Dying To Live

Luke 10.25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

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Dear Logan,

When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.

For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.

But don’t blame me for your new life.

You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.

But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.

You don’t get a choice.

Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.

A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment. 

Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”

Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one. 

They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.

But instead, they trusted me.

So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.

Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.

One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.

Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”

The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.

Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.

And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.

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It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.

This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created. 

What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.

Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.

But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it. 

At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.

Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less. 

Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.

It’s up to Jesus.

Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us. 

Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that. 

Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer. 

But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me. 

The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.

We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story. 

You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love. 

But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love. 

In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.

The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.

The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.

Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.

And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.

Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”

So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

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Slaves To Freedom

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the Sunday school class at Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5.1, 13-25, Luke 9.51-62). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to have a crazy pastor, Cub Scouts, proper preparation, being delivered through water, cutting down trees, feeling freedom, patience, and God’s sense of humor. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Slaves To Freedom

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Alive In Death – A Baptism Homily

Ephesians 5.1

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Dear Carson,

I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was. 

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When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.

And I meant it.

Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.

And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.

Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.

Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.

In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.

Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?

Apparently we do.

The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.

While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise. 

Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.

You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.

Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.

But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.

Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.

Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.

And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything. 

In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.

Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross. 

My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.

Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.

That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.

The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven. 

Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.

We do not deserve what has been done for us. 

This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper. 

But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.

In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.

And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us. 

In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.

We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.

However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough. 

You are enough.

And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.

It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.

Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.

I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.

Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.

So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.

But I was honestly just being selfish.

I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.

But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.

Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.

You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.

Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Nothing New

Devotional:

Isaiah 43.19

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. 

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On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.

As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.

And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus. 

But that’s not actually new.

All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter. 

Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.

It’s about what has been done for us.

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In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!

To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible. 

And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.

And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not. 

Precious Lamb of Jesus Christ – A Snow Day Sermon

Isaiah 43.1-7

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 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. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”

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She’s looks up at the strange man in whose arms she is being held. Her mother and father are standing nearby with looks of hopeful anticipation but she keeps looking at the man who seems to be talking to everyone else. 

There’s a bowl of water nearby. She wants to touch it. But the man keep moving her around.

Suddenly everyone gathers closer and the man’s voice grows very soft. She feels a cold slither making its way down her head and she hears the word, “Father.”

The liquid spills onto the top of her dress when she she feels the cold across her scalp once again though this time she hears the word, “Son.”

She feels the goosebumps spreading across her body and all she really wants is to be held by her mother when the final handful of water splashes all over with the last words, “Holy Spirit.”

The last thing she remembers is being carried by the man around a large room filled with people all staring, staring right at her, with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.

She grows up in the church, or at least that’s what other people say, but she’s not there every week. She knows all the words to some of the hymns, she always dips her bread in the cup with practiced precision, and she sees plenty of pastors come and go.

And then she leaves, off to find her own way in college. She doesn’t know who she is really, or even what she wants to do, but she studies hard and pours herself into her work.

Graduation comes and goes. Boyfriends come and go. Jobs come and go. And with each passing momentous moment, she feels a little less than she did before. The people and the work and the moments require so much of whoever she is.

She wanders.

She marries.

She has children.

She finds herself back in church.

She leaves the church.

She buries her mother.

And then her father.

She brings the first child to college, and then the second.

She volunteers in the community, makes new friends, starts a book club.

She realizes that she has more gray hair than brown.

She drives by a church on a Sunday morning and, on a whim, she decides to stop and go inside.

The pastor stands at the front of the room, with a little baby in his hands and two parents on the side. He lifts water from the fount and places it gingerly on the tiny little head. And the last thing she hears before the tears starting streaming down her face are the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. You are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.”

Who am I?

Where do I belong?

What give me worth?

These questions, whether we are young or old, they never really go away; we are a people looking for answers.

And, more often than not, we go looking for those answers in all the wrong places. We seek out our identity in our spouses or our children, we claim ourselves in our work or our vocation, we even define who we are by our accomplishments or retirement accounts.

But those things never bring us what we need.

What we need, according to Isaiah, is to hear how God is the one who gives us identity and value.

“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 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.”

I have redeemed you!

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The people who heard these words from Isaiah were bloodied, bruised, and bedraggled. They were thrown into exile without hope for the future. And in God’s most bewildering of ways, these tender words remind the people Israel who they were, and whose they were, despite their identities and circumstances.

