Friday, January 29, 2010

God in a Box

On Sunday, we're going to discuss something that's so radical that a lot of Christians have a difficult time accepting it, and I'm talking about the nature of God. You see, the God revealed through Jesus is so radically different in his perspectives and actions that even Christians often feel compelled to recreate him in their image. God is absolutely free, and frankly, that makes us uncomfortable. It means that we can't control his mercy and love; therefore, we have to trust that he loves us and will save us. It also means that we can't shape the extent of his grace. In other words, if we can't control God, then his love might even cover people we don't like, something that seems unacceptable to a lot of believers.

And so we try to put God in a box that we've constructed. We try to use our interpretations, assumptions, and prejudices to limit God. And although we may believe that we're defending our faith, we're actually creating an idol that we can manipulate ourselves. We worship a God who shares our values, who loves what we love and who hates...well, you get the idea.

This, though, isn't the one revealed through Christ, as shown in Jesus's response to the crowd in Luke 4:21-30. Rather, God is the one who challenges our assumptions and who shows love and mercy based on his will. Simply put, he is beyond our control. And although having a God who's out of the box may make us uncomfortable, knowing that he is far bigger than our limited vision can absolutely change our lives. And that's what we'll discuss during the service on Sunday.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sermon: The One We Follow


Luke 4:14-21 - 14And Jesus went back in the power of the spirit into Galilee. And a report went out throughout the whole countryside concerning him. 15And he himself taught in their synagogues, and he was praised by all. 16And he went into Nazareth, where he’d been raised, and he went, according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath, into the synagogue, and he stood up to read. 17And it was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah, and after he’d opened the book, he found the place where it had been written: 18The spirit of the lord is upon me, because of this he anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he sent me to preach to the captives release and to the blind, the recovery of sight, to send as released the crushed 19to preach the acceptable year of the lord.

20And after he’d closed the book and gave it back to the attendant, he sat down. And all the eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he started to say to them, “Today this writing has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

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Now for me, the first of the two biggest games of my football season kicks off at 3:00 this afternoon. And the second, well, depending on what happens today, it should be in about two weeks. You see, the Colts are playing the Jets, and as I hope y’all know by now, I’m a big Colts fan. That’s what comes from living in Indianapolis for ten years. And today, they’re in the AFC championship game. Wow.

Now I’ve got to tell you, six months ago, I really didn’t expect this to happen. I mean, I’m may be a fan, but I’m not stupid. The Colts had a lot of stuff going against them this season, not the lest of which being a new coach, an offense that can’t rush the ball and a defense that’s never been much against the run, and of course Bob Sanders, the Indianapolis version of Tory Polamalu, probably the best player on the field when he’s on the field which isn’t very often because he always seems to be injured. Let’s just say, there seemed to be an awful lot going against the Colts this season. As a matter of fact, I sort of agreed with a member of this very congregation who said back in August that the Colts would be lucky to reach five hundred this year.

Now that’s what he said and I thought, but I’ve got to tell you, we were both wrong, because I guess we didn’t figure in the most important factor in the equation: Peyton Manning, the unquestioned leader of the Indianapolis Colts. Somehow, Peyton can do what his brother and most other quarterbacks in the league just can’t seem to pull off. He offers something to his whole team that just wouldn’t be there if he were off the field.

But you know, that’s really what leadership is all about, isn’t it; leaders offer something to their followers that would be missing if they weren’t out in front. I mean, it doesn’t matter whether you’re taking about running the country or decorating for the prom, taking a platoon into battle or a team into the big game, a good leader offers some intangibles that you really can’t put a price on, things like skill, experience and direction; enthusiasm, confidence, and hope. In other words, without that person, that leader, the followers might literally be lost.

