The River

Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

It happens, every so often, that someone reaches out with an inquiry about baptism.

A couple has a baby and they call the church office to ask if it would be possible for their newborn to be baptized. A stranger stumbles into church on a Sunday morning, is moved by the power of the Spirit, and approaches me afterward to discuss the holy waters. A long time church members sees someone else being baptized and, for the first time, desires to receive the promise of the covenant made by water and the spirit.

And, inevitably, we come to a moment when I ask THE question as it pertains to baptism: “Why?” 

One of my professors once said that the most faithful churches are those who won’t marry or baptize anyone off the street. That is, if a random couple asks to be married, it would be better for them to get married by the justice of the peace. The covenant of marriage, at least as understood by the church, is only possible within a community who will help hold the couple accountable to the promises they make.

And the same holds true for baptism.

Should you grow weary or bored at any point in the next ten to fifteen minutes, you can look at the liturgies in the hymnal or google online and you will discover that the questions and promises of marriage and baptism are remarkably similar.

What makes them similar is the outward nature of a promise, that neither of the them should be entered lightly, and they are only possible within the connection of a community we call church.

A few years back I was serving a church with a preschool and I made it a point to hang out among the students and their families as much as possible. I was at the door nearly every morning welcoming them into our building, I led chapel time once a week in the sanctuary, and after a while I started getting invited to a lot of 4 year old birthday parties.

And I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way we had three different families represented in the preschool who each had a parent in ministry. 

Let me tell you, teaching preschoolers about the Bible is hard enough, but it takes on a whole new dimension when a few of those children would return home week after week to tell their pastor-parent what this pastor said.

Anyway, it came to pass that, one year, two brothers from the preschool asked if I would baptize them. And, of course, their mother was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church on the other side of town. So we decided to baptize the boys together.

But this was not to be an ordinary baptism. No, we did not schedule it to take place once picturesque Sunday morning in a sanctuary, we didn’t even consider baptizing them in the preschool where they learned of the faith. The boys wanted to be baptized in living water, a river or a lake or a stream.

It happened on a cold early May day, where we gather on the banks of, I kid you not, Whiskey Creek in Churchville, VA. I knew well enough to bring my fishing waiters because the water was liable to be cold. And it was frigid.

So we said all the things we normally say, I prayed with the boys by the creek’s edge, and then, because it was so cold, I had to literally carry the younger brother out into the middle of the creek, and his mother and I rapidly dunked him under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When he burst forth from the water on the final dunking, he screamed bloody murder, tears were streaming down his face. He hit me in the face and declared for everyone to hear, “I hate you Pastor Taylor!”

And then I had to go get his brother and do the same thing to him. 

John the Revelator sees what we cannot, at least not yet. From the vantage point of a high and holy mountain, he takes in the New Jerusalem, the great rectification of all things. And, oddly enough, there is no church in the city, no place of worship. How can it be that, when God comes to dwell among us, there is no place to gather such as this?

There is no temple because God is the temple. 

There is no darkness because God is the light.

There is no gate because God is the host.

Nothing unclean will enter this holiest of places, and neither will those who practice abomination or falsehood.

And there, in the center of it all, is the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

This water, and more importantly from whom it flows, makes all things new, all things holy, all things clean.

There has long been an understanding of John’s vision as a prophecy. That is: it tells us about what will come to pass at some point in the future. Christian types will then hold these images over the heads of their dozing congregations and point to connective images in our surrounding culture as signs that the times have come. They do so as a warning about getting clean for the king, repenting in dust and ashes, so that, when the time comes, they will do what is necessary to make it through the gate.

And all of that might be right. But if that’s all that this is, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Big trouble because, none of us will make the cut. Abomination sounds like a big and scary thing, and yet all of us practice abominations on a regular basis. An abomination is anything that causes distrust or hatred – and we live in a world that runs on distrust and hatred! We are defined, so often, not by what we love but by what we hate. And that’s not even mentioning those who deal in falsehoods, namely all of us.