We often don’t like the so-called “God of the Old Testament.” God sends a flood to wipe out the humanity God had created in order to start again. God asks a father to sacrifice his only son in order to test his faithfulness. God sends an entire group of people into exile for their continued sins and ignorance of the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast.

But, to be abundantly clear, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament!

Only in God’s infinite and unknowable wisdom does the exile become the mechanism in which the people Israel become who God always intended them to be.

In that time, living as strangers in a strange land, if the exiles were able to take a good and hard look at themselves in the mirror they would’ve seen a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who were standing on the edges of the empire.

But Isaiah screams out at them in the midst of the suffering and isolation and fear: “That’s not who you are! You don’t belong to Babylon, you don’t even belong to yourselves, you belong to God!” 

They are a hopeless people in desperate need of hope. But where in the world could they find hope in the midst of such uncertainty? The hope they so desperately needed is not within them, it is not even in some leader who claims to speak on behalf of all the people.

Their hope, their only hope, is in the One who has not turned away from them.

Today, just as in the time of Isaiah, we let our sins define us and those around us. Whether it was a one time mistake, or even a habitual failure, we name and are named by our failures. We’ve grown far too comfortable with letting a choice define an entire person’s life.

And yet, and yet (!), we are precious lambs of Jesus Christ in the sight of God despite our sins! That’s crazy! No matter how horrible we feel about what we’ve done, no matter how judgmental we are regarding the actions of the people around us, to God we are precious. 

To God we will always belong.

However, lest we fall prey to the belief that God’s loves gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, to whomever we want, whenever we want… that’s not what Isaiah is saying. The prophet is looking out on a people in the midst of uncertainty, then and now, and says that when we fail and fall (because we will), whether as individuals or even as churches, we can take comfort in the realization that our sins do not prompt God to quit loving us or laying claim to us. 

God’s love doesn’t free us to sin. God’s loves frees us from believing that our sins define us.

We can put our trust and hope in a great number of things – a spouse, a job, a politician, a bank account. But all of those things will eventually fail to give us what we’re looking for.

Instead, the prophet Isaiah calls us to put our hope and trust in the One who never abandons us.

Today churches all across the globe are celebrating the baptism of Jesus Christ. They will encounter the wonderful story of Jesus being compelled to the water and receiving his own baptism by his cousin John. And it is a rather fitting moment for us considering the fact that in baptism, God marks us and claims us as God’s own children. In the water, God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we’ve done and no matter what we will do.

In the water, we are precious.

Baptism, though we only receive it once, is not something that we do and then wash our hands of it forever. Our individual baptisms are something that we return to over and over again. At our church today we were planning to baptize a grandfather and his granddaughter, but the snow prevented us from gathering together! We were going to surround them at the fount as they heard the words that countless others have heard. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit – you are a precious lamb of Jesus Christ.

And then the plan was to have everyone come forward to place their fingers or the hands in the water to remember their own baptisms – to be grateful and mindful of the water that brings us our truest identities.

Throughout January we’re doing a series on What’s Right With The Church? There’s plenty that’s wrong, but there is far more right with the church than wrong. In the church, and in particular through the sacrament of baptism, we discover that we are wanted and loved by God regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

That’s pretty crazy when you think about it!

While we live in a world in which institutions and individuals can regularly disappoint us or even abandon us, God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine!” Amen. 

Asking The Right Quanswers

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [C] (Isaiah 43.1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 2.15-17, 21-22). Drew is one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lighting stuff on fire, unpacking redemption, being comfortable with sin, Maggie Smith as the voice of God, shouting “glory!” in church, the gray area of sentimentality, baby baptism, and youth group initiations. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Asking The Right Quanswers

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The Wrong Scripture – A Baptism Homily

Romans 12.9-13

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 

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Dear Jacoby,

You’re not going to remember today. 

If he had it his way, and by he I mean your uncle, and by uncle I mean someone who wishes he was your uncle, and by all of that I mean Jason… If he had it his way, I wouldn’t baptize you.

It’s not because you don’t deserve it, or that you’re not the paragon of cherubic cuteness.

It’s because he believes baptizing babies is an inherently problematic theological adventure.

And, though it deeply pains me to admit it, he’s got a point.

