Tag Archive: John the Baptist


Sermon from July 12 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

These texts today about Israel losing God’s favor and Herod beheading John the Baptist are not exactly pick me ups.  They’re the kind of texts where you respond to “the Word of the Lord” with “Thanks be to God?!”  What on earth does this have to say to us? Where is the good news? However, these are stories that, oddly enough, have to do with our every day lives.

In Rwanda, one of the first places we visited was the genocide memorial in Nyamata.  It was a Catholic Church that had been the site of the killing of 10,000 people in 4 days.  There, on display, within the walls of this church were the skulls of some of the victims.  I was horrified.  And yet, I knew I had to be there.  I had to learn from what I saw before me.  When we had time to walk around, I found myself in front of those skulls, praying that I would never forget what I had seen.  I asked God that I might know what lesson I was to take away from that place.  The answer came in the form of a question: how many times have I hurt others or caused death in their lives with my words or deeds?

Staring at that gruesome scene, I realized that the truth of the matter is that we all have the potential to do harm to one another.  Maybe not in such stark ways, but in a thousand different ways each and every day.  The potential is there and the temptation to power and force always beckoning.  As the famous Lord Acton quote goes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Herod and his wife succumbed to power.  John’s words of truth spoken against them stung and eventually, they proved to be too threatening to the established power.  Herod’s wife Herodias wanted John dead and Herod, for the sake of an oath and to save face among his contemporaries, would not refuse her.

The established court priest and prophet Amaziah didn’t like that the farmer prophet Amos was speaking on his turf – in the king’s sanctuary at Bethel – and saying such negative things about Israel and the king! So Amaziah tried to get Amos to leave, but Amos was following a higher calling.

Jesus and his disciples set out, preaching and teaching, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near and that all people should turn once more toward God.  But this proved threatening to the established religious leaders, to Rome and to those who wanted to put themselves first, rather than God.  Jesus would be crucified and many of his first followers martyred for speaking of God’s kingdom and against the powers that wanted to coerce and manipulate.

We are often threatened by words of truth – they have power – they challenge us, shake us out of our comfort zones and complacency, cause us to reconsider what we thought we had figured out, and make us squirm.  Sometimes we become frustrated or angry because we know that what has been said is something that is really too close for comfort.  Words can make us angry because they pull back the masks we present to the world and ourselves, and we cannot hide the truth from ourselves or anyone else anymore.  Words can cut to the heart and we see revealed, all too clearly, that with which we are struggling.

These words can be read or heard in Scripture, preached from the pulpit, heard in a song, from people we know and love, or even from strangers.  I know that I hate it when someone else speaks that kind of uncomfortable truth to me.  They say something and it’s absolutely irritating because I know in my heart of hearts that the other person is right, but I don’t want to admit it or deal with it.  And now that whatever I was conveniently trying to ignore is out in the open, I have to deal with it.  Has anyone else experienced this?

As much as this can be incredibly uncomfortable, challenging and even painful, it is one of ways I know I learn.  And I give thanks for the people in my life who are patient and wise guides, able to shepherd me through this learning process.  Those who speak truth and gently urge me to give up the power and control I think I have in favor for the forgiveness and healing of Christ.  We all need people and communities that can hold us accountable and call us to be the people God is calling us to be.

Because that’s the paradox of the Gospel.  Real power – power that isn’t coercive or manipulative – springs forth from the cross of Christ.  It was through Christ’s weakness and vulnerability that salvation came about.  It is through death that we are able to experience new life.  It’s through letting go of the things we want to hold so tightly – being right, important, intelligent, rich, or even our mistakes – that we discover true freedom and the power of Christ’s love to heal and redeem.  And without being in touch with those places where we have sinned or fallen short, the good news remains something that sounds good, but stays at arm’s length and cannot change our lives.

The cross, and following Christ, bid us to die to ourselves.  Being a disciple is hard.  Following Christ will cause us to examine our lives and let go of things we thought important in order to follow God.  It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  But it is profoundly good.  And the Holy Spirit is always guiding and strengthening us to follow.  Following God frees us to become more open to what God is doing in the world – to see things through the lens of the cross and resurrection, and to work on behalf of God’s kingdom.

