Sunday, January 30, 2011

WHO WILL BE SAVED?

A Sermon based upon Psalm 15
By Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Epiphany 4, January 30th, 2011

The story goes that a Catholic dies and goes to heaven.  When he gets there, the attendant says, welcome, you'll be in room 21, but be very quiet when you walk past room 8.

A Pentecostal dies and goes to heaven, and the attendant greets him and says, welcome, you'll be in room 22, but be very quiet when you walk past room 8.

A Methodist dies and goes to heaven and the attendant greets her and says, welcome, you'll be in room 23, but be very quiet when you walk past room 8.

The three of them happen to meet, and they're all wondering about room 8 when they see the attendant walk by.  They grab him, he asks them how they're doing, and they say, oh, we're all very happy here, but we were wondering about room 8 and why we had to be so quiet when we went past it.

The attendant says, oh, those are the Baptists, they think they're the only ones here.

This joke has been told in other forms, but the meaning is always the same.  It refers to religious people who think they have some “special” revelation of who is right and who is wrong; who will be saved and who will be lost.  

I tell this joke about Baptists, since I can joke about myself, but the truth is, we are not the only ones who have thought ourselves to be right about salvation.   The Mormons often think they are the right ones.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also very determined to believe they are the true 144,000 who will be saved.  The Catholics, the Orthodox and Episcopal believers have all, at one time of another believed the same thing, though some are smarter than that today.  

If you study American history you’ll notice that before the constitution was written and adopted in September of 1787, which is basically a secular document, America were divided religiously, with several differing visions of the what was perceived to be the perfect religion; some were Anglican, others were Quaker, there were Puritan, and there were also large group of Baptists in Rhode Island.  The Anglicans put Baptist in jail in Virginia.  The Puritan’s put people of differing views in Stocks or ran them out of town or burned them as Witches.   The Baptist in Rhode Island believed in Freedom of Religion for all, but as they became established in the south, many of them developed the idea of a belief we call “Landmarkism”, which taught that only Baptists are “true” and right form of church.

Some of this attitude “holier than thou” attitude still remains in some forms, especially here in the south.  Last week, the new Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, who is a Deacon at First Baptist Church in Tucaloosa, Ala., made an interesting statement when he was speaking during an observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery.  He said that “people who have not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior are not Jesus’ brothers and sisters.”   The next day Bentley was confronted about his comment and immediately apologized.   He reversed and revised his opinion to say that “people who have not accepted Jesus as their personal savior can be  his own brothers and sisters.” 

We are used to this sort of “double talk” from politicians.    We also know the pressure put on people today to be “politically correct.  But the question of who is “in” and “who” is out still remains.  


It is a real question.  In its early forms, both Jews and early Christians believed they were the “right ones” who had the “true” message of salvation and other religions or faiths were “out” of God’s inner circle.  Jews, Christians, Mormons, Muslims and most all religions have, in some form or another, believed that some are “lost” and others are “saved” and has some way of treating some people as “insiders” brothers and sisters, while it treats other people as “outsiders” or “lost” without the true message of salvation.  We know from religious history that Roman Catholics, who had the power of Rome and the Papacy, used to burn people at the stake who did not agree with them.  Today, mainstream Islam, not just radical Islam calls all the rest of us who are not Muslim, “Infidels” and it requires that we be converted too.  And of course, there are still many Baptists who think they are the only ones who are going to heaven.   

All this talk about who is “in” and who is “out” is controversial in our politically correct climate, but what we must also realize is that it is also very biblical.  The Bible, from the first opening lines, shows Adam and Eve being kicked out of the garden, losing their chance at eternal life.   We also see in the Bible how Esau was “hated”, but Jacob was loved as the chosen son to carry the blessing.   In a broader way, Israel was chosen to be the people of God as God’s favored people, while the Canaanites and their practices of religion were rejected.  And, finally, in the New Testament, we also see how Christians professed “neither is there salvation in any other, whereby there no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby people can be saved.”  (Acts 4:12). In other words, the Christian faith is a very exclusive faith, affirming only Jesus as the “way, truth, and life”, and also saying that “no one comes to the Father, but through him.”  (John 14:6).   It is the same kind of attitude of exclusion which lead the Catholic church once to say, “There is no salvation, outside of the church.”   The Catholic Church once said that because they truly believed that they were the true and only inheritor of the way of Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I have a problem with going that far, declaring that there is no salvation outside of the church.   I understand what it means, that salvation does not work into our lives without being together with the people of God, but I still think such language does not tell the whole story.   The Bible says that “where two or three are together in my name, there I am in their midst” (Hebrews 10:25).   That’s also part of the story.  Another part of the story is that such talk is simply not humble enough.  This is the main problem I have with the Governor’s talk and most of our own attempts to draw the line of who is saved and who is not saved.  If you are going to draw the line, you have to draw it the very narrow way that Jesus did and few of us dare to do that.   Let me give you some examples of how Jesus drew the line. 

