Riding Triumphantly

Benjamin R. Haydon| Public Domain

Synopsis: Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem despite his knowing that suffering and death awaited him. How can we learn from him and ride triumphantly through this pandemic?

Scripture: Matthew 21: 1-11

Click here to watch a YouTube video service for Palm Sunday, in which this message is contained. The scripture reading can be found at around 6:25, followed by this message.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

One of the biggest fears we humans have is the fear of the unknown. This fear causes us to keep asking ourselves, “what if …?” That can be a dangerous question. The human mind is very creative, so we can always imagine an infinite number of scenarios – especially scary ones – and endlessly occupy ourselves with disaster planning.

How many of us might wish we knew beforehand that this pandemic was coming? If we knew, how might we have prepared ourselves? Those who have lost jobs, loved ones, even their own lives – how might they have prepared themselves if they had known?

Perhaps they would have told their family and friends about their premonition, hoping they would do all they could to help prevent disaster from striking.

We can’t imagine someone telling their loved ones, “This is what is going to happen. I just want you to be prepared. I don’t want you to do anything to stop it.” What kind of person, knowing that tragedy was about to strike, would so calmly and willingly accept it?

Someone like Jesus. Jesus had an advantage most of us don’t have. He knew what was going to happen. He told his disciples several times that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be turned over to the authorities, tried, mocked, flogged, crucified, and on the third day, rise from the dead. He knew this in advance, yet he did nothing to stop it, and he didn’t want his disciples to do anything to stop it.

We read in Matthew 16:21-23, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus knew what was going to happen to him in Jerusalem: that he would suffer and die in the cruelest ways imaginable. Not only did he do nothing to stop it, but he also rode triumphantly into Jerusalem.

How is it that Jesus was able to ride triumphantly – to face a difficult trial with such poise and confidence? And how can we ride triumphantly through these challenging times?

First and foremost, Jesus trusted God. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Well, I’m going into Jerusalem, where I’ll probably be crucified, and maybe rise from the dead in a few days.” He knew God’s plan of salvation, and he fully accepted his role in it.

Jesus completely trusted that if he did his part, God would do His Part. He needed a donkey and a colt, and they were there for him. You know, in those days, wealth was measured by how much livestock you had. A donkey and a colt were worth a lot of money, yet the owner gave them to Jesus’ disciples because they said, “the Lord needs them.”

These days, that would be like someone giving a stranger the keys to their BMW because he said to them, “the Lord needs it.” Can you imagine what a miracle that would be? That was the lesson for Jesus’ disciples. If we are in God’s Will, God provides. That’s His Part. Our part is to relax and trust Him.

In Matthew 6:25-27, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”

So if we’re worried about not being able to get what we need in the grocery store – like toilet paper – or we’re worried that we won’t be able to afford what we need because of job loss, or we’re worried that we’re losing our nest egg in the plunging stock market, let these fears be a sobering reminder that we are looking for security where it can’t be found.

It can be found in trusting God.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he trusted God, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to God, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” and he prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Jesus was a human being, so of course, he was afraid – and sad. Any normal human being would feel afraid and sad in his situation. Nevertheless, he submitted his will to God’s Will.

Any normal human being on this earth right now would feel afraid and sad. People are suffering; some are suffering terribly – so terribly that they are taking their own lives. It’s frightening, and it’s sad.

We can pray to God to cleanse the earth of this disease, heal all those who are ill, and provide for those in need. We can pray for the protection and sustenance of our family and friends. We can pray our own protection and sustenance. We can do all we can reasonably do to help others, and to stay safe and well. But then, we must let go and leave the rest up to God’s Will for the good of all.

Jesus was able to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem because he placed his faith in Christ, not in his personal self. Jesus of Nazareth would soon be no more. The life of that individual – of that character in this great play called Life – was about to end. Jesus didn’t identify with that small self as much as with the Christ. He knew that small self was a false, temporary self that paled in comparison to his glorious True Self – his eternal Self – in Christ.

The people shouting “Hosanna” in the streets were not celebrating the Christ and the spiritual salvation that was coming to them. They were not anticipating a suffering, dying Messiah. They were hoping for something else entirely. They were looking for political salvation. They were seeing a political hero in Jesus of Nazareth, someone who would rise up and defeat the Romans.

How many people today are hoping for a political savior? We’ve been suffering a great deal lately because of politics. Many are hoping for a political savior, someone to finally rise up and make things right in this country and in the world, whether it be our current President or someone else. I think like the people of Jesus’ time, those who are hoping for a political savior are in for a big disappointment.

The more we place our faith in another human being, or try to handle things on our own, the more anxious we become. This pandemic is making that even more apparent. Do we really think we limited, helpless human beings have the strength, wisdom, and compassion to handle this apart from God?

No way.

The good news is that there’s far more to us than our human nature. There is something within us that is all-powerful – the Christ – and the Christ has all the strength, all the wisdom, and all the compassion needed to handle this situation – if we would just stop looking for a hero where one can’t be found.

This pandemic is a cross for us personally. It is a cross for us collectively. Our personal and collective lives will never be the same. Who we were before, both personally and collectively, is dying right now.

We’re losing the life we’ve grown accustomed to, whether it be the life we had with a job, or the life we had in our community, or the life with shared with a loved one. We’re losing the self that moved through the life we once knew. We don’t know who we’re going to be, or what life is going to be like after we emerge from this tomb.

But if we have faith in Christ, we do know that the tomb of the small self is the womb of Christ. And, my friends, in this unprecedented time, the small self of not just one individual, but of all humanity, is in the tomb together, and if we have faith in Christ, if we’ve been anticipating his coming and bringing God’s Kingdom to earth, then we can ride triumphantly through these challenging times with more hope than we’ve ever had at any other time in human history!

Ponder for a moment what a blessing it is for you to be here at this time.

So, we don’t need to know what’s going to happen if we trust God, submit to God’s Will, and place our hope in Christ. We can, like the Lord, ride triumphantly through this challenging time.

And just as his riding in on a donkey suggested, we can ride through it in peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust God, submit to His Will, and place our hope in Christ. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, make us aware of our misplaced faith so that we can place our faith where it belongs and be at peace in these times and always. Amen.

