact inevitably end in bankruptcy. . . .we must repress every fearful thought that suggests that making the gospel relevant and meaningful rests on our shoulders. The mystery of why and how people come to faith is just that – ultimately a mystery. (CT, January 2011, p. 59)
That’s what gets us off base; we don’t trust the simplicity of the gospel. We think it is up to us jazz it up and make it more appealing, and in the process we risk losing the truth in the midst of our hype.
I grew up in Mount Airy, NC, which is the town actor Andy Griffith grew up in. Except for being a small town in North Carolina, there really weren’t a lot of similarities between the fictional town of Mayberry and the real town of Mount Airy, but that hasn’t stopped the Chamber of Commerce from turning Mount Airy into a tourist destination for thousands of Mayberry fans.
My mother lives on a farm outside of town and when I visit her I almost never go downtown but this past Thanksgiving my wife and I decided to have a pork chop sandwich at Snappy Lunch, one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid.
Well, at least the sandwich was the same and still one of the best things you could ever put in your mouth. Most of the rest of Main Street was unrecognizable to me; all the old stores were gone, replaced by places selling tourist trinkets about Mayberry. After a while I had to get away; it wasn’t that it was bad exactly, it was just that the town of my childhood was gone.
This is what Paul warns us against in First Corinthians. We have to be careful about adding things to the basics of the gospel in an attempt to dress it up and make it more exciting.
The real truth is, what’s there is exciting enough. As English mystery writer and amateur theologian Dorothy Sayers said in Creed or Chaos:
We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – “dull dogma,” as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination…and the dogma IS the drama. (Sayers, Sophia Institute Press, 1949, p.3)
The very words CHRIST, AND HIM CRUCIFIED, say to us that the God who made us has not abandoned us, that the God who made us loves us and wants to be in relationship with us; indeed, wants it so badly that this Holy One, this divine Creator of all that is, came to be with us as one of us, a human being who ate and slept and learned and worked and talked and listened and healed and loved just as we do, only more so.
We had to learn how much we were loved and how we were to go about loving each other, and telling us was not going to be enough. We had to be shown.
And so, this humble holy one, in a mystery that it is impossible to unravel, with a wisdom too deep for words to explain, died upon the cross for us– in the place of us, because of us– to show us how to live and how to die and how to love in the process.
That is what CHRIST AND HIM CRUCIFIED means.
That is the EAT LESS, MOVE MORE of the church.
That is the story with which we will catch the attention and the hearts of the world.
That is the simple thing that is at the center of our life and our life together.
Amen and amen.

Year A — Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 30, 2011

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Micah 6:1-8

“What can I say?”

We’ve all either been caught dead-to-rights in some sort of transgression, or we have been the catcher; there is very little doubt as to our guilt and probably no shortage of evidence against us. (“No, hon, I don’t know how the chips and dip got left in front of the big screen after the game on Saturday.”)

There’s that moment of truth when our only admission is, “What can I say? Guilty as charged.”

That’s pretty much what is going on in the climactic chapter of Micah; God has placed the people of God on trial, as it were, and has laid out all of the evidence. The stirring conclusion even dares them to place God on trial if they would like! “What have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v.3)

As the people of God, we really don’t have much of answer for ourselves. We may have tried all sorts of solutions to please God, or offered any number of excuses for our inaction and unconcern. But, all we really have is: “What can I say?”

That’s when v.8 makes such magnificent sense. “Look, it’s not that hard or complicated: do some justice, love some kindness, and take a walk on the God-side of the street.” No excuses needed.

Psalm 15

One of the young men in my church came up to me this week, excited to tell me about his first outdoor “real” camp-out as a Cub Scout. Brought back fond memories of my own experiences, both as a Scout and as a parent. Nothing like getting outdoors in that tent, cooking over the campfire, swatting bugs all night! (Well, okay…I could do without the bugs.) What makes it all work is the camaraderie, the friendship, the relationships with one another and with the great outdoors.

Not unlike the opening line of the psalm text: “Who may abide in the Lord’s tent? Who gets to live on the holy hill?” The words of Micah are echoed in the response; walking justly, doing what is right, speaking the truth…those kind of things. It is kind of like the Cub Scouts, when you think about it!

