Sunday, January 8, 2017

"The Heavens are Opened" - Sermon, January 8, 2017

Community United Methodist Church, Quincy
“The Great Invitation: The Heavens Are Opened”
Pastor Andrew Davis
January 8, 2016
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Matthew 3: 13-17

        It feels like it’s been an eternity since I last preached up here, but it is sure good to be back in the pulpit today after what seems like an eternity since I’ve last preached a sermon.  While Christmas just formally wrapped up on Epiphany this past Friday, or the 12th Day of Christmas, it feels like Christmas ended much longer ago even though It’s only been two weeks.  I suppose it’s because the day after Christmas Day, we start seeing all the Christmas stuff come off the shelves at Safeway, The Dollar Store, or Rite-Aid to be switched out for Valentine’s Day so quickly.  But in the church, Christmas lasts until January 6th, Epiphany.  However, we still have the season after Epiphany which believe it or not, is one of my favorite seasons in the church year!  I don’t know if it’s because we talk a lot about light (which is increasing each day), or because the scriptures talk a lot about the beginnings of Jesus’s earthly ministry, or the heavy emphasis on discipleship; but I find something special and profound about this season of light that I can’t necessarily lay my finger on.  So, like the star that the magi encountered when they visited the toddler Jesus as a sign from God, Epiphany literally means a revelation or “a manifestation of a divine being” which we also just heard in the account of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew’s gospel when the heavens opened up.[i]
        It appears that time marches on pretty quickly at this time of year.  Just as the stores waste no time in putting up the Valentine’s Day stuff, our gospel lesson fast-forwards about 30 years or so, as Jesus is all grown up now and ready to minister to the world that he lived in.  It also seems fitting that like Jesus preparing to begin his earthly ministry, we find ourselves embarking on a new series this morning, “The Great Invitation.”  Between now and Ash Wednesday, we will be exploring the beginnings of Jesus’s earthly ministry through the gospel of Matthew and some of John’s gospel.  “The Great Invitation” is just what it says; it’s an invitation to be a disciple of Jesus, share the Good News of the Gospel with others, and to put in fancy church-speak, evangelism.  At the same time, it’s an invitation to go deeper in our faith journey.  As baptized followers of Christ, or anyone who is just entering into relationship with Christ, evangelism is a very important part of our faith and is part of the core of our life as a community of disciples along with personal devotion, regular worship, and participation in small groups. 
But while evangelism is part of our core as believers and followers of Christ, evangelism can also have some negative connotations to it, particularly what we may see on TV, online, or in what we may read.  For example, evangelism may be construed as forcing people to believe or convert to following Jesus right away, condemning people to eternal judgment if they don’t.  But that is NOT the case of what evangelism entails.  In his book, Evangelism for Non-Evangelists: Sharing the Gospel Authentically, Mark Teasdale explains that
Evangelism entails sharing the good news of God with the hope that people will hear it and receive it. If the person believes something that is harmful toward others or inaccurate about God, then we want the person to accept the good news in place of those beliefs. By the same token, an evangelist should never condemn people. As evangelists we invite others to consider and be challenged by the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We do not issue a blanket condemnation of those who disagree with that good news.[ii]

