Sermons That Work

We Have Come Through…, Epiphany 1 (B) – 1997

January 19, 1997

We have come through the holiday and season of the church year which most celebrates children. Christmas somehow seems more complete when there is a child in the house. The pleasure which an adult feels in the loving temperament of the time is magnified when the mysteries are reflected in a child’s eyes. It is also the season when we are most likely to indulge in fanciful journey to the past and to relive moments of our own family histories. Memories are lively and those with whom we shared Christmases long ago come again into our hearts.

A child is born. To avoid clumsy pronouns we will dictate that it is a girl child. She is a daughter, sister, and eventually a wife and a mother. She moves in and out of relationships throughout a lifetime. She is baptized as an infant and grows up in the Church as at least an “average” Christian. She hears about God, has read much of the Bible, attends Youth Gatherings, works in the nursery when her own children are there, and takes a turn in the Sunday School. She works outside the home, first part time and then full time. She provides business dinners for her husband’s office. She cares for her parents’ needs when the time comes. The relationships of family, friends, and co-workers are the fortunate safe kind as is her relationship with her God. As our business here today is not to proclaim her life and since she is our creation we will leave a morsel of her life from each. We could write a book with each conversation as a chapter. The assertiveness which our lady shows on the job is not the same which she demonstrates with her parents. The sorts of love she has for her husband, her children, her friends, are completely different and the responses of the loved ones are different as well. All of those people know only a fraction of who she really is. It would take all of the chapters in the book to really know her as others do. Even then we could not know her as she knows herself or as God does.

And if we can’t really know one of our fellow creatures, how can we expect to know God? It is noteworthy that the Church in the wisdom of the ages has incorporated the telling of the family story into the life of the community. We listen to the telling of our family history at the Great Vigil of Easter as well as in the services of lessons and carols at Christmastide. It is very much like the conversation around a family table at holiday time.

Holy Scripture is a vehicle for that knowing. God is, in part, defined through relationship with the created. In the readings for today we hear of that relationship and not only that but the relationship which the Father has with the Son and the Spirit as well. Through the readings we share in intimate moments, the sort which are the most revealing. God introduces Himself to us and invites us to meet the rest of the family.

There are powerful words here. In Isaiah God delivers to us his “servant.” This person has been chosen and is upheld through the strength and grace of the Creator Himself. God’s “soul delights.” That is a phrase with which to play head games. What can move a human creature beyond a reaction of the mind and heart and take it to a realm wherein only the soul’s response is sufficient? Somehow it is easier to imagine the soul’s response to great sorrow than to great joy. To speak of the delight of the soul is to speak of an ecstasy which is beyond the realm of most human existence.

God not only delights in his servant, he invests him with God’s own spirit. The passage goes on to illumine this notion. We learn that the servant will “bring justice to the nations,” and not by making himself heard in the streets. The spirit of God propels toward justice which will be “faithfully brought forth.” So how does it work, this bringing of justice?

It works because the servant stands at the hand of God and is upheld by it. Isaiah identifies that God. In language that is poetic even in translation, we are given a creator who stretched out the heavens and spread out the earth. Those words denote infinite care in creation. A woman takes a clean smelling sheet from the kind of clothesline which is almost non-existent in contemporary backyards. She lifts it high over the bed, shakes it out and allows it to settle onto the surface of the mattress. Her hands spread the bedding smooth and there is pride in the task. The movement releases the sweet smell of sunshine and fresh air. It is smell of home and safety.

Creation may have been like that, fresh and sweet- smelling, with the gentle hands of the Creator God spreading things smooth and tugging at the corners until all was just right. And then came life, the breath and spirit of God put into creation to animate all creatures. And now, God declares new things to us. Even before they come to pass, we are to know of them.

Who are we in the story? With what images do we identify? It is a long way, brothers and sisters, back to the moment of creation in its freshness. The reeds and we have become bruised and the wicks and we burn dimly. The comfort is that we are promised justice. A call has been made in righteousness and a covenant made. We sit in darkness knowing that we will be led into the light. We have heard the promise from the Lord who shares his glory with no other.

