Archive | January 2012

Baptism of Christ: Unmerited Love

8 January 2012

Baptism of Christ (First Sunday after Epiphany)

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

Unmerited Love

Based on St. Mark 1: 4-11

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

            So many of us long for acceptance in our lives – to know that we are accepted and loved for who we are. We seek to be accepted by friends, co-workers, peers, and colleagues, by our significant others and spouses – and often most especially, by our parents. The acceptance we do or don’t receive from our parents can often either bless or haunt us for the rest of our lives. I believe that is at the core of this morning’s passage from St. Mark’s gospel.

If you were with us through Advent, you may remember that we heard very recently the first half of this morning’s text on the second Sunday of Advent. We come back to John the Baptist this morning. Wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance, as I remarked several weeks ago, is akin to turning our lives in the direction God seeks for us. John’s followers come from all around the countryside and even from the metropolis of Jerusalem to the River Jordan in Galilee to be baptized. Clearly, many were eager to receive both his message and baptism. There was something about John’s call to repentance that rang true for these people, an authenticity and directness they were not receiving from the temple leaders. But John also reminds his followers, ““The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John is clear that he is not the messiah, but is preparing the way. It is at this point that Jesus comes on the scene and is baptized himself. Even though John claims he is not fit to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, Jesus requests that John baptizes him. Once again, this is the story that begins St. Mark’s gospel. This is the beginning of the Good News for St. Mark. And the occurrence of Jesus baptism is clearly important as it is told not only here, but the gospels according to S.S. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as the Book of Acts, and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Not even Jesus’ birth receives that much coverage in Scripture, so Jesus’ baptism must have been a decisive moment for the early Church.

Jesus and John had a prior relationship. St. Luke tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth, the mother of John were cousins. Luke offers that while they were both pregnant and visited each other, Elizabeth proclaimed to Mary, “”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy!” Even before they were born, the cousins Jesus and John were acquainted. They likely had much contact growing up. Some scholars suggest that Jesus either began as a follower of John, or was a partner in his ministry before John was arrested.

Now, you may wonder why Jesus was baptized. This is something that theologians far more wise than I have addressed through the ages. It would seem contradictory that Jesus, who is without sin, is baptized by John, who is offering a baptism of repentance. Jesus doesn’t have anything to repent of, it would seem. But as repentance is turning toward God, Jesus doesn’t seek forgiveness of sins as much as aligning himself fully with the Creator. Jesus Christ and the Creator are both God, but Jesus, both human and divine, puts himself in alignment with the Creator and Spirit, to fully engage his mission.

So Jesus goes into the river, John has likely dunked him – and as Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here we have the Son of God, being told by the Creator, the eternal Father and Mother, saying to Jesus, “with you I am well pleased.” This is before Jesus has begun his ministry, before he turned water into wine, before he healed lepers and the blind and the lame, before he cast out demons, before he welcomed women and children, before he challenged the powerful, before he took all our sins to the cross. And yet God says, “With you I am well pleased.” We don’t really know what Jesus was doing before this, but we do know that his ministry had not yet begun. But it is at this point that the Spirit comes down like  a dove and the Creator’s voice calls out to Jesus, and Jesus is affirmed and accepted before he does anything. This is God’s unconditional and unmerited love for the Son, for Jesus Christ, and also for us. This is the kind of acceptance we often long for in our human relationships – to be loved and accepted, not based on our achievements, social status, jobs, or possessions, but on who we are as children of God.

This is where it all starts – Jesus is affirmed in his role as God’s Son even before he begins his formal ministry. His ministry begins with this simple, beautiful affirmation. This is what is always done in baptism. God says to us when we are baptized, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Particularly when we baptize infants, we celebrate the beginning of their lives by welcoming them into the Body of Christ and affirm them as beloved children of God. We do this often before they can talk or walk or even sit up on their own, and certainly before they’ve proved themselves as productive members of society – because it is precisely what God does. He does it with Jesus and does it with us. God loved us and called us by name when we were still in our mothers’ wombs. God loves us and accepts us right out of the womb, and there is nothing we have to do to earn that. When we baptize a youth or adult, it includes John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins, but it again affirms what God did long ago in accepting and loving that person. Swiss theologian Paul Tillich famously wrote that, “”You are accepted!” … accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask the name now, perhaps you will know it later. Do not try to do anything, perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything, do not perform anything, do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.”