It’s like a scene from A League of Their Own, about the women’s baseball league started during World War II.  In that scene, coach Jimmy Duggan, speaks passionately about baseball to Dottie, an amazing player, who is leaving the league now that her husband is back from war.  Jimmy says, “Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I’m in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It’s what lights you up, you can’t deny that.” When Dottie says, “It just got too hard,” Jimmy responds:  “It’s supposed to be hard! If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard… is what makes it great!”

Trying to follow God is hard.  I’m sure Amos, who was a simple farmer, called to be a prophet by God, had his moments of thinking, “this is an awful gig – I don’t want to do this.”  But he knew he had to.  And John the Baptist, as wild and unconventional as he was, probably knew that speaking the truth to the king and to all people would end up getting him in trouble, but he pressed on, knowing he was called to proclaim God’s truth.  Jesus sent out the disciples knowing that they would encounter those who wouldn’t want to listen.  And we, too, are called to listen to what God is proclaiming to us and to share that news with the world.  It is hard, but in doing so we experience new life and resurrection.  And the good news is that God never ceases trying to reach us, calling us to be transformed by God’s grace, and to share the good news with the world.

Words, especially words of truth, can catch us off guard and frustrate, irritate, or challenge us.  But they can also help us to turn once more toward God.  As the Psalmist says “I will listen to what the LORD God is saying.”  Are we listening? What is God saying to us today? Are there things God is calling you to reexamine in your life?

Maybe what you hear is that God is calling you to step out of your comfort zone to follow God into a new place or a new task.  Amos was a simple farmer when God called him to be a prophet.  How might God be calling you?

The stories of Amos and John the Baptist remind us that we need God’s word and other people to speak truth to us, even if it’s hard to hear.  We need that help to remove the masks we wear, to challenge us to examine our sins, to encourage us to seek forgiveness, and to live in God’s grace.  Thanks be to God for the prophets old and new who point toward God and call us to follow.  Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Pointing To The Light

We heard about John the Baptist last week, and again, this week, we get another description of him, this time from the Gospel of John. But what is so fascinating to me is that the description we get of him is really… non-descript! We know that he was sent from God, that his name was John, that he was to witness to the light, and that’s about it. That leaves me with a ton of questions, and apparently, I am not the only one, because the Jewish authorities sent people to ask John who he was. He told them straight up that he wasn’t the Messiah, and when they asked if he was Elijah or the prophet said to come as a forerunner to the Messiah, he answered no. The only thing he would tell them is, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

It reminds me of a song my mom used to sing to me when I was little: “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.”

The original was about a little girl losing her yellow basket, but reading the Gospel, I re-imagined the song going a little something like this:

Are you the Messiah?

No, no, no, no

Are you Elijah?

No, no, no, no

Are you the prophet?

No, no, no, no

Just a voice crying out,

A voice crying out!

I know… it’s sad, but maybe it’ll help me remember all the people John the Baptist was being mistaken for!

So who was this man anyway? What was he up to? And why does it matter for us?

John the Baptist is described here only in terms of what or who he is not. He’s not the Messiah, the one to redeem all of creation. He’s not the prophet Elijah who was carried into the heavens by a fiery chariot and was, therefore, rumored to come back before the Messiah appeared. He’s not even the prophet like Moses who was supposed to come before the Messiah.

And when he is asked “what do you say about yourself,” he says only that he is the voice crying out in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord!” Instead of really answering, he only points to the coming of the Lord. He tells his inquirers that there is one they don’t even recognize standing in their midst – one who is greater than he is and for whom they should be looking. His calling is to “testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.”

Now, the lectionary doesn’t do us any favors here because it leaves out the part of the text that tells us who this light is. It’s the part that goes: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” For those still wondering who the light is, it’s always safe to go with the Sunday School or Seminary answer: “It’s Jesus!”