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The Apostle reminds us of the relative foolishness of our wisdom when compared to God’s. We can think that we’ve learned all we need to learn and experienced all we need to experience– and then, almost certainly, life intervenes and reminds us that we — ANY of us — can become foolish in an instant and mess up the careful planning and work of a lifetime.

Best to trust the wisdom of God, which seems in itself a foolish choice to some. A man who died on a cross? This is who you want running your life? What was it Jonathan Edwards sang in the 70’s…”He can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine!” (catch the full lyric here)

The call to follow Christ is a call to radical reorientation and re-commitment of our lives. Nowhere is the statement clearer than in vv.30-31: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'” Yeah, well take that, Sunshine!

Matthew 5:1-12

There’s no way I have anything significant or new to add to the vast commentary on “The Beatitudes.” They are classic; read ’em and enjoy and learn. 

What I do often do with a very familiar passage like this one (at least for my own preparation, if not for the hearing of the congregation) is to check out a new translation. I find The Message by Eugene Peterson to be helpful in situations like this. Gives me a “fresh set” of ears, a different cadence by which I might find a glimmer of new understanding.

Here’s just an excerpt of his translation; you can find the whole passage here.

 3“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
 4“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
 5“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

All parents have things they say so often that, eventually, their children can predict what Mom or Dad will say before they say it.
My Daddy’s was; “Is that absolutely necessary?” “Can I go with you?” “Is that absolutely necessary?” “Can I buy a new toy truck?” “Is that absolutely necessary?”
When Daddy said that, I usually wanted to say, “No daddy, I just thought it would be fun; after all, I am a kid,” but because my Daddy was severely sarcasm-challenged, I usually just with the time-honored, “Please, please, can I, can I, pleeeease!?”
The trouble with this parental line, and others like it, is that after hearing them a few hundred times, you stop listening; you no longer really pay attention to what is being said.
We all have the same problem with the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. We have heard these words of often that we think we know what Jesus is saying before he says it, and really, we most of us have come to some peace with ourselves that he is calling us to a standard higher then we believe to be humanly possible.
Yes, we accept our forgiveness for our inability to live up to the Sermon on the Mount and occasionally wonder if, after all, such high standards are absolutely necessary.
It’s all well and good to say that the hungry will be blessed but what the hungry really need is to be fed.
The last century has seen more death by cruelty and violence than the previous 19 combined; there are many more who mourn than ever before and heavenly reward is cold comfort in the face of today’s hot pain.
The last time I looked, the meek were still being trampled underfoot, and the strong and unscrupulous were still in possession of most of the earth.
As for those hungering and thirsting after righteousness; well, we see very little of it; most people seem to be hungering and thirsting after the rewards of the flesh, better known as creature comforts, or “a certain lifestyle.”
So we hear what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount and it appears to be far removed from the world as we know it; and we nod our heads and listen politely and think nice thoughts about being meek and hope that reading a 2 minute devotional every morning counts as hungering and thirsting after righteousness; then we go out the door and into the world and about our business.
Our mistake is to think that the Sermon on the Mount is about US, that it is kind of like a graduation speech in which a wise and witty famous person explains to us the 9 secrets of lifestyle success; or “How to Be a Happy Christian.”
Well, the Sermon on the Mount is not Jesus’ Little Instruction Book. It is, rather, a proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. It is a rallying cry aimed at those called by God to become a part of that Kingdom.
Notice where it is in the Gospel of Matthew. Chapter 1 and 2, Jesus is born and grows up. Chapter 3 he is baptized, Chapter 4 he goes into the wilderness and clarifies his mission through the temptations and now, in chapter 5, he comes out of the desert and begins to preach.
In these opening words, Matthew shows Jesus announcing his plan, his program, his priorities for everyone to hear, for everyone to either accept or reject.
Here, Jesus divides the world into two categories: FIRST: the have-nots, those whom the world has beaten up and beaten down, those who have lost both their dignity and their hope.
There is no need to spiritualize these things; this is about cold hard facts. The world is full of poor people, the world is full of people who mourn; the world is teeming with the meek, those whom the powers that be have pushed under and held under so long that they can’t remember up, much less see it.
The world is full of those who seek justice, of those who have been deeply, deeply wronged by pure injustice. These are the people Jesus is talking about.
And the next four verses refer to the rest of us, the haves, and they tell us where we count in this new kingdom.
In a world full of war, we are called to make peace.
In a world full of injustice, we are called to do justice with a pure heart.
In a world full of oppression, we are called to stand with the oppressed and to help them find mercy.
In a world full of people being treated unjustly, we are being called to stand with them and to allow ourselves to be untreated unjustly with them in hopes of relieving their distress.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus unveils, reveals, the Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom that includes all of us.
If we are down, it seeks to pull us up. If we are up, it seeks to pull us into the battle on behalf of the least of these, the brothers and sisters of Christ.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is not an unreasonable, unattainable, idealistic pipe-dream of a higher standard.
No, it is a clear and unmistakable call for us to join the battle for the Kingdom of God.
This Day Jesus calls us to a life of service and sacrifice, to a life of caring and compassion.
In the words of Micah: we are called to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our God.