And I’ll tell you, I think that applies to the one we follow as Christians, and now I’m talking about Jesus Christ. Now, before anyone gets upset and starts making phones calls this afternoon, let me be crystal clear. I’m not comparing Peyton Manning with our Lord, Jesus Christ, at least not until after the Super Bowl. No, what I’m saying is that like every other good leader, Jesus offers us all those intangibles that seems to center around competence and emotions that makes successful living a whole lot more possible. As a matter of fact, I think I’d be safe in saying that, as leaders go, he’s right up there with the best.

But you know, he’s really more than that. I mean, when you look at a passage like the one we read a little while ago, well, I think that really pushes him over the top, because I think the one we follow brings something into our lives that just may be beyond the pay-scale for anyone but the Son of God. You see, according to these verses Jesus offers us, his followers, two things that can not only completely change how we live today but also transform what we do tomorrow. And the entire Manning family, on their very best day, couldn’t pull that off. And let me tell you what I’m talking about.

You see, first, the one we follow offers comfort, and I’m talking about a source of genuine peace that can enable us to endure the very worst that life can throw at us. And I don’t know about y’all, but from time to time, that’s exactly what I need. I mean, I got to admit sometimes I just feel overwhelmed, almost buried by expectations and responsibilities and worried that it there’s one more problem I’m expected to solve or one more disappointment I need to soothe or one more assignment I have to watch dropped on my plate just one more thing is going to cause the whole mess to tip over. And then add to that, suppose Debbie’s upset for some reason or Maggie gets into a little trouble or maybe I get a less than glowing report from the doctor... My gosh, next weekend, for Maggie’s birthday, she’s invited fifteen girls and three boys to play cosmic golf; talk about stress...boys already.

But I’ll tell you, having said that, I know that I have it pretty good. I mean, I know there’s a lot of people here this morning who have more reason to feel overwhelmed and worried than me. And I haven’t even touched on folks who are dealing with disease and divorce and layoffs, much less all those people who are digging through the rumble in Haiti or digging foxholes over in Afghanistan. I guess it’s just a fact of life; from time to time we all know suffering and distress up close and personal. Am I right?

Sure I am, and for that reason, I think it’s really important that we remember we follow someone who offers us genuine comfort. Of course, we know this is something he’s able to do, right? I mean, he came “...in the power of the spirit,” and through that power and authority he did remarkable things, didn’t he? Good night, he healed the sick and stilled the storm; he cast out unclean spirits and even raised the dead. In other words, I doubt that we’ll ever face a concern or a problem that’s too big for Jesus to address. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him; therefore, he certainly has the ability to change our lives right now.

But more than that this passage reminds us that he also has the will, in other words, the will to use his power and authority to help us, the will to make a difference. My gosh, that’s why he came. I mean, when he opened Isaiah and started to read he said it all didn’t he? “The spirit of the lord is upon me, because of this he anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor; he sent me to preach to the captives release and to the blind, the recovery of sight, to send as released the crushed, to preach the acceptable year of the lord.” Man, that’s why he came, to address the very things that we find overwhelming and cause us so much worry. I’m telling you, the one we follow brings comfort right here and now. That’s the first thing he offers.

But of course, that’s not all, because, second, he also offers us a challenge, and you know, if we let it, that challenge can transform our future. And again, that’s also right here in this passage. I mean, remember how just a minute ago we talked about Jesus coming with power and being anointed with the Holy Spirit; well, brothers and sisters, so are we. Did you realize that? From the time the wind filled the room and those tongues as of fire came down from heaven and rested on the disciples, the Spirit of God has been poured out upon the people of God, and we, right here and right now, have been given power and authority to do his works.

And although I’ve got to admit that may be hard to see in a small church struggling in the Ohio Valley, much less one trying to survive in the third world, I think it’s actually pretty easy for us to apply to ourselves. I mean, give me a break, although economically things may not be anywhere as good as they were twenty years ago, compared to the rest of the world, compared to people who don’t know when their next meal is coming, compared to Christian brothers and sisters who feel almost at the mercy of war and disease and disasters, man, we’ve got it made in the shade. And even though, as a congregation we may be smaller and we may be greyer and we may look around and moan and groan about the future, through the power of the Spirit we have the ability to make an enormous difference. When you get right down to it, we’ve been blessed with affluence, with opportunity, and as American Christians with freedom to literally change the world.