John is the one called to prepare the way of the Lord, to get people ready for Jesus’ coming, and to point to him when he appears on the scene. He is called a “witness,” or in the Greek, a “martyr,” and indeed, he will give his life speaking God’s truth to the powers that be. His whole identity is bound up in Christ. When Mary visits John’s mother Elizabeth, John leaps in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, rejoicing that Mary and Jesus have come near. From the very start, he is intimately connected with the Savior, and as the text tells us, pointing to Jesus was the very thing he was sent from God to do.

Just as John was called to be a witness to Christ, so, too, are we called to point to Christ. This day in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday or Rejoicing Sunday – a day to rejoice at the nearness of the coming of the Lord in a season of waiting and preparation. Part of that means pointing out and rejoicing over the places where we see Christ in the world. As a German theologian put it, “The time of fulfillment has dawned. We are already surrounded by the wonders and miracles of God” (Helmut Thielicke). This week I saw the wonders of Christ in so many places – in the faces of friends at a synod worship service, in the sharing of the Eucharist on Wednesday and with some of our homebound members, in a van full of toys collected for LINK, in laughing and praying with others… The list could go on and on. Where did you see Christ? Where can you point to God’s presence or activity in the world?

The world is full of darkness and difficulty, pain and suffering. Sometimes, life is just rough. We, like John, are called to witness to the light – to point out that God is here among us even if all seems difficult. And when we cannot see God for ourselves, we need others to point to God to help us see. We are called to proclaim with joy the wonderful things that God has done – that God is with us, loves us more deeply than we can even imagine, and has forgiven and welcomed each of us as beloved children. That is amazing news and a reason to rejoice if I ever heard one! It’s the type of news that causes the overflowing of poetic praise we hear in Isaiah: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness …For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

In baptism, we have been clothed with the garments of salvation and the robe of Christ’s righteousness. Just as John’s identity was in Christ, in baptism our identities have been shaped by the cross of Christ and sealed in the Holy Spirit. We know that God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do, the connections we have with people in high places, our jobs, our skills, or the amount of money we have. And out of that wonderful knowledge, our praise is to spring up before all nations. We rejoice because of what God has done for us and we are called to share it with others.

I take heart that John is not your normal, average, everyday person. He was a little weird. He was born to parents far too old to have children, he ate wild locusts and honey, he wore camel hair, a garment which was a sign of being a prophet, and he lived out in the wilderness. The wilderness was not a quiet getaway either, but a place feared and seen as disorderly and dangerous, where wild beasts and fierce bandits lived. It was a place of desolation and waste, where people find themselves bewildered and often lost – yet this is the place where the covenant with is Israel was made. This is the place where prophets lived/fled to. It is the place where Jesus will go to be tested and where he will feed thousands. It is a place of trial and difficulty, but also of learning and strengthening one’s reliance on God.

I find great comfort in the fact that God worked through someone who was on the margins, who was outside of the box in order to point to the light of the world.  I find incredible hope and joy knowing that God can work through each of us, no matter how “unorthodox” it may seem. Because the beautiful thing is that God works through you and me – through the poor, the marginalized, the hurting, the quirky, the broken, the serious, the weak, the imperfect, and the goofballs to bring about healing and wholeness, and the kingdom of God on earth.

John spends his life pointing to Christ, bearing witness to the light and life that will allow humanity to see God and each other more clearly. He is the lone voice crying out and preparing the way for Christ to come and usher in the Kingdom of God. The voice is a powerful concept in Scripture – God’s voice speaks and brings creation into being. The Word of God, Jesus, becomes flesh and dwells among us. God speaks through us and our fragile voices bear the voice and the words of God – comfort for those grieving, hope for those struggling, laughter for those rejoicing, and encouragement for the downtrodden. How will you use your voice to cry out that Christ is near? How will you use your voice to rejoice that the coming of the Lord is near? How will you use your life to point toward Christ in others and in the world?

My prayer is that each of us will find ways of pointing to and focusing on Christ this season and throughout the year. That we would have the bold and audacious confidence of John the Baptist in claiming our identities in Christ, as well as John’s humility in knowing that the one who is coming is the one far greater than ourselves. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Scandalized by God

This was the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA on Sunday.

