Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
A common theme in today’s readings might be summed up in the word call. We often use that word in the church in terms of hearing a “call from God” toward a specific choice or action. There are general things that we say that God calls all Christians to do and believe; there are sometimes things that we may be called by God to attend to individually or congregationally.
The heart of Isaiah’s passage for today is v. 6: “I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness….” God is speaking to one who is identified in the surrounding chapters as the servant of the Lord — one who will suffer, at that. While those who listen to the call of God and accept the ministry of serving in God’s name will undoubtedly suffer (it rarely occurs otherwise in scripture) — they will also receive another benefit from God, as the second half of v. 6 notes: “… I have taken you by the hand and kept you.”
The call of God comes with the care of God for those who serve. We (like the servant in Isaiah, and the Christ in today’s gospel reading) are held by the hand of God, kept and preserved in the midst of any suffering we may endure. Can you recall a time that you sensed a “call of God” in your own life or in the midst of your congregation? What was that like? What did you do? Were there any ways that you “suffered” for following God’s call — and how did God care for you?
In order to hear a call, there has to be a voice; and Psalm 29 is one of the most majestic passages in all of the Bible when it comes to describing the “voice of the LORD.” The passage is constructed in a literarily beautiful and forceful manner. Notice how many times the phrase, “the voice of the LORD,” is repeated (there are 7 of them.) There are 18 occurrences of God’s name (in Hebrew, the actual covenant name of God — YWWH — is used) in these 11 verses. These repetitions serve as something of a drum beat driving home the presence and power of God.
This voice is no mere vocalization, either; note that things happen when the voice of the Lord is heard! This psalm reminds us that God is always active in the world, and that when we hear the call of God, most likely things will happen to us, as well.
What are some of the characteristics attached to the sound of God’s voice in this passage? In the final verse, what is the ultimate effect of hearing God’s voice?
In this excerpt from a sermon by Peter, we once again hear a “call” from God — one that Peter was working out in his own life — to take the gospel message not only to the Jewish people of God, nor to limit it to Judea, but to proclaim (preach) with the prophets that “everyone who believes in him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Is the good news about Jesus really for everybody in the world? Consider the trajectory that Peter offers as an illustration of the spread of the message of God: John to Jesus to a few eyewitnesses to others to everybody. Who told or taught you about the the story of Jesus? In what way have you helped to tell others? How can we be sure that we keep that “chain of good news” going around the world?
The classic story of Jesus’ baptism is — on at least one level — about Jesus’ own response to the call of God for his life. Jesus tells John, “…it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” What do you think he meant? How important was doing God’s will — doing the next right thing — to Jesus in his everyday life? Is there a call here for us as followers of Christ to do as Jesus did — to think daily about doing the next right thing (fulfilling “all righteousness?”)
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In a book called Craddock Stories, noted preacher and Professor of Preaching and New Testament Fred Craddock remembers preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church, sometime in the 1980s. He says,
“Joe Roberts, the pastor, had invited me . . . and the service had moved to the point where I was to stand and speak. I’d moved to the pulpit and I had my New Testament (turned to Mark 8) . . . and was ready to read, when Joe Roberts, who was seated up there along with several other persons, began to sing. Just as I was going to say my first word, he started singing. “I feel much better now that I’ve laid my burden down,” and then he sang some more. Then the associates started singing, and the musicians went to their instruments, the piano and the organ and the drums and the electric guitar, and the people started singing. I’m standing up there with Mark 8, waiting.
“Then, I suddenly realized, I’m the one up front, I’m the leader of this, so I started clapping my hands and singing. Then everybody stood up and started clapping their hands and swinging and singing, and it was just marvelous. Then at a certain point the pastor, Joe Roberts, put his hand out, it got quiet, they sat down and I started preaching. I could’ve preached all day. Afterwards I said to Joe, “Well, that kind of shocked me a little bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.” He said, “Well, I didn’t plan it.” “Then why did you do it?” And he said, “Well, when you stood up there, one of my associates leaned over to me and said, ‘That boy’s going to need some help.’” (p. 128)
“That boy’s going to need some help.” I can just see The Father and The Spirit peering down from heaven onto the John the Baptist Revival Center and Riverfront Tabernacle down by the Jordan. Here comes Jesus, determined to get started on his mission and full of vim, vigor and bright ideas. And The Spirit turns to The Father and says, “That boy’s going to need some help.”
And The Father thinks about it a few minutes, looks out over the horizon and into the future and sees there trials and tribulations, sadness and sorrow, great adulation mixed with abject failure and frequent rejection. And The Father nods sadly and says to The Spirit, “I believe you’re right. That boy is going to some help.” And then a slow smile spread across the Father’s face and he said, “And guess what Spirit; you’re it.”
And so it was that just as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens split open and the Spirit of God came down in the form of a dove and alit on Jesus’ shoulder, and a mighty voice boomed from above, “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And after that, the heavens closed and the bird flew off and only a few heard a faint voice whisper, “There; that oughta do it.”
“That boy’s going to need some help.” Truer words were never spoken; maybe they weren’t really true about the great preacher Fred Craddock but they were certainly true about Jesus on the day of his baptism. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, it was not possible to do what he had come to do alone. He needed others, he needed help.
First of all, he needed the help of his parents – Mary’s willingness to bear the Messiah and Joseph’s willingness to raise him as his own child; and their mutual willingness to put aside their own plans and prerogatives for the sake of the child and his mission.
Next, he needed his cousin John, John the Baptist. He needed him to “prepare the royal highway;” to get people ready to hear about things like repentance and forgiveness and the coming Kingdom of God. Most of all, Jesus needed John to point to Jesus himself as the coming one, the Messiah, the new thing God was doing to renew an old faith.
Now, on this day of his baptism, he needed help that only God could give. He needed the Divine Spirit, the Holy Anointing, the Sacred Touch. He needed to hear, and he needed the world to hear, the Creative and Powerful Voice from Heaven naming him and claiming him. “That boy needed some help.” And God sent it.
Each of us has stood and continues to stand where Jesus stood that day – on the cusp of giving ourselves over completely to the work of the Kingdom of God. And like Jesus at his Baptism, we stand in need of some help. And God has given and continues to give that help to each of us.
We have been claimed by God as chosen ones. We have had the Holy Spirit bestowed upon us in our baptism. We have been provided with a community of supporters called the church who will, like Mary and Joseph, bear with us and treat us like family even though we’re not. “We all, every last boy and girl among us, need help and God has sent it.”
And, we are surrounded by a world full of folk who need help. Like Cornelius the Roman centurion in our lesson from Acts, many of them may not be socially acceptable, they may not be people whose lives and lifestyles make the rest of us think of them as worthy of help. But they need help, and God has sent us into the world to be that help. We, the church, are the touch of the Holy Spirit on the shoulder, we are the voice of God proclaiming love and acceptance and forgiveness of sins.
So, sing your song, clap your hands, tap your foot, stand and shout, sit and sway; do whatever you need to do in order to give a hand, give some help to the children of God all around you – because everybody needs some help – and God has put you in the world to provide it.
Amen and amen.