Faith is that – to accept that you are accepted. The acceptance we seek from those around us really comes from God, and there is nothing we have to earn it, just to accept that we are loveable just the way we are. God says to each of us that we are God’s beloved child.

Remember this is a message so important that it is included in the Bible six times. Our early Church fathers and mothers wanted to make sure that those who followed them would know that even before Jesus begins his ministry he is accepted, and that even before we begin our journey of discipleship we are accepted. In baptism, God says a great big “Yes!” to us, “and with you I am well-pleased!”

The mission statement of this congregation describes this church as “an open and accepting Christian environment.” In fact, we are the only such church in this community of 27 different churches, that offers such an inclusive welcome. Sadly, no other congregations in this community come close to offering the same kind of openness and acceptance that we do. As such we have a great role set before us – to proclaim acceptance and love in this community in ways that no other faith community is willing to do. This is our niche and strength that will help us grow numerically and spiritually. There are so many in our community desperate for the alternative message that we offer – people who don’t get enough acceptance and love from their own families or peers, people struggling and hurting who need shown just a bit more love, people who have been rejected and alienated by other faith communities, people who struggle to love and accept themselves. So our call is to share this message of love and acceptance, letting these people know that they are indeed loved and accepted, that we welcome them and that God says, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.” There could be no better news. Good news indeed.

+To God be the glory. Amen.

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1. Christmastide: An Epiphany for the New Year

First Sunday after Christmas

1 January 2011

St. John United Church of Christ

St. Clair, MO

 

An Epiphany for the New Year

Based on St. Matthew 2: 1-12

By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

            Happy New Year and a Blessed Epiphany! It’s not really Epiphany yet, that comes on January 6 – 12 days after Christmas. But we commemorate it today, while still in the season of Christmastide. While most around us have moved on from their celebration of Christmas, and now focuses on their New Year’s resolutions, the Church is just in the middle of its celebration. I find it a great confluence however, that New Year’s and Epiphany come each year around the same time. Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning manifestation or revelation. When we say we’ve had an epiphany we often say “a light bulb went on” – that we’ve had some new discovery or revelation. It’s convenient then that we review our last year at this time, and wonder what the new year might reveal, what God might bring to our lives in the coming 12 months. And we lay plans and make resolutions on how we want this New Year to go. It is good to do this at Epiphany, a season of revelation, a manifestation of the divine.

            The day of Epiphany is when the Church celebrates the coming of the magi, the wise men to see the messiah. Though we often tack this story onto the end of the nativity story of Jesus being born in a manger – that story only takes place in St. Luke’s gospel, and the wise men only arrive in St. Matthew’s gospel. Both stories, I believe are true. However, scholars tell us that the magi may have taken as long as two years for them to arrive to see Jesus, then perhaps in his “terrible two’s” phase. Our passage this morning says they enter not a barn or stable, but a house – so perhaps Mary and Joseph are at home at this point. Notice too that nowhere in this morning’s passage, or even the whole of scripture, are the wise men referred to as kings. Referring to them as kings is a tradition that came far after the story of the magi was written down, along with naming them Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. In fact, the Bible doesn’t even tell us how many wise men actually came to see Jesus. Early Christian art sometimes depicts as many as twelve, other times as few as two magi. It is because they brought three gifts that our popular telling of the story now depicts three wise men.

            We know little of these men. St. Matthew tells us that “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” The original word in the Greek for wise men, also means astronomers. So it makes sense then that they would notice a peculiar star. So we are told that astronomers from the East see the star and go to Jerusalem. But telescopes weren’t a child’s toy then and stargazing wasn’t nearly the hobby it was today. Historians and biblical scholars tell us that at the dawn of the first century A.D., or common era as it is known, the most likely candidates to be astronomers in the East were Zoroastrians in Persia, modern-day Iran. Zoroastrianism was then the predominate religion in Persia, prior to the rise of Islam. Throughout history it has had a serious decline, and they now number only around 200,000 followers. But Zoroastrians have always emphasized astronomy in their worldview, and in fact the word ‘Magi’ means a follower of that religion. While I can’t detail their beliefs for you this morning, it is worth noting that like the Jewish faith and the Christian faith thereafter, Zoroastrians believe in one Creator God, just as we do and our Jewish ancestors did. So while the Jewish people may have had some hostilities to them due to having a different faith, there was also the possibility of having allies together in their belief in the Creator, rather than the pagan beliefs of Rome and Greece. So here we have these followers of another religion, of another language, of another culture, come to Jerusalem to seek the savior. So already, shortly after Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ story is already international and interfaith.

            St. Matthew is showing us that Jesus is already breaking down barriers. According to Matthew’s gospel, the first to kneel before Jesus are not his own people, but Gentiles, foreigners from a faraway land. The magi see in the star a sign of the messiah, they follow it, and become the first to pay homage to him as the messiah. We learn later in the gospels how often Jesus would be rejected by his own people, the very ones he came to save, only to be welcomed and accepted by Gentiles and others on the margins of society. This is the great irony of the whole Jesus story – that those who are known as God’s chosen people reject God in the flesh, and that those on the margins who accept Jesus are accepted too, and are themselves redeemed. This gospel passage shows us too that Jesus is worthy of worship, worthy of such gifts of incense that one would mark something holy with. St. Matthew is making a statement here not just about Jesus of Nazareth, but also the divine nature of Christ.

            We also see though that as well as being worshiped, Jesus will attract hostility too, especially from those in power. The only king in this story is Herod. The only one in the story with any real sense of earthly power, is threatened by this infant in the backwater Bethlehem. Jesus hasn’t even started preaching against the powers and principalities yet – that will come some 30 years later. So why is Herod threatened? He is the one appointed by the Roman emperor to be king of the Judeans, and here come these wise men from Persia asking, “Where is the child who has been born the king of the Jews?” There is already unrest in the land over Rome’s occupation of Judea – one can imagine the Herod would want to quash any hint of competition, even an infant. He deceptively tells the wise men to go and find the child so that he may also pay homage. This part always confused me as a child in Sunday School. I knew Herod was supposed to be evil, so why would he want to worship Jesus? Obviously I didn’t know about the concept of deception and trickery at that point. The wise men do not return to Herod, and so later St. Matthew tells us that Herod orders the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem, and Joseph and Mary with the baby flee to Egypt until Herod has died. Such behavior was in character for Herod, who had no qualms at other times having his own sons and rabbis killed as well.

            This aspect of the story, aside from adding intrigue and danger, foreshadows the ways in which Jesus will incur the anger of the scribes and chief priests, along with the Roman rulers. Jesus’ message of the last being first, of the poor and mourning and meek receiving the kingdom of God, of powerless widows and children really understanding what God is about, of welcoming the unclean, and castigating the wealthy and powerful was offensive to those in power who had turf to protect. When we rightly understand that this is the same Christian message today, it should be just as threatening to those in the seats of power. This is important to remember in the most powerful country in the world – the gospel message reminds us that we are called to humility, as we find God in a humble stable. We are called to humility in having ears to hear the Good News from foreigners from another land who look and talk differently than we. Jesus was born on the margins and the Christian Church lived its first 300 years on the margins. In this country it is the majority religion, and even so we are reminded that we are still called to do ministry on the margins and to speak up for those who have no voice in the halls of power. We are reminded too that just as the wise men may have come from another religion, another path to God, we should find commonality with people of other faiths and live together in respect and harmony.

            The message of Epiphany to each of us today is that God breaks down our barriers, that God is found in the poor and the unexpected. God’s power may be found in kings, but is more often in the marginalized. God surprises us by showing up in unexpected people and unexpected places. As we move into this season of Epiphany, let us open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, and our minds for God’s presence and God’s revelation to us in new and unexpected ways.

 

+Glory be to God. Amen.