Do you recall in Matthew 7: 21-23; where Jesus drew the line of faith, even tighter and narrower than most of us draw it, when he said:  “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in you name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, “Depart from me, I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”  

In another place, we can read even stronger, more exclusivist language from Jesus when his own family came to challenge his teaching ministry.  We read in Matthew 12, verse 46:  “While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.   Then one said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You."  But He answered and said to the one who told Him, "Who is My mother and who are My brothers?"
 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 "For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother." (Mat 12:46-1 NKJ).  

Talk about drawing a line; when you put your own family “out” of who is doing God’s will, you’re getting on the edge, aren’t you? 

But there is an even harder and more difficult text than any of these, where Jesus not only puts those who don’t do God’s will out of the circle, or those, or those who are against God’s will out of the circle, but in this text, Jesus shows his own personal “Jewish” prejudice which, at least temporarily, puts all Gentiles (which means us, too) out of the circle of God’s work of Salvation.   You remember this difficult text don’t you?  Turn to Matthew 15 and read it for yourself: Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
 22 And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed."
 23 But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cries out after us."
 24 But He answered and said, "I WAS NOT SENT EXCEPT TO THE LOST SHEEP OF THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL."
 25 Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!"
 26 But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."
 27 And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."
 28 Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." And her daughter was healed from that very hour. (Mat 15:21-28 NKJ).

 For me, what is so striking in this text is first that a woman comes crying for “mercy”, but Jesus (He), does not answer her; “not a word” was his answer the text says (vs. 23).  At first glance, Jesus gives her nothing but a cold shoulder.  Then, as she returns once more, complaining to his disciples, they come to Jesus asking him to “Send her away!,”  Jesus gives another cold, very calculated answer: “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (vs. 24).   What this means is that, in this moment, according to Jesus, God’s salvation club had a sign on the door which read “Jews only.”   How does that make your feel?   These words still make me shiver.    But keep reading.  Now, we see that again, the woman doesn’t give up.  Scripture tells us that she bows down and worships Jesus, saying to him: “Lord, help me!”   Now, in strongest language possible, Jesus answers, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs!”  (vs. 26).   The newer translations soften Jesus’ language to “little dogs”, but the truth is a “dog” is a still a “dog” whether it is a puppy or full grown.   The whole episode is to remind usof another text in Matthew where Jesus says: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. (Mat 7:6 NKJ).    The point here is that Jesus is serious.  Jesus is very exclusivist.  He is more exclusivist than the governor in Alabama.  He does not include everybody in the kingdom, nor did he even see us in the plans of God in this moment.   

But then, we read next how something suddenly changes Jesus mind.  Do you see it?  Some impresses Jesus so great that his view of “Gentiles” changes.   Now, this Jesus, who as we say was “dead set” on ignoring this woman and leaving her out of God’s purposes, and was intent on leaving her an “outsider” and “foreigner” rather than an “insider” and “neighbor”, suddenly has a change of heart.  What was it that changed Jesus’ mind?   You don’t have to guess.  The text tells us: Jesus himself says to the woman, “Woman, great is your faith!”   It was faith that changed everything.  It was faith that included this woman into the mind and plan of God.  It was faith that moved her from being an outsider to being an insider.  It was faith that turned her from a “dog” into a “child” of God.  It was faith that allowed her to participate in the “miraculous” healing power of God’s coming kingdom.

This is still true.   Faith is what makes any of us people “insiders” to the will and purposes of God.    But this being true, how do we take these very “exclusive” words of Jesus and how do we apply them to us, and to those around us who do not “believe” and have “faith” as we have faith?  What does it mean to say that some are “saved” and others are “lost”?  How can we know where the lines are drawn for salvation in Jesus Christ?