For as much as this is an image of something that will come to pass, it is also, at the same time, very much a description of how things are right now. Revelation is a timeless book not because it stands the test of time, but because it rejects all notions of temporal categories. It is beyond time. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. But, for creaturely creatures like ourselves, we can scarcely wrap our heads around it.

But John’s sees something that speaks into who we are and whose we are in present, past, and future. John sees the river. The river of the water of life.

Water runs through the strange new world of the Bible. In the beginning God swept across the waters and brought forth order out of chaos. In the days of Noah God set forth a rainbow in the sky. When God saw God’s people as slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through the sea, and eventually through the Jordan to the land that was promised. 

In the fullness of time God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a woman and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Jesus called his disciples to share in his baptism of death and resurrection and to spread to the Good News to all who will hear it. 

The water that flows through the middle of the street of the city in John’s vision is the water through which we are delivered to a strange new land where even people like us are made holy.

Nothing unclean can enter the city and we can’t make ourselves clean. No amount of goodness, no down-on-our-knees prayers of repentance, no righteous acts of piety or mercy can wash away our sins. 

The old hymn is right: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Therefore, I can understand the hatred that came from the boy I baptized in Whiskey Creek. To be made clean implies there is a need to be made clean. And no one likes to admit there is something wrong with them. Moreover, baptism is the beginning of a journey into discipleship and following Jesus isn’t easy! I mean, look at who he decided to gather together as a church! Us! We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not! 

Now, could that boy articulate his hatred in the river with such theological insights? Probably not. But his emotional response to the cold waters of his baptism is a truth we often forget. Baptism changes everything. 

The blood of the Lamb, who comes to take away the sins of the world, flows forth from the throne and makes a way where there is no way. It is the great cleansing flood that makes the impossible possible. Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us when God has no good reason to say yes at all. 

I, myself, was baptized at 19 days old. I had no choice. It was done to me. 

But those who were gathered in the church 34 years ago took seriously the vows they made to raise me in the faith, with God’s help. So much so that I wound up going into the ministry.

Beware of baptizing your child! You never know what God might call them to do!

Anyway, when I was 25 and about to start serving in my first appointment, I had the opportunity to return to my home church and preach one last time as a layperson. I preached on the power of baptism and how I was a product of their promises. 

After the service ended, and I was shaking hands in the narthex, a woman I had known my whole life approached me with a well worn Bible in her hand. She opened it up to the inside front cover and I saw names and dates covering every available inch. And with her index finger she moved across the name until she came to mine and she said, “Whenever we have a baptism I write down the name and date of the person and I pray for each of them every morning. Which means, I’ve prayed for you almost every single day of your life.”

I don’t know “why” my parents had me baptized. I’m not sure they were ever asked, or if they even gave it much thought. But that conversation with that woman in the narthex of the church is the beginning of an answer to the question.

The boys I baptized in Whiskey Creek, one of whom socked me in the face right after, that moment started a journey that is the adventure of faith. Each and every day they are learning more about what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us in the water, right where we are.

The radical nature of the sacrament is made manifest insofar as our baptismal identities are more determinative than any other part of who we are. The waters of baptism wash away any notion of our being defined by our faults and our failures. Each drop of baptismal water contains an ocean of grace and mercy and love deep and wide enough to engulf the entirety of everything that ever was or will be.

In baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the past, present, and future are confused in the best possible way, and the Lord declares, “you are my child.”

And we are who God’s says we are. Amen. 

Don’t Be A Jerk

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wayne Dickert about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Wayner is the pastor of Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including fresh expressions, summer internships, stones, dis-grace, mighty waters, praying by listening, new creations, ambassadors for Christ, prodigals, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Be A Jerk

Gone Fishing (With Jesus)

Luke 5.1-2

One while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 

Jesus enters the town like the lone ranger. He barely receives a nod from the movers and shakers as he makes his way around. The people are good country folk, they know how to mind their own business, and someone new in town is sure to make a mess of things.

