Monday, January 13, 2014

Sermon for the Baptism of our Lord - January 12, 2014

Baptism of Our Lord: January 12, 2014
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Pastor Maurice Frontz

You know, there are a lot of people would not be very interested in the sermon I have today.
This is not because of my strengths or weaknesses as a preacher,
or because this sermon is particularly bad or good.
It is because of the difference about why people come to church,
and what they are used to hearing and what they want to hear in a sermon.

You see, a lot of people come to church to hear how they can become a better person;
a more successful person,
in the many areas of their life:
in their family life;
in their work life,
in their financial life,
in their Christian life.
These folks may want a sermon that is based on the Bible,
but they want it above all to be applicable to their life.
A sermon series on the book of Proverbs would be very comfortable
for a lot of people.
After all, Proverbs is about what one ought to do,
and what one ought not to do.
It will help us hear what will make us good
and what will help us to succeed.
This is called getting ‘guidance for life.’
or hearing ‘changeless truths for a changing world.’

Now it’s a good idea to be guided in one’s life.
It is a good idea to apply one’s heart to wisdom,
to get wisdom and get insight,
to avoid the evil and choose the good.
But by and large, this is not the point of the Bible.
The Bible is not ‘God’s little instruction book.’
Nor is the Bible some sort of code book
that’s meant to give us messages from the beyond
in order to make sense of our lives.
I am reminded of something my colleague in Williamsport used to say:
he would tell the story of a man who was looking for a sign for his life
and decided to open the Bible to a random page
and read the first words he found,
and that would be a sign as to what to do next.
So he closed his eyes,
put his thumb in the Bible,
opened it, put his finger on the page,
opened his eyes, and read the words next to his finger.
‘Judas went and hanged himself.’
Well, he wasn’t too happy with that message,
and it really didn’t give him a whole lot of guidance about what to do.
But he decided to give the Bible another chance.
He closed his eyes, flipped a few pages,
put his finger on the Bible and opened his eyes again.
Now he read, ‘Go thou and do likewise.’

The point is, of course, that the Bible can’t be used in this way.
Nor is it always a clear guide to moral behavior,
or about prudence, or about success.
Where is the summons to success in Jesus’ words about cross-bearing?
Or in the word that only those who truly experience themselves as broken sinners
can truly grasp God’s mercy?
Or in the history of the Bible, that Israel and, by extension, the Church,
failed miserably each time to keep the covenant God made with them?

Where is the life-lesson to be found in the Biblical texts for today?
Are we to be careful not to bruise reeds and avoid quenching  smoldering wicks?
Perhaps we could make Isaiah 42 about how we ought to be gentle with others
and seek after justice,
and we could make an okay sermon out of that.
But quite frankly, the injustice in the world seems too big for me to correct.
You might feel the same way.
So I might end up feeling guilty or powerless or judgmental.

Where is the life-lesson in the story about Jesus’ baptism?
The only thing I can think of is maybe something about this.
John didn’t understand what Jesus was doing coming for baptism,
but he baptized him anyway because Jesus told him to.
There are times when we don’t understand what God is doing,
but we need to obey anyway and everything will work out fine.
I guess that’s an OK message, but notice who is the subject.
I am. You are. We are.
It’s all about us and what we do and what we’re supposed to do.

But, thank God, the Bible is not God’s little instruction book.
Neither is it full of coded messages to help one make decisions about daily life.
Although the Bible has many passages 
talking about God’s expectations and hopes for our lives,
it is not primarily a tool of correction or reproof.
So what then is the Bible?
It is a book about God’s passionate love-affair with his people.
It is a book with God as the acting subject.
God creates in love, and when man falls away,
God goes to great lengths to rescue them,
making covenant, forgiving sins,
and at the last sending his Son,
to stand in our place.
This is what the Scriptures are about.
Today we hear the good news that Jesus was baptized for us.
No life lesson.
No instructions about clean Christian living.
Nothing that will help you live better as a family member
or a business person
and nothing that will help you with your arthritis or your money problems.
Just a story about how Jesus stepped into your place and mine,
the place where we need to confess our sin and let God create us anew,
and that he identified completely with us.
He identified completely with those of the people of Israel in his time
who were waiting for God to act,
who believed that God was just around the corner,
ready to show himself to a hurting and broken world,
ready to reveal himself to the human race.
And when Jesus identified with us,
when to fulfill all righteousness he submitted to John,
who laid hands on him and pushed him into the water of the Jordan River,
God was revealed.
In the voice of the Father, in the descent of the dove,
but most importantly, perhaps, for us,
in the man in the water,
the human being, clothed in humility,
the servant of all,
yet possessing a majesty which could not be hidden,
but which shown forth from him with the brilliance of a thousand invisible suns.
There is nothing here about what we can do for God.
Instead, it’s all about what God has done for us.

Maybe that’s not appealing.
Maybe you’d rather hear about how you can change your life around for the better,
about how you can have a better life.
If that’s so, I feel bad for you.
Not because it’s wrong to want a better life or to be a better person,
but because so much of that is out of our hands.
We need Gospel, good news, news that whatever happens,
whether it be physical or mental illness, or struggle with sin, or doubt contending with faith,
whether it be challenge at work or at home or at school,
God is with us and God stands with us.
God identifies with us, takes up our cause as his own,
and bears us up in Jesus Christ.

May the Gospel of Jesus Christ-for-us
be our comfort and our strength,
and may we rest securely in the knowledge
that because he was baptized for us,
taking our sin and suffering,
his obedience and holiness is given to us.

He is baptized for us,
and so in our baptism,
we stand in his,
believing the dove descended upon us,
and the blessing from heaven pronounced upon us:
Because of my Son,
you are my son; my daughter;
with you I am well-pleased.