        So, what exactly does evangelism have to do with baptism?  Good question, as evangelism, or simply sharing the Good News of Jesus is a responsibility of all baptized believers as we worship on this Baptism of our Lord Sunday.  We are invited to receive this Good News, yet also invited to share this Good News with others too.  Likewise, today is also a good time to remember our own baptisms and give thanks for our baptism and the journey that we are continuing along in our faith life.  And if you are not baptized yet, no worries, as this is also an invitation to anyone who desires to be baptized and enter into this deeper relationship with God through Jesus Christ and something I would love to talk about more one on one.  Baptism is the beginning of this deeper journey, a formal initiation into God’s family which will hopefully result in a life-long journey of faith which also entails sharing and inviting others to come along on this faith journey as we think about this Great Invitation into deepening our discipleship and spiritual growth in this new year.  Think of it as a resolution. 
        And so, our great invitation begins with baptism, being marked by water and the Spirit.  It’s the water in baptism that washes our sins away, but also the Holy Spirit that guides us along the way, along with our fellow believers, even through the ups and downs that this journey of faith may bring.  As we just heard in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus comes to John to be baptized in the Jordan River, which is still a popular site for baptisms in the Holy Land today.  Now John was reluctant to baptize Jesus at first, as he wanted Jesus to baptize him, but Jesus insisted that he be baptized by John.  As we read last month during Advent in this same chapter, John told people that “one more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” although we also saw that instead of fire, Jesus showed through his actions that he brought healing instead (Matthew 3: 11, NRSV).  Despite John’s reluctance, Jesus’s insistence wins out, but then something profound happens as he is baptized which shows that this is no ordinary baptism.  The heavens opened up in verse 16 when Jesus came up from the water, which was a direct revelation, or epiphany from God that Jesus was the “one more powerful” than John (Matt. 3: 11, NRSV).  This account is where God’s love is poured out upon Jesus and we hear God’s voice, especially when God is “well pleased” (Matt. 3: 17, NRSV).  This image reminds me a lot of when I see beams of sunlight shining through the clouds, or when it’s foggy here in our mountain valley and see the fog lift and the sky open up.  Yet, the heavens being opened could mean many things, such as when we came into a relationship with God, or even the first time we have encountered a loving community of faith, such as we have here.  Or, the heavens opening up could be like John Wesley’s “Aldersgate Street experience,” in which John felt this warm, but strange feeling in his heart.  It’s like having a direct encounter with God when the heavens open up. 
        Now when each of us are baptized, many of us are likely infants and may not remember.  I know I sure don’t, although I was told that while he was still pastor in Rio Linda, Rev. David Moss who baptized me got to hold me, then I tickled his beard.  I suppose that’s where the cute-factor comes in on infant baptism.  Yet, maybe that’s also where the heavens open up for us in our baptism.  But even when we are baptized as infants, we are raised by the community of adults and will have other opportunities for the heavens to open up on our faith journey as we encounter God in many ways and many places.  But the great invitation to that journey towards more intentional and deeper discipleship begins with baptism.  Dawn Chesser of Discipleship Ministries in Nashville explains that
When we baptize an infant or child, we are initiating them into the community of God’s people. We mark them with water, symbolically recognizing before the community of faith that even though they do not yet recognize it for themselves, God’s grace is within them. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide them on their journey. And we covenant as a community of faith to show them, by our example, what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ so that one day they will experience God’s saving grace and make a confession of faith in Christ for themselves.[iii]

Even if we are baptized as adults, “the seeds of grace of God shown in Jesus Christ are planted in our hearts long before we recognize them for ourselves.  This is what [John] Wesley [the founder of Methodism] called prevenient grace.  It is grace that goes before us.”[iv] The heavens opening up is a revelation of God’s grace and perhaps a time where the Holy Spirit is profoundly felt and revealed, along with seeing that grace realized.  And even without being baptized, there are still seeds of God’s grace that are within, grace that is available to everyone, as baptism is available to all who desire to enter into God’s family and a deeper relationship.  Furthermore, “as United Methodists we believe that experiencing assurance of God’s grace is a critical step in the journey towards a deeper relationship with the living Lord.  But we also believe that the way it happens varies widely,” perhaps why our experiences of the heavens opening, or one on one encounters with God are never the same.[v] 
Baptism marks the beginning of that deeper journey of faith through that relationship with God through Jesus Christ, just as we are seeing in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism before Jesus sets out to formally begin his earthly ministry.  Jesus is here to fulfill or ‘do’ what God wants him to do, along with “doing the revealed will of God” as an act of righteousness, which is living life that is pleasing to God.[vi]  Even when we too do what we can to fulfill what God wants us to do, or live a life pleasing to God, it doesn’t mean the road will be easy, just as it won’t be for Jesus either.  Even when you experience the heavens opening for the first time, or many times, there are always going to be ups and downs along the way.  But as one of my good friends will remind me, we need to show grace, even for ourselves when we stumble along the way.  But as we begin this new year and make it a resolution to go deeper, let’s think about what it means for the heavens to open up for each of us and about what our baptism means for each of us.  And, if you are interested in exploring what it means to be baptized and have the desire to take that step, let’s talk. 
As we go into this new week while the new year is still young, let’s also consider The Great Invitation in these coming weeks.  Who do you know that you would like to invite into a relationship with God that may not have a community of faith to call home or might be curious?  What are ways we can nurture each other along this journey from baptism onward so that we can go deeper in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ?  The season after Epiphany will be a great adventure and I hope you will think about inviting others into this relationship too!!  So as we remember our baptism and be thankful, or if anyone is thinking about taking the step towards baptism, let’s take up the great invitation into life in Jesus, as we continue being his hands and feet in our world today. 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 



[i] Merriam-Webster (2017) Definition of EPIPHANY. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epiphany (Accessed: 5 January 2017).
[ii] Qtd. In Ministries, D. (2016) The heavens are opened! — preaching notes. Available at: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-heavens-are-opened-preaching-notes (Accessed: 4 January 2017).
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 160.  

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