 

This week I received a chain e-mail from a friend of mine.  Now normally I skip over these things pretty quickly, but I was intrigued by the subject line, “The ‘W’ in Christmas,” so I opened it up and read.  Maybe you’ve received this as well, but for those who haven’t, the story goes like this.  There was a mom who, despite all her best efforts to cut back, still found herself running around like a crazy person trying to get ready before the holidays.  She found herself exhausted, frustrated and unable to focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

Her son was in kindergarten that year and he’d been excitedly memorizing songs for his school’s “Winter Pageant.”  Unable to make the actual nighttime performance, his mom went to the final dress rehearsal that morning.  Joined by other parents in the audience, she watched as each class stood and sang their song.  Being a public school, she expected songs about winter, snowmen, reindeer and joy.  However, when her son’s class was up, they announced they’d be singing “Christmas Love.”  As they sang, the children in front held up large letters: “C is for Christmas,” “H is for Happy,” continuing on down the line.   Everything was fine until they reached a small, quiet girl in the front row, holding her “M” upside down.  As the elementary school kids began to snicker, the teachers tried unsuccessfully to quiet them down, but the girl continued, proudly holding her letter, unaware of her mistake.

As the final letter was held up, a hush fell over the crowd.  Suddenly people realized why they were celebrating Christmas to begin with, and why, in the middle of all the chaos, there was still plenty of room for rejoicing.  The message spelled out on the cards: “Christ was love.”

Now, even if this story isn’t something that actually occurred, it still tells us something powerful about expectations.  A mother’s expectations that her son’s pageant would be full of secular songs were turned upside down when she encountered the very Christmas message she’d been seeking in the chaos.

This morning’s reading from Matthew is all about expectations as well.  Pr. Joe reintroduced us to our wild and fiery prophet John the Baptist last Sunday.  Well, John finds himself in a difficult position in this week’s Gospel.  Sitting alone in prison, John is wondering if Jesus really is the Messiah.  Now remember, earlier, John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  And not only that, but John initially didn’t want to baptize Jesus at all, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ Now, locked in a prison cell, he’s wondering if he’s really picked the right messiah.  After all, Jesus wasn’t walking around with his winnowing fork in hand burning up chaff with unquenchable fire.  He hadn’t overthrown the oppressive Roman rulers.  He hadn’t come in like a powerful king, ready to reestablish the Golden Age of King David.

Instead, of fulfilling all of John’s expectations, he’d been teaching and healing people, wandering throughout the land and consorting with all the wrong types of people.  I imagine John pacing around his cell, wondering about this Messiah he’d decided to support, wringing his hands and muttering, “is Jesus really the one?”  Finally, he can’t stand it any longer and he sends his disciples out to ask Jesus directly if he’s the Messiah.

But Jesus doesn’t answer him directly.  He tells John’s disciples to report back to John, bearing witness about what they’ve seen and heard and experienced with their own senses.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus tells them to tell John they’ve seen and heard the promises of Isaiah’s oracle coming true before their very eyes.  In other words, the proof is in the pudding… and maybe since it’s around Christmas, we can say, “the proof is in the Figgy pudding.” It’s up to John to decide who he believes Jesus to be.  This is a theme we will hear ripple out through Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples, “who do you say that I am?”

Jesus doesn’t just tell John’s disciples to bear witness to these healings, he also tacks on this last sentence: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Hmmm…  what’s that all about?  The Greek word used for “offense” is one we’re more familiar with that you might think: it’s scandalitzo (σκανδαλίζω).  Say it with me: scandalitzo.  “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.”

While this word is used figuratively here to indicate taking offense at Jesus and his words, it literally means to cause someone to stumble.  Is Jesus telling John not to be offended or not to trip up over the fact that he doesn’t meet John’s expectations of who the Messiah should be and how he should act?

I hear these words about taking offense at Jesus and I don’t think they’re just meant for John the Baptist.  I hear Christ asking each of us if we are offended, scandalized or tripped up by who he is.  What do we find difficult about this Messiah we follow?  Where do we find ourselves stumbling?  Is it when Christ speaks words of judgment in the Gospels?  Is it when Christ calls us turn the other cheek or welcome outcasts?  Is it when we hear Christ’s call to pray for our enemies? Or do we find ourselves tripping up over really believing that the good news is real? And that it’s for each of us?