Year A — Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 23, 2011

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Isaiah 9:1-4
This reading serves to highlight two of the lesser known tribes in the nation of Israel: Zebulon and Naphtali, named for the sixth son of Leah and the second son of Bilhah (who bore him on behalf of her mistress, Rachel) respectively. Now that information will warm the hearts of your people!

Multiple wives and concubines apart, both Zebulon and Naphtali were important to the military success of Israel during the time of the Judges. Particularly, they joined in Gideon’s force that routed the numerically superior Midianites (see Judges 6-8.)

Thus, for the prophet, the redeeming power of the Lord lies in the light he brings for the people “walking in darkness,” and in God’s power over the oppressor — just as God delivered Israel in the case of the Midianites.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9
The image of God as light in our lives is expressed so beautifully in this worship psalm. God’s light provides strength and shelter, as well as a clear way to seek God and behold the beauty of the Lord. All are good reasons to sing and make melody to the LORD!

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
The Apostle quickly and firmly lays out the guideline for behavior that is fitting for Christ’s followers: no divisions! How many different ways have churches figured out to “divide” themselves over the years? The list is practically limitless. (One of the congregations I served once held a three-hour “business meeting,” replete with heated words and invitations to fisticuffs, discussing the issue of whether it would be better to place cans or bottles in the soda machine in the fellowship hall!)

Paul asks them not to devolve into loyalty cliques…his question is penetrating: “Was Paul crucified for you?” Perhaps another way of parsing his admonition to the Corinthians might sound something like a 12-step slogan: let’s keep the main thing the main thing! Remember why we are here and what we have been called to do…proclaim the gospel, which is the message of the cross!

Matthew 4:12-23
Ever keen to support the facts of Jesus’ ministry with the foundation of Hebrew scripture, Matthew’s gospel connects Jesus’ decision to base his ministry in Capernaum of Galilee with the passage cited earlier from Isaiah 9. By so doing, we get an immediate connection to the task of bringing light into the world, a job now clearly relegated to Jesus as Messiah by the impending departure of John the Baptist from the scene.

Jesus’ initial message echoes that of John: repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Thus, Jesus is now clearly set up as the message-bearer; indeed, Jesus will do more than speak the message of the kingdom. He will live it by his ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and feeding.

And, as an aside, it’s convenient that living in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali places him directly beside the Sea of Galilee…the source of his first raw recruits — the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John. Now, we are told, they are going to catch people! Wonder how you do that?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Here is a story Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the Supreme Court, often included in his speeches around the country.

There were two sisters. They had lived with their parents and brothers and sisters in a dilapidated old house since their birth. Time went on, their brothers and sisters married and moved out, their parents died, the sisters remained.

Sometime in their mid-forties they had a big falling out; such a big falling out that they stopped speaking to each other. They were too stubborn for either one to leave the little house, so they continued living there together.

A chalk line divided the bed room into two halves. The chalk divided all the rooms in the house, so that the sisters could come and go and get her own meals without trespassing on her sister’s space. In the stillness of the night, each could hear the other breathing and snoring.

This went on for many, many years; then one night one sister got up to go to the bathroom and fell, breaking her hip. Her sister heard her scream and scooted across the chalk line to her side. She called for help, then sat in the floor and held her sister while waiting for the ambulance.