And Jesus, well, that’s exactly what he does.

He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it. He tells stories. He makes people laugh, he makes people think, and he makes some people mad.

Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom, but it doesn’t ring with the same kind of joy for those with all the power in the world.

Anyway, it doesn’t take long before this stranger attracts a crowd wherever he goes. At first it was just an opportunity for people to leave their lives for a moment, disappearing into the stories about good neighbors, and wandering sheep, and prodigal children. But then Jesus started the healings and the feedings. The hungry walked away with full bellies and the paralytics, well they just walked away which was miracle enough.

And it all started to get a little out of hand.

So much so that one day, while standing by the lake, the crowd had grown so large that the Lord in the flesh decided to do something about it.

Down the way, along the shore, were a few boats and the men who had been out all night fishing. They were busy cleaning their nets when Jesus walked up, hopped into a boat, and said, “Hey, what are we doing here on the shore? Let’s get out on the water.”

And without thinking twice about it, Peter pushed the boat in, and started oaring the Lord away from the crowds.

“This is perfect right here Pete,” Jesus remarked, “Now I can see everyone and everyone can hear. Keep it steady for a bit, okay?”

And then the teaching started up again. There was talk of loving enemies and praying for the people that make the world a messy place. There were stories of fig trees and lost coins. There were apocalyptic proclamations about all things being made new.

Most of it went right over Peter’s head. Literally and figuratively. 

But then Jesus looked down and said, “Pete, let’s go a little deeper and see if we can’t find ourselves some fish.”

“No offense, Lord,” Peter sheepishly replied, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. But you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”

Within 15 minutes they had caught more fish than could be safely get aboard the boat and they had to call for the other fishermen to help.

10 minutes later they had so many fish that the boats started sinking.

Peter saw all this happen right in front of him, with his arms giving out from hauling in all the fish, and he fell to the bottom of the boat and shouted, “Get out of here Lord! I’m not worthy of all this!”

And Jesus said, “No one is. But you don’t need to be afraid, from now on you’ll be catching people.”

And Peter, along with his partners, left everything at the shore and followed Jesus.

What a great and confounding story.

Theologically, it points to the bewildering nature of Jesus’ command over creation and how, whether we like it or not, we’re all caught up in something far greater than any of us realize. 

But practically, it’s also an awesome story about fishing.

Those who enjoy fishing inevitably know how to tell tales. For, most of the time, the fish we brag about are never quite as large in real life. The amount of effort that goes into fishing, getting the gear and the bait, finding the right water, going at the right time of day, practicing patience… It’s all a lot of work for a slippery little thing that, most of the time, you just toss back into the water anyway.

Notably, there’s a good deal of fishing in the New Testament and no one EVER catches a fish unless Jesus is with them. It’s doesn’t matter whether they’ve been doing it for years, or they have the right bait and gear, or if they’re in their lucky fishing spot – If Jesus isn’t in the boat, then there will be no fish.

And I’ve always loved how this little story ends. Luke puts all the attention and all the details on the fishing, but in the end, they leave all the fish behind to start fishing for Jesus.

It’s hard to know when it happened exactly, but somewhere along the line Jesus caught each of us. 

That’s what Jesus does – its not just the telling of tales, and the proclamation of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering all of us into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.

And Jesus is very good at what he does.

Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions over and over again. But Jesus comes to bring us life and life abundant. That’s what Christmas is all about – the lengths to which God was willing to go to come and shake up the monotony of life, to set us free from the chains of sin and death, and to welcome us to Supper of the Lamb that never ever ends.

Jesus’ divine fishing charter is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can, but it is also all purposed to bring us to a place we could never arrive on our own.

The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.

Thanks be to God. 

Baptism Isn’t A Choice

Matthew 5.14-16

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 

Dear Lucia,

You’re not going to remember today. 

In the church we call what we do to you today a sacrament, an outward sign of an invisible grace. It is a way in which God communicates something to us about us. And, you’re too young to have any idea what any of this means.

