Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sermon: Life-changing Water


What it means to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
Luke 3:15-22 - story of the baptism of Jesus
January 13, 2013

            It happened up in the mountains of Southwestern Virginia; I was the pastor at Woodlawn United Methodist. It was located on the old road between Hillsville and Galax. This old road followed the ridge, keeping to the high ground. The new road was impatient; it had no time for curves or views, so it was built straight across the valley. The houses of Woodlawn were sprinkled along that old road which led past a pretty good elementary school. The church with its required cemetery was located across from the school.
            In that church was a man named Pozy Melton. His wife was a long-time member and the treasurer of the church; Pozy had never been baptized; he was not a member. Actually, it took me a long time to discover that he was not a member. He was certainly active enough; he was at church with his wife every time the doors were open.
            The ordinary way to come to faith and church membership in that mountain church was through the yearly revival. Late each winter, after the worst of the snows had passed, that little church had a revival. Although no one would acknowledge it, it seemed to me that people would save up their joining for the revival altar calls. The altar was open every Sunday, but somehow that did not count the same way. The revival preachers brought an occasion; they brought necessity, and people saved their coming forward for revival.
            After I had been pastor at the church for a few years, I learned that Pozy was not a member. No one I talked to seemed to know why. I asked him about it – more curious than anything else. How does a person support the church day in and day out without being a member of the church? I did not get much of an answer. Asking others if they knew the reason for Pozy’s delay produced no better answers.
            The one thing of which I am sure is that Pozy knew his friends were asking about him. Like all churches, we had a sweet way of applying pressure for a procrastinator to do the right thing: We would let them know that *we were praying for them*. Generally, it was better not to be too specific: praying that they would join? Praying that they would get past the roadblock? Praying that the terrible guilt which kept them away from the altar would be resolved? It’s better not to get too specific. Pozy knew the details; all we had to do was to pray – and let him know that we were praying.
            Well, revival came that March as it always did. It was a good revival; the preacher did a good job. Then, one night as the invitation hymn was being sung, no one was coming forward. No confessions of faith, no repentance, no renewals. I just waited.  “Just as I Am” applies sweet pressure, too.
            Sure enough, someone stepped out and came forward. It was Pozy Melton. He knelt down at the altar rail, so I knelt down across from him. I didn’t have to speak. With tears in his eyes, he looked up at me and said simply, “I should have done this a long time ago.” He never explained the long delay; his coming was enough.  He and I prayed for a long time there, kneeling across that rail with the congregation singing on. They were in no hurry to go home.
            It seemed to me that the additional sacrament in that mountain church was “coming to the altar.” Protestants officially recognize only baptism and the Lord’s Supper as sacraments. What the official list misses is the sweetness of letting go of all our excuses and barriers to kneel at the feet of Jesus at a country altar. Pozy was there, and kneeling with him across the rail, I knew God was smiling at the sight of one of his children coming home.
            The next Sunday, Pozy came back to the altar. This time, his wife came with him. I met him there with water for baptism. The congregation which had prayed so long was beaming. One that they loved had come finally and fully into the company of Jesus, under the protection of God. They couldn’t have been happier. For Pozy Melton, baptism meant completing something that he had spent his whole life doing.
            What happens when we come or are brought for baptism? What difference does it make in our lives? In the life of the universe? As we tell the story of Jesus’ baptism today, let’s reflect on the importance of our baptism.
[SERMON]

            Our belief about baptism should be informed by the scripture. We would not want to be guilty of believing any old thing, assuming that is enough. So, let us look at the story of Jesus’ baptism according to Luke’s gospel. There are details here that have much to teach us.
I. The public ministry of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. He is the beginning of the promise that all flesh will see the salvation of God.
            A. As our reading opens, John is challenging the crowds who are coming to be baptized by him. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath of God which is coming?” You have to admit, John’s response to the curiosity of the crowds is a bit unexpected. He is preaching the coming of God; he is preparing the way of the Lord; he is calling for a baptism of repentance. People are coming out to him to hear, to confess their sins, and to be baptized. All that seems good, but John, with a wild look in his eye, demands to know: “Who warned you?” “Well, John, you did.” Your preaching; your message; your ministry. They cry out a warning all over the country. I wonder if John might mean his challenge figuratively to say: “Who are you to think that God wants you to hear the warning and  respond? God might just prefer to see you receive a well-deserved punishment for your sin.”

            But, John goes ahead with the specifics of his message:
·         8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. IOW: Live Godly lives.
·         Do not even begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. I.O.W. be humble in God’s presence.
·         9 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire." Followers of Jesus must bear good fruit.