Sometime, in the midst of the darkness and the pain, the words I’M SORRY and I LOVE YOU were exchanged. In the midst of brokenness, healing had taken place.

Justice Marshall always ended that story by saying: The legal system can force open doors, and even, sometimes, knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Bridge building. It’s a good name for the ministry of healing that is the church.

As we look at the world’s continued darkness, its wars and disease and ignorance and prejudice and violence, we can see that at the root of most of this is our disconnectedness; our alienation from God, from each other, and most of all from our true selves.

It is the lack of genuine, open, trusting, loving community in the world that causes most of our problems, or makes them worse.

The church is called to a simple ministry in the midst of the world’s darkness and disconnection; we are called to shine the light of God into the world and to pull the world’s disparate peoples into one community– the people of God.

This calling has never made much sense to the world. It looks like a quixotic quest, a nonsense proposition. The world operates by a different set of rules.

Perhaps it’s not exactly cut-throat, dog-eat-dog out there; but it certainly is look out for #1 and know who your friends are and you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

Ever since Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee and called out Simon Peter and James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, those who were left behind have felt that those who went were foolish.

Even Jesus had family problems in this regard. Our Gospel lesson says he left the tiny village of Nazareth and moved, made his home, settled in the larger, more exciting town of Capernaum. It was kind of like Barney moving from Mayberry to Mount Pilate; exciting, but not without its drawbacks.

Over in Chapter 12 we read that his family back in Nazareth started hearing things about what Jesus was saying and doing up in “the cities” and “his Mama and them” went to take him home because they thought he had embarrassed the family enough.

As Paul puts it in our Second Lesson: “The message of the Cross is foolishness . . . .” It is interesting to note the Paul says this in a letter to a congregation that is in the midst of a huge church fight. Their fight in the Church in Corinth had to do with which Pastor they liked best.

I’m one of Paul’s people; I’m one of Cephas’ people, I’m one of Apollos’ people; and for the hyper self-righteous people, “H’mp, I belong to Christ.” Thank God, we never get that silly around here . . . do we?

And Paul’s remedy for all this infighting and fussing and back-biting was the foolishness of the cross, the ridiculousness of the Gospel story. He calls upon the Corinthians to remember the highly unlikely and paradoxical way that God chose to save the world.

This is also the highly unlikely and paradoxical way God calls upon us to behave in the world; as God’s ambassadors and healing-agents and bridge-builders between cultures and peoples.

That is the task which we have been given, that the exactly who we have been called to be. We are called to respond to God’s act of building a bridge of love to us by turning and building bridges of love to others.

We are called to build bridges of forgiveness and vulnerability and risk-taking, bridges that are cobbled together with the little crosses of suffering we bear for one another each and every day.

Bridges laid down across the great chasms of division and distrust, fear and hatred that afflict and terrorize our world. Bridges that seek to bring all those who have lived in great darkness into the even greater light of God’s love.

We are called to a ministry healing, a ministry of building bridges of love and forgiveness between people, a ministry of shining the light of God’s love on all people. Are we ready to embrace this ministry? Are we prepared to let the light of Christ shine through us? Are we willing to reach out to the world with the foolishness of the cross?

Amen and amen.

A Bonus Illustration
Back in the 1980’s there was a man named Larry Trapp living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His name was doubly ironic; he was a man trapped in his own hatred and trapped in his own body. Larry Trapp was suffering from a fatal disease and was confined to a wheel chair; he was nearly blind, he was also the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska. He truly was a man trapped in darkness.

Larry Trapp became obsessed with driving Michael Weisser out of town. Weisser is Jewish; he is the cantor of the Lincoln Synagogue. Trapp barraged Weisser with hate mail, at home and on the job. He made incessant threatening phone calls, he organized demonstrations, He did everything he could to make life a living hell for Michael Weisser and his family.

Cantor Weisser was truly intimidated and scared. He had a wife and children, he wanted to protect them. But Michael Weisser was also a man who was unwilling to let another person’s hate prevent him from showing love. So he started calling Larry Trapp’s home, always getting the answering machine. So, he always left a message. He said, “This is Michael Weisser. I’d like to talk to you. I want to know why you’re doing this to me.”

