Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"Greater Gifts: You Are Beloved" - Sermon, January 13, 2019

Community UMC, Quincy
“Greater Gifts: YOU Are Beloved”
Rev. Andrew Davis
January 13, 2019
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

         How did you like the snowfall we had last Sunday? I was telling several people that I wasn’t expecting very many to be in worship last week, especially when the big snowflakes were coming down right before worship began and stuck to the sidewalk, yet we still had more than I thought we would who braved the snow as we talked about the Magi’s journey and gifts that they gave Jesus.  Even though one of our saints was here to shovel the sidewalk early in the morning, the snow kept on falling, and falling, and falling throughout the day that it was hard to keep up.  Even in my driveway, I dusted my 4Runner off a few times and it was still covered in snow.  Nevertheless, I still get a sense of childlike wonder whenever I’m around the snow. 
Growing up in the Sacramento area, we very seldom got snow and even if we did in the valley (which did happen very rarely), it was only a few flakes or enough to lightly dust the roofs of homes and cars, but nothing else and was gone quickly.  Although around this time five years ago, I really got to enjoy the snow while in seminary. That year, we had quite a few days where Washington, DC received some significant snowfall and since Wesley Theological Seminary sits atop a hill, it was perfect for sledding.  One of the snow days, a group of us got some baking sheets from the refectory and took turns sliding down the hill and had a blast. Although I did hit a small tree, I didn’t break any bones and it was such fun to suspend being adults and just be kids again for a day.  I do highly recommend that for all of us too!!  

As we think about baptism this morning, we are reminded that each of us is a beloved child of God.  Not only are we thinking about baptism this morning, we are beginning a new series too, “Greater Gifts.” Throughout these next few weeks, we first 
explore how baptism, as a ‘first gift’ from God, leads us in life toward paths of discovering and rediscovering God-given gifts, activating those gifts through the Holy Spirit, understanding how our gifts are interrelated to the gifts of other disciples in the body of Christ, and how important it is to stay true to the heart of our God-given gifts – the love of God in Christ.[i]

As followers of Jesus, some of us have been baptized as infants and may not remember that day, while some of us have been baptized as adults and remember the day vividly.  And some may have yet to be baptized, as it’s NEVER too late.  Even as a pastor, I approach baptism with a child-like wonder and excitement because God’s at work doing something special.  Back in June, we had seven baptisms over the course of two Sunday, with four of those baptisms being youth; three of those baptized were baptized by sprinkling here in the church, with four baptized by immersion in the creek.  What a joy-filled two Sundays those were too!! I always smile and am always excited each time I hear remembrances of that day at the creek, along with seeing everyone who I’ve had the sacred moment of baptizing growing in faith along this journey, both out in the community and church, and at school.  And for all of us here in the church, I God at work in each of us through the Holy Spirit and through our love of God in Christ.  Seeing this is a constant reminder that each of us is a beloved child of God.
            As we engage with our text this morning, we once again encounter John the Baptist.  During the season of Advent last month, we engaged a little bit with this same chapter in Luke’s gospel, as we saw John being the hype-man to Jesus’s ministry by calling on the people to repent.  As we might recall, John is Jesus’s cousin, born to Elizabeth and Zechariah and that when Mary who was pregnant with Jesus visited Elizabeth, John leapt for joy while in Elizabeth’s womb and was born a little before Jesus. So now, we fast-forward about thirty years from that time and here, John has been living in the desert, kind of rugged, channeling his inner Andrew Zimmern by eating locusts (bugs) and channeling Grizzly Adams in living rugged and wore a cloak of camel hair.  Amidst his rugged nature, John preaches a constant message of repentance of sins (or to put it more simply, to turn around and have a change of heart), while saying that someone more powerful than him will be coming, one who will baptize with the Spirit when people thought that it was John who was the messiah, or Christos, or anointed one.
Sure enough, one more powerful does come along, as Jesus comes to be baptized in the Jordan River. Although when reading the three different accounts of Jesus’s baptism, our lesson this morning from Luke’s gospel stands out.  Unlike Mark and Matthew’s account of Jesus’s baptism, where Jesus comes to John and is baptized by John in the Jordan River, Jesus is baptized along with the rest of the people while John is absent in that moment in Luke’s account.  What we don’t in this morning’s Gospel reading (although encourage you to read the entire third chapter of Luke this afternoon) is that John had been thrown in prison by Herod, another example of Herod’s fears getting the best of him.  
Nevertheless, Jesus joins the people and is baptized along with everyone else, but it will be God’s active work in the world that will continue, with baptism by water and sealing with the Holy Spirit.  What stands out in Jesus’s baptism from the rest of the people is the theophany that happens in all three accounts (theophany is the physical display of God’s glory, in which the Spirit descends on Jesus) then hearing God’s voice from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness” (Luke 3: 22, CEB). 
When we experience our own baptism and enter into the covenant with God through water and the Spirit, God claims each of us as beloved children of God and reminds us that we are beloved.  Despite John’s absence at Jesus’s baptism in the Gospel of Luke, the work of the Holy Spirit is present in each of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s baptism, just as the Spirit continues to work in each of us today when we live out our baptism. Now while I am talking about baptism, I don’t want to exclude anyone and if you have yet to be baptized, this is an excellent teaching moment here and would love to talk more about it in the days to come!!  The work of the Spirit is a powerful part of our lives, as it is God’s breath moving through each of us as beloved children of God, empowering and moving through each of us as we do God’s work here on earth today.  
Even though the snow was fun while it lasted, I noticed that as the rain took the place of the snow on Tuesday, I would watch the water from the melting snow cascading down and along the streets, or flowing into the streams, and even in the rain, was reminded of the waters of baptism as I actively meditated while walking or driving to the office this week.  While baptism with water is an outward sign of the invisible grace of God, and as our sins are washed away through the sacrament of baptism by giving us a clean slate and new life.  As we are sealed by the Holy Spirit, the official document from the UMC, By Water & the Spirit explains that
Through the work of the Holy Spirit -- the continuing presence of Christ on earth -- the Church is instituted to be the community of the new covenant. Within this community, baptism is by water and the Spirit (John 3:5, Acts 2:38).  In God’s work of salvation, the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is inseparably linked with the gift of the Holy Spirit given on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Likewise, participation in Christ’s death and resurrection is inseparably linked with receiving the Spirit (Romans 6:1-11, 8:9-14). The Holy Spirit who is the power of creation (Genesis 1:2) is also the giver of new life. Working in the lives of people before, during, and after their baptisms, the Spirit is the effective agent of salvation. God bestows upon baptized persons the presence of the Holy Spirit, marks them with an identifying seal as God’s own, and implants in their hearts the first installment of their inheritance as sons and daughters of God (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). It is through the Spirit that the life of faith is nourished until the final deliverance when they will enter into the fullness of salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14).[ii]