Jacoby, in time you will come to know the stories of Jesus – in fact your parents have already started telling you about the man to whom they committed their lives. And as you come to know Jesus more and more you will discover that baptism in the bible, whatever it may be, never happens to children. 

It’s reserved for adults.

The theological rationale is that only adults have the wherewithal, the ability, to comprehend the immensity of what is about to be done to and for you. Only adults have the maturity and the agency to commit their lives to the death made manifest in the water, and the new life that comes from emerging out of it.

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And that’s our problem little Jacoby you’re too young and you’re not going to remember any of this – which is why I’m writing you this letter. The hope is that when you look back at this decision that was made for you, you can at least to some degree appreciate how strange it all was, that your parents and the rest of your family agreed to make a covenant that you cannot.

I mean, we’re pretty good people – you’ve got an aunt who can dance like there’s no tomorrow while also writing in iambic pentameter. You have an uncle who can literally fix anything, literally. You have another aunt who can listen to 5 podcasts in a row while throwing on the wheel without missing a beat. You’ve got an uncle with such good taste in music that other people are often green with envy. You have an aunt who is so dedicated to the needs of others than she often forgets to think of herself (she’s also gorgeous). You have an aunt and uncle who have more scholarly education than most of the rest of the world. And you have an uncle who can marry, bury, and baptize anyone. 

But the really funny thing about putting all of the responsibility on the adults in the room is that we have no greater role in any of this than you do. Whether we have the proper frame of mind or not, your baptism is not about us. 

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what Jason thinks – baptism isn’t really about adults or babies. Not even you Jacoby.

It’s about God.

Jacoby, one day, if we actually live up to the covenant we are about to make, you will see the similarities between baptism and marriage. In both, individuals make promises they cannot possibly understand in the hopes that God will make something of their nothing. And in both circumstances, I often encourage those involved with the service to choose the scripture passage that, to them, best suits the moment.

When I married your aunt and uncle they, strangely, thought it best to proclaim the story of David’s anointing when being joined together. I have to admit that I scratched my head in the days leading up to their backyard wedding as I struggled to make some theological sense out of kingship in the midst of marriage.

The stories we gravitate to in scripture tend to define us. I could make the case that your uncle David wanted to hear about the story of the biblical David because he likes to think of himself as a king, or at least a king when it comes to chess.

But, of course, there’s also more to it than that. Like the biblical king with whom he shares a name, your uncle has lived a life whereby looking at the content of one’s heart, rather than their outward appearance, has defined much of his personality in all of the best ways possible.

Similarly, your parents chose the passage about the threefold cord not being easily broken as their wedding passage. And, to be honest Jacoby, that was so them.

They humbly know and recognize that their marriage will require more than just themselves, and they pray regularly for God to be the third part of their cord that binds them together through better and worse. Moreover, as you grow older and older you will come to find that your parents love to make friends of strangers, particularly when it comes to inviting others to the tables. And thus the threefold cord grows and grows.

Which makes what I’m about to say all the stranger: your parents picked the wrong passage for your baptism. 

And, to be clear, this is even more bizarre when you consider the fact that your parents are much better Christians than I am, and I am paid to be a professional one. 

The passage is okay, in the church we call Paul’s list in Romans 12 the marks of being a true Christian. But here’s the strange, dark, and even terrifying truth of reading this passage, a scripture all about being the best you, is that you will never do it.

You might try. Hell, I hope you do. And maybe you’ll even be good at some of it for awhile, but ultimately laying out a list like this one, on the day we kill you and resurrect you to new life here and now, is like telling you to climb a mountain that has no peak.

Let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to the good. 

Jacoby, your grandmothers are salt of the earth Christians. They earnestly pray for others, they show up when few others do, and they understand the virtues of active listening. But even they fall short of the expectations of Paul’s list. But Jacoby, for as faithful and flawed as your grandmothers are, they know that reading this list immediately before your baptism, like they are commandments from the Lord, is to confuse what we in the church call the law and the gospel. 

Or, to put it another way, reading this list implies, to some degree, that you are only worthy of the water to which I will pour on you if, IF, you do these things.

But the truth I hope you come to discover in your parents, your family, and your church, is that there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

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In no way shape or form is the love of God almighty continent on our willingness, or our ability, to actively live a life according Paul’s list. So, Jacoby, you can hang these words above your door frame, you can write them on your heart, but don’t you ever believe that God’s love for you is dependent on your love for God.