Finally, one day, Larry Trapp answered the phone, screaming and cursing and threatening, “WHAT DO YOU WANT? YOU’RE HARASSING ME!”

And Michael Weisser said, “I Know you have a hard time getting around and can’t drive, and I was wondering if you might need a ride to the grocery store or something?” After a very long stunned silence, Larry Trapp quietly replied, “Uh, no, I’ve got that covered, but thanks for asking.”

Larry and Michael kept talking by phone. After a while, Larry Trapp started going over to the Jewish Cantor’s house for dinner, they became friends, and when it became apparent he had nowhere else to go, the Weisser family invited Larry to move in with them. And he did, dying there in Michael’s arms a few months later.

Somewhere along the way Larry Trapp left the KKK. He spent his last time on earth spreading a message of love in a world of hate; Larry Trapp became an apostle to Klansmen and other hate groups; trying to get them to see the great light of love and forgiveness he had seen and experienced. (TIME Feb. 17, 1992)

Year A — Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 16, 2011

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Isaiah 49:1-7

Isaiah 49 is related directly to Isaiah 42, the lection for last Sunday; both passages regard “the Servant” — here named Israel — who is called by God for the purpose of becoming a “light to the nations, that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:6)

Who is this servant? Various commentators posit that the servant is the nation of Israel, or the prophet Isaiah, or a prophet who would come later…or, the Chosen One of God, the Messiah. Within Isaiah’s text, at various times all of the above are reasonable assumptions.  More than likely, the compilers of the lectionary intend for us to read the latter option, especially on this Sunday when we follow the baptism of Jesus with more testimony from John about the role of God’s choosing Christ for this very purpose.

(One may read the comments of Brevard Childs, Isaiah, Old Testament Library, Westminster John Knox, 2001, pp. 383 ff., for an overview of the various interpretations of the Servant in Isaiah.)

A note of interest: both John and Jesus were “named in the womb” and set apart for the work of God. They are, in a very real sense, both faithful servants of the LORD. To follow the naming imagery in baptism from last week, how are we called by God, set apart and named, even while we are still “in the womb?”

Psalm 40:1-11

I always enjoy preaching a sermon from this psalm text, one that I have entitled “When Your Life is the Pits.” A great time to realize that when God says God’s presence will be with us everywhere, that means EVERYWHERE (pits included!)

Notice that God’s mercies are “multiplied” in v. 5; the word carries the connotation of “exponential increase.” God’s wondrous deeds and thoughts toward us pile up in a hurry. Think for a moment about the effect of multiplying the number 2 by itself 10 times (2 x 2 x 2 x 2, etc…the answer is 1,024) as compared to adding the number 2 to itself 10 times (the answer is 20.) I like the exponential blessing of God!

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

As Christ has been called by God, we are called, as well. God not only calls us to know Christ and to serve in the ministry of his grace…God also equips (enriches) us “with speech and knowledge of every kind.” (v.5) There is no situation that God ever calls us to that we will not be “gifted” (v. 7) and “strengthened” (v.8) to encounter.

John 1:29-42

 Based — at a minimum — on his encounter with Jesus at his baptism, John gives testimony about his ministry as the “Lamb of God.” This Lamb will do no less than take away the sin of the world. No small feat, that!

Face it…there’s a LOT of sin in the world! An old gospel song says, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.” If you did the same thing for counting the many sins of the world, you’d be counting for a very long time, don’t ya’ think? 

(Try it…just mull over your own sins during the past week or so…or, if you prefer, go ahead and insert the sins of your favorite target like the US Congress, the President, the right-wing nut-jobs, the left-wing wackos…you get the idea!)

John’s simple, unabashed statement is: “This one, this sacrificial lamb who will be led to the slaughter…well, he’s going to take away the sin of the world.” Doesn’t really say how, why, or when — just that he’s going to do it. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.

Later in the passage, when Andrew and an unknown disciple I like to call “player to be named later” try to ask Jesus about this striking news, the best they can come up with is, “Um, so where are you staying while you’re in town?”

And I love, love, love Jesus’ response: “Come and you will see.” He doesn’t really try to explain all that’s going on, either…no discourse on substitutionary atonement or the theology of the cross…just, “Come on along, boys, and you’ll learn all about it.”

We come to know Jesus as Savior of the world as we follow. It takes a while.  Like the first disciples, we have to see it to believe it (and even then, we still struggle to understand.) 

Of course, for Andrew, it didn’t seem to take too long. He becomes forever the example of the enthusiastic evangelist as he goes to find his brother and tells him the good news: “We have found the Messiah, the one spoken of by Deutero-Isaiah!” (Just kidding about that last part– wanted to see if you’re still with me!) But tell him, he does.

What is our responsibility and privilege for telling the good news? Dr. Chilton offers some helpful insights in today’s sermon.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Her name was Mrs. Gammons. I don’t remember her first name, but I do remember her: she was my Sunday School teacher.

Mrs. Gammons was a shy, quiet, reserved woman. With her graying hair done up in a stiff, 60’s updo and wearing a simple gray or blue dress, she looked a lot like Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show.

Mrs. Gammons suffered patiently the indignities heaped upon her by a rather uninterested and unruly gang of farm boys. We hid stray cats and dogs under her desk and threw tiny spit-balls into her hair when she had her back turned to write on the board.

And, miracle of miracles, week after week, she came back to try again.

She had no particular talent for the job; she had never read a book on Christian Education, nor had she ever been to a teacher’s workshop.

She just came in each week and took the roll, putting a Gold Star beside our name for attendance, Bible brought, offering given,and memory verse learned.

After the paperwork was completed, the lesson began. 

First we read the scripture, then paragraph by paragraph we would take turns reading the lesson out loud. Mrs. Gammons would help us with the hard words and at the end of each paragraph she would sum up the meaning and ask us if we had any questions. We never did.

This went on for 45 minutes or so, and then we were done — mercifully for us and, I imagine, for her. But sometimes we finished early, before the bell, and she would just stare at us with the look of someone who wished to be someplace, any place, else.

She would look up at the ceiling, as if by wishing she could make the bell ring, then she would look at us, and sigh, and THEN:

She would sigh again, and begin haltingly, in her gentle soft voice, to tell us about Jesus. She told us about how much he meant in her life, about what a loving, kind, gentle and comforting presence He had been for her in times of hurt and sorrow.

She talked about how Jesus challenges us, dares us, leads us and helps us to be better people; better in how we treat others, and better in how we treat ourselves.

This was during the 60’s and while many others in our community were saying extremely hateful and racist things, she told us that Jesus loved black people as much as he loved us, and that we ought to love black people, too, and treat them right.

She said that Jesus lived forgiveness and taught forgiveness and that since Jesus had forgiven our mistakes and sins, that we ought to forgive the mistakes and sins of others.

And somehow, not really knowing how or when it happened, when my time in Mrs. Gammons’ class was over, I discovered that I was in love with Jesus, a love that has never left me in the 40-plus years since.

In seminary I learned a lot of things I never learned in Sunday School, but I never had to unlearn anything I learned from her. It’s all true.

Mrs. Gammons was my John the Baptist. She was the one who pointed at Jesus and said,“ Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the Sin of the world!” Mrs. Gammons was my Andrew, bringing me to Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!” Mrs. Gammons was the one who brought me to Christ!

All of us are called to be witnesses. Very often we make it more difficult than it really it is, this witnessing business. It’s mostly a matter of pointing at Jesus and saying, “He’s the One!” We do not need any special knowledge or special training to do that.

Above and beyond everything else the church is called to know one thing and to do one thing. We are called to know and love God in Christ, and we are called to bring others into that circle of love.

That is our purpose for being, it is the reason for our existence, it is the end to which we work, it is our mission, it is our ministry, it is our calling.

Like the Israelites in our lesson from Isaiah, we are beckoned by God to be a LIGHT to the nations.

It is too light, too small, too tiny a thing that we should just talk about Christ and our faith among ourselves, we must share Christ with the World.

It is our calling to be like John, pointing to Christ as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

It is our calling to be like Saint Andrew, bringing our friends to meet Jesus.

It is our calling to be like Mrs. Gammons, telling others about our love for Jesus.