Rather than being upset or distraught that we are scandalized by Jesus, it’s an opportunity and a challenge to reflect on why we are offended.  It’s a chance to examine where God may be inviting us to grow in different areas in our lives.  If I am scandalized by the fact that Jesus lifts up the poor, perhaps I am being called to grow in my understanding of stewardship and generosity.  Or, if I find myself stumbling over the fact that Jesus calls us to forgive others seventy times seven times, perhaps I’m being called to look again at what it means to forgive and be forgiven.  And in doing this work, it’s important to keep in mind that even John the Baptist was scandalized by Jesus to some extent because he didn’t meet his messianic expectations.  I know I take comfort in hearing that one of the great heroes of the faith struggled with doubts and uncertainties even after he baptized Jesus!

In this morning’s reading, after encountering John’s disciples, Jesus affirms the Baptist’s important role as not only a prophet, but, “more than a prophet.”  In fact, Jesus says he’s the very one who prepared the way for the coming Messiah.  But Jesus isn’t one to just explain things.  Instead, he asks the crowds who have been listening to him about John the Baptist.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”

Jesus makes it very clear that this person who appeared to be a wild, raving man was actually the greatest among those born of women.  The one preaching in a wasteland was the one come to prepare and point the way to new life and growth.  He wasn’t what he seemed.  But this isn’t just a message for the crowds that gathered over two thousand years ago.  It’s a message for us.

“What did you go out to look at?  What then did you go out to see? What were you expecting? When you came to church this morning, what did you expect?”  Jesus asks us to think about our own expectations about encountering the holy.  What do we expect to see and hear from God? How do we expect or want God to act? What do we expect God to do? Have those expectations been fulfilled, let down, or changed altogether?

Our tendency is to try to make sense of things.  To organize things into categories and boxes so that we can understand them better, or at least pretend that we understand them! And I think we often try to confine God to a box, describing God in our own terms and putting boundaries on God.  But the amazing thing is that God keeps breaking out of the boxes that we try to keep God in.

C.S. Lewis’ children’s book and Christian allegory, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes this well.  In this book, Aslan, the magnificent lion that represents Christ, leaves to go about his mission in the world.  One of the characters explains his departure in this way: “He’ll be coming and going.  One day you’ll see him and another you won’t. He doesn’t like being tied down–and of course he has other countries to attend to. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”

I love that! God isn’t tame.  God is consistently breaking through the barriers we try to put up, which makes us a little uncomfortable and maybe even frustrated.  Bursting through the boxes we try to stick God in and shaking up our expectations, God is wild and mysterious.  And God, in Christ, comes to stir things up – to turn the world upside down through bringing about a new kingdom!  God is active and alive, not confined by our preconceptions.

This time of year, we celebrate God coming to earth and bringing about this kingdom.  We think about Jesus as an adorable baby in a manager surrounded by sheep, donkeys and oxen, which is totally appropriate.  But it’s also important that we remember that this baby is one who came to change the world and bring about an entirely new way of being – to bring life out of the barren wilderness, and to bring light into the darkness.

So, what do you expect see and hear when you encounter God? And how might God be changing that? Are you open to having those expectations changed, or does that offend and scandalize you?

I invite you to take the card you should have received when you came in this morning.  Write down your expectations of God and write down where you feel offended.  Pray about these things.  And listen for God’s response in your life.  How might these places be areas to grow and change in your life this Advent and into the coming year?

Let us pray… Open our hearts, O God.  Scandalize us with your gospel and your love!  And may we grow closer to you as you continue to challenge us to go beyond our comfort zones into the places and spaces to which you call us.  In the name of your dear Son we pray, Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

You Are My Beloved Child

This was the homily I preached yesterday at Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, DC for the Festival of the Baptism of Our Lord.

Two years ago, Jeff and I went on a trip with Gettysburg seminary and some local pastors to Turkey and Greece.  It was a fabulous trip and we had the opportunity to see many sites written about in Revelation, as well as to explore some of the places Paul visited and wrote about.  And two years ago, to the day, we visited Sardis in Turkey.  There we saw the ruins of the massive temple of Artemis with its towering columns that were made up of 22 rounds of marble a piece!

