The Rev. Dr. Seth E. Weeldreyer
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-16
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Survey all the variations. Classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, where young Scout and Jem grow into awareness of themselves and their society, as their father Atticus nurtures in them moral vision and action in life. Then there’s Les Miserables – is Jean Valjean the convict imprisoned for 20 years, imprinted upon his arm, to be feared and pursued the rest of his life? Or is he the poverty stricken child, grown to be gracious, humble, self-sacrificing businessman, mayor, and adopted father bringing life to so many others? In more recent stories like the Hunger Games or Divergent series, youth discover skills at which they’re adept for good or ill and then live through ethical situations and decisions, with life and death consequences. And in Harry Potter … the Sorting Hat puts youth in houses according to a personality assessment. Yet it’s all about how Harry’s life (and so all others) is ultimately defined by love—his mother’s sacrifice, that scar upon his head, the mark of an internal struggle we all feel, as we pursue love more powerful than evil. Come to hear more about that today from Larry Farris after worship. Great stuff! Then there’s Dory, the lovable, friendly, forgetful clownfish who just keeps swimming through depths of the sea. She knows her name, but that’s all she remembers about herself and where she lives. Still she helps find Nemo;
helps Nemo’s father find himself and how to love; and in the sequel even finds her own home and family—who she really is in love.
It’s the oldest and most personal story we tell. Friends, survey ourselves, our own variations, our own identity formation. What have been important relationships and experiences? What most defines who we are, and how we live faith?
As he rises from the waters of the Jordan River, the voice of God’s Spirit declares Jesus a “Beloved son, well-pleasing, divinely favored.” In Mark and Luke, the voice says: “You are my beloved son.” It’s more intimate. For Matthew it’s a public proclamation. This moment of clarity about his identity begins his ministry. It’s his ordination and installation. It’s his commission, as he lives into God’s call. Divine love defines who he is, and guides all he will do.
Maybe the Divine Voice among us sounds something like Allison Hammond. In a few moments, she’ll call the names of servant leaders we ordain and install for our congregation. God calls deacons and elders to particular service in the church. In much the same way God calls each of us in all we do, every day. Like Jesus at the Jordan, our commission begins at the font. How does our baptism define who we are and what we’re called to do?
To begin, your life in church and in other relationships and responsibilities is all about you—you, as a beloved child of God. Whatever our particular work, first see clearly, accept fully, and live whole-heartedly into that truth, that holy promise. Yes, we know we should be unselfish, not to center on “me, me, me.” Rightfully so. Still, friends, truth is, we all think about ourselves— mostly good, yet conflicted and imperfect as we are. Sometimes that hard. In
our more difficult moments, ego concerns get fueled by fear. Fear of what we might see in the mirror; fear of admitting faults and failings we try to hide; fear of how others might see and accept us, or not. Fear of not measuring up, not successful or valuable as defined by society.i “Mirror, mirror on the wall …” as the story goes. Despite our better, fairer natures, we all face twisted reflections of ourselves which make us walk in the darkness of destructive selfishness. But that shadow is not the real truth of who we are. Love is who we are and how we’re called to live. Hear and trust the Spirit’s voice at our baptism. We are beloved children, well-pleasing to God. We must get that right, if we ever hope to fulfill righteousness—that is, to live and serve rightly with God’s way in the world. It’s all about you. God loves you. That’s a comfort. And in a way, that’s a challenge.
And see, once we get that clear, once we accept it, then we can begin to act as though life with God in this world, is ultimately not all about “you.” Not about pursuing our own desires and needs, not about assuaging our insecurities or proving what we deserve. We can be set free from stress, guilt and anxiety, to love God and neighbor with holy joy! After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus ministry is all about serving others, often at personal cost, even sacrifice. No wealth or material stuff or even stable home of his own. He sacrifices comforts, security, even personal space, until the ultimate expression of sacrifice on the cross. Yes, the cross is the central pivot of our faith. Friends, this is no prosperity gospel of personal pleasure, no promise that God assesses morality and faith, and then blesses our bank account and endless bliss. We know that’s not true. Tragedies happen. And, you see, if life is all about satisfying our latest desire, achieving the next thrill or accomplishment, we’ll never be truly fulfilled. There will always be more hunger to satisfy, a higher pedestal to stand on. The promise of the cross and resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of “in giving we receive.”
