Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
It’s all about the Voice here in Genesis. It is God’s voice that creates (or, brings forth) light — followed by all of the other elements of creation. Interesting, isn’t it, that with all of the hullabaloo raised by many voices about the opposition of science and religion that we have here near perfect agreement on the beginning moments of our world? Light is energy; nearly all cosmologists and physicists agree that the universe, as we know it, began in a burst of energy. I just really like it that my brain and my heart are able to come together here in a moment of saying, “God, you are so scientifically cool!”
Psalm 29 is one of the more “active” texts in the psalter. The word ascribe literally means “to write down” — if even in your thoughts — the nature of what you are trying to describe. It is encouragement to get specific when we talk about the reasons we worship God. The ensuing action phrases certainly contain a good deal of specificity. “Lord, your voice thunders over the waters…it shakes the wilderness.” If you’ve ever experienced a thunderstorm outdoors– or even survived a tornado or a hurricane — you can sense the verve of this phrase, can’t you? How would you “ascribe” glory to God based on your own experience?
Acts 19 is an obvious companion text to today’s gospel reading. We see an example of the early church working out what it means to follow Jesus, particularly when it comes to the “profession of faith” that is baptism. Is this passage intended to give us a full scriptural formation of the doctrine of baptism? No. But it does illustrate for us the ongoing nature of our experience of living for Christ. If and when we are given a fuller understanding of living out our faith — well, perhaps it is best for us to press ahead, regardless of whatever past notions and preconceptions we may have had. It’s worth a thought.
Mark is the our “just the facts” gospel writer. His is the plainest and most straightforward of all the descriptions of the Jesus’ own baptism. He doesn’t offer a great deal of theological justification; he doesn’t give us any hint of the discussion between John and Jesus about who should baptize whom. It’s just Jesus, the water, and — again, as in Genesis — the voice of God. What are we to pay attention to here? Since we are claimed by God in baptism, just as Jesus was on this day, what does it mean for us to be the “children of God, the Beloved?” In what ways shall we live in order to be pleasing to God?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
One of my Facebook friends posted an interesting New Year’s Resolution. She said,
“Dear Facebook friends. I have been spending too much time on social media so I will stop using Facebook on December 31, 2014 and resume next year on January 1, 2015. Thank you for understanding.”
The New Year has been a traditional time for making changes in our lives; for giving up old, bad habits or taking on new, good habits, or doing both at the same time – replacing a bad habit with a good one. It is a secular “repentance ritual,” an attempt to change the direction of our lives through sheer willpower, and depending on the strength of our will, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) One of the questions in the early church was the question of the difference between “John’s baptism” and being “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Both the story in Acts and the story of Jesus’ own baptism were written to help us understand this.
Because all Christian life is rooted in repentance, all Christian life is rooted in baptism. In the weekly confession contained in the liturgy, we remind ourselves of three things; we have failed to be the people we want to be, God forgives us our failures, God sends us out to try again. So far so good. This is tied to “John’s baptism,” of repentance and forgiveness because in the confession we remind ourselves that we were forgiven at the cross and in our baptism.
But there is a problem, or rather a limitation, in John’s baptism. Luther put it very well in the Small Catechism, “I believe that by my own reason or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel . . .” As the Gospel lesson points out – even Jesus needed to receive the Holy Spirit, and after that time alone in the wilderness with the Devil, he spent the rest of his life surrounded by community, the disciples.
The early church quickly realized that spirit and community was necessary to the Christian life. We cannot, as Luther said, do this by our own “reason and strength.” The story from Acts, about Paul encountering the group in Ephesus who said that, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (One of my teachers at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary claimed that there were Lutherans in Bible times. When students protested that could not be so, he would smile and point to these people in Ephesus who had not heard of the Holy Spirit.)
Though some in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions point to verse six to claim that speaking in tongues and prophesying are proof that one has been baptized and is saved, most Christians do not see those things as either necessary or as the most important signs that one has received the Holy Spirit. As Paul points out in his discussion of the gifts of the spirit in 1 Corinthians 13:13 – “Faith, hope and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” This is not romantic love, or friendliness, this is charity – self-giving love of the other without any interest in either the other’s worthiness or what one will receive in return.
This is the greatest gift of the Spirit. This is what “baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus,” gives. I find verse seven, a little “throw-away line,”to be fascinating in this regard, “. . . altogether there were about twelve of them.” From the moment they were baptized, they lived in community, a community in which the Spirit led them in loving one another.
Now, when Jesus was baptized and the spirit came upon him, it not only gave him the gift of self-giving love, it also gave him a job, a ministry, a role to play in the world. “You are my Son.” Sometimes I hear that and envision a storefront sign in 19th century script “God and Son – Worlds Created and Redeemed.” In this moment Jesus was being commissioned to go forth in his Messiah/Savior role – to preach, teach, heal, confront, die for, and ultimately save the world.
In our baptism, we too are claimed by God and sent out into the world. Many churches include in their baptismal formula something like these lines from the Lutheran tradition (LBW, p. 124) “(Name), child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Then a lit candle is given to the newly baptized and these words are spoken, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
Our Baptism, like that of Jesus, is a calling into ministry in the world. We have been invited to make a New Year’s Resolution today. We are invited to remember and live out our baptism, to follow Jesus where Jesus went, to the cross and beyond, to allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with self-giving love for God and others. We are invited to remember that we too are Children of God, beloved by God, well-pleasing to God, and sent out by God – to show the world the love and kindness of God.