Sermon for January 8, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Luke 3:1-22


“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton)

Billy Graham tells of a time, during the early years of his preaching ministry, when he was due to lead a crusade meeting in a town in South Carolina, and he needed to mail a letter. He asked a little boy in the main street how he could get to the post office. After the boy had given him directions, Billy Graham said, "If you come to the central Baptist church tonight, I'll tell you how to get to heaven." The boy replied, "No thanks, you don't even know how to get to the post office!"

The past is a certainty. We don’t have to worry about where we’re going in 2016 or how we’re going to get there. We have only to look over our shoulder and we can see, for better or for worse, where we’ve been. Whatever has happened in 2016, it’s over, done. We can rejoice about that, lament about that, or repent about that, whatever we need to do. But one thing is certain. We can’t change it, let it go.

We feel hopeful about 2017, but there are question marks all over this New Year. What will happen with my health? When will I see my kids? How will changing interest rates impact my income? What new tragedies will follow the growing stream of violence that has too frequently become headline news? How will our country change? What will our new associate pastor be like when he or she comes?

No wonder we love the beautiful prayer of trust by Thomas Merton shared moments ago that echoes our anxiety. “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” We pray that our desire to please God actually does please God, though we’re sometimes unsure that we’re on the right path. If we think we know what’s ahead and how to get there, if we’re confident about what the future looks like, and if we believe we’re in control of the outcome, we’re probably wrong. It’s easy to say or do the wrong thing with confidence.

Once in awhile I listen to Christian radio stations. I enjoy hearing other people preach. I’m encouraged by a variety of music, and I learn a good deal about faith matters by listening to the questions people ask when they call in.

This past week, I was deeply surprised by one of the messages. It started this way. “Is 2017 the year you decide to become a part of God’s family? Is now the time you will become part of God’s family?”

I couldn’t believe it. That’s like asking our children before they leave for Sunday School: “Is today the day you will decide whether or not to go home with the parents who brought you?” It’s a ridiculous question! It assumes that whether or not we are part of God’s family is up to us. Who do we think we are?

There may be any number of things about our future that seem uncertain, but who we are and whose we are cannot be one of them. That’s non-negotiable. God created all things, all life, all creatures and called it good. God is God not only for us, but also for all humankind. We were born into the family of God and of humankind and there is nothing we can do about it.

When Ellis and I decided we wanted to adopt a child together nearly twenty years ago, the adoption agency counseled us on that decision. In the state in which we lived, we had to become foster-adopt parents for a year before the adoption was final. They made it clear that at any point we could change our mind. The child could choose to go back into foster care too. They could also decide not to become a part of this new family. To be fair, the law was written to give potentially challenging matches the opportunity to either work well, or to make other arrangements if it didn’t.

We were horrified. “You’ve got to be kidding!” we thought. What seven year old child can ever be fully themselves if they think they’re on trial? What parent can ever effectively do their job if they imagine their child can vote them off the island when they become displeased with a decision their parent makes for their highest good if the child doesn’t like it?

The adoption agency thought we were naïve when we said that we would unconditionally commit to being parents for the little blonde girl with the silver capped teeth staring out of a second grade school photo at us, before ever we met.

It’s a good thing children come with a non-refund clause. Otherwise when those babies grow up and break our hearts, we’d all send them off with anyone willing to take them. Be honest parents, you know what I’m talking about. I suspect God feels the same way about us.

We don’t choose to be part of God’s family anymore than our children choose us as their parents. God is our parent, who from the beginning pledged to be our God and we God’s people even when we act like fools, which is often enough. Like rebellious adolescents, we may wander away. God knows, we humans have a tendency to rely to much on our own counsel and wisdom, or act as if there is no God. That doesn’t make it so anymore than the angry words of an ungrateful son can disavow a father’s love.

I think this is what God was saying about Jesus at his baptism. When Jesus went down into the water to be baptized, he engaged in a Jewish ritual bath for the forgiveness of sin and the renewal of life. God bathed Jesus and put new clothes on him in preparation for his ministry that was about to begin.

Isn’t it interesting that when Jesus rose dripping wet from the waters of baptism, all who gathered saw the vision of a dove light upon him, and heard a voice as from heaven. The text says, “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

We so often focus on the first part of the message to the exclusion of the second: “You are my Son.” But notice instead the second part. “You are the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God’s pleasure preceded Jesus’ actions. Jesus hadn’t chosen to be part of God’s family. Jesus hadn’t performed any miracles, preached any good news, healed any sick, cast out any demons. There’s not a word in scripture preceding Jesus’ baptism about anything Jesus had done at all except to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, and spend his early childhood as a refugee in Egypt with his parents escaping Herod’s violent reign. We catch a glimpse of his education as he engages with the Rabbis in the Temple on a family trip to Jerusalem. After that, there’s no further word about him at all until this baptism precedes and initiates his life work.

God, like any parent, loves us into being and says to everybody, “This is my son, this is my daughter.” Our beloved-ness precedes any decision or action on our part. We don’t get to say “yes” to being part of God’s family. God’s “yes” has already happened long ago on our behalf for good.

The only choice we have is that of any rebellious child. We can stop saying “No” to acting like beloved children.

I realize this flies in the face of much you may have been taught about becoming Christian. But think about it. Our decision is a lot less like an infant looking out the nursery window deciding which parent we want to choose, and a lot more like prodigal sons and daughters waking up in a pigsty and going home to the father, the mother who waits for our return.

We crawl home road weary and soiled and God gives us a bath. God greets us with open arms, kills the fatted calf, and prepares a feast in our honor. We know we’re undeserving. We didn’t earn it. We don’t have to. Episcopal Priest Lauren Winner gives us a fresh image of God when she explores what it means to put on God clothes. Through baptism, we rise to new life and God becomes our new clothing. She suggests: "God is our clothing. And, finally, God draws us into the act of clothing, by instructing us to clothe others." Like Jesus, God chooses us with pleasure and creates us for good before we speak.

I’ve had the opportunity to think about this a lot lately. I spent New Year’s Day with a seven-week-old grandchild nestled against my neck while the rest of the adults went crazy over a football game. I would give my life for that child and we’ve only just met. Our daughter-in-law Hillary and son Micah are also due to have their third child in three days. We’re all in love with that child and we don’t even yet know if it’s a boy or a girl, or by what name it will be called. But God knows, and God loves the child as surely as God is crazy about you and me.

What difference does all this make? It’s pretty simple, really. We may not get to decide whether or not we’re part of God’s family. But we do get to decide if we will act like it. That doesn’t make God like us any better. But it does mean that our lives bear witness to this amazing power we call God, this hopeful, transforming Divine energy unleashed through Jesus in the world, relentlessly at work for good and at play for God’s good pleasure. We can choose to participate as active members of God’s family or not.

We sometimes don’t know the way. We may not fully know ourselves. We may not feel confident that our actions please God. We may not know where we are going, the path ahead may seem uncertain. But we do live in certain hope that our intention to please God does in fact please God, just as surely as any parent receives the homemade pots of clay and paper Christmas ornaments of their fumbling children as precious gift.

Fortunately, God’s greatest gift to us as members of the family of humanity is the life of Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life. He came to teach us how to act like God’s beloved, how to forgive, accept, embrace and treat one another with compassion and mercy.

To be born again may be language foreign to many of us unless we grew up Baptist. To be born again in this new year is simply to be born anew in Christ, to be bathed in the unconditional love and mercy of God as a parent bathes a new born child. As God baptized Jesus into new life in the river Jordan, we are born of water and spirit into God’s waiting hands for God’s welcoming world.

May it be so.  Amen