When we give our heart, our life away to another, then we are raised into the full presence and peace of God. We know that. We’ve felt that. We want that faith.
On the same day this week, I shared two lovely conversations with a college student and an older adult—a glimpse of all of our lives from more toward the beginning to more toward the end. The college student feels passion for a certain kind of work, and is trying to clarify a specific sense of call. That’s the word used. Possibilities, realities, abilities, relationships, dreams, questions, what direction to go with it all—the road of life stretches far ahead to a distant horizon. The older adult received a diagnosis with a clear limit of life remaining; and simply wanted to make the most out of life as the final horizon draws closer. We talked through realities, possibilities, abilities, relationships … you see, friends wherever we are on that road of life, many of the questions, and directions we seek remain the same. In both conversations we confirmed that what can make all the difference is how we share our abilities and interests with others. Living faithfully is not about “you” alone. Identity is never purely individual. Who we are ever entwines with to whom we relate. We are inherently and inevitably shaped by bonds of love and experiences of life we share.
The foundation of living faith is you—each of us as a beloved child of God. The aspiration of living faith is not about you alone. The culmination of living faith is all about you (plural)—us, together.
All of our abilities and resources come as a gift of God’s love, to be used for loving others as God’s children. God calls you and me to give our heart, our service, our talents, our abilities, our time, our material wealth, to nurture abundant life for all. For the good of our beloved. For the good of our
congregation. For the good of our community and nation … to fulfill all righteousness, as Jesus said and received at baptism, and lived in ministry, and still lives in us by the power of his resurrection. I have called you in righteousness, God declares in the voice of Isaiah. Friends, we may not live like Mother Theresa or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. You may have no clerical collar around your neck. But then as St. Francis lay dying, he said, “I have done what is mine to do. Now you must do what is yours to do.”ii As we try to figure that out in our roles as deacons and elders, and as sisters and brothers being the body of Christ in the world, what is righteous faith and service?
What does this kind of Christian leadership really look like? Listen to Isaiah. She will bring forth justice. He will not lift up his voice to draw attention to himself in the street. A bruised reed she will not break, a dim flickering flame not quench. He will persevere undaunted until God’s way for the world is complete. Patient, merciful, tenderly caring for those who are vulnerable, for ideas beginning to bloom, for efforts struggling to take root; protecting the weak until strong enough to stand, liberating prisoners to share the bright daybreak of life … a pretty good vision of sanctuary. Is it unrealistic? Self- defeating? Irresponsible? Un-electable?
Well, Isaiah casts this vision precisely in the aftermath of violent defeat and ongoing devastation. Shame and fear grips as he gives hope to captive slaves in a foreign land; and to a remnant scratching out life in Israel while marauding vandals continue to plunder.
Who does Isaiah envision as the Servant Leader? One person to liberate the people from enslaved exile? Or the whole nation, the people of God collectively witnessing and pursuing God’s ways in the world? As Christians
we find this vision describes Jesus’ life and ministry, and ours in all the ways God calls us to serve. What is the content of character and inspiration we need to live as such a sanctuary in the city?
In a few moments we’ll ask questions of those being ordained and installed and all of us together. They are important statements about who we are and how we live together as God’s people. And through it all, beyond this moment into all of our meetings and service here at church, in our families and our community, I pray we will remember three things about you, you, you.
Remember you are a beloved child of God. And so are all others. Remember that comforting and challenging promise when we hear different messages about what it means to be human and to have a good life in our society. Remember that when we have our moments of disagreement and conflict which are sure to come and need to extend forgiveness, seeking grace and peace. Holy unconditional love will have the final word!
And filled with the security that nothing in all creation will separate us from Christ’s powerful love, rise above any desire or compulsion think only about you, yourself alone. Filled with openness and compassion, remember to consider the experiences and perspectives of others. All of our ideas, plans, and agendas can be improved, made more complete in collaboration with others.
Finally, ultimately, fulfilling all righteousness, pursue life together as Isaiah envisions with the most widely plural “you”—that is, all people to whom God says “You are my beloved child.”
I am the Lord, of sea and sky who hears my people cry, Isaiah calls. I am the Lord of wind and flame who tends the poor and lame. I have called your name. Dear friends in Christ, let us sing, let us serve, let us live, each of us responding, “Here I am Lord!” And let us go, all of us together as one in mission, one in call to plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
i See Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs (New York: The Cross Road Publishing Company, 1999), 98.
ii Ibid, 97.