So I’m writing you a letter.

Hopefully one day your parents will sit you down and explain what happened to you, perhaps they will even apologize for the unenviable course this set you on (at least according to the world), and if you’re really lucky they’ll let you in on the secret of all secrets: It’s not just you who can’t understand what happened, none of us really do.

Baptism, at its best, is a people called church fumbling around in the darkness hoping God can make something of our nothing.

And, to make matters even stranger, getting baptized is a whole lot like getting married: A bunch of people gather together to hear promises exchanged knowing full and well that, as humans, breaking promises is precisely our cup of tea.

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we never quite live up to the expectations we place on ourselves.

And yet God remains steadfast to us precisely when we don’t return the favor.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today we baptize you into the Good News of Jesus Christ which, upon first glance, might actually seem like bad news. You know, the whole turn the other cheek and love your neighbors as yourself stuff. I promise you will discover moments when turning the cheek seems like the worst possible decision and I guarantee you’re going to find a neighbor with whom love appears impossible. And, contrary to how you will probably see baptisms in your own future, whether in the church in some movie, it’s not a picture perfect rainbows in the sky moment of bliss.

You are baptized into the death of Jesus so that you, to use the language of Paul, might become the gospel.

It’s actually quite strange.

Lucia, decades ago, when your great-grandparents and even grandparents were baptized into the faith, it was done so under the cloud of what we call Christendom – a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify the difference it meant to be Christian. Those differences were often defined by what the church said you could or couldn’t do. But those differences were relatively indistinguishable from what the country or community thought would be best anyway.

It was a time when it was assumed that just about everyone went to church on Sunday morning, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christian, and that so long as you said your prayers and put the right amount of money in the offering plate and made sure you did more good things than bad things everything would work out in the end.

That time is long gone and its not coming back.

And that, my dear niece, is truly Good News. What makes it Good News is the fact that you are being baptized into a radically different time for God’s church, a time of rediscovery for how unusual it is for us to be the church in the world. 

It is not an overstatement to say that what happens to you in baptism makes you different from other people. What I hope you come to know and see and believe is that the difference has little to do with you and everything to do with Jesus who is the difference who makes all the difference. 

In time you will come to discover that we who call ourselves Christians are a weird bunch – After all, we worship a God who became one of us, a Lord both fully human and divine, who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, died on the cross and was resurrected three days later. 

Even your baptism, this solitary moment in the life of faith, is a pretty bizarre endeavor. Should someone have walked by when I held you in my arms dumping water on your head they might’ve thought, “Is he trying to drown her?” And the truth is, yes, in a sense. Baptism is about drowning you in the Holy Spirit that you might arise different, because of Jesus.

Lucia, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus says you are the light of the world. If that’s true it is only and forever because Jesus is the light of the world first. He shines in the darkness, he is the Good News in a world drowning in bad news, he is the divine Word dwelling among us.

The best we can hope to do is reflect that light.

For, the more we think we’re the light of the world, the more we screw everything up. That I used “we” in that sentence is indicative of your baptism incorporating you into the church, a church that will forever be fallibly messing up the words from the Word. 

And we’ve certainly messed this one up from Matthew’s gospel.

For years, centuries even, this little bit of the story has been used to defend the example that Christians are supposed to make for the world to follow. Which is to say, you shine as a light for others to see the errors of their ways. 

Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so too will your faith shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But that’s a little backwards. For one thing, as I already noted, Jesus is the light of the world, not us. And secondly, the proclamation of the Lord here actually calls into question the very habits and practices that have so hindered the faith.

Let me put it this way: You are like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view. The desire to appear perfect as an example for others is all good and fine, but you’re going to fail. We all do. That’s the reason we need Jesus. 

Therefore, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that you, or any other Christian for that matter, is the perfect example to follow, perhaps we should consider how visible we are to the world and to God. That is, God already sees and knows you better than you will ever know yourself. And knowing that you won’t live up to the promises made in your baptism and in the proclamation of the gospel, God already nailed to the cross every one of your sins before you even had a chance to make them.