And what should be we do? Well, it’s right here in these verses. We can follow the example of our leader, and we can share the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone, including those who feel as though they have no reason to hope. And we can tell those who are physical or emotional or spiritual captives of forces that are beyond their control, we can announce to them that they are forgiven and free. And we can join together, we can pool our resources and our skills, and we can roll up our sleeves and get to work to make sure that the blind recover their sight and that the broken are made whole and that everyone knows that now is the time that for us to act. You see, brothers and sisters, together we have the ability and together we have the vision.

Now, we have to decide if we have the will. And that’s the challenge we face, the second thing offered by our leader.

We’ll have to see what happens this afternoon. But you know, regardless of how the Colts do, I think most people would probably agree that they have a pretty good leader in the Peyton Manning. Because, you see, he does exactly what a good leader should do. And as Christians, we have a leader who’s actually better than good, because he demonstrates not only the qualities of outstanding leadership, he offers two things that’s really beyond the best our world has to offer; he offers us comfort, and he offers us a challenge. And I’ll tell you, both our present and our future can be changed, when we focus our attention on the one we follow.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Lesson from Haiti


During the last couple of weeks, I think our entire nation has been moved by the situation in Haiti. It's difficult for most of us to imagine the scale of human suffering that we've seen in the pictures and reports coming from this area. And not unlike what happened after Katrina, we've joined together to respond. If you're interested in what the Presbyterian Church is doing, you may want to visit the website for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. And next Sunday during worship, we'll take up a special offering to address this tragedy.

Right now we're focused. And although we may say that this will change us forever, as time passes, we'll be tempted to settle back into our lives. As the coverage begins to fade so may our interest. But before that happens, I think there's something we may want to consider; there's an important lesson that this disaster may help us see and understand. Although the current situation is certainly real and overwhelming, the needs presented by Haiti were real and overwhelming before the earthquake. And sadly, that's the case for many other countries and peoples we never see.

And here we stand, knowing that God has been incredibly good to us, and for that we can be thankful. Unfortunately, the attention and concern that arises from our affluence can blind us to the genuine poverty experienced by most of the world. For example, as we debate the merits of healthcare reform, it's easy to forget that people in other countries struggle with getting enough food to eat and having clean water to drink.

And as Christians, we're called to respond. Sometimes I'm haunted by the imagine of me standing before Jesus Christ and asking what I can do. And I hear him say, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me." If this disaster can remind us of human need and move us to show love to our neighbors around the world, then maybe we'll be able to respond to the words of Christ and not go away grieving, for we have many possessions.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Sermon: The Funny Thing About Signs


John 2:1-11 - 1And on the third day, there was a wedding in Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2And also Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding. 3And because they ran short of wine, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They don’t have wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “What is that to me or you, woman? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Whatever he might say to you, then do.”

6And there were six stone water jars for Jewish purification standing [there]. Each held two or three measures. 7Jesus said to them, “Now fill the water jars with water.” And they filled them to the brim. 8And he said to them, “Now draw water out and carry it to the one responsible for managing the banquet.” And they carried some. 9And the one responsible tasted the water which had become wine, and he didn’t know from where it came, but the servant who’d drawn the water knew. The one responsible for the banquet called the bride groom 10and said to him, “Every person first serves the good wine, and when the people have been made drunk, the inferior. You have kept the good wine until now.” 11Jesus did this first sign in Cana in Galilee, and made clear his glory, and his disciples believed in him.