Was Blind But Now I See

Jan Matejko / Public domain

Synopsis: This pandemic can be like a healing “mud” that washes away our spiritual blindness and opens our eyes so that we may behold the Son of Man and believe.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The title of today’s sermon is “Was Blind But Now I See.” You probably remember this line from John Newton’s well-known hymn, Amazing Grace. This hymn came out of the heart of a man with a very tumultuous past, a man many might have called a sinner due to his work in the African slave trade.

Yet he wrote this awesome hymn about God’s grace – a song that gives Christians around the world hope and strength in times of trouble – a song that relates to our scripture reading for today and certainly to the pandemic we are faced with today.

(Read John 9:1-41)

Let’s take a closer look at Jewish Sabbath laws so that we can get a better understanding of this event.

In 167 B.C., almost two centuries before Jesus was born, Antiochus’ army tried to put a stop to sacrifices at the Temple. The people of Jerusalem revolted and then fled to the desert, but their hiding place was soon discovered by the pursuing soldiers.

The soldiers surrounded the Jews and demanded they surrender. The Jews didn’t give in, but they refused to fight because it was the Sabbath. They wouldn’t even block the entrances to their caves. As a result, 1,000 men, women, and children died without resistance.

That gives us an idea of the intensity of the Jews’ conviction that the Sabbath should not be violated. Anyone who unintentionally violated the Sabbath was required to pay a heavy sin offering. Anyone who intentionally violated the Sabbath would be stoned to death.

By the time Jesus was born, the Jews’ conviction around Sabbath Laws had only become stronger. Because of the pagan influences all around them, the Pharisees had taken it upon themselves to keep the Jewish faith pure.

They had good intentions, but over time, they created rules so rigid and legalistic that they became needlessly burdensome. A farmer couldn’t plow his field on the Sabbath. That’s reasonable, right? Well, it didn’t end there. No one could drag a chair across the ground because that would create a furrow which is related to plowing.

A Jew could not carry a heavy load on the Sabbath. That’s reasonable too – but it didn’t end there. No one could wear an extra piece of clothing because that was related to carrying a load.

One dilemma that caused a lot of discussion was what a Jew could do if their house caught on fire on the Sabbath. The Pharisees ruled that a Jew could save only clothing, wearing one piece at a time, but it had to be taken off before going back into the burning house to save another garment.

Can you imagine the spectacle that would be?

These rules might be the “heavy burdens” Jesus spoke about when he said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The word “light” has a double-meaning when it relates to our scripture reading for today. Jesus deliberately violated the Pharisees’ burdensome Sabbath rules by healing a blind man on the Sabbath and helping him to “see the light” both physically and spiritually.

At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus had a major confrontation with the Pharisees. How major? Well, they had stones in their hands. That’s because Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Fortunately, Jesus was really good at escaping these situations.

It’s possible that Jesus notices this blind man as he is escaping the Temple. There is no indication that the blind man cried out to Jesus to be healed, but apparently, the disciples knew the man had been born blind because they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

I love this passage because it brings up that age-old question, “Why does God allow suffering?” The Jews believed people suffer because of their personal sins or the sins of their ancestors. I agree that we reap what we sow not only on a personal level, but also on a collective level.

If you are a parent, then you know that protecting your children from the consequences of their behavior cripples them because they never learn how to live responsibly. That’s why God allows suffering – so that we can learn all how to live responsibly.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could live in bubble and isolate ourselves from the effects of everyone else’s sins? No can do. We’re all in this mess together, so we all suffer together.

But we don’t want to believe that, so if someone is suffering, we ask, “Whose fault is it?” That is the question the disciples want Jesus to answer. Jesus dismisses their question because to him it doesn’t matter. He is focusing on the solution – the work he came to do to end suffering and to glorify God.

When someone is suffering, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Assigning blame doesn’t help; it only allows us to shirk our responsibility toward our brothers and sisters because hey – it’s their own fault. It’s so much easier to philosophize about suffering than to actually do something about it.

Doing something about it requires us to be brave enough to open our hearts, put ourselves in other people’s shoes, and imagine how they might feel. Then, we extend God’s Love by doing what we can do and letting God do the rest. That’s what Jesus did.

The way Jesus heals this man is different from the way he healed others. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus healed some blind men simply by touching their eyes. In this case, Jesus mixes dirt with his saliva to make mud, spreads it over the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.

Why didn’t Jesus just touch this man’s eyes? The others had faith in Jesus and asked to be healed. This man didn’t, so maybe Jesus provided a way for him to demonstrate faith. The man probably had his doubts, but unless he wanted to keep mud on his face, he had to go wash.

He was sent, so he went. Perhaps that’s all the faith he needed to be healed.

Jesus had also just escaped Pharisees holding stones, and healing on the Sabbath was forbidden. If he had placed his hands on the man’s eyes and healed him immediately, that would have drawn immediate attention whereas it took some time for the blind beggar to wash and come back.

By the time he returned to the scene, he was no longer a blind beggar, and the neighbors were the first to notice. Can you imagine the gossip?

“Hey, isn’t that the blind beggar?”

“No that’s not him – just someone who looks like him.”

“No, that’s definitely him.”

“No way!”

All the while, the man is saying, “Yes! It is me! I was the blind beggar!” But all he could tell them was what Jesus did, and then what he did, and somehow, he can now see. The neighbors ask where Jesus is, but the man doesn’t know. Jesus is nowhere to be found.

The neighbors brought the healed man to the Pharisees. Why’d they do that? I think they were terribly confused. A miraculous healing had just occurred, and it was the Pharisees’ job to investigate such things in order to judge whether they had come from God or from some evil source.

But this healing also occurred on the Sabbath, which is forbidden. So, in bringing this man to the Pharisees, the neighbors were saying, “Help! A man by the name of Jesus restored this man’s sight on the Sabbath! Does that make him a good guy or a bad guy?”

The healed man tells the Pharisees his story, and even the Pharisees are confused. Some said, “He can’t be from God if he violates the Sabbath,” and others were saying, “But we know that only someone with the power of God can do something as great as restoring sight to the blind!” Since the experts couldn’t decide amongst themselves what to think, they asked the healed man.

At least he had the courage to speak his mind. He said, “He’s a prophet.” Well, the Pharisees didn’t want to hear that. We can imagine them saying, “Oh well, you must be one of his followers who faked blindness to promote him. Get his parents in here for questioning!”

