Sunday, January 11, 2009

In the Beginning - A Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

Preached at St. Mark's Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base Greenwood, Greenwood, Nova Scotia, 11 January, 2009.

Readings for Year B:
Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

(Hurrican Ike as seen from the International Space Station, 2008)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-12)

These opening words of Genesis begin the story of creation. It doesn’t matter how you understand this bible story, whether you think God created the world in six days or six million years. The important thing to understand about this story is that God is in the creation business. When we say that God is the creator, we mean that God hates chaos and darkness and formlessness. God is always working to bring order and light and life to the world. That’s the story of our readings this morning, which run from the beginning of the world to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism. It’s also our story, for our creation comes from God, both in our conception and our birth, and in our baptism, which shapes our lives as followers of Jesus. So today I want to talk about how we need to understand and hold onto this story if our lives are to have what God wants them to have the purpose and the meaning that God wants them to have.

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep”. There’s been a lot of chaos and confusion in the financial sector lately, and this Friday I caught a piece on American radio, reporting that one side effect of the financial crisis there is increasing church attendance. One staff member at St. Bartholomew’s in Manhattan has noticed these new visitors since September, when the financial meltdown started on Wall Street: “We saw people coming into church, business people, men and women in suits, just sitting in the pews, some holding their heads in their hands. We had increased attendance at our midday Eucharist. And that has continued.” A pastor at nearby Trinity Church on Wall Street has also noticed people coming in, “crying, praying, and seeking counsel”. It would be tempting for a preacher to say that these business suited visitors were repenting of the greed that Wall Street has lately come to symbolize. After all, John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4), right? True, but the problem for that preaching strategy is this – not all of those folks in suits are corporate greedheads. A pastor at Trinity Church is quoted as saying that one of the people he is counseling is feeling “overwhelmed that he was losing $2 million every two weeks for many of his clients”. At least some of these folks are, apparently, hardworking and conscientious folks who are trying to create wealth for their clients, and are finding that their best efforts aren’t good enough. They’re finding that our efforts to create things, whether its wealth or security, all too often fall short of our hopes.

Now some of these folks are coming to churches in the hope of a word of hope, looking for a stability that has vanished from the office buildings towering over those churches. What words of hope can the churches offer them? What words of hope could we offer to people like this guy if he happened to come to our little chapel?

Now not all of us have the gifts of evangelists. We can be shy or reluctant to speak too earnestly or too loudly about our faith, because we see faith as a private matter. But we’re not individuals of faith. We are a people of faith, called by God to gather to worship, to praise, and to proclaim, to speak about what we believe. So if one of these Wall Street seekers, or if someone from the PMQs, wanders in and wants a reason to hope, we need to know what we believe so we can know what to say. We need to say that our lives are not formless and pointless. We need to say that that the world is created by a loving God, even when humans appear to be busy destroying that creation. We need to say that God loves each of us and sent a Saviour for each one of us. Most importantly, we need to know and name that Saviour as Jesus Christ, the Son of God. A church which does not know these things and cannot say them will not be much help to those seeking words of life and hope.

Our second reading today, from Acts 19, gives us an example of a church we don’t want to be. The Apostle Paul comes to a town in Greece, Ephesus, and finds some believers gathered together (which is what a church is). So he asks them who and what they believe in. Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized, he asks them. “They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit’” (Acts 9:2). It turns out that these people have heard of God’s messenger John, but they haven’t heard John’s full message. They have heard John’s call to repent and turn away from their old lives, and so they got baptized, but they haven’t made the connection between baptism and our new life in God. In other words, the believers in Ephesus feel sorry for their old lives of sin, but they don’t know who will take that sin away from them. So Paul fills in the story for the Ephesians. He tells them that John was a messenger preparing the way for Jesus, the Saviour. Once he has instructed them, Paul baptizes them again, in the name of Jesus, and they receive the Holy Spirit in a way that has an effect on them: “they spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6).

The point of the second lesson is simply this remind us, like Paul reminded the Ephesians, that a Christian church needs to know that its life and purpose comes from the living God who saves us so he can share his life with us. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus, the resurrected son of the living God. The Ephesians find that with the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst, they can do ministry. They “spoke in tongues and prophesised”, which may sound scary to us but simply means that they are know what they’re talking about. They know God through God’s son and are therefore able share the good news about God with the people around them. Paul enables the Ephesian church to do ministry, because we are all called by our baptism to show the love of God to a hurting world.

Padre Foz reminded us last Sunday that the start of a new year is a time when we look for new beginnings. This morning we heard the first words of Genesis, “In the beginning”, reminding us that God is the loving creator who beings life and order out of chaos. And now, in the first words of Mark’s gospel, we hear the words “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). What better beginning could we hope to find than this good news? And notice how does the beginning of the good news of Jesus start? Not with his birth, as we might expect with Christmas so close behind us, but with his baptism.

The author of Hebrews called Jesus “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2). In 405 Squadron terms, we’d call Jesus our pathfinder, the one who shows us the way. In these first lines of Mark’s gospel, Jesus shows us a pattern for our faith lives. It begins with baptism, and in that baptism, Jesus is named by God: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). Jesus receives God’s Spirit, and Mark goes on to tell us how that Spirit will accompany Jesus for the next stage of his journey, when he is driven into the wilderness to be tested. The wilderness is like the formless void at the beginning of Genesis, the place of chaos and darkness where no pattern or meaning can be found. That’s the place of despair that we as Christians depend on Jesus to lead us out of. That’s the place of hopelessness that so many in the world, like those folks on Wall Street I mentioned earlier, are looking for a way out of now. That’s why it’s important that churches know who they are and who they believe in, because we are called to stand with God the creator and Jesus his Son in bringing life and light out of darkness and chaos. That’s why, incidentally, I love the Canadian Forces current recruiting commercials, about fighting fear and fighting chaos. That’s the fight that Jesus calls us to join.

Another gospel, John’s gospel, begins with these words, words repeated on Christmas Eve. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:1-4).

Jesus calls us out of darkness and into life. He calls us from the chaos and meaningless of sin into a life of meaning and purpose, which is why, I think, Rick Warren called his bestselling book about Christianity The Purpose Driven Life. That’s the life we were called to in our baptism, whether it was at our birth or because of an adult decision that we made for Jesus. That’s the life that the unemployed stockbroker wandering into a Manhattan church is looking for. That life may be quite different than the stockbroker is looking for. Jesus probably won’t say “I’ll help you create more wealth”. He will likely say “I created you, just like I created the nanny and the office cleaner who lost their jobs with you. You are all beloved children of mine, and I’ll help you see that if you walk with me”. And so a new life is there, waiting to begin. The act of creation begun in Genesis continues.

Today in the lectionary churches is called the Baptism of Christ. It’s an invitation to think about our baptisms and what they mean. It’s a reminder that we are all beloved children of God, called to new life and ministry. It’s a warning that we will be, like Jesus, tested by wilderness times of darkness and despair, when it’s most important to ask God to give his Holy Spirit to us. And finally, it’s a challenge to us, as Paul challenged the Ephesians, to ask, do we know what and who we believe in? My prayer for all us is that God strengthens us with the Holy Spirit he gave us at our baptisms, so we can join with him in fighting the darkness and bringing the light of his new creation in Christ to a world that needs it so desperately.

Michael Peterson+ 2009

No comments:

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive