Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, January 13, 2019

YEAR C 2019 the baptism of our lord

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Back in the 1980’s, I went to see Peter Gabriel in concert.  This was his first tour after leaving the band, Genesis, and there was excitement in the air.  Last we all knew, Peter Gabriel was a long-haired theatrical rock star, wowing the masses of prog-rock fans.  At show time, the house lights were still on, and people were still filing into their seats, when down the aisle came a short-haired man carrying a teddy bear.  He made his way past the people, down to the foot of the stage, climbed up, put the bear on the piano, and started singing.  It was Peter Gabriel, moments previous, a guy walking down the aisle; now the man we had come to see.

I am reminded of that experience in reading today’s Gospel text.  John the Rock Star, er, I mean, John the Baptist, has the people in a tizzy.  His baptism is all the rage, and Luke says the people were “filled with expectation.”  The people were gathered around, wondering if John might be, you know, the Messiah—the anointed one from God?  The one all the papers (or scriptures) had been hinting would be coming to town.  (After all, the paintings I’ve seen of John do make him look like some kind of long-haired rocker.)  And, true to rock-star form, the people flocked to him without knowing why.

John grabs the mic, and says “Ladies and gentlemen.  Thanks for coming.  I can see you’re all really thinking this is the big finale of today’s show.  But hold on to your camel skin, cause you ain’t seen nothing yet!  I’m just the opening act!  Following me, there’s a guy who’s going to melt your faces!  I’m not worthy to tune his guitar!  He’s got pyro you won’t believe.  He’s got a winnowing fork in his band, and will play leads that will separate the wheat from the chaff!  And the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire!”  The crowd roars, and they all jump into the water.

That’s the big intro.  So where’s the flashy entrance?  Where’s the drama?  The lights?  The pyro?  Where’s the mind-blowing stage show?  Well, there isn’t one. 

As Luke says, “when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also was baptized and was praying . . .”  That’s it?  That’s the entrance?  Yep.  Jesus gets baptized right along with everyone else.  Luke doesn’t give us any details of the baptism.  Jesus is just baptized along with everybody else.  Or, as Luke says, right along with “ALL the people.”  All the people were baptized, and Jesus also was baptized.  Kind of an understated entrance for the one for whom John has been stumping, isn’t it?  I mean, the set-up seems a little overblown, doesn’t it?

But, of course, you know what happens next.  Jesus is praying, the heavens open up, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and there is a voice from heaven saying, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Whole theological careers have been built on this sentence.  And mine will not be among them.  There are too many questions about what this means for Jesus’ own sense of his Messianic identity for me to wade into.  But this voice from heaven sounds remarkably similar to what comes just prior to the reading we heard from Isaiah this morning.

In Isaiah 42 we read, “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.”  Of course, we might conclude that Luke intends for it to sound remarkably similar, and that’s why it does.  But the echo is certainly there, and it would make the connection clear for anyone familiar with the writings of Isaiah.  You know, like ALL the people who came to be baptized by John.

And just after that prophecy, in today’s reading from Isaiah, we have a series of promises.  I have called you by name and you are mine.  Do not fear; I am with you.  You are precious in my sight.  I am the Lord your God, your Savior.  These are promises to God’s people.  These are promises to you and to me.

And these texts from Isaiah parallel the announcement at Jesus’ baptism along with the people.  ALL the people.  Isaiah 43:2—When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  Hmmm.   When you pass through the water, God is with you.  You are God’s beloved child.  In you, God is well pleased.  And how do we know God is with us when we pass through the water?

Jesus meets us in the water, and God is well pleased.  Jesus joins each of us in the waters of baptism, just as he meets all of us at this altar in the sacrament of his body and blood.  When Jesus meets us in the water, the water overflows with promise--forgiveness, new life, God calling us by name, God proclaiming us beloved. Like Jesus, we are named precious, honored, and loved. God is with us always; we do not need to be afraid. Jesus is the fulfillment and embodiment of God's promise.

And, after meeting us in the water, Jesus meets us in every circumstance, every season of life, even in the moment of death. From the water, Jesus meets us always in the journey of our lives, ending at the cross, and the empty tomb. Jesus has gone before us, and walks with us.