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Now, I want y’all to use your imaginations a little bit this morning. I mean, I want you to imagine a guy pulled off to the side of the road, with flashing lights right behind. The police officer walks slowly to the driver’s side of the car as the guy rolls down his window. “License and registration please.” “But what did I do wrong,” as he hands over the two cards. “You know the speed limit here is twenty-five, and you were going over forty.” The guy is getting mad. “How am I suppose to know the speed limit’s changed?” The officer uses the end of his pen to point at the back of a sign about a hundred feet behind and another about twenty feet ahead. The guy sort of sinks down in his seat.

And now I want you to visualize a woman who’s really, and I mean really mad. You see, she has a green hand, carrying a green streaked purse with a matching green smudge on her new dress. And she’s angry about it, in fact, angry enough to write her city councilman. How dare they paint the benches in the park without letting anybody know. That’s the trouble with government, right? In fact, she’d write the letter right then and there, but she doesn’t have any paper. Of course, she could always use the back of one of the three “Wet Paint” signs stuck on each bench.

And finally, think about a man talking with his wife in the hospital. She says, “You really gave us all a scare. The doctor said you could have died.” The man looks concerned and confused. “But I don’t get it. How was I suppose to know I was sick? I mean, outside the tightness in my chest, the shortness of breath and the tingling up and down my left arm, there were no signs at all.”

You know, there’s something really funny thing about signs. It just doesn’t matter how many you put up. They’re not a bucket of spit if you don’t pay attention. Now, that’s pretty obvious. But I’ll tell you something, from where I stand, this doesn’t just apply to speed traps or green benches or clogged arteries; I think the same thing can happen in our relationship with God.

Take, for instance, the passage we just read, you know, the one about the wedding at Cana, a story in which Jesus not only displays his power and authority by changing water into wine, he also shows just how abundant, how overflowing God’s mercy and grace are. And he did this at a wedding banquet, in front of all kinds of people, right? And evidently, John must have considered it pretty important, because, at the end of the passage, he wrote that this was Jesus’s first sign, one that “...made clear his glory.”

Now, that’s what happened, and I think given it’s power and importance, it would be reasonable to assume that when this great, big crowd saw what happened, all kinds of people started to believe, right? I mean, that would make a lot of sense, but is that what happen? Did this first sign lead to the whole wedding party believing? Not according to John. In fact, he wrote that “...his disciples believed in him.” In other words, of all the folks there, only his followers appreciated the miracle for what it was, a sign that Jesus was the revelation of God’s glory. And the rest, well, they missed the bus.

But you know, before we’re too hard on them, I think the same thing happens to us. In fact, I believe it happens all the time. Let me tell you what I’m talking about. Just look around, we’re surrounded by signs all over the place, signs of God’s power and grace and love. My gosh, we’ve got a ton of them right here in the Bible. In fact, according to John, that’s why he wrote his gospel in the first place. Remember, he said, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Man, we’ve got all we need right here.

But even if we didn’t, I think there are signs all around us, everything from God leading his people to deal with the enormous disaster down in Haiti to all those situations that only those involved can see, signs that God is present and involved. I’m telling you, throw a dart; you’re probably going to hit a sign of God’s glory. And yet, all those signs just haven’t led to universal faith, now have they? Of course some people have certainly believed, but many others, well, they either pretend that those signs don’t exist or rationalize them until they don’t reveal much of anything. You see, like so many of the other signs we encounter in our world, it’s pretty easy to miss the ones that point to God’s glory.

And for that reason, I think it’s important for us to make a real effort to see those signs better. And to do that, I believe three things need to happen. I mean, think about it. If we want to see the signs of God’s glory better, we really need to be prepared. In other words, we’re going to need the ability not only to perceive but also to understand what we’re looking at. And I’ll tell you, in my opinion, this first thing is the most important of all, because if it doesn’t happen, the other two just won’t matter.

But you know, it’s right here that we’re in luck, because all this preparation business, well, it’s already been done. Just listen to what John wrote (and this is Jesus talking): “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” And then a little later, “When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” You see, thanks to the Holy Spirit, man, we’re ready. Ready to see. Ready to understand. And ready to believe. When you get right down to it, the hard part’s been done.