Year A — The Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday After Epiphany)

Commentary for January 9, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Isaiah 42:1-9

Isaiah’s text ties directly to the gospel reading concerning Jesus’ baptism. Perhaps we have here an early example of the way the Church read the story of Christ in the scriptures of Judaism. Matthew will certainly echo the words of the prophet in 42:1 in his own account of John’s baptism of Jesus. Jesus is “chosen” by God; the Spirit of God comes to rest on him. 

Each of these phrases serves to tie Christ to the ministry described by Isaiah. Since God has chosen Jesus as not only God’s servant, but…indeed…God’s own Beloved Son, then God will certainly perform the acts of justice and righteousness described by Isaiah through him. 

A note for this Baptism Sunday: the practice of naming a child at baptism is an ancient custom, observed by many to this day (and ignored or only faintly recognized by perhaps as many others! Read an extended treatment on the subject from the Catholic Encyclopedia here.)

One other connection of this passage to the gospel is the “naming” of Jesus as the Beloved by God, an act which ties Jesus to the name of God — which is noted here in Isaiah 42:8: I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.” The fact that God says, “I am doing new things…” is significant for this naming of Jesus, as well as for the ministry that is inaugurated at his baptism.

What does it mean for us to receive the “new name” of God at our baptisms?

Psalm 29

Part of the power of this psalm for worship is the repeated use of the covenant name, the LORD, in verse after verse. This complements the emphasis on the name of God in the passage from Isaiah. By the sheer force of the repetition, and the descriptions of the power associated with the LORD’s name in Psalm 29, we not only understand some of the majesty of the NAME…we also feel it!

Note words such as “thunders, breaks, flashes, shakes, whirl, strips,” and” flood.” Interpretive reading? Wish I had one written — check back later, maybe we can add it!

Acts 10:34-43

This excerpt from a message by Peter outlines for us the beginning of Jesus’ ministry after his baptism, summarizes the gospel of his death, burial and resurrection, and affirms the fact that God has ordained Jesus for his role as judge of all who live and die. Peter also proclaims the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to “all who believe in him.”

Baptism is such an excellent time to proclaim this good news. It is perhaps the ultimate “evangelistic” moment; there’s news here, folks, and it’s all good!

Matthew 3:13-17

As a Star Trek fan since the inception of the original series (in 1966, for crying out loud!) — I came to appreciate the role of Jean Luc Picard played by Patrick Stewart in the follow-up production, Star Trek: The Next Generation. I never got tired of hearing Picard say, after strategizing with his officers and making yet another daring plan for conquering the challenge of the week: “Make it so!”

When the captain said, “Make it so,” everyone knew the decision had been made. There was really no further debating at that point; all that was left was action — to do as the leader had commanded. This is what makes good military discipline (and pretty good TV drama, as well.)

I think of these things every time I read John’s encounter with Jesus just before Christ’s baptism. There is a bit of a discussion between the officers, so to speak. John thinks that maybe there’s a better way to accomplish what Jesus is trying to do. He dutifully — and quite sincerely, I believe — offers an alternate plan of action.

But Jesus, the captain of this salvation ship, says, “No, I think the right thing to do is to go ahead as planned: you will baptize me, John. Make it so.”

And, that is that. John does as Jesus commands. And then there’s the really cool display from heaven…the heavens open, the Spirit flies down like a dove and lights on him. And Jesus is on his way as the Savior of the world and the Beloved Son of God. Better than a TV script, though everything will take a good deal more than an hour to wrap up.

Baptism is essentially a step of obedience. It brings all sorts of openings for the working of God in our lives. But the power of God for salvation…so tangibly present in the Word made flesh…is always a response of faithful obedience to the love and call of God.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

On the Baptism of Jesus

One Sunday years ago, a woman came to see me in my office after service. She said, “Pastor, I have a grandson named Jimmy. You’ve never met him. He’s 32. He ran away from home at 13. He’s led a bad life. He’s come to stay with me now. He’s dying. He has a brain tumor and there’s nothing they can do. He wanted to know if you would come and talk to him.” 

I went that afternoon. She took me into the living room, introduced me to Jimmy and left us alone.