But there’s a sticky point I kept running into this week, and maybe it’s a thought you’ve had yourself at some point, and it is this:  If Baptism is for the remission of sin, you know, forgiveness of sin, and since Jesus is without sin, then why does Jesus have to be baptized?  Why does Jesus get baptized along with ALL the people?  Well, two thoughts on that . . .

First, we kind of have the shoe on the wrong foot here.  It’s not that Jesus is baptized like us; it’s that we are baptized like Jesus.  Jesus isn’t doing what we do in baptism; rather, in our baptism, we are doing what Jesus does.  We are joining in the baptism of Jesus.

And secondly, baptism is not a requirement; baptism is a gift.  God doesn’t love us because we have been baptized.  Instead, we get to be baptized because God loves us.  And that’s particularly clear when we remember those words from Isaiah.  God says when you pass through the waters I will be with you.  Which is quite different from after you have passed through the waters, I will love you, right?

And as we saw in today’s gospel reading, when ALL the people were baptized, Jesus was with them.  And not just watching them from the shore, nodding in approval.  No, Jesus was baptized right along with them.  Not in some special, private, rock-star baptism, but right along with them.  Like a guy carrying a teddy bear from the crowd going up onto the stage.  Jesus is the one we have come to see, and it turns out he is right here in the midst of us!  Rather than looking up at the spotlights, we should look around the room.  Because that’s where Jesus is.

In our own Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  We renew that covenant every time we witness a baptism.  Every time we see someone get confirmed.  Every time the Bishop visits.  Every Easter.  And, as with all the promises we make in church, we make the promise along with the phrase, “with God’s help.”  We promise to do the impossible, with God’s help.  To seek and serve Christ in all persons, with God’s help.  Because God is with us.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.   For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

YEAR C 2019 feast of the epiphany

Feast of the Epiphany, 2018
Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12
Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  And if that’s true, then it doesn’t matter why you do something; what matters is the outcome.  You might intend to help someone across the street, but if they get hit by a bus . . . Or, you might have intended to make a romantic setting with candles throughout the house, but if the curtains catch fire . . . .  Well, you get the point.  But saying that intentions don’t matter—that results are what count—is a cynical approach to life, a pessimistic view of the world.  It’s a quantitative concept, where what happens is more important than why it happens.  This is how most businesses are run.  Why you do your job is no one’s concern.  The outcome of your efforts, that’s what matters.

So, is the opposite approach therefore also true?  You know, can bad intentions lead to good outcomes?  If we do something for the wrong reason, but the result is ultimately good, isn’t that just putting the shoe on the other foot?  It seems that God works this way all the time.  In fact, the central point of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus, is exactly this kind of thing, isn’t it?  God bringing good results from humanity’s bad intentions?  There is a very important distinction to be made in answering that question, and we’ll get to that in a minute.  But first, let us look east together.

In today’s gospel reading, we have the visitors from the East coming to look for the new king.  The first step for us this morning is to clear away all the baggage that these men have accumulated over the years.  (This will make their journey easier, I think.)  And before we even get to them, I want to take a moment to get everyone in the right gospel book.

The shepherds are in Luke’s Gospel.  The Magi are in Matthew’s Gospel.  These gospels have two very different Christmas stories, and the people in them are there for very different reasons.  In our Christmas decorating, we often put the Magi in the crèche, along with the shepherds and the infant Jesus, and an angel, surrounded by camels and cows and stuff.  And I understand why that is.  The more the merrier, right?  But, honestly, you kind of have to choose which group of visitors you’re going to talk about, because—as I say—they’re there for different reasons.

In Matthew’s account, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem.  In a house, no less.  In Luke’s Gospel, they go to Bethlehem to be counted in the big census, and Jesus is born in a stable behind the inn.  In Matthew there’s no journey, and in Luke there’s no home.  So, when we mix it all up into one big story and try to claim that it’s the way it really happened, well, we’re going to get into trouble.  The shepherds are characters in Luke’s version, and the Magi are characters in Matthew’s version.  They are all part of the salvation story, but they are not the point.  The point of this Christmas story is the one who has been born, not the ones who come to visit.

So today we have the Magi coming from the east.  We don’t know how many there are in this group, but in the middle ages the number three came up, since there are three gifts, and then some names got assigned to these three visitors.  Then, at some point, they got promoted to being kings, which has been forever cemented in our minds because of a certain song calling them 3 kings of orient . . . are.  An alternate name for them is wise men, which is how their title typically gets translated, like in the NRSV, the translation we use here in church.