But having said that, I still think there are two things that are up to us, because, second, if we want to see the signs better, we really need to be in the right place, at the right time. It’s like that old joke; I’m sure some of y’all have heard it. A guy tells his friend, “I’ve given up on God. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed that I win the lottery and nothing’s happened. And so I’m done.” And his friend says, “Well, it would help if you bought a ticket.”

I’ll tell you, although people will probably always say that they feel closer to God on the golf course or in a boat fishing or going to yard sales, something my Aunt Virginia used to say, I’ll guarantee it’s a whole lot easier to see the glory of God when you’re reading your Bible or participating in worship or doing something that shows love for God and neighbor. Being in this sanctuary between eleven and twelve should be the right place and the right time. And if for some folks it’s not, I mean, if our worship feels cold or seems complicated or if some people have made the decision not to come because they’re sick of the rumors and the gossip and the tension, like the woman said, the drama, then that’s our fault. And we had better change, because God is going to hold us all accountable. If we want to see the signs better, we really need to be at the right place, at the right time. That’s the second thing that needs to happen.

And third, I think we also have to make the decision that we’re going to be open, open to the new and different, open to the unexpected and frankly the uncomfortable. In other words, we need to recognize that God doesn’t always speak in ways we can anticipate nor does he offer only messages we want to hear. I mean, give me a break, if Christ’s glory can be shown at a drunken party after they’ve run out of wine, it can be shown just about any where.

But sadly, often we’re only open to the comfortable and the expected. My goodness, that’s why a lot of people choose a congregation to attend, because it feels comfortable. And that’s why churches offer services in which a contemporary person never has to be exposed to anything traditional and vice versa. God only speaks in one way, sometimes thought only one person, and anything else, you can simply ignore. What a great way to miss the glory of God. No, to really see the signs, we’d better decide to be open, especially to voices who offer us news way to look at Christ and who challenge what we want to believe. I’ll tell you, if we do to Jesus what I do to Debbie during a football game, and I’m talking about “selective listening,” Lord only knows the signs we’re going to miss. We’ve got to be open.

You know, like I talked about a little while ago, there really is a funny thing about signs. It doesn’t matter how many there are. They’re not a bucket of spit if we don’t pay attention. And it’s as true in our relationship with God as it is in the rest of life. But that doesn’t have to be the case with us, especially since God has already prepared us to see. I mean, we can decide that we’re going to be in the right place, at the right time and that we’re going to be open even to the unexpected and uncomfortable. And I’ll tell you, if we do that, I think we’re going to find another funny thing about signs. They can absolutely change our lives.

Friday, January 15, 2010

From Fermentation to Faith


I hope everyone is doing well. We made it through a couple of weeks of snow and ice. Now it looks like seven days above freezing. And although it's supposed to be cloudy and rainy, at least it's not snow. This may be a reason to celebrate.

Of course, that certainly applies to the passage we're looking at on Sunday. During the service, we're going to focus on the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), an event that everybody knew was a party. And that's especially true after Jesus turned an enormous amount of water into not just wine, but good wine. And even though that's pretty impressive, not everybody at the party saw it as a sign of divine glory. In fact, of all the people who were there, John wrote that only the disciples came to faith. In other words, among all who saw the miracle, they were the only ones who understood that the one who did it was the Son of God.

And when you think about it, that can happen to us as well. I mean, even though we're surrounded by the miraculous, both in the Bible and within our lives, often it has very little impact on how we see ourselves and what we believe. In other words, often we seem to miss the signs of God's love. And for that reason, during the service on Sunday, we're going to consider how we might become better at seeing and appreciating the signs.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sermon: The Meaning of Baptism


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 - 15And because the people were waiting and everybody was debating in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16John answered and said, “I in water baptize you, but the one who is more powerful than me, the one whom I’m not worthy to untie his sandal strap, he himself will baptize you in holy spirit and fire, 17the one who has the winnowing shovel in his hand to clean thoroughly his threshing floor and to gather the grain into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up in fire unquenchable.”

