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Sermon – “May The Lord Give Strength” – January 13, 2013

Sermon for January 13, 2013 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

May The Lord Give Strength Psalm 29; Isaiah 43: 1- 7; Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

“Jesus is our childhood’s pattern, day by day like us he grew; he was little, weak and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew; and he feeleth for our sadness, and he shareth in our gladness.” So goes the third verse of the Christmas carol, “Once in Royal David’s City.” It is perhaps at Christmastime that Jesus of Nazareth, vulnerable and mute in his infancy, is held up to us most successfully for us to identify with. God incarnate, God in the flesh, is God is flesh like ours, and the humble, displaced and inconvenient birth, the dubious circumstances of parentage, from the point of view of the world–everything about Jesus’ beginnings is so modest as to make it possible for any one born anywhere to imagine having been like Jesus at least in that, in being wrapped snugly and placed somewhere soft to sleep. The adult Jesus, the devout and daring Jesus, the miraculously powerful and the resignedly betrayed Jesus are all in the future, and all the Christs we fail to be, or become, are postponed at Bethlehem. By the manger Jesus is another little mouth to feed, no matter the wonder surrounding him, and when his family has to flee and become refugees in Egypt because of the enmity of King Herod, his future fate as being regarded as a rival to the powers of the world, and doomed because of it, is foreseen. We grasp our doom, when we must, but we experience very little of rivaling the powers of the world, or finding, in ourselves, strength sufficient to pose a threat to the common enforcers of pride and contempt, bad faith, force, and fraud.

Still, the church year follows the arc of Jesus’ life from the manger to the borrowed tomb, to resurrection. It is not just a means of reinforcing the story, of imprinting, throughout our lives, the rhythm of Jesus’ progress from wondered-at baby to single-minded servant of the sick to celebrated religious figure to presumed pretender to the throne, rival and opponent to the establishment, kangaroo-courted and killed man, raised again to the fear, amazement, and eventual faith of his followers. Jesus’ life isn’t simply a life, it’s a prototype, it’s a path taken and possibilities sought to which we are invited. Followers follow, and to do that must know the way. Disciples accept a discipline, and to do that must know what rigors to expect, and what abilities to exercise.

So that as odd as it sounds, we rehearse the story of Jesus, week in and week out, partly to remind ourselves what our own lives as Christians–as those who have a part in Christ–must include. It was easy to identify with the baby–that reminds me of Bill Cosby’s old line “I started out as a child”–it’s a universal experience. It is less simple to regard ourselves as children of God and as persons of God the way Jesus was, yet it is important for us at least to approach that, to wrestle with the model we are given, and persist in trying on that vocation for ourselves.

We’re not going to become perfect. We’re not going to work miracles, necessarily, though, as presumptuous as it would be for us to expect to produce miracles, it would be equally presumptuous for us to decide we never were going to have anything to do with one. God’s freedom to achieve, and God’s will to bless, doesn’t have to be confined by what we expect. We won’t become just like Jesus. We won’t attain to that degree of purity of purpose, or conviction of partnership with God.

But we should aspire to be like our Lord, and be encouraged by Jesus’ example and Jesus’ evident expectation that his disciples would do the same things he did. We should find hope in Jesus commending to us ceremonial ways to share in experiences which shaped him and which he shaped, like baptism and communion. We should make some progress, as Christmases come and go, in comprehending ourselves in terms of being born for a purpose, and appreciating the potential that everyone has to love others and do them good, and to care for the things of God and make them bear on who we are and on the people we live among.

Now that the shepherds have visited the infant Jesus in the manger and the Wise Men have called upon the child Jesus in his home– traditions we combine, in order to make the narratives of Jesus’ earliest days harmonious–we arrive at the next significant event in Jesus’ life, his appearance at the Jordan seeking baptism from John. All the gospels place this very early in their accounts, and it clearly is meant to serve as a kind of revelation of Jesus’ true nature, as well as marking the beginning of his work as a healer and teacher.

Some of us recall our baptisms, and some of us don’t. Most of us, however, know that we share this event with Jesus. At some point we were ritually washed, entirely or representatively by sprinkling, with the old formulas of the church invoked over us. We had an identity prior to that act and we have had one ever since. Whether making the claim for ourselves or someone else’s gratefully making it for us, we were marked as children of God, and embarked upon a life expected, somehow, to be different than it otherwise would have been.

It is the faith of the church that life has been different, that we have been specially equipped, whatever our own sense of the results of baptism may be. What it meant for Jesus it has meant for us– it was the beginning of living an identity with regard to God, and again, whatever our own assessment of how we changed or did not change, it made a difference. At the very least, having begun this Christian pilgrimage, having become identified as one whom God has met in the waters of baptism, you ought to be open to being reminded that there is more to you than either you or anyone else ordinarily thinks. You are a beloved chid of God, and you have the power and potential to make a difference in the world on behalf of God.

Those are the things which distinguish Jesus’ baptism from the ritual which John had been offering. John had interpreted and invited people to his baptism as a sign of wanting to turn away from one’s godless ways and accept forgiveness. Jesus’ baptism exceeds¬†that. It becomes the occasion for recognizing Jesus as receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is to say divine power as a resource for his living, and then there is this acclamation, this voice from heaven, however intelligible it may have been to bystanders–the gospels differ on that–clearly announcing to the faithful follower of the story that this is God’s beloved child and worthy of attention.

The way some people grow up, it must seem to everyone, including them, that before their baptisms they were relatively innocent, and relatively open and loving, relatively cooperative with authority, and relatively untroubled by pangs of conscience. Especially those baptized as infants must see their progress as backwards from their baptisms, becoming less innocent, less promising, less simply adorable with the passage of time.

Some people surely started out trustingly, and sincerely, and somewhere along the way grew suspicious and cynical, and at some point preferred other paths, other objects of yearning, left aside the person promised for and promised over at baptism and became more worldly, less devout instead of more so. It can be so hard to believe that the wet that Jesus got, and the wonder that went with it, and the new reality which followed, is any way the same for us, but you should believe it. God works with people in varying ways, life finds its equilibrium at different points, people come to themselves, and discover who they are and what life wants from them, after any number of false starts and despite many kinds of mistakes. That gift of the spirit in Jesus’ story is also your gift. That commendation from God, that claiming you as a special child, is also yours. It may not have felt like it yet, and it may not ring true today, but at some point you’ll know it. At some point, if you persevere in believing and in seeking to be a person of Christ, you’ll understand yourself better, and these terms will be part of that.

If you ever have been tempted–never mind if you gave in or not–temptation is a thing which follows staking a claim, owning an identity. That’s how it was for Jesus and that’s what it is for us. Until you are identified, as baptism identifies you, as a child of God, then there is no tug of war between that nature in you and any other instinct or appetite. Jesus is baptized, then Jesus is tempted. Jesus is baptized, then it takes some solitude and soul- searching for Jesus to clarify who he is, and what it is that he believes. Maybe you haven’t had that time yet, maybe life hasn’t put you the right questions yet. When the time comes, when you have that lonely, hungry hour, when the questions get asked, perhaps then your having been baptized will come into play.

That’s what I want us to consider today, that this baptism of Jesus isn’t just part of a wondrous story, that it’s also our story. The church doesn’t just recite the story of Christ, the church relives that story–not just ceremonially with the seasons and the holidays, but actually, personally, individually, in your life and my life, working out what it is to be faithful, putting right what we can, telling the truth as occasion arises, spending our life for something worthy.

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