I hear him say: baptism does not begin and end with a pretty ritual in church. Baptism calls us to all of these things: repentance of the evil we do, humility before God, and bearing good fruit. To be baptized is first to respond to the goodness of God with Godly lives.
            B. Here in the middle of the passage, Luke tells us that the crowd hears just this much and then asks John: “What then, should we do?” As we read the passage closely, we find that this question is very important to this story. John has just told them what they should do –at least, for starters. Now, they ask him to say more.
            In addition, the question, “What then should we do?” is as direct and plain as it sounds. It is a question about *doing*. Too often, we move from the plain doing and living of the Christian faith to a secret spirituality that puts us under no obligation to live this faith out loud.
[Secret Service]
            A preacher went to see a member who had stopped coming to church. After the pleasantries, he asked the member about her faith. “Oh pastor,” my faith is as strong and joyous as ever,” she replied.
            The pastor was confused. “You used to be in church every Sunday, but you have disappeared. Don’t you want to be part of the Lord’s Army? You should be in church.”
            “Oh yes,” she replied. “but now I am part of the Lord’s Secret Service.”

You may be shocked to know that the Lord does not have a Secret Service. The Lord, however, has a mighty army – which we are invited to join and to add our efforts on behalf of the Kingdom. There is much to do; there is a way of life to embrace; there is service to be done in the Lord’s army.
            C. John responds to their question:
·         10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" 11 In reply he said to them,
o   "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;
o   Whoever has food must do likewise."
·         12 Tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"
o   13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."
·         14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them,
o   "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation,
o   Be satisfied with your wages."
Three groups are mentioned by Luke: The crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers.
·         The crowds would be the ordinary people, farmers and villagers, people who would understand themselves to be of the household of Israel. And yet, these are likely the poor, not the rulers and aristocracy.
·         The tax collectors would be from the same people as the crowds mentioned first, and yet they had betrayed their people and their nation. They are outsiders by choice. Luke is putting us on notice that no one is outside the grace of God. Even the tax collectors have a way to return to the household of faith.
·         The soldiers are harder to pin down. Many scholars assume that these are not Romans but Jewish mercenaries. I see no reason to exclude the Roman soldiers from those who came out to hear John. Certainly John was under pressure from Herod, who commanded the Roman soldiers in Palestine. But, the Roman soldiers formed an occupying army throughout the Holy Land; they lived daily among the ordinary people. And, what a delicious irony it would be if they also responded to the announcement that God was coming in a mighty way.
D. All of this suggests that the baptism offered by John was offered to all. The way of return to God was not for the few but for all who would respond to the call for faith and new lives. It was not limited to certain nations, classes, genders or accomplishments. The gospel and its baptism which John offered had no boundaries.

II. Then, John turns to a more specific description of this coming one:
            "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The first thing to notice about the one who is coming, whom John announces, is that his coming and our baptism are inseparably intertwined. He speaks of both movements in one breath.
            A. According to John, the one who is coming is more powerful than he is.
            B. According to John, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” Do you remember in the Gospel of John at the telling of the Last Supper? Instead of breaking the bread and sharing the cup, Jesus takes off his outer garment, wraps himself in a towel, then with a basin kneels at the their feet to untie their sandals. John the Baptist is not worthy is untie Jesus’ sandals, but Jesus is the one who kneels to untie the sandals of those who follow him.
            This tells us something about this Messiah whom we follow. He is that kind of leader – the leader who serves. He has this kind of greatness and power – the power to choose the sort of servant he will be.
            This tells us something about the disciples we are called to be through baptism in his name. Disciples who serve. Disciples who use our power to choose what sort of servants we will be.
            C. John next adds the detail: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” As you remember from the story of Pentecost in Acts, fire is the great symbol of the coming of the Holy Spirit. As the Spirit rested on each one like tongues of fire, so the Holy Spirit will rest on today’s believers as tongues of fire. John the Baptist is warning us that to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ is no walk in the park. It will come as a changed life and a powerful call to change the world.
            D. Finally, John adds a warning that does not rest well on modern ears:
17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

In other words, just as something will happen to those who embrace this coming Messiah, something will happen to those who turn away. There are consequences to the choices we make.

[CONCL:]
            I feel like we have gone away from the sweet scene of the baptism we have shared this morning. The baby we baptized at church this morning is just that: a sweet picture of coming to God with no grasping claims. Babies show us about coming to baptism to receive all the good things that God will give. And this is true. But, there is more. Baptism is also the things we have discovered in our reading of Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3 this morning. It is a call to a Godly life. It is a call to caring, to integrity, to honesty. It is a call to expect to see God fall powerfully into our lives.
            Somehow along the River Jordan, as John cried out his warning, people caught a glimpse of life lived in the presence of God. They caught the possibility that their lives might be marked by holiness – and it took their breath. That life marked by holiness became the one thing they had to have. Watch out, dear friends; to follow this Christ is to catch a baptism that is life-changing and powerful and real.


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