Poor guy! Don’t you just love it when people ask you what you think when they really don’t want to hear what you think – unless, of course, it validates what they think?

So, the healed man’s parents are dragged in for questioning. They say, “Yes, this is our son, and yes he was born blind, and no we don’t know how it happened that he can now see. Ask him.” Can you blame them? During this time, the Pharisees had threatened to excommunicate anyone who proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah. 

They bring the healed man back in, and they say to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” In other words, because Jesus had violated the Sabbath, and was therefore in their minds a sinner, they could not believe that he had healed this man. So, they were saying to him, “Swear before God that you are telling the truth – that this sinner restored your sight.”

The healed man bravely stands his ground and soundly rebukes the Pharisees for their refusal to accept the facts – that this man – whether he be a sinner or not – restored his sight. When they keep pressing him about how Jesus restored his sight, he finally says, “I’ve already told you! If you don’t believe me, then why don’t you become one of his followers!”

Then he proceeded to remind them of their own rules – the same rules Nicodemus applied when he said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” The healed man says, “How astonishing it is that you can’t see that this man is from God when your own rules prove it!”

They can’t see. Isn’t it ironic? A formally-blind man is now trying to open the eyes of the blind Pharisees. Clearly, the Pharisees refuse to see the truth. Self-righteous indignation takes over because – as far as they are concerned – since this man was born blind, he was born in sin, so how dare he attempt to teach them? In their rage, they throw him out of the Temple.

Jesus hears that the healed man was excommunicated, so he seeks him out to join to with Christ. First, Jesus asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. In Judaism, “son of man” has two meanings. When it is preceded by the article “a” as in “a son of man,” it refers to an ordinary human being. However, when it preceded by the article “the” as in “the Son of Man,” it means something else.

It seems the healed man knows what the term “the Son of Man” means because he doesn’t ask, “What do you mean by ‘the Son of Man?’” Most Jews were expecting a Son of God – a human with Divine favor – an anointed king from David’s line. But in Judaism, there was also a belief in the Son of Man from Daniel’ prophecy, the Divine who became human.

Some Jews, such as the Pharisees, refused to accept the idea that any human being could be equal to God. That is why they picked up stones when Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” He was giving the Pharisees a little hint at who he is, and their response indicated their rejection of the Son of Man.

The healed man believed in the Son of Man and wanted to worship him – if only he knew his identity. When Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man, the man professed his faith and bowed down and worshipped him.

Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The formally blind man’s mind and heart were open, allowing him to see spiritual truth. He wasn’t blinded by his investment in his own ideas about God and how to be in a good relationship with Him.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, refused to see the obvious evidence that God was somehow joined with this human being named Jesus because to do so would require them to admit that their ideas about God and their harsh rules about how to be in a good relationship with Him – were wrong.

We humans would rather be blind than wrong – further evidence of our insanity.

One man sinned, and humanity suffered – but because one man turned from sin, because one man looked past the form to the Christ within, humanity was saved.

We’re all in this mess together: that truth is evident now more than ever. In this pandemic, we are all experiencing the acute pain of separation. How many of us this week have felt unnervingly fearful and deeply lonely? My friends, this feeling is ancient. Humanity has been feeling this way since Adam and Eve saw naked bodies and covered them with fig leaves.

They looked, saw sin in nakedness, and covered their bodies. We look at each other, see germs, and cover our hands with gloves and our faces with masks. Adam and Eve saw bodies that were naked, but they were not those bodies. We see bodies that carry germs, get sick and die, but we are not these bodies.

This is more than a world health crisis; it is an existential crisis – a spiritual crisis. Ironically, while we are separated physically, we are joined together in a single purpose. For once, all the countries of this world are joined together fighting a common enemy and valuing more than ever the preservation of life.

This crisis could end up being the mud that opens the eyes of humanity and brings about the coming of Christ into the hearts of all. All of humanity is taking a journey of faith to the pool of Siloam right now. We don’t know if this social distancing thing is going to work, but we’ve been sent, so we went. Unless we want to keep this virus around, we have no choice.

Now is the time to exercise our faith, compassion, and trust muscles. No one wants to die, but if we have faith in Christ, we need not fear death. We are not these bodies, so its death is not the death of who we really are. Whenever we feel afraid, we can find peace by reminding ourselves of this truth.

We may not fear death, but there are many others around us who do, so we need to exercise compassion. I heard about a local church that continues to hold the passing of the peace as it always has – with touching, hugging, and kissing – because they say, “Jesus will save us.”

That’s just an attempt to glorify ourselves – even if it’s at others’ expense. To say, “Look at me! Look how strong my faith is!” Remember what Jesus said when Satan tempted him to cast himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple: “It is written; you shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”

Finally, we need to trust God to use this situation for the good of all. This major inconvenience – to say the least – is proof that life doesn’t revolve around our personal selves. Life serves all of life, so let’s trust that somehow, in the end, we will be reassured of the abundance of God’s grace.

We don’t know what life is going to be like after this is over, but I think we’re pretty sure this is the end of the world as we know it. Humanity will never be the same, and the change might be profound. Perhaps the little caterpillar will finally transform into the butterfly.

As Thomas Merton wrote, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time, there would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed . . . I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we come to you today, willing to lay down our heavy burdens before you. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to open our minds and hearts to see the light of Truth. Give us the strength to focus on solutions and on the work we came to do to glorify you.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “12. The Light of the World (John 9:1-41).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/light-world-john-91-41.

Merton, Thomas. “Thomas Merton Quotes.” AZQuotes.com, https://www.azquotes.com/quote/528853

What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

Synopsis: Many Christians claim to be “born again.” The term comes from the scene of Jesus’ visit with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When we Christians say we are “born again,” do we understand what Jesus meant, or have we created our own meaning?

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture: John 3: 1-17

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine if a great preacher and healer came into our world at this time, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation about whether this person is the second coming of Christ. Now, imagine if Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham or any of today’s famous Christian evangelists came to visit this person, confessed their faith, and they were told, “Your belief isn’t enough to save you.”

Imagine how flabbergasted they would feel, and you can begin to imagine how Nicodemus might have felt in our scripture reading for today.

First, let’s look at the setting of this event, which might explain why Nicodemus visited with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the powerful Jewish council. He was one of the most prominent religious teachers of his day, and the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing got his attention.