21And it happened when all the people were baptized and when Jesus was baptized and when he was praying, the heavens were opened 22and the holy spirit came down bodily, in the visible form of a dove, upon him, and a voice out of heaven came, “You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.”

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On the first Sunday after Epiphany, the church has traditionally focused on the baptism of Jesus Christ and baptism in general. And since last Wednesday was Epiphany, the day we remember how the wise men came to Jesus, that makes today “Baptism Day.” You see, this is something we do every single year, because baptism has always been considered pretty important by the church.

And I’ll tell you something, as any student of history can tell you, it’s also been pretty important in the development of western civilization, but not necessarily in a positive way. My gosh, for at least five hundred years, since the Protestant reformation, Christians have been fighting and scrapping and sometimes killing one another over baptism, like when should it be given and how much water should be used, you know, important stuff like that. In fact, if you read some of the stuff that’s come out of the church over the last few hundred years, it’s pretty easy to assume that Hell must be filled with folks who either weren’t sprinkled as infants or who weren’t immersed as adults. Maybe there’s two Hells, you know to make both groups happy.

And although generally it’s been a rather esoteric issue (how do you like that word, “esoteric?”), one that’s given Christians a good reason to dislike and to judge one another, sometimes this stuff is a lot more up-close and personal. For example, I remember back when I had a church in Montana, baptism was literally ripping apart the Davidson family. You see, Ed and Hope had two little girls. And since Hope’s father was a minister is a church that believes in dunking adults, the souls of those little girls would be in jeopardy if they were baptized before what he called “the age of accountability,” whatever that was. And that would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that Ed’s family were all staunch Roman Catholics, and his mom used to tell her son on a daily basis that she didn’t know how he could sleep at night knowing his daughters weren’t baptized. Now, I’ve got to tell you, in this family baptism wasn’t any kind of esoteric issue. Man, it was something they made them miserable every single day. And isn’t that what religion is suppose to do? But of course, that would never happen to us. As presbyterians, we’re able to accept all kinds of different views, even if they have little connection to the Bible or common sense for that matter, right; just so long as we don’t look too close. But that doesn’t stop other Christians from trying to convert us. Ain’t it great; are we having fun yet?

But you know, regardless of how it might impact the unity of Christ’s body or the sanity of one little family in eastern Montana, I think it would be pretty hard to say that there’s any kind of consensus on baptism. And although Christians may differ on the who, when, where, and how, at it’s core, I think the real disagreement comes down to the what, what baptism actually means. And when we try to answer this question, it seems to me that people have tended to fall into one of two groups.

I mean, on one hand, there are Christians who say that our baptism is a lot like the one John offered; in other words, that it’s a sign that a person has decided to confess and to repent and then to live a more righteous life. Simply put, baptism means you’ve made the adult decision to follow Jesus; therefore, to be baptized, you need to be an adult or at least above “the age of accountability,” which varies from church to church. Now, that’s on one side. On the other hand, though, there are at least as many Christians who believe our baptism is really more like the one Jesus received, you know, when the Holy Spirit descended on him. You see, for them, baptism is the way the Spirit enters the person, something that’s just as important for an infant as it is for an adult. The Spirit is literally in the water. Now, to me, those are the two positions, and the other details, well, sometimes I think they’re just a lot of window dressing.

And I’ll tell you something, this difference has kept people fired up for, like I said, the last five hundred years, and personally, I think that’s a real shame, because, well let’s just say that neither side has a particularly strong grounding in Scripture. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that John’s baptism isn’t Christian baptism. My goodness, just look at the passage. John himself must have seen the difference and that’s why he said, “I in water baptize you, but the one who is more powerful than me, the one whom I’m not worthy to untie his sandal strap, he himself will baptize you in holy spirit and fire”? And then later in Acts, when Paul ran across some folks who’d been baptized by John, Luke wrote this: “Then [Paul] said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism’. Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” You see, for Luke, there was a difference between the two baptisms.