As beloved children of God, trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit, the continuing presence of Christ today is essential in both our own individual lives and the life of the community, until the day we die and complete our baptism.  As each new year begins to unfold and whenever we get to witness someone’s baptism, we have this wonderful opportunity remember our own baptism and have a chance to re-affirm the work of the Holy Spirit in our own lives as God’s beloved children.  
Likewise, remembering and living out our baptism is a means of renewing our relationship with God. – Rev. Dr. David Lose, senior pastor of Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis explains that just as the Holy Spirit baptized Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, “it’s the same Spirit that baptizes us!”[iii]   Rev. Dr. Lose goes on to explain that 
Baptism, then, is wholly God’s work that we may have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing that we do, or fail to do, can remove the identity that God conveys as a gift. Our relationship with God, that is, is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up precisely because we did not establish it. We can neglect this relationship, we can deny it, run away from it, ignore it, but we cannot destroy it, for God loves us too deeply and completely to ever let us go. Again, in an age when so many relationships are fragile or tattered, it may come as good news that this primary relationship remains solid and intact no matter what. In fact, trusting that this relationship is in God’s hands, we are freed to give ourselves wholly and completely to the other important relationships in our lives.[iv]
That’s God’s grace at work right there, the first gift to us that we have the choice to accept or reject.  Yet no matter what, we cannot destroy it, even when we don’t believe, or how far we’ve fallen.  The grace that is there before we establish that relationship with God is what John Wesley, founder of Methodism calls prevenient grace, as it’s God’s gift of grace that is there before we even come to believe or say yes to God.  And in baptism, we cannot undo the grace that has been poured out for us in that water, hence why baptism is a one-time event, yet the work goes on for a lifetime and we can reaffirm our baptismal vows.  When we do say yes to God, we then go on a journey called justification, in which we say yes to God, then commit ourselves towards watching over each other in love by being a part of a community of faith, having the likeness of Christ, accepting the forgiveness of our sins and in turn, forgiving those who have wronged us, loving God and neighbor, studying God’s word, prayer, regular worship, devotion, and confessing our own sins and shortcomings before God.  Baptism is only the start of the journey and it’s an exciting journey, even though it will still have its challenges along the way, and that we will still be prone to sin along the way. 
 A little over thirty-eight years ago, I have no recollection of my own baptism by the Rev. David Moss, although was told that when he got to hold me, I reached up and tickled his beard.  At the same time, I don’t think anyone knew that that infant who tickled Rev. Moss’s beard would become a pastor thirty five years later, which shows that this journey of baptism could have some surprises.  However, it was the prayers of the community and the community of faith living their vows of baptism where I had a nurturing community of beloved children of God who helped nurture me in this journey.  Even though I walked away from God for a time in my mid-20’s, God never left me then, and God never leaves any of us either, because we are all beloved children of God, you are beloved, I am beloved, we are ALL beloved.  And you never know where that journey will take you from the day of your baptism, so continue being open to the spirit and listen for God’s voice or for subtle signs in how God works in each of us.  And if you have yet to be baptized, this is an opportunity to enter into conversation and explore its meaning together.   Let us go out this week remembering that we are beloved by God, and remind everyone we encounter that they too are beloved.  
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let the church say, AMEN!!

[i]Jeff Campbell, “Baptism of the Lord 2019, Year C – Preaching Notes” in Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church, 
[ii]“By Water and the Spirit” (Nashville: General Board of Discipleship, 2008), 7.  
[iii]David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism” in Dear Working Preacher,

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