Jesus astonished his audiences with the depth of his Scriptural understanding from the time he was twelve years old and continuing into his ministry as an adult. At the end of Matthew chapter 7:28-29, after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds, we read, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Not only did Jesus astound the crowds with his teaching, but also with his healing. We read in Luke 5:17 “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

At this point, the religious leaders were hard-pressed to criticize Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have any trouble criticizing them. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus taught the people that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he said in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If that wasn’t enough to get Nicodemus’ attention, then perhaps Jesus’ cleansing the temple was. Nicodemus’ visit is placed immediately after this event in John’s gospel. When the religious leaders asked Jesus to produce a sign to prove his authority to cleanse the temple, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Nicodemus was one of the most renowned Torah teachers of his day, yet when Jesus preached, he captivated audiences in ways that Nicodemus never could, and when Jesus preached, he answered questions that had puzzled Nicodemus for years. Jesus also performed many miracles, yet Nicodemus himself had yet to perform one.

Jesus made the Jewish teachers of the law look like amateurs – even ones as great as Nicodemus. Blinded by pride, most of them refused to believe that he came from God despite the obvious power of his preaching and healing abilities, and most of them would eventually join together to find ways to discredit Jesus and have him arrested.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night – alone. The Pharisees normally operated during the day – and in packs. Why is Nicodemus acting so unlike the other Pharisees?

Well … because Nicodemus was indeed unlike the other Pharisees. The first thing he says to Jesus is, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus shows Jesus great respect by calling him “Rabbi,” a title reserved for teachers of the law like himself. But notice that Nicodemus doesn’t say, “I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for all the Pharisees?

The majority of the Pharisees ultimately rejected Jesus, so he must not be saying, “All we Pharisees believe in you, Jesus!” I think he’s saying, “Based on the way we Pharisees judge things like miraculous signs, the evidence suggests that your power must come from God.” He was drawing a logical conclusion based on the evidence according to his Pharisaic training.

At this point, I’m sure Nicodemus was looking forward to hearing Jesus talk all about himself and his divinely-inspired mission. I’m sure he had a lot of questions he would have liked Jesus to answer.

Instead, Jesus makes a statement that totally confounds Nicodemus. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He’s essentially telling Nicodemus, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but your belief is not enough to save you.”

I’m sure Nicodemus was shocked by this statement. He probably thought, “Wait just a minute here! I don’t need to be born again! I was born a Son of Abraham – an heir to the Kingdom of God. I follow Torah Law and teach others to do the same. How is that not enough?”

I’m sure today’s biggest Christian evangelists would be just as shocked. They might think, “Wait just a minute here! I was baptized a Christian, I say the Apostle’s Creed, I administer and partake in the sacraments, and I preach the gospel. How is that not enough?”

Nicodemus was not afraid to express his confusion and ignorance: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We Christians got the term “born again” from this story, so our Christian evangelists might say, “Oh, yes, Lord! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a born-again Christian.” When we call ourselves “born again,” what do we mean? Have we adopted Jesus’ meaning or our own?

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves two things: The first is water. I believe Jesus’ use of the word “water” relates to John’s baptism. Remember that John’s baptism wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins. It was a sign of God’s blessing on those who had repented and made a commitment to God.

Jesus liked using parables to make a point, and I’d like to do the same using one of his parables – the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. The younger son brazenly asks his father for his inheritance – basically expressing a wish for his father to die. In response, the father divides his inheritance between his two sons.

The younger son cashes in all his assets and goes to a “distant country.” When a famine strikes, he comes to his senses, repents, and begins to return home to his father. Along the way, he makes plans to ask his father to be accepted as a hired hand, but his father runs to meet him with open arms and throws a feast to celebrate his return.

The elder son becomes jealous and complains to his father saying in essence, “Here I’ve served you all these years, and you never rewarded me!” Now, it was the elder son’s duty to keep the family together, yet he gladly took his share of the inheritance and said “see ya!” to his younger brother.

Clearly, the elder son didn’t serve his father out of love; he served him for profit. He saw his father more as a boss whom he served only for a paycheck – for what he could get in return – not out of love – not out of gratitude – and with zero concern for him or his brother.

Rather than joining with his father and his brother, the elder brother exiled himself because he resented the fact that he couldn’t use his family for his own personal gain. He shook his finger at his younger brother while he himself despised his family and while he himself desired to be on his own every bit as much as his younger brother had – but without repentance.

The elder son was even more lost than his younger brother. We Christians can be deceived just like the elder son when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another. We can’t have a right relationship with God and with one another if our heart is in the wrong place.

In the wilderness, Satan tried everything in his power to get Jesus to abandon his commitment to God. Satan does the same thing to us – every single day.

I once said that I believe Satan is the ego. I’ve changed my mind. Satan is a fallen angel and the Prince of Darkness. He is real, but we don’t need to fear him. We do need to be aware of how he deceives us. His favorite way to deceive us to tempt us by appealing to our greatest weakness – the ego – our desire to be separate and to serve only ourselves.

Satan has no problem with people being religious. He can easily tempt people to use religion to profit themselves – to acquire more power, pleasure, prestige, or material possessions. Satan has no problem with religious belief at the shallow level of the mind. He can easily tempt people to mask their sins – their apathy, their arrogance, their greed, and their hatred – behind “religious beliefs.”

Satan has a major problem with people joining with Christ. Because once all of humanity joins with Christ, the Light of the World, the Prince of Darkness will have no more power over us.

Being “reborn of water” means a lot more than just admission into “Club Christian” through baptism. Our heart must be in the right place. We must be willing for the Holy Spirit to show us if it isn’t so that we can repent and make a new commitment to join with Christ.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves not only being reborn of water but also being reborn of Spirit.

Nicodemus responds to this idea with, “How can these things be?” Jesus gently rebukes him saying, “Eeeeya! And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” We Christians should have some compassion for Nicodemus because we too are deeply ignorant when it comes to our true nature.

If we believe that we were born and will someday die; then, we believe we are of the flesh. But the flesh hardly scratches the surface of who we really are. The flesh is like the tip of an iceberg so vast under the surface that we can’t even begin to imagine how big it is, or how deep it goes.