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey

Temple of Artemis and Church Ruins in Sardis, Turkey (church ruins bottom left)

But in the back right corner of these ruins, there was a tiny 4th century church, made of simple brick.  There, we gathered together and heard the letter to the church in Sardis from Revelation, and one of the retired pastors offered anointing.  My journal entry from the day reads as follows: “It was amazing to stand in a 4th century church on the Baptism of Our Lord and be anointed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  What a special experience.  The sweet smell of the oil, the gathered community and the simplicity of the ruins were so moving.  Thank you, Lord.  To stand gathered with all the saints in worship is a gift – remarkable and holy.”

In the ruins of a tiny church, nearly completely hidden by the enormity of the surrounding temple ruins, I was reminded that in baptism, I had been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.  I was reminded that I was a part of a larger community of saints – saints who worshiped thousands of years ago in countries far away, and saints who worship together today from differing backgrounds.  And I was reminded that in my baptism, I was called to follow Christ throughout my life.

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

4th Century Christian Church in Sardis, Turkey

In baptism, God claims and affirms us.  God says to each of us “you are my beloved son” or “you are my beloved daughter, with you I am well-pleased.”  Baptism is God showing us who we are through water and words.  It’s God saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”  It’s God showing us whose we are – people freed from our sins and dead to our old selves, raised to live new lives in Christ.  Baptism shapes our identities – we are God’s beloved children, forgiven through God’s grace, and made a part of the beautiful community of believers that stretches across time and space.

In baptism we are also gifted and blessed with the Holy Spirit.  This Spirit calls us to seek God, stirs up fire for justice and transformation in our hearts, and empowers us to serve in the world.  It is with this Spirit that both John and Jesus were filled – and we receive it, too! Folks, that’s powerful.  And as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in Spider-Man, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When I hear this Gospel reading for today, I think about John in all of his wildness – all of his unconventionality and how he served God as a prophet.  Here was a man yelling “you brood of vipers!” at the curious people who came to see him and listen to him.  He wasn’t one to hold punches or to withhold the truth from anyone.  And oddly enough, they ate it up!  They couldn’t get enough of it – they wanted him to baptize them with the baptism of repentance.  John’s fiery words convicted them of their wrongdoing and they wanted to straighten up and fly right.  But when they started to wonder if John was the long-awaited Messiah, this confident and feisty leader pointed away from himself.  That’s the image I have in my mind – John standing on the banks of the Jordan River, fired-up about calling people to repent, all the while pointing to God, trying to put the attention where he knows it should be.

We may not serve like John the Baptist – I mean, seriously, how many people can pull off calling others a “brood of vipers” and get away with it?  But all of us are called to serve and, in doing so, to point to Christ.  And it’s crucial to recognize that each of us has different skills and passions – tools we can use to serve God and to build up the kingdom.  Our ministries are not going to be identical, because we, as beloved children of God, are not identical.

This doesn’t make it easy to figure out how to serve because our service might look very different than that of our neighbors.  But I think the key is appreciating that we were baptized into a community – into a group of people who may be very different but who are all united through Christ.  We can respect and support the ministries of our fellow believers as they respect and support ours.  Remember, God says “with you I am well-pleased” not “with you I would be well-pleased if you were only a bit more like so-and-so!”

Continuing to come back to baptism each day helps ground us.  We are God’s beloved children and God is well-pleased with us simply because God loves us, not because of anything we’ve done to earn God’s favor.  In baptism, we are forgiven and set free, gifted with the Holy Spirit to make a difference in this world for the sake of the kingdom of God.  Yes, we have been gifted with the Spirit to make a real difference, if only we could believe it!

And we’re not just called to serve within these four walls.  Throughout the week, the words we say and even the smallest things we do can all bear witness to Christ and how God is at work in our lives.  It may be as simple as letting someone merge in front of you on your commute home or by being a gracious host or hostess.  It may mean taking a stand against something you know is wrong at work or in school.  It may mean following that little nudge that you feel pushing you to do something that is out of your comfort zone.  Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, our lives, just like John the Baptist’s, are to point to Jesus, the one who has redeemed us through love.