However, these visitors are not kings, and they are not wise men.  The best title for them would be something like astrologers: the kind of people who spend their days writing horoscopes.  They study the stars and planets, and make predictions about the future based on what they see there.  As today’s story goes, they saw the new king’s star rising and have come to pay him homage.  So that song should go, “We indeterminate number of astrologers are.”  Which is more accurate, but not very catchy around the living room piano.

So why am I telling you this . . . Well, because it’s important to Matthew’s Gospel to get these astrologers in the proper role.  They are not kings coming to visit the neighboring country’s new ruler.  They are not wise sages brimming with the wisdom of the ages.  They’re a bunch of guys who sit around looking at the stars, trying to use what they see there for their own personal advantage.  They are coming to pay homage.  Pay their respects.  Make alliances with the future ruler before he grows up and rules the land.  For the Magi to visit Jesus is like the stockbroker getting the inside tip, and sending a fruit basket to the company’s president right before the big public stock offering.  You could say they’re hedging their bets, or making a political contribution during the primary season.  Backing the right horse before the race begins.  They know from the stars that the new king has been born, and they come looking to drop off some Christmas gifts.

And we know they’re not wise men because they go to the current king and ask where they can find his replacement!  Hello!?!  Not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer here.  Of all the people to stop and ask directions, Herod should be last on the list.  So, they’re not kings, and they’re not wise.  And it is important in Matthew’s gospel to get that point.  There are two kings in Matthew.  One is an evil tyrant who does and will do terrible things.  The other king has just been born.  For Matthew, these two kingdoms are in a battle to the end.  And, in Matthew, foolishness is wisdom.  Children enter the kingdom of heaven.  The wise cannot see the mystery of the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus and Herod are the kings, and the seemingly weak and helpless baby king will eventually conquer the strong and powerful king.

So, back to the indeterminate number of astrologers.  These Magi come in total innocence on the one hand, trusting that Herod will lead them to his own enemy.  And on the other hand, they bring these gifts assumedly in order to win favor with the future king.  It seems to me that they do not have good intentions, and based on what happens after they leave—what Herod does to all the male children—their actions have tragic results.  They have neither pure motives, nor good results.

And yet, they end up at the feet of Jesus.  In spite of the questionable reason for their journey, and in spite of the horrific result of their visit, they end up at the feet of Jesus, offering up the gifts they have.  Bad intentions, and bad outcome, and they still end up at the right place.

I don’t know whether the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  But I do know that the road to heaven is often paved with bad intentions.  You may know this from your own life’s journey.  That in spite of what you have done, or why you have done it, you still end up at the feet of Jesus.  But the really crucial thing is that God brings good results from all our intentions, whether they are good or bad.  Whatever the pavement of the road to hell is made of, whatever our actual intentions have been or will be, it is God who turns all things to work for good, in Jesus.

Whether you’re considered royalty or a servant, you end up laying your gifts before Jesus.  Whether you are wise beyond measure or make all your decisions based on the horoscope, you find your attention drawn to this king of the universe.  No matter how or why you have come, you are in this place today.  You have come to worship the king who brings peace rather than bloodshed.  You have come seeking the wisdom of the ages rather than hedging your bets.  You have been drawn by the one who draws all creation: Jesus the Christ.

We each come here offering our own gold, frankincense, and myrrh in the form of our time, talents, and possessions.  We bring what we have to the feet of Jesus, and through the magnanimous generosity of God, our ordinary gifts are  turned into extraordinary blessings for the world.  And, as we bring our bread and wine to the Altar, God promises to somehow transform it into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Magi came in confidence that they would find Jesus at the end of their long journey from the East.  And we come in confidence to this Altar today, knowing that we will find Jesus in this place.

You and I have followed a star this morning as well, and it has come to rest over this altar.  The cross is the star that draws us, because the cross is the key to our salvation.  Whatever our intentions, God’s redemption shines by way of the cross.  Today, you and I bring what gifts we have to offer, and we find rest after our long journey, together here at the feet of Jesus, the king of peace, the wisdom of the ages, the Savior of the world.