We’ve focused for so long on the tip of the iceberg that we’ve lost awareness of the vastness of our Being beneath the surface, and now we wonder like Nicodemus, “Really? How can it be that we are more these individuals?”

Think about this: When winter comes, many things in the natural world die. We aren’t horrified by this at all because we know spring is coming. We love spring because life returns to the Earth. Everything is reborn. We accept that the natural world is all part of this cycle of Life, and Life never dies; it continues on in ever-changing forms.

Isn’t that glorious? Well guess what? We’re part the natural world and therefore part of this glorious cycle of life. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was speaking as the Christ, and he was speaking quite literally. In Christ, we are the Life! We are literally Life itself!

That’s how God created us, but we humans refuse to believe that. We’d rather believe we’re separate – maybe because we’d like to think we’re superior to the rest of the natural world. We’d rather believe that we are this individual that dies than simply take our humble place alongside the rest of Life.

We’d rather believe that we can be separate and exploit the rest of Life and keep all the goodies to ourselves. Of course, keeping all the goodies to ourselves is meaningless unless we can somehow figure out how to make this individual live forever. Since that is “mission impossible,” we live in constant fear.

We choose to believe in this illusion of separation and experience fear, suffering, and death rather than to believe in who we are as God created us, as One with Him and All of Life, and to gratefully accept our inheritance: peace, joy, and eternal life.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He’s saying that the only way we can see the Kingdom of God is to join with Christ because Christ was born from above, not this thing (body).

Why in the world would we choose to believe we are these individuals and accept fear, suffering, and death when we have a far better choice? Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we can now draw a logical conclusion based on the evidence: We humans are spiritually insane.

Thankfully, God does not condemn us for our insanity. The insane can’t exercise their free will, so God had to intervene to save us. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse sums up the Gospel, but it is usually taken out of context. Because of that, the word “so” is often mistakenly interpreted as “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son ….” But in the Bible, the word “so” is often used to mean “in the same way.”

A better translation would be “For God in the same way loved the world that he gave his only Son ….” In what same way? In the same way as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is using the word “so” to point Nicodemus back to an event in Israel’s history.

This event takes place in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites were still wondering in the wilderness at this time, but they were growing impatient. They spoke out against God and Moses, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many Israelites who were bitten by the snakes died, so the people cried out to Moses, asking him to pray to God to remove the snakes.

God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he instructed Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God has a plan to heal humanity in the same way he healed the Israelites in the wilderness. I believe the serpents represent this false idol (the body), and the poison is our belief in it. God in his love for us sent Jesus to take this false idol to the cross to prove to us that it is nothing and to show us who we really are in Christ. Those who look up to the Christ and believe will be healed of the poison that has caused our spiritual insanity.

To be born again requires more of us than a simple confession of belief on the level of the mind. First, our heart must be in the right place. Therefore, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and help us come to our senses if we are living in the filth of fear, suffering, and death – or feeling a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

Next, if our heart is in the wrong place, we must repent and turn our faces back toward home, never again to turn them back toward that “distant country.” We must make the journey back to God step-by-step, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, as we wait for God to run to greet us and enfold us in His Arms.

It is only then that we will truly know what it means to be “born again.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be born from above – to be reborn of water and the Spirit. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, bring to our awareness what is in our hearts that may need to be cleansed with the water of repentance so that we can turn our face up toward Christ once again and continue our journey Home. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “8. Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon. Note: The live recording of this sermon ends at about 9:45 (my recording device’s batteries died). The remaining sermon audio was recorded in my home.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with your from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/

Becoming Fishers of Humanity

Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain]

Synopsis: There is a difference between a job and a calling – between what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. Jesus called these Galilean men because they were empty of the three things that keep us all from becoming fishers of humanity.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:12-23

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you have had a job that paid the bills and gave you plenty of security, but deep down, you felt unfulfilled? Now how many of you have done work that was so deeply fulfilling that you did it even though it didn’t pay the bills or offer you any security?

That’s the difference between a job and a calling: what you are paid to do versus what you are made to do. That’s what our scripture reading for today is all about.

Up to this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had not yet begun his public ministry. He hadn’t preached or performed any miracles. We’ve been given Jesus’ genealogy, and the accounts of his supernatural birth, the visit by the magi, the family’s flight to Egypt, and their eventual settling in Nazareth in the province of Galilee. 

Matthew then fast-forwards through Jesus’ childhood to the story of his baptism by John, where the Spirit’s proclaims that Jesus is indeed the one that God has chosen to carry out his plan of salvation. After this, Jesus enters the wilderness, where his commitment to God is tested. He passes the test and puts on the mantle of the Savior.

All along, Matthew quotes Scriptures to prove that Jesus fits the description of the Messiah the Jews have been expecting. This is essentially the goal of Matthew’s gospel.

Most people don’t realize that about a year passes between Jesus’ temptation and his withdrawal to Galilee. Matthew doesn’t tell us what happened in Jesus’ life during that year, but according to John’s gospel, he was quite busy: He called his first disciples, changed water into wine at Cana, drove the moneychangers out of the Temple in Jerusalem, visited Nicodemus, and spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well.

Capernaum, where Jesus settled according to our scripture reading, was located on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee. After John was arrested, Capernaum became Jesus’ home base, rather than his hometown of Nazareth.

There are several callings recorded in the New Testament, which can be a bit confusing. It seems that shortly after Jesus’ baptism, two of John’s disciples, Andrew and Philip, began following Jesus. Andrew recruited his brother Peter, and Philip recruited his brother Nathaniel.

Our scripture reading includes Andrew and Simon (or Peter) and another set of brothers, James and John. It’s possible that these brothers had been following Jesus already, but not full time. We read Jesus said, “follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they immediately “left their nets and followed him.” At this point, they became his disciples.

Most of Jesus’ ministry occurred in Galilee, and Matthew gives us an overview of his ministry in Galilee in verses 23 -25. Basically, it was an instant success. He ministered to large crowds of people, teaching, proclaiming the good news, and healing people of many ailments.

An example of Jesus’ ministry is given to us in Matthew chapter 8 verses 14-17: “When Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.”

“That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”

We all know how quickly word spreads in a small town. Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law at some time during the day, and by that evening, many were being brought to Jesus to be healed. In those days, I’m sure there were many incurable diseases and desperate people who had been suffering for a long time.

We can imagine how fast word would travel if someone with this kind of healing power showed up today. People with cancer, mental illness, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome – all the diseases modern medicine can’t seem to cure – would come to be healed.

Jesus didn’t begin his ministry small. The province of Galilee was a little larger than the size of Texas, with 204 total cities and villages, each populated with no less than 15,000 people. The historian Josephus estimated Galilee’s population to be about three million. It would have taken at least a few months, visiting a couple of towns per day, with no time off, to cover it all.

But why would Jesus begin his ministry in Galilee, not in Judea or even in the City of Jerusalem? Galilee was a weird place for Jesus to start his ministry. It was located at the northernmost tier of Palestine, with Samaria sandwiched in between it and Judea, where Jerusalem was located.

It was pretty far from Jerusalem, not only geographically, but also politically. A couple of years before Jesus was born, Judas of Galilee led Sephoris, the capital city of Galilee, into a revolt against the Romans. The Galileans were shamefully crushed.

Jesus was Galilean, his disciples were Galilean, and most of his followers were Galilean, including the women who followed Jesus full time.

Matthew explains that Jesus’ choice was not a mistake; he was fulfilling a prophecy found in Isaiah chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” These Galileans, these spiritual derelicts and troublemakers, were being given a bright light through Jesus’ presence.

I personally don’t believe Jesus chose Galilee to begin his ministry just to fulfill a prophecy. I think he was looking for followers and disciples, and he knew that Galilee was the right place to find them. He was in a province known for its militancy, but he didn’t recruit these Galileans because he thought they’d be good soldiers.

He recruited them because he believed they would become great “fishers of humanity.”

The work Jesus was calling these men into didn’t have anything to do with doing. It was all about being – being in relationship – being in relationship with Jesus, with God, with one another, and ultimately with all of humanity – catching people in the Net of God’s Love.

Jesus called these Galilean men to be “fishers of humanity” mainly because they were empty. Empty of what? First, they were empty of pride. They were empty of pride because they were men of Galilee, and Galileans were generally looked down upon. People viewed Galileans like people today view those who come from the “wrong side of town.”

The fact that Jesus was a Galilean caused many to doubt that he could possibly be the Messiah. When Philip recruited his brother Nathanial, he said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”

Even Nathanael had his doubts about this man from Galilee, and Nathanael was a Galilean!

The people of Galilee walked in darkness – so did the people of Judea. The difference is that the people of Galilee knew they walked in darkness; the people of Judea didn’t. I think that’s why Jesus chose Galilee to start his ministry. He knew Galilee was ripe with followers and disciples.

Pride separates us from others because it causes us to see ourselves as superior to those who are different from us. So we say, “I’m not going to associate with those kinds of people.”

Our human nature doesn’t like dealing with people who are different. When people lived in small, tight-knit communities, that wasn’t a problem because people rarely came in contact with outsiders.

In this day and age, with modern technology making long-distance travel and communication quick and easy, we are increasingly coming into contact with a large variety of people who are different from us.

We must get over our aversion to people who are different if we want to become fishers of humanity; otherwise, we won’t be able to extend the Net of God’s love freely.

I recently came across a BBC article and video entitled, “We can get along because that’s America.” The Reverend Shayna Appel (a Democrat) and Nick Desautels (a Republican) met each other at a rally for a Democratic candidate in New Hampshire.

The video begins with Reverend Appel saying, “a queer clergy, non-gender normative individual and a big hairy Trump guy, and here we are getting along because that’s America.” Nick, the big, hairy Trump guy, replied, “It’s sad that people on either side have such a terrible vision of what the other side is about.” Then he talked about how he and the reverend, just by having a five-minute conversation, found out that they actually have a lot in common.

That conversation wouldn’t have happened if the two of them had not been empty of pride.  

Second, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of religion. Galilee was not only far from Jerusalem geographically and politically; it was also far from Jerusalem spiritually. Galilee was the most pagan of Jewish provinces, and those who followed Torah Law followed it loosely.

The people of Judea were the opposite. In John chapter 7, when Jesus taught in the Temple during Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, we read, “When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’”

When those in authority considered arresting Jesus, we read “Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’”

The Messiah was standing right in front of them, but their religion was blocking their view. They were attached to their way of interpreting the Torah. That’s why Matthew wrote this gospel – to try to help them view their Scriptures from a different perspective.

If we want to become fishers of humanity, we must be willing to loosen our grip on our religion, especially the literal interpretation of Scripture. We need to learn to view the Scriptures from different perspectives.

I feel sorry for those who are waiting for the world to end catastrophically as described in the Book of Revelations. Some are so afraid of being “left behind” that they won’t relate to anyone outside of their own religious communities. Others try to relate, but it’s coming from a place of fear and judgment.

How many of you have heard of Joseph Campbell? He is the “Matthew” of today. Joseph Campbell was a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College; he worked in comparative mythology and comparative religion.

He wrote many books designed to helps us view stories in Holy Scriptures from a mythical perspective. When he calls these stories “myths,” he doesn’t mean they are lies. He means that they point to a truth beyond the literal meaning – a truth about the great mystery of being – a truth that we can’t even begin to grasp without the story as a handle.

In Joseph Campbell’s book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, the editor writes, “In a true sense, we might say that Joseph Campbell preaches the End of the World, that great metaphor of spirituality that has been so explosively employed by those who have taken its denotative skin and thrown aside its connotative meat.”

“For, as Campbell explains, the End of the World is not a cataclysmic event to whose final judgmental terror we draw ever closer. The End of the World comes every day for those whose spiritual insight allows them to see the world as it is, transparent to transcendence, a sacrament of mystery, or, as the poet William Blake wrote, ‘infinite.’”

Finally, these Galilean “fishers of men” were empty of fear. When Jesus called them, they immediately left their nets. They didn’t consider what they were getting themselves into or how they would support themselves without their fishing income. They knew deep down that catching fish wasn’t what they were made to do.

Our human nature seeks security through the four P’s: power, prestige, pleasure, and possessions – but no matter how much of these worldly things we have, we never feel secure. That’s because we’re seeking security in all the wrong places.

The key to ultimate security lies in being who we are and in doing what we were made to do. A net’s purpose is to catch fish. That’s what it was made for. We are an extension of God’s Love, so we were made to extend. We are the Net of God’s Love, so by extending Love, we become fishers of humanity, and we step into the purpose for which we were created.