Or, to put it another way, God has imprisoned all to disobedience in order that God might be merciful to all.

Lucia, when you read this one day and you wonder why I rambled on and on about all of this, don’t blame me – your parents picked this text for your baptism. I think it’s rather notable that, right before this passage, Jesus offers what we in the church call the Beatitudes. 

And, I must confess Lucia, I’m not sure why the baptized are not included in the list. Surely it would’ve been better for the Lord to say, “Blessed are the baptized for they will be surprised by what God has in store for them.”

Perhaps Jesus did not include what is done to you and for you today because the baptized either make the choice for themselves or, as in your case, the choice is made for them. Whereas the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted name the different states of life that happen to those who are baptized.

Today, your baptism, is not a choice that you, or frankly even your parents, made. That Jesus has to the gall to call you a city on a hill is indicative of it. The only decision possible for you was made on another hill 2,000 years ago on top of which stood a cross.

The only thing you have to do Lucia, is be what you are. How you live and move in the body of Christ called the church will be a visible act that will forever separate you from the rest of the world. 

Today you are made different. Not because of me, or your parents, or Godparents, or even the church. You are different because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. 

So welcome precious lamb to the strange new world of the baptized in which in spite of your worst, and even best intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

Empty

Exodus 17.1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Who elected him king of this whole enterprise in the first place. I mean, who does he think he is? We’ve been out here wandering and wandering, and it’s not like he has a map or anything. And compasses haven’t even been invented yet!

I think that it’s high time someone gave him a piece of our minds.

Fine, I’ll do it.

Hey Moses! I need a word.

We’ve been camping here at Rephidim for a while now, and, um, what exactly are you going to do about the water situation? People are thirsty, you know!

And, I hate to be the one to bring this up with you, but back in the place that must not be named, we at least had food to eat and water to drink. I know they worked us to the bone, but we had beds to sleep in at night when we were exhausted. And sure, they killed all of the first born sons all those years ago, but things got better. All we want to know is, what’s the plan man?!?!

Why did you drag us all the way out here just to die?!

Lord, what am I supposed to do with these people? They’re just about ready to kill me. I told you back when you showed up in that bush that no one would listen to me. And then that advice, the whole, “tell them I AM sent you,” that went over really well. And, frankly Lord, I have to agree with the people, what exactly is the plan, because right now, Egypt isn’t looking so bad…

A voice cries out: You fool! Go grab that stick over there on the floor, take some friends, hit the rock and water will come out so the people can drink.

So Moses did as he was told. And the people drank. And they continued to wander and grumble and complain. He named the place of the miracle water rock, Massah and Meribah, because the people kept fighting and saying, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

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That story has been told and relived in our own lives over and over again. In the wilderness it was the people complaining about the water. For some of us, it has sounded like this:

A husband sits down with his wife – I know I shouldn’t have cheated on you honey. But it was only the one time, and really, you haven’t been available and what was I supposed to do? I come home from work, putting in all those hours so you can have the food ready for me on the table, and then I’m not even greeted with a smile, and heaven forbid a compliment. And so, yeah, I cheated. It felt like what it used to feel like with us…

Or:

A wife sits down with her husband – I don’t think we should stay together. Neither of us have broken our marriage vow, but it just doesn’t feel like this is going to work. You never listen to me, you never care about how I feel. You’re gone all the time and you’re so distant. I work so hard to have everything ready for you, and have you ever thanked me? Have you ever even noticed everything I do? In my last marriage, as horrible as it was, at least I felt seen and noticed. But with you, it’s like I don’t even exist sometimes…

Or:

Parents sit down with their child – These grades are simply not going to cut it. We’ve sacrificed too much for you to throw your education away like this. Who do you think paid for the tutor, and have you even considered how much time we’ve given up to stay up night after night to help you with your homework? Why can’t you be like Jimmy from down the street? He listens to his parents, he gets good grades, he never gets in trouble. But you? You’re making everything so difficult!