Today we are installing the council members, both experienced and new.  Each of them has responded to the call and challenge to serve with a “yes.”  Throughout the coming year, they will be tasked with prayerfully beginning new discussions, considering requests, and making decisions.  And in all of these situations, they are being asked to serve in ways that mean they, and by extension our congregation, will point to Christ.  As they begin or continue their terms, let us pray for them that they might be filled with the Holy Spirit and be faithful in following Christ as they serve on council.  And as we all continue on our journeys, may we pray for one another and help each other figure out the ways in which God may be calling us to serve using our unique skills.  As we go out to serve this week, may you remember, you are God’s beloved child and with you God is well-pleased.  Thanks be to God for this incredible gift and the opportunity to make a difference! Amen.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

It’s Opposite Day!

This was the sermon I preached last Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, MD for the Baptism of Our Lord.

Luke 3:15-17
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.”

I have two brothers and when we were younger, like many children, we would make things up. We were very creative, probably much to my parents’ exhaustion, and we’d invent all kinds of games. One of the games we came up with was “opposite day.” It never lasted very long, but here’s how it usually went: one of us would say something like “I’ll play with you when we get home” and then, when the other person went to go play, the instigator would say something like “Haha! Its opposite day!,” dashing the other persons’ expectations to pieces. Not very nice, I know, but we liked to pick on each other.

Oddly enough, I see a similar thing happening in the Gospel reading for this morning. No, God isn’t playing tricks like my brothers and I did, but God does act contrary to our expectations. John the Baptist, who could have pretended to be the Messiah, instead identifies the Messiah as one who is far more powerful than himself. John goes as far as to say that he is not even fit to do the job of a slave – that of untying this coming one’s sandals. However, completely contrary to what everyone is expecting, Jesus is born into this world to a poor family. In this reading, he encounters John on the banks of the Jordan and he does not declare that he is the Messiah or the Christ, but rather, has John baptize him with water for the repentance of sins.

What?! This doesn’t make any sense at all! Jesus, God made flesh, goes to a man with long hair who eats locusts and honey in the desert to be baptized?! That’s absolutely astonishing. My question, however, is why? Why would the Messiah, the anointed one, need to be baptized? I think in order to understand this a bit better, we need to look at the picture Luke has already presented of Jesus. Jesus is born to a poor girl in a small village – he doesn’t come as a powerful, earthly king in radiant glory as everyone was expecting. It seems that God isn’t into living up to anyone’s expectations or pictures of how redemption will come into the world. Already, Luke has painted a picture of God working in unexpected ways – in ways often totally opposite of what is expected.

In addition, Luke’s Gospel includes many details about Jesus’ humanity and how he followed the Law and Jewish customs to a tee. According to Luke, Jesus was circumcised and named on the eighth day as was the custom, and he was presented at the Temple and dedicated to God according to the laws prescribed in Exodus. As he grew, Luke describes Jesus as becoming “strong and filled with wisdom.” In Jewish tradition, wisdom was something highly sought after. It was through wisdom that one could glimpse God and through wisdom that one could flourish in life. Still later, when Jesus was twelve, Mary, Joseph and Jesus devoutly head to Jerusalem for Passover as they did every year. After the festival, Joseph and Mary begin the trek back to Nazareth when they notice that Jesus is missing. He is found discussing and arguing with the teachers in the Temple – engaging in the study of the Torah and the faith of his ancestors.

Seeing how Jesus had become human and was living the life of a proper Jewish man, it seems a bit more fitting that Luke and the other Gospel writers would also show Jesus being baptized. At this time, ritual washings were seen as necessary to wash away impurities that would defile the Temple and cause separation from God. So, perhaps, baptism is not only something that Jesus would later command his followers to do, but also something that he has done in order to more fully identify with us. In addition to showing us that we are also to be baptized, the baptism of Christ is one more way of letting us know who Jesus is. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God declaring that Jesus is the beloved Son of God, with whom God is well-pleased, point the way like neon signs. The Holy Spirit and the voice indicate that Jesus is someone who shares a particularly special, intimate bond with God. Jesus already knew where he stood in relationship to God, the Father, but humanity did not. What could direct us more clearly than the heavens parting and a voice declaring who Jesus is? Once again, contrary to what we’d expect, the one who least needs a baptism for the repentance of sins does so anyway for our sake.

