Posts Tagged With: baptism

The Advantage of the Wilderness, Sermon 2/26/12

1st Sunday in Lent

Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15

This is quite the dramatic description of Jesus’ baptism. I wonder how we’d feel about baptism if this sort of thing that happened all the time? Picture it: we all gather at the church, everyone in their best clothes. Relatives have all been invited and even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years have shown up to support the ones being baptized. Those being baptized along with their parents have been practicing their promises. The Godparents are nervous, because they have promises to make too and don’t want to goof them up. Everyone sits in the reserved “baptismal family” seating, which is, unfortunately, at the front. Those parents of small children are saying silent prayers that their kids won’t choose this particular time to throw a holy tantrum.

The time of baptism comes, and all gather around the font. Water is poured, the Word is spoken, candles are lit, and promises are made. Just when everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all has gone so wonderfully well, suddenly the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit resembling a dove descends on the newly baptized, and a voice booms from above, “These are my beloved children; with you I am well pleased.”

I have to admit, that would be cool, don’t you think? Pretty impressive and powerful, right? Obviously, God is doing something that would get our attention. That would be just amazing—so far.

But then, in this text Mark goes on. This remarkable scene at Jesus’ baptism takes a turn. Right then the Spirit, who up until now has been cute and quiet, like an innocent little white dove, takes hold of Jesus and hurls him out into the wilderness. That’s the verb used here. The Spirit doesn’t guide Jesus, or suggest to Jesus, or even lead Jesus. The Spirit drives him, throws him, violently casts him out into the wilderness all alone, where he had to deal with Satan and wild beasts for six weeks.

What would we do if that happened at our baptisms? Suddenly, baptism isn’t so fun. Thrown into the wilderness for forty days with the wild beasts, tested by Satan the whole time. If this is what happened, we’d probably rethink this whole baptismal thing. Forty days in the wilderness sounds pretty lousy. Wild beasts? Satan? Sure, some angels came and help him out, but is this what we really bargain for in baptism?

So what is really going on here?

In the Bible, the wilderness is a difficult place. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. It’s a place where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left. Have you been there?

You’re in the wilderness when you’re grieving the death of someone you love. You’re in the wilderness when you experience serious illness or injury. You’re in the wilderness when you try as hard as you can for as long as you can and still can’t find a job or save your children or even gain a foothold in your life. You’re in the wilderness when your best and most honest efforts still result in falling prey to an addiction or losing control. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.

And in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, the wilderness is also a place where people in all times and in all places have been met by God. Maybe because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe because we’re so desperate that we actually seek God out. The wilderness is a place or a time in our lives when the saving power of God is real; because there is nothing else. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, we are changed. We have that opportunity in the wilderness to know what we mean to God; in the wilderness we come to know who we are.

If we aren’t thrown into the wilderness immediately after baptism, we’re thrown there eventually. No one chooses to go; we’re always thrown there. The advantage we have is that when we’re thrown into the wilderness, we go with the promises, the assurance, the clarity of who we are in baptism. We can come out of it knowing God more fully and trusting God more deeply.

On Ash Wednesday, we experienced the reminder that we will all die, that ultimately in the face of death we are all helpless. We were marked with a sign of that helplessness, a sign of wilderness on our foreheads: we were smeared with ashes, the dust of the earth out of which we came and to which we will return.

But more than that, this mark of death was shaped in the form of a cross. We were marked not just with death, but with the cross of Christ and the promise of life. We were marked with assurance of the presence of God no matter how deep our wilderness becomes. Even in the wilderness of death, God meets us there to lift us up to life.

Last Wednesday we were reminded of our helplessness in the wilderness and our utter dependence on God. Today we recall the reality that we are at times thrown into the wilderness. But most of all we have the promises of God, spoken at our baptism, that no matter how deep, no matter how dark, no matter how lonely the wilderness may be, God will meet us there. And that really is cool. That really is impressive and powerful. Because God really is doing something that not only gets our attention, but truly is amazing.