And so it goes.

We look to other people and other things all the time to fix whatever is wrong or broken or empty within us. 

It’s what individuals do when they find themselves in a rut at work – they will spend more time looking through job postings for other companies than working for their current employer, and then they run off at the first opportunity for something else only to discover more of the same.

It’s what dating couples do when they’re not ready to get married because they’re fighting and not communicating at all and they assume that getting married will force them into a place where it will all get sorted out but it only gets worse.

  It’s what married couples do who fight because maybe they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place and they decide to have a kid because surely thats the best solution to the problem.

And then, in the midst of all of that hoped-for self-discovery, we spend more time looking backward or in other places, than we do observing the present. 

Well, at least back in Egypt we had water to drink. My last job didn’t make me stay so late on Friday afternoons. My last boyfriend really listened to me. My neighbor’s kid is so much better behaved than my own.

And it’s not long before everyone is left feeling empty inside.

Idolatry – it’s not a word we use much in the church these days, but it’s a word God uses all the time in the scriptures. Idolatry: looking to others to give you what only God can give.

It’s the first of the ten commandments – you shall have no other gods but the Lord.

And we break that one all the time.

We can’t replace God with a spouse, or a kid, or a job, or a political party, or any other number of things we look to to provide meaning and value in our lives. And, if we’re honest, we know those things always come up short. 

They come up short because no spouse or friend or kid or job or anything else can give us whatever it is we are looking for.

The Israelites had no hope and no future in Egypt. Beaten to death, belittled for being who they were, relegated to the worst imaginable conditions. And God shows up for spectacularly, delivering God’s people out of bondage in Egypt into a strange new land.

But the people grumble, because no matter how much we think the grass is greener on the other side, its still grass.

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And, for some bewildering reason, its in our wandering that God delights in showing up. Hey Moses, go hit that rock with the stick and see what happens. Oh, you all are hungry, I’ll just rain a little manna down from heaven. Still living under the rule of sin and death, I’ll send my Son to turn the world upside down.

God, in spite of our earnings and deservings (which don’t amount to much in the first place), shows up and pours out the living water upon all who are thirsty. In the church we call it baptism, but it really happens all the time. Frankly, it’s one of the reasons we get together so often, to remind ourselves and one another of the story that is our story, the story of what we once were and the story of who we are now, because of God. 

Not because we’ve finally found the right path, or person, or program. But because God is the source of our being and calls into existence the things that do not exist and makes a way where there was no way.

When we begin to see how God is active in our lives, then our friends can let us down and even though it hurts it won’t upend us; our children can drive us crazy and it won’t destroy us; our spouses can speak the deepest and ugliest truths about us and it will be painful to hear, but we can handle it.

We can do all of that because the cross has already spoken the deepest and darkest truth about who we are. We are the sinners for whom Christ died.

I like to call that the inconvenient truth of Christianity. We’ve become very good these days, frankly we have lots of practice, at pointing out the sins in other people. To some degree I think that’s what social media is all about. We either log on to call out the imperfections of others, or we try to portray ourselves as if we are perfect into order to put other down. 

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The inconvenient truth of Christianity is that we are no better than those who wandered in the wilderness of Sin looking for a little sip of water. We are no better than the television pundits who have made careers out of sensationalizing what we might call the news. We are no better than the man who drove from town to town buying all of the hand sanitizer in order to resell it as a huge margin and is now sitting on 17,000 bottles and has been blocked from online sales.

This is a confounding moment for the church and, strangely, some are using this as a moment to defy the calls of the community and are gathering this morning in spite of the danger. And yet, this is a danger that extends far beyond those who gather, because those gather run the risk of sharing the virus with everyone else.

We live in an age of self-righteousness and assertion such that we are all often saying in some way, shape, and form: “I am right and they are wrong – pay attention to me because I’m the one who really matters – you can’t tell me what to do because I am the master of my own universe.”