But you know, again when we look at the books of Luke and Acts, our baptism, and I’m talking about a baptism in or with water, well, that’s really not the same as the one brought or even experienced by Christ. I mean, first, according to Luke, the baptism brought by Christ really doesn’t involve water, now does it? And if you don’t believe me, again just listen to John the Baptist himself: “I in water baptize you, but the one who is more powerful than me, ...he ...will baptize you in holy spirit and fire.” Not water, but holy spirit and fire. Our water baptism just wasn’t brought by Jesus. Nor can we say that we share in the baptism Christ experienced himself, because, second, the coming of the Spirit doesn’t seem to be tied to water at all. In fact, it can even come before baptism. For example, there was no water at Pentecost. And just listen to this little story from Acts: “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.... Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” And you know, that shouldn’t really be a surprise, that the Holy Spirit isn’t bound to water. Getting the Spirit through the water, that’s really not what baptism is about anymore than it’s a way to prepare for someone who’s already come. And so maybe all the conflict we’ve seen in the past between these two sides, well, maybe it hasn’t been the best use of time.

But you know, although all that may be interesting, it still doesn’t give us a good answer to the question that we’ve been knocking around this morning, what is the meaning of baptism? But I’ll tell you, before we just give up, move on and say what I understand they’re teaching in some really big, independent churches, that baptism isn’t all that important anyway; before we do that, I think I may have some good news for y’all, because right here in his word I believe God gives us all kinds of direction that just may offer us some insight we didn’t have before.

I mean, just think about some of the passages we’ve already read. Even though the baptism that Christ offers is different, I think we can safely say that water baptism is still important. I mean, why else would both Peter and Paul in the passages we read a little while ago insist that people be baptized with water. And because of that, I think we’re on really shaky ground if we move water baptism to the side. No, baptism was important in the early church, and I’ll tell you something, it was offered to everybody, not just believing adults. Remember, after “...the Lord opened [the] heart [of Lydia] (and now I’m quoting Acts) [after he] opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul, ...she and her household were baptized...” Now that’s what happened, and guess what, first century households included adults and children and infants, even slaves. Paul baptized them all. You see, even though baptism has caused divisions in the past, that’s no reason to assume that baptism with water should be left behind.

In fact, in my opinion, now’s the time not only to reclaim it but also to recognize that it may have a meaning we hadn’t really considered before: one that’s firmly grounded in the Bible and that just might heal some of the divisions we’ve seen in the past. You see, according to Scripture, whether we’re sprinkled as a baby or immersed as an adult, baptism is the way we enter a new and different kind of community. And it’s in this community that the vision of John is fulfilled, and I’m talking about when he said, “he himself will baptize you in holy spirit and fire, the one who has the winnowing shovel in his hand to clean thoroughly his threshing floor and to gather the grain into his storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up in fire unquenchable.” You see, John said that Jesus, the one about whom he was talking, John said that he would gather his grain. And I’ll tell you, that’s exactly what happened in Acts. Just listen: “On the first day of the week, when we gathered to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the room upstairs where we were gathered.” You see, they’d been gathered together by Christ, like grain in a storehouse. Now in my book, that’s exciting. And I’ll tell you what, so are we. We’ve been gathered to break bread and to hear the word, gathered to pray together and to praise God, gathered to celebrate his presence and power. You see, those who are baptized enter a community where people have been gathered, but that’s not all.

They also enter a community that has literally been baptized by Christ himself, just like John said, baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. You know, I don’t think it was an accident that when the Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, something we’ll talk about in the middle of May, Luke wrote that it came as “divided tongues, as of fire.” And it’s also no surprise that when they were filled with the Spirit, those disciples began to proclaim the good news of Christ in languages and in ways that people could understand, something that I believe we’re called to do right here in the Ohio Valley. You see, with baptism we enter a community inspired by the Holy Spirit, and empowered to get out and do God’s work.