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The Church: A Hidden Agenda

Sometimes it takes a while, but a deep agenda of many congregations ultimately emerges with a lot of decisions they make. Sometimes it rises up during the initial discussion; sometimes it’s later, during the “how do we implement?” phase. But no matter how good any given idea is, no matter how Spirit led, no matter how selfless and compassionate a decision or direction may be, a hidden agenda will most generally show itself.
Walk with me, here. You discover a need in the community—let’s say local middle school kids are running around unsupervised during the afternoon between the time school ends and their parents get home from work. You see this as a recipe where trouble is likely to brew, so your congregation decides to begin an after-school sports program for middle school children. Wonderful! Doesn’t this sound like something the church ought to be doing? Altruistic, selfless, serving, benefiting the neighborhood. All-in-all a very Christ-like thing to do.
But sooner or later, someone says it. They’ll sneak it in at some point in the deliberation or planning. More often than not, no one notices—because everyone else at some level is thinking the same thing. “This will be great for the kids,” they say. Wait for it . . .
“This will make a real difference in our neighborhood.”  Wait for it . . .
“We’ve got the resources to make this happen.” Wait for it . . .
And then . . . here it comes, “And some of these kids’ families may end up joining the church.” Bam! We just twisted this benevolent idea into a self-serving project.
You might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing tragic about people joining the church. Far from it. That’s part of the Holy Spirit’s work too. But when it enters into the decision equation as motivation, I believe we’ve lost something important. Or maybe it’s more that we’ve added something. We’ve spoiled the mix. We’ve contaminated the way in which we approach the relationship of the church in the neighborhood. It’s a very short and very slippery slope from “wouldn’t it be nice if some people joined our church” to “how many new members can we get out of this?” Once we start thinking in terms of the church’s benefit, that notion has a dastardly way of easing into virtually every decision for ministry.
Be honest, how long are most congregations willing to spend large amounts of time, energy, and finances in programs or ministries that don’t bring in any new members? How long would your congregation exert the kind of resources necessary to run an after school sports program if, year after year, there were no people checking out the church? Be honest, now. There are some congregations, yes, but we aren’t very thick with them.
OK, church growth people. This is where you can chime in about how if we do the sports thing right, there will be new members whether we’re focused on it or not. If no one is interested year after year, maybe we aren’t inviting, maybe we aren’t including, maybe we aren’t welcoming, or some other maybe. You are likely correct in these and many more maybes. But that’s not the point.
And I hear you theologian-types, too. Right now you’re saying something about original sin or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” or “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” or whatever your denomination or affiliation generally says about our sinful nature. And you’re right. We cannot escape it. We cannot do anything apart from our sinfulness. We have to trust that somehow God will redeem our efforts and use them for “reign of God” purposes. I absolutely agree.
So, then, what’s the big deal with getting a few new church members out of an after-school program? On one level, nothing, really. Because, of course, God can transform our meager and (deep down) selfish motives into something that reveals the presence of the kingdom. God does it all the time. Good heavens, I hope so! But once we start down the road of church-as-beneficiary of ministry efforts, we’re closing doors on other opportunities. That’s where we goof it up. Read on.
It’s extremely difficult to keep this hidden agenda at bay. It infiltrates everything and can sully even the best intended ministry effort. With “what’s in it for the church?” thoughts lurking in the back corners of our minds, ministry opportunities that don’t have an obvious or immediate benefit to the church stand a greater chance of getting overlooked. Regardless of what God may or may not be inviting us into.
That’s the significant issue, really. Rather than gaining clarity on God’s movement, God’s action, and God’s direction, we become clouded with our own survival, numerical growth, and congregational advantage. As baptized people of God, we are called and sent in the name of Christ to proclaim and participate in the reign of God. Regardless of anything else. Including what we as church are or are not getting in return.
To be in Christ is to be called to give up one’s own (or one’s congregation’s own) life. To die to self, in other words. Are there many congregations willing to risk that? Jesus sums this up pretty well, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If the cross that marked us in baptism is any indicator of our call to participate in God’s mission (and, duh, it is), our agenda is to reveal God’s grace, mercy, love, and redemption—even if it gains us no new members. Even if it costs us members. That takes courage. That takes faith.

Categories: church growth, Church in Context, Church in Transition, medium church, small church, suburban church | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What Would Your Last Prayer Be?