But part of the Christian message is that God is the master of the universe, that God comes to us in ways that defy and upend our expectations. 

The cross reminds us that God rules in weakness.

And remember, it is from that cross that points at and reflects all of our iniquities and all of our sins and all of our shames that the Lord says, “I forgive you, because you have no idea what you’re doing.”

The story of Moses and the wandering Israelites in the wilderness is a familiar tale because many of us experience it on a regular basis. We thirst for things both tangible and intangible and, more often than not, we look to the people and the things around us to fill the holes deep within us.

But there’s another story in the Bible about someone who thirsts.

Jesus is on his way to Galilee and he decides to stop in Samaria at a well.

At the well, in the middle of the day, he meets a woman carrying an empty bucket.

But it’s not the bucket he notices.

He sees her, truly sees her, and takes in her emptiness, the emptiness that has carried her from man to man to man to man.

And he says to her, “I am Living Water. What I give is from a spring that will never ever stop. It will never run dry. It will fill you with love and meaning and purpose and value and healing and worth.”

And she leaves, gushing to everyone about what Jesus had done for her. 

Jesus does, again and again, what we could not and would not do for ourselves. He speaks a word of truth that can sting and build us up in the same moment. And, in the end, he is the one who saves us, and not the other way around. Amen. 

Worthless

Jeremiah 2.4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and puts, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

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No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

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. 

Thirsty

Devotional:

Psalm 63.1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 

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After preaching and leading worship for what felt like 4 of the more challenging weeks in my life, a youth from the church approached me after the service on Sunday. In his eyes I saw a the beginnings  of a question and I mentally prepared myself to respond. I have attempted to be as clear as possible about the situation the UMC finds itself in, and I have tried to preach faithfully in the midst of it, but the look on the young man’s face left me worried that I had been anything but clear.

Before he opened his mouth I said, “I can tell that you’ve got a question brewing. What is it?” 

He stared blankly at my face for a moment and then said, “Is there anything you wish you hadn’t packed in your bag when you went hiking at Philmont?”

I, constantly over thinking everything, made an assumption that he wanted to know more about the denomination’s stance on human sexuality, or where the UMC is heading, but what he really wanted was some advice as he prepares to journey to Philmont this summer with his Boy Scout Troop.

When I was the same as as the young man I was fortunate enough to travel to the Boy Scout ranch in northern New Mexico for what was one of the most formative experiences in my life. So, recalling those ten days and 102 miles, I told him about cutting down on unnecessary clothing, spreading communal gear across the whole crew, and making sure that he has enough bottles for enough water.

And ever since Sunday afternoon, I’ve been thinking about that last item a lot. And, to be honest, it has been a long time since I’ve given a lot of thought to the most basic and important element of our survival: water.

I can remember hiking out at Philmont nearly 15 years ago and not having enough water on a particularly brutal day. We started rationing it among the group as much as we could but at some point we ran out and we began panicking. With every mile we passed another dry creek bed and our lips continued to crack.

However, when we finally made it to the next campsite that afternoon, there were arrows pointing to a fresh spring that was producing water. It was hot and it was brackish, but it was the most delicious water I’ve ever tasted in my life!

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The psalmist writes, “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” The desire to know God and to feel God’s presence is likened to wandering around a dry land looking for water. And yet, how often do we long for God in that kind of way? Many of us make our way to church on Sunday mornings hoping for something, even yearning for something, but would we describe it like the thirst while looking for a spring in the midst of a drought?

Or perhaps the metaphor works differently. Maybe it’s not so much about our desire to be filled like a flowing stream, but the refined rarity of actually finding it. 

Today, many of us take for granted what has been made available to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We go about our Christian lives without having to think much about what we are doing. We enter church and see the cross but it doesn’t stand out to us in the stark way that it should. 

And yet, like water, without the cross and without Jesus we are nothing.

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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baptism

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.