He looked like an emaciated Hell’s Angel; jeans, black tee-shirt, leather jacket, dirty ball cap perched on his chemo-bald head. “A little boy trying to act tough,” I thought.

He wanted to “get right with God” before he died, he said. He was pulling in every spiritual tradition he could think of. He wanted to make confession and get absolution like a Catholic; get saved and baptized by immersion like a Baptist, and get the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues like a Pentecostal.

I told him I would do the best I could; the confession/absolution and the baptism I was sure I could do, the Spirit thing was up to God. I guess when you’re staring death in the face, you don’t want to leave any salvific stone unturned.

He started talking and talked for a couple of hours. His story was hard for me to hear; I never worked so hard at listening in my life. His sins were real, not imagined; his guilt was deserved, not imposed. There was nothing exciting or interesting or titillating about his sins; they were the ordinary products of lust and desire and a real disregard for the welfare or rights of others. Here was the real character: a sinner!

And it was not humanly easy for me to pronounce forgiveness on his wasted life. He had no time for a true amendment of his life, no time to make restitution or do penance, no time for me to see if his change of heart was genuine. There was no point in corrective therapy, no time for behavior adjustment plans, no purpose to be served in berating him.

There was only time for the working of the Gospel: for repentance and forgiveness, for baptism and grace, for death and the promise of life.

So, I stifled my impulse toward either judgment or comfort and followed the ritual for Individual Confession and Forgiveness. I heard his confession, I decided it was genuine, I pronounced forgiveness. And we set a time and place for his baptism: the next day at 1:00 PM, in his uncle’s above-ground swimming pool.

When I drove up the next day, the “community of faith” had already gathered. Jimmy’s relatives were standing on one side of the pool: stout, plain, sturdy, church-going people. Jimmy’s friends were on the other side: loud, brassy, somewhat sleazy bikers and carnies of questionable taste and character. They had all come together to see Jimmy get baptized.

I went into the water first, Jimmy followed. I said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” and dunked him under the water. He came us sputtering and cussing and said “That water’s cold.” And, on impulse, I said, “Oops, looks like that one didn’t take,” and dunked him again, much to the delight of all around. The second time he came up, he grinned and held his tongue, hugged me, and then pulled me under. It was a good baptism.

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord.

People often ask, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized? John preached a baptism for repentance. Jesus was sinless, what did he have to repent of? He wasn’t like Jimmy, in need of being washed clean of his sins.” It is a good question.

Some people answer it by talking about the other things baptism is and does. It was Jesus’ ordination to ministry. It was his anointing as the Savior. It was the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it was all those things, but it seems to me that those answers avoid the question rather than answer it.

John’s Baptism was a baptism of repentance and our text shows that John was the first to ask the obvious question. Verse 14: “Do you come to me (for baptism?)” In verse 15 Jesus gives his answer: it is necessary for me “to fulfill all righteousness.” To fulfill all righteousness means “to do all things necessary to fulfill my calling from God.”

Jesus was called and sent of God to be the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world. To do that, Jesus had to “take on the sins of the world.” When Jesus stepped into the river Jordan to be baptized by John, he began the process of taking on the sins of the world, a process that was completed on the cross. 

As the Nicene Creed says, he came down from heaven “for us and for our salvation.” The beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry was the taking on of the sins of the world, in his baptism and on the cross.

When Jesus was baptized, he stepped into the water covered with sin — the sins of the world, my sins, your sins, Jimmy’s sins.

In the Lutheran Funeral Liturgy there is a “Thanksgiving for Baptism.” This is how it reads:
When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father; we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

In Christ’s Baptism he was baptized into our sins, just as we were baptized into his death. And as he was raised from the grave, we too have been released from sin and death. That day in the swimming pool, Jesus took on the many, many sins of Jimmy; and at the same time, Jimmy took on new life in Christ.

I believe this is most certainly true. So much so that, two weeks later at Jimmy’s funeral, I was confident in proclaiming his presence with Christ in Paradise. 

It may well be that if Jimmy’s not there, then the Gospel’s not true, and none of us has any hope. But on this day, I choose to believe in the God who spoke at Christ’s baptism: “This is my Son, my Beloved, and in him I am well pleased.”

Amen and Amen.