When we step into the purpose for which we were created, God supports us. Think about it: Why wouldn’t he if we are doing exactly what he created us to do? We’ll get exactly what we need when we need it, so we don’t have to worry so much about security.

When we relax and go with the flow of life instead of anxiously trying to survive, we become more aware of what Life is bringing to us and what Life is asking of us. We can clearly see the resources offered to us – but also the opportunities and connections that come our way.

The Reverend David Lose writes, “Jesus issues the same call to us – to be in genuine and real relationships with the people around us, and to be in those relationships the way Jesus was and is in relationship with his disciples and with us: bearing each other’s burdens, caring for each other and especially the vulnerable, holding onto each other through thick and thin, always with the hope and promise of God’s abundant grace.”

“Sometimes that call – to be in Christ-shaped relationship with others – will take us far from home and sometimes it will take shape in and among the people right around us. But it will always involve persons – not simply a mission or a ministry or a movement, but actual, flesh-and-blood persons.”

Think about all the people in your net – all the people you “relate” to in some way – whether it be family, friends, or coworkers. Are any of them carrying a burden? How can you help? Also think about the people who are not in your net. Has the Lord been calling you to cast your net and haul anyone in? Is pride, religion, or fear getting in the way?

Let us all think of ourselves as fishers of humanity – because that’s what we are. God created us for that purpose, and the Lord has been calling us and will keep calling us all our lives to extend the Net of God’s Love to all those He has sent our way.

Let’s pray together:

Lord, we have answered your call to be fishers of humanity. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, may we be made aware of any fullness within us so that we can become empty and free to obey the promptings Spirit gives us to cast our net around those in need. Amen.

Resources

Campbell, Joseph. Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor (The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell Book 4) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Joseph Campbell Foundation. Kindle Edition.

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Commencement of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:12-25).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/8-commencement-jesus-ministry-matthew-412-25

Hunt, Janet H. “Following Jesus” That For Which We Were Made.” 15 Jan. 2017, dancingwiththeword.com, dancingwiththeword.com/following-jesus-that-for-which-we-are-made/

Lose, David. “Fishers of People.” Workingpreacher.org, 20 Jan. 2014, www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3018

“We Can Get Along Because That’s America.” BBC News, 17 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-51158038/we-can-get-along-because-that-s-america?fbclid=IwAR1sMbMJ7vJu6nid9Eu_N5gMsYl49RpK1s_Wj5KT7PIt0drdGNJritEhsvU

Sharing Christ’s Baptism

Michael Angelo Immenraet [Public domain]

Synopsis: The answer to the perplexing question, “Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized?” can be answered by considering how first-century Jews viewed baptism. We can learn how to share in Christ’s baptism by pondering some snapshots from the scene of Jesus’ baptism.

Scripture: Matthew 3: 13-17

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

How many of you were baptized when you were a child? I was baptized the first time when I was only a couple months old. I had no idea was I was getting myself into. That’s how many Christians were baptized – as infants or young children – we had no choice and no idea what it meant.

Some adults choose to get baptized for a variety of reasons: to become members of a church and participate in communion, in response to an inspiring preacher or church service, or because someone tells them that they must be baptized if they want to be saved.

Why did Jesus choose to come to John the Baptist to be baptized? That’s a puzzling question for many – even John the Baptist. Some say he must have repented of his sins; after all, John’s baptism is commonly understood to be a baptism of repentance.

Other say, no – Jesus was the sinless Son of God. So then, why did he ask John to baptize him? The answer lies in how this event in Jesus’ life might have been interpreted by those who were there and saw it all happen: first century Jews.

The Gospel of Matthew opens with a description of John the Baptist. We read that John had a strange diet – locusts and wild honey – and that he wore strange clothing – camel’s hair with a belt around his waist. Matthew points to a prophecy in Isaiah about him: “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

John spent every day of his life in the wilderness until he was revealed to Israel. He lived a rugged life in the mountainous area of Judea, between the city of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John’s fiery preaching about holiness and the consequences of sin inspired droves come to him to be baptized. 

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls might give us some insight into how John saw baptism. The scrolls tell us that there was a community of Jews at Qumran near where John was baptizing that had very strict entry requirements.

To become part of this community people had to go through rigorous testing to prove themselves “sons of light.” They had to abandon their worldly lives, surrender all their possessions to the community, and live according to Torah Law as interpreted by the community. After they had proven themselves to be pure in heart, they were then baptized by ritual immersion and formally admitted into the community.

According to the Qumran community’s view of baptism, a person’s heart had to be pure before he or she was baptized. The baptism was designed to cleanse or purify the body of an already cleansed or purified soul. Afterwards, you’re clean through-and-through – inside and out.

John probably wasn’t a member of this Qumran community because he didn’t require people to give up their worldly lives and possessions. But he was influenced by their view of baptism. He did require purity of heart as a prerequisite. That’s why he called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” They taught Torah Law and urged others to follow it, but they didn’t practice what they preached.  

John’s baptism didn’t purify the heart, only the body of men and women who had already turned from sin – who were already pure of heart. John’s Baptism wasn’t a way to earn pardon for sins; it was a way of acknowledging God’s favor on those who were living righteous lives – those who would escape the ax.

So then, why did John hesitate to baptize Jesus? if John’s baptism was not a way to earn pardon for sin, it doesn’t make sense that he refused because Jesus was sinless. I think John was acknowledging that the level of purity of Jesus’ heart far exceeded his own, so Jesus should be baptizing him.

In the gospels of Luke and John, we read that John said to those coming to be baptized that someone was coming whose level of holiness was so great that he was not worthy to perform the lowliest task of a servant – to untie the straps of his sandals.

What did Jesus mean when he responded to John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” I think he was saying to John, “Let’s stick to God’s Plan. God’s Plan is for you to be the Baptist and for me to be the Messiah.”

We read that when Jesus came out of the water, a Voice from Heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This “Voice from Heaven” would not have been an unusual occurrence for first-century Jews. The Voice of God was often thought to be heard in the chirping of a bird or in the cooing of a dove.

At the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 1:2, we read “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” Rabbi Simeon b. Zoma imagined the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, like a dove gracefully hovers over its nest. Isaiah 11:2 reads, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” in reference to the Messiah. The Sprit of God would rest upon the Messiah and empower him to fulfill his mission.