And finally, I also believe we become a people who are loved and well-pleasing to God. You know, it’s interesting. When the voice came from heaven and said, “You are my son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased,” Jesus really hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t performed a single miracle, called a single disciple or told a single parable. And yet, he was well-pleasing to God. And brothers and sisters, so are we. I mean, just think about it. Christ has gathered us together at this time and in this place. And he poured out the Holy Spirit before we’d done much of anything. God loves us that much. Wow, kind of makes you want to love him back, doesn’t it? You see, this is the community we enter when we’re baptized.

Now I really hope that baptism stops being an issue that causes Christians fight and scrap and act silly, but I know hoping just doesn’t make things so. No, I expect that there’ll always be people who’ll use baptism to judge and divide, and sadly, there’ll continue to be good folks like Ed and Hope Davidson who get caught in the cross-fire. But that doesn’t have to be the case, not with us. I mean, instead of using it as a way to exclude, we can view baptism as the way people, both young and old, enter a new kind of community: one in which folks have been gathered together by Christ and one that’s been baptized by the Holy Spirit to do his work and one that’s well-pleasing to God. You see, for us, that exactly what baptism can mean.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Baptism


On the first Sunday after Epiphany (the day that tradition says the wise men came to Christ), we remember the baptism of Jesus. But more than that, this day gives us the chance to think about what baptism means for us and for the faithful. And although I think anyone who's grown up in the church knows the word, I'm not sure there's anything close to a consensus on the meaning. In other words, if you were to ask Christians what baptism means, you might get all kinds of answers, everything from "It's the way the Holy Spirit enters the person" to "It's the sign that a person has decided to follow Jesus." Of course as soon as you expand the topic and start asking "when" and "where" and "how," the answers are suddenly all over the place. I guess this explains why some churches, particularly some of the megachurches, have moved baptism to the background, as yet another divisive tradition that doesn't need to be anywhere near the center of contemporary faith or the inclusive church.

Unfortunately, if we put baptism on the back burner and pretend it's not important, then we've turned away from the command of Christ himself ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. ") and what appears to be central in the early church according to Acts. In other words, if we take the Bible seriously, then we can't overlook baptism. And yet, why do we do it, well that may still be a little vague.

And that's the reason, during worship this Sunday, we'll focus on the meaning of baptism. We'll use Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 and related passages in Luke and Acts to better understand the meaning of baptism. And even though we'll post the sermon on Monday, I hope to see you Sunday.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lighting Contest Winners in Ward 2



The third-annual Holiday Lighting Contest, sponsored by the Seeing Beyond Foundation, has named the winner in Ward 2.

Each of Weirton's seven councilmembers was asked to select three residences for first, second and third places in the lighting contest. Ward 2 Councilman Harold Miller chose a residence in the Pleasant Valley area for the top spot in his ward. He said David Drobish, the resident of the winning decorations, always decorates above and beyond for the holiday season. He said each year, Drobish adds more decorations. Drobish lives at 348 Country Club Blvd.

"We had such a great response for the lighting contest this year," said Miller. "I'm proud to say that it was difficult choosing and thank everyone for their participation."

Formed in 2005, the Seeing Beyond Foundation started with the purpose of improving the quality of life for visually impaired and blind individuals.

Having received its official federal 501-c-3 status within the last few years, making it an official non-profit organization, the foundation hopes to continue its progress toward assisting Weirton citizens with visual disabilities

Some of the donors for this year's contest include James White Construction, Guida Law Offices, state Sen. Ed Bowman, Tri-State Medical, Gus's Goodies, Ward 5 Councilman George Kondik, Wine and Beverage Merchants, Attorney Dan McCune and Weirton Geriatric Center.

Dickson can be contacted at adickson@weirtondailytimes.com)