Comfort without ending is found here and yet more in the Book of Acts as Peter speaks to Cornelius the Centurion. This passage expresses a moment of illumination for Peter, a time when the holy breaks through. When Peters says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality…” it would have been said with wonder in his voice. Peter has just figured it out — or, been shown the truth of the matter. What a moment! “The Messiah of God,” had been the response of the Apostle when Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” This declaration was not complete until this moment with Cornelius when Peter knows that the love of Christ was for believers of all nations.

Where do you find yourself in the household of Cornelius which is listening to Peter? Human beings are highly charged when there is a threat of exclusion. Think of the time when you were not chosen for a team or didn’t audition well for a school play or when friends went to lunch without inviting you. It is likely that you have not had the misfortune to be on the fringes of society, but, one can still empathize with the pain of such a situation. And, to be excluded by God! To sense that there are those which hold the key to the door which keeps you out. And, Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” You are inside the door.

It is the justice of God revealed to us. We come to know the part of God’s nature which is love without question and the acceptance which is total. We are loved with all of our warts and blemishes, all of our petty little sins for which we ask and are given absolution. We know that justice will be there even if we mess up big time. Isn’t our response to such a God is to try a little harder?

The spirit of God gave breath and life to all creatures. That same Spirit empowers the Messiah known by Peter to go about doing good and “healing all who were oppressed by the devil.” We continue to hear of the Spirit as that which empowers the servant, the Messiah, to heal, to save, to bring justice. And all of this began after the baptism by John.

This is a scene of epic proportions. It begins so simply. John in his holy lunacy with the crowd from the villages, people aching for some Good News. It comes in two forms: the baptism of John which is a forgiveness of sins, and his prophecy of the one who is greater and who will follow. There is to be a baptism of the Spirit. There will not be a human intermediary with this baptism. It will be straight from God.

Jesus, the righteous one, goes to John and enters the water of the Jordan. Mark tells us that as he leaves the water he sees the “heaven torn apart.” Now, that is a picture worthy of Cecil B. deMille. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” It is as if God the Father cannot get close enough to his child. It is as if the parent is confined to heaven at this intimate moment and in euphoric frustration rips and tears the very fabric of the universe to lay his claim upon his Son. It is a cosmic YES, arms raised high and feet dancing. It is love spilling out, the cup overflowing. God knows, and we know from Peter and Isaiah what will be the result of this descent of the Spirit to Jesus. Justice and mercy will be preached to all people. He will go about doing good.

We stand about in the crowd at the Jordan. That has to be our identification in this scene. We have trudged out from town, weighted down by our sins and full of hope that the madman from the desert will give some hope and promise to our lives. We can’t know that the man in our midst is one born without stain. We probably don’t recognize him as the Messiah. But, we go back to the village and step back into our routines. We are refreshed and feel the sense of a clean start.

What do we learn of God. Again, we are introduced to the Son, the Servant. We see the anxious parent leaning forth from heaven to send the Spirit down. We also knows what comes next.

Jesus is driven into the wilderness. “Driven” is Bible talk for behavior which we would probably call compulsive. The Spirit must have been a weighty thing. The task may have been revealed at that moment. One would have to get away to figure it all out. He goes into a place of great danger. We retreat to the wilderness for pleasure. In those days one was only safe inside the city walls. The Spirit cannot be denied. It has become a life force which compels behavior. To become obedient is to be Spirit directed and labor for the kingdom instead of self.

God wants to be known by us. He sought out the prophets and piece by piece the knowledge which can change lives and make them whole was given to humankind. It was given flesh in his Son who was sustained by the Spirit in his labors.

This Creator God is our Parent as well. We are not so small that we can be overlooked by his love and protection. It is impossible for us to be excluded. We only need to respond to one whose response is eternal and unchanging. One who is in three persons, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier and who is all that we need. AMEN.

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Christopher Sikkema


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