What remains shocking to me is how incredibly short this description of Jesus’ baptism is. Luke writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and 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.’” Luke mentions the baptism, but it seems almost like an afterthought. Instead, the author seems to put more emphasis on Jesus’ prayer and what happens after the baptism. It is interesting that Jesus prays after his baptism because none of the other Gospels describe Jesus as doing so. I do wonder what he was praying about, but perhaps it had to do with what comes next – the sky opens and the Holy Spirit descends along with a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It is only after Jesus’ prayer that the Holy Spirit and the voice are revealed.

A voice from the heavens?! That’s epic – straight out of a Hollywood movie! I know I have never heard the voice of God coming from the heavens! I would like to think that if I heard the unmistakable sound of God’s voice from above, I would be inclined to listen up! Sadly, as I begin to think about the voice of God more, I realize that maybe I wouldn’t listen, even if I did hear a voice from above. Maybe I haven’t been listening as well as I should and maybe, that’s an area where we all need to be paying more attention.

In seminary, we talk about our “call stories” – how we feel we’ve been called to various ministries and where we are in our journeys. I love hearing peoples’ stories because it reminds me that God is still speaking. Perhaps it’s not with a voice from above, but God is speaking through Scripture, prayer, the Sacraments, and even through the lives of ordinary, everyday people. After all, God worked through a man in a desert who felt he wasn’t good enough to untie Christ’s sandals in order to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Today, in the kind or comforting words of a friend during a difficult time, or even through a piece of music or art, we can hear God speaking to us. When I realize that, I cannot help but feel a rush of amazement and gratitude that God would choose to speak through you and me, however imperfect we are. Once again, God has chosen to work through unexpected mediums – through ways opposite of our expectations.

The other day, I caught the last half of Evan Almighty, the sequel to Bruce Almighty, on television. In this film, the main character, Evan Baxter, is chosen by God to become a modern day Noah. He is tasked with building an ark in our very own Washington, DC. As people mock and ridicule him and his family nearly gives up on him, a reporter asks, “Evan, what makes you so sure that God chose you?” His response floored me: “God chose all of us.” I was floored because there I was watching a comedy and yet, this amazing theological truth came through loud and clear. As we heard this morning in Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” God has called and claimed us. Is there any clearer expression of love?

God chose us when Jesus came into the world to live and teach among us. God chose us when Christ died on the cross for our sake and God chose us when in the Resurrection, Jesus defeated sin and death, leading the way for us to have eternal life with God. In baptism, God claims us, marks us with the cross of Christ and seals us with the Holy Spirit. Just as Jesus’ baptism marked the beginning of his ministry, our baptisms mark the beginning of ours. We are called and claimed by God in order to do the work of “bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” But how do we do that? That is where the voice of God comes in.

One of my favorite verses throughout my discernment process has been Isaiah 30:21: “And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” God is right here, right now, with us, guiding us along the way if we will only take the time to stop and listen. We have been given the gifts of the Scriptures, of prayer and conversation with others in the body of Christ in order to help us hear that voice, that word, guiding our way, showing us how we can take part in bringing about God’s kingdom on earth.

We can give thanks that God is still speaking to us and through us and we can look forward to discovering what God may be calling us to do. While we are daily remembering our baptisms and how God has lovingly claimed and filled us with the Holy Spirit, we can be carefully discerning how God is communicating with us. We just need to be open to the unexpected, surprising and often contrary ways God has of creatively reaching us.

You may think that God is only found in glory and not among the poor. You may think that you are not good enough to talk to or be of service to God. You may think that God has ceased talking to or through lowly sinners like you and me, but guess what? Its opposite day! AMEN.

© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.

Baptism of Jesus from the LA Cathedral (Also in My Home Congregation!)

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