We can now understand that if a dove suddenly hovered gracefully over the head of Jesus at the time of his baptism, people would have interpreted that as Messianic sign, and some related Scripture verses might have come to mind.

The voice quotes two verses from Scripture. The first is Psalms 2:7; “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” The second is Isaiah 42:1; “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

The use of the word “Son” relates to the word used in Psalms, and the word “beloved” to the words “my chosen” from Isaiah. I believe Moffatt’s translation combines the two ideas nicely: “You are my son, the chosen; today, I have brought you forth.”

So, to the first-century Jews who witnessed this event, God was saying through the appearance of this dove, “Here he is! Here is my anointed one, the one I have chosen, and the one I am empowering to carry out my plan of salvation.”

Jesus chose to be baptized by John because he was a human being along with everyone else at this special time when God was enacting his plan of salvation. From the time he was born, Jesus had dedicated his life to God, so he was a perfect candidate for John’s baptism.

And it was part of God’s plan that Jesus be baptized to introduce him to the people as His chosen one and to empower him to fulfill his mission.

How can we share Christ’s baptism? Obviously, Jesus had a very difficult mission. He did and said a lot of things that offended and opposed people in high places. You might remember that after Jesus entered Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, several religious leaders asked him, “By what authority do you do these things?”

Jesus responded by asking them, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or not?” Jesus’ point was that John’s baptism was indeed from heaven, and that’s why he’s doing these things. He’s speaking the Truth and serving humanity because the Holy Spirit is empowering him to do these things, so he must do them – even if it means death on a cross.

Don’t worry; we don’t have to “go and do likewise” to share Christ’s baptism. Jesus already completed the suffering and dying part. He did all of that to set us free from the ignorance about our true nature that leads to sin and suffering. Through his suffering and death, he showed us who we really are, he united with the Christ, and he provided a path for all to follow. 

We made a commitment to follow that path and consciously unite with Christ when we came to the baptismal font or river. If our parents brought us as young children, it was because they acknowledged that we belonged to God. We were too young to make a conscious commitment, so as stewards of God’s child, it was their responsibility to make that commitment for us and to provide the training we needed to keep it.

So, while our missions may be different from that of Jesus, we can still take some snapshots from the scene of his baptism and use them to inform us about how we can share Christ’s baptism.

First, John felt unworthy to baptize Jesus. Isn’t that ironic? God created John to be the Baptist. He was fashioned from the womb for that job. In the Gospel of Luke chapter 1, we read of his miraculous birth to elderly parents who were barren. God’s messenger, the archangel Gabriel, announced to John’s father, the Levitical Priest Zachariah, that he would have a son that he was to name John.

In verses 14-17, Gabriel tells Zachariah that John will be great in the Lord’s sight. He must never drink wine or strong drink, for he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will turn people’s hearts back to the Lord to prepare them for the coming of the Savior.

That’s a calling!

So, if God has called us to fulfill a role, we are worthy. We shouldn’t doubt ourselves, or let the world tell us we’re not worthy. No one else can fulfill our role. We are unique. There is no one like us in the entire universe, yet we were chosen for a specific purpose, and who knows us better than God?

I was thirteen years old on a religious retreat when God called me to serve as a minister. I doubted that call because as a Missouri-Synod Lutheran, I had been taught that it was not proper for a female to be a minister. I doubted it even more when I realized that I am gay. I figured I couldn’t be both gay and Christian, and I couldn’t stop being gay, so I stopped being Christian. I stopped believing in God.

But God didn’t stop believing in me. He kept calling me. I was working at Burger King one day when I noticed a newspaper article about a church run by a gay couple: Pastor Brian, who led the worship services, and his partner, Tom, who was the music director.

Their mission was to help other gay people view God and the Scriptures as non-condemning and to provide a safe place to worship. Their mission certainly wasn’t without risk. Pastor Brian showed up for church one Sunday morning with bruises all over his face after having been “gay bashed” the night before.

I was baptized the second time by Pastor Brian, by immersion in the Lehigh River. It was my way of saying, “OK, God. I’m back, and I’m ready to do what you’ve called me to do.” If Pastor Brian and Tom had doubted God’s call to them, if they had listened to people telling them that they weren’t worthy, I doubt I’d be standing here today.

God has fashioned you in the womb for a purpose. You certainly don’t have to be an ordained minister. You might be a secretary whom people confide in for your wisdom and compassion. You might be a cashier whose smile brightens people’s day. Maybe you’re the kind of person who radiates kindness and compassion wherever you go. That’s your mission. God made you for that.

We should be confident about our calling, but not cocky. Jesus was very humble. He didn’t say, “I’m too holy to be baptized.” He didn’t set himself apart; he joined with his people Israel and with all humanity. He had a very pure heart, but he didn’t compare himself to others, and he strongly criticized the self-righteous Pharisees who did compare themselves to others. Jesus wanted his light to shine to turn people’s hearts back to God, not to draw attention to himself.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

So, as we go out our missions for God, let us remember that we’re not doing what we’re doing so that people will see what a “good person” we are and give us glory. We’re doing what we’re doing so that people will see God’s glory in human beings who have transcended the typical ego-centric “what’s in it for me” attitudes and behaviors.

What a wonderful world it will be when we’re finally free of all that.

Finally, after his baptism, Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve. That’s how he was able to accomplish the difficult task set before him. God didn’t give him that difficult task and say, “Good luck with that.” He gave him His Holy Spirit to guide him and give him strength.

So, we can trust that the Holy Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms to empower us to complete whatever mission God has given us to fulfill, no matter how difficult. It’s up to us whether to follow the Holy Spirit’s promptings, which may at times be hard. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit will prompt us to speak the Truth and to serve others in ways that might offend or provoke people, and we could be hurt.

But when it comes to living out our baptism, as the Rev. Brett Younger writes, “The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.”

Getting baptized is like getting married. We really don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into. But we take the plunge, and we find that the meaning becomes clearer as we travel through life with our beloved, experiencing triumphs and tribulations, and somehow along the way, our love and commitment deepens, and we become truly One.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we have committed ourselves to God as servants of the Light. Help us to trust in the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the guidance and strength we need to live out our baptisms so that all may be united with You in Christ.