John 17:1-11

Imagine that you are about to be arrested and put on trial for a capital crime. One that, if you are convicted of it, carries a death sentence. You know the arrest is coming, you are pretty sure that regardless of your guilt or innocence you’ll be found guilty, and understand that you’ll most likely be executed in less than twenty-four hours.

Just before all this happens, you have an opportunity to pray. What would you pray? How would you pray? If this was me, I know what would be coming out of my mouth! I know the volume at which it would be coming. And I know the tone of voice I’d be using. We’re probably not talking about a G-rated prayer right here.

When you hear this text from John 17, you have no idea that this is Jesus’ last prayer before he’s arrested and killed. The tone is calm, confident, rather relieved. He prays not to get out of this awful predicament (which is his prayer in the synoptic gospels), but he prays about his thankfulness for his relationship with the Father. He prays that the Father would be revealed and glorified. He prays for his disciples: their protection and their unity. There’s nothing in his prayer about, “Why me?” Or, “What did I do to deserve this?” Or, “I don’t understand this; I’m basically a good person.” Or, “If this is about that pack of fruit-flavored Lifesavers I stole from the Food King when I was six, I told you already I was sorry” (OK, maybe that one’s just me). But you know what I mean. Jesus’ prayer here is grateful, full of anticipation about the future, even positive. What’s up with that?

With the gospel of John, it’s helpful to take a step back and see the entire, broad landscape of the whole book before focusing in on the one little flower of a few verses. In John, the larger landscape is the cross. Everything points to it, everything in Christ’s life leads to it. The cross for John is the fulfillment, the completion, the fullest revealing of God. Which is what Jesus means by “glory,” God made known.

He uses that word, “glory,” six times in these eleven verses. He’s referring to God being revealed in love and power. That’s glory—God made known. “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” I revealed you to the world. Jesus spends his whole life, his whole ministry, doing exactly that—making God known, glorifying God. The miracles, the healings, the teachings, the parables, all of it; all revealing who God is and what God is about. Jesus obediently, lovingly, consistently revealing God and God’s love to us. To the end.

That’s what he came to do, to make God—God’s love—known. It hasn’t always been easy for him to do; it certainly hasn’t always made him popular. In fact, revealing God’s love for all is what is costing him his life, because the reality of God doesn’t always sit well with our perception of God. But Jesus, out of love for the Father, will see this through. He will continue to glorify God, make God known. He will complete his mission in this one, final, revealing act; an act that is the culmination of a lifetime of making God known. He will be crucified. On the cross he reveals most fully his complete love for the Father, and the Father’s complete love for the world.

This moment, as Jesus was praying his last prayer before his arrest, was a crucial time for him. A whole lifetime has been leading up to this moment. And it’s almost complete. He’s almost done. It is almost fulfilled. The fullness of God’s forgiveness and love is about to be made known so abundantly that it will be able to include the whole world. Not just his disciples, but everyone.

So, yes, Jesus faces his crucifixion confidently in John. It’s not just a painful death, but the end result of his life’s work: the complete revealing of God’s love and forgiveness for the world. It’s almost finished.

The advantage we have now is that we are people who’ve been swept up in that forgiveness of God. We are ones who’ve been caught in the fullness of that love revealed on the cross. We’ve been called to live that forgiveness, to live that love in the world. And when we are so hurt that it gets hard to love, when we feel so betrayed that it seems impossible to forgive, that’s when the purpose of our baptism into Christ becomes clear. We are joined together with Christ, and so we, in Christ, now reveal God to the world. Not because we try so hard to do it, but because as the Father is glorified in Christ, now Christ is glorified in us.

So when, on our own, we fail to love and we fail to forgive, Jesus gathers us to himself in love again. He gives to us God’s forgiveness again. He gives to us his assurance in the face of difficulty. He gives to us his love in the face of hate. He gives to us his strength in the face of weakness. We cannot trust our ability to reveal the grace and love of God in the world. But we can trust Jesus. We are his. That was his last prayer. And so now, in us, God is glorified.

Categories: Church in Context, Church in Transition, Sermon | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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