Jacoby, your name is a cooler version of one of the most important people in all of scripture: Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob, the heel-grabber who swindled the birthright away from his older brother Esau. Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder that stretched into the heavens. Jacob, who married the wrong sister. 

But Jacob’s name eventually changed. He wrestled with the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and when they came to a stalemate, Jacob was renamed Israel. 

Israel means, “You have striven against God and humans and prevailed.”

You, Jacoby, share a name with a man whose life was turned upside by God and a man who walked with a limp for the rest of his life after his name was changed.

It is my sincere hope and prayer that you would be so blessed as the one from whom you received your name.

Because Jacob, the biblical Jacob, stands as a shining example of what it means to be baptized by the Lord – whatever your life was, whatever it could have been, will be destroyed forever; in the water you will find the same Lord that changed Jacob into Israel, the same Lord that will grab hold of you throughout your life, the same Lord who will refuse to let go whether you do or not.

What we do in your baptism has almost nothing to do with any of us – but it has everything to do with the God who chose to come as close to us as a baby boy, a baby named Jesus, the one in whom we live and move and have our being.

Which brings me back to the list from Romans. I would love to spend even more time lambasting your parents for picking the wrong passage, there is some wisdom in choosing it for today. 

But the wisdom comes in the recognition that the list, though meant for us, is actually about Jesus.

Jesus’ love was genuine as he marched to the margins of life bringing hope to the hopeless, joy to the joyless, and voice to the voiceless.

Jesus hated all things evil particularly when it came to the powers and principalities that preyed on the weak.

Jesus held fast to the good in the moments of fear and frustration, like kneeling in the garden, and mounting the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus’ loved those around him with mutual affection, particularly when he removed his outer robe and used it to wash the feet of his disciples.

Jesus outdid everyone in his life by showing honor, though he did so in recognition that the least of these are the ones who will be first in the kingdom.

Jesus did not lag in zeal, and was remarkably ardent in spirit, as he served the Lord every day of his earthly life.

Jesus rejoiced in hope, hope for a day when weeping, and crying, and death would be no more. 

Jesus was patient in his suffering, even in the midst of death.

Jesus persevered in prayer, regularly retreating from the crowds to places of solitude to commune with the Lord.

Jesus contributed to the needs of the saints, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, befriended the lonely.

Jesus extended hospitality to strangers, particularly those forced to the edges of society and those who were far too often forgotten.

Jacoby, this list was meant for us, but it’s ultimately about Jesus. Which actually makes it the perfect passage for the day of your baptism, because you have done nothing to deserve it – and you never will.

That’s why we call it grace.

Though, lest you read this as a middle schooler and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that doing the things on Paul’s list don’t matter. Instead, it’s that even if you lived according to it and were considered a saint by all your friends, your life would still pale in comparison to the work of God made manifest in Jesus Christ made available to you by water and the Word.

We will make a covenant to love you, and pray for you, and raise you in the faith that was first handed down to us. But following Jesus is not simply about people like me telling someone like you that God calls you to do nice things and live a life with genuine love.

The world is a mixed up, topsy turvy, broken place filled with messed up, upside-down, sinners like you and me.

And, you will absolutely fail to follow the commands of Romans 12.

You only need to think about the story of the biblical Jacob, the one whose life reads like a roller coaster, to know that in our heart of hearts we often make the wrong choice, we hurt the people we love, and we think we deserve more than we receive.

But your baptism, Jacoby, is something you do not deserve. You have not, and you cannot, earn it.

It is offered to you in spite of you.

It’s grace.

My beloved nephew, you are about to be baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, nor will you ever be able to. In the water offered to you God will incorporate you in to a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

I hope you come to discover, with each passing day, that God exists neither next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

God is great! God is the one who created the heavens and the earth, who entered into covenant with his servant Abraham, who wrestled with Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok, who called Moses from the burning bush, who delivered the people Israel from captivity in Egypt, who sustained the nation through the judges and the prophets, who anointed kings to lead, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, who saved the world through a cross, who was resurrected three days later.

In baptism, God’s story becomes your story.

So welcome dear Jacoby, welcome to the story that started long before you arrived. Welcome to the life where in spite of our best intentions, and even our worst, God will refuse to let us go. Welcome to baptism made possible by Jesus. Amen.