Here is where our Psalm for today comes in.   Psalm 15 raises the same question among the Jews, long before it was even a Christian question about Jesus.  In our text today, David raises that very important of all questions:  “LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? (Psa 15:1 NKJ).  

But before we can understand David’s own answer in this Psalm, we need to see how this question relates to a question as the disciples once put to Jesus.   Do you remember the text in Matthew 19:16?  That text tells us the story of a of man who came to Jesus asking him, “Good teacher, what good thing can I do to have eternal life?”   Of course, in the story Jesus scolds the man for calling him “good”, claiming that there is no one who is truly “good”, but God.   But then Jesus gives his first answer about eternal life.   He says to him, the same kind of thing David answers in Psalm 15.  If you want to have eternal life and the life of God, then “keep the commandments.”  Isn’t that what the Psalmist is also answering when he says that it is the person who dwells with God “walks uprightly”, “works righteousness” and speaks the “truth in his heart” without hurting his “neighbor”   (Psalm 15:3).  This is how David and Jesus described the one who gets to abide in God’s “Tabernacle” and live on God’s “holy hill.”  In other words, the core the method of salvation is the way you live:  if you want to live with God, then, your life has to match your lips.   And when you are resolved to live the kind of life God requires, then you will also have eternal life that only God can give.

So, now this young man should be clear about this, right?   He has been told by Jesus what it means by Moses, David and now Jesus also, to be “included” by God in his salvation.   Just keep the commandments!  Right!

Wrong!   The young guy still does not feel saved.  He still feels like he is “lacking something” else that he must do in order to have eternal life.  What is that “one thing” he lacked?  Jesus tells him, that if he truly wants to know what it means to be “saved”, or as Jesus puts, “if he wants to be perfect”, then he must “sell everything”, give it to the poor, and then you’ll have “treasure in heaven”, and then with all that you can follow me without any hindrance at all.   Are you ready to do this, in order to be saved?   Will give up and sell everything to the poor?  Will you sell out for “treasure in heaven”, not for “treasure on earth?”  Will you follow Jesus, not just in word, but will you follow him every day, all the way?

Of course, with this, the man gets back into his Porche and drives away very disappointed.   He is disappointed because he cannot do what it takes to have eternal life.   He really can’t.   And guess what?  You can’t either.  At least that’s what the disciples understand.   When the disciples saw that this man had great possession and could do what it would take to have eternal life, they  turn to Jesus and ask most important question of all.  It is not the question of who’s in or who’s out, who’s saved or who’s lost, but it’s the even deeper, more pressing question:  “Who then can be saved?” 

So, now we have finally come to the right question; the one we should be asking.   The right question is not who’s in or who’s out, who’s saved or who’s lost.  None of us can answer that question.  We are not God.  We don’t know God’s mind.  We know God’s heart, but we still can’t read God’s mind.   Who will be lost and who will be saved is a question we can’t answer.  It is much better to ask the real question:  “Who then can be saved, at all?”  If God is keeping score, do any of us have a chance at salvation?   When we realize what it takes to be in God’s tabernacle, what it takes to dwell on his holy hill, are we able to fulfill it?   Most of us, when we look at our lives, know that we can only walk away sorrowfully from what we should be, but are not.   We need something more than commandments to save us.   We need something more than “works of righteousness”.   Yes, we need to keep God’s commandments, to do God’s will, and to live a holy and righteous life, but that ‘s not the whole picture.   The whole picture points to our consistent inability to live out God’s commands.  This is why we need salvation in the first place.  We need salvation because we can’t rescue ourselves.  If salvation depends upon what we’ve done, or what we can or can’t do, then we will all end up “going away sorrowfully”.

So, now, let’s listen to how Jesus answers the disciple’s question: Who then can be saved?  Can a person who lives in this world learn to let go and cast his whole salvation, not on his own works and riches, but can a person who is lost in their own efforts of salvation find the salvation that only God can give?  In other words, “How can any of us be saved?”  Jesus’ answer is this:  “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible?”  (Matt. 19:26). 

Jesus knows that the only way any of us are saved is because of what God does.  Salvation is never finally about what we have done, but it is about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.   And God did not do this while he was waiting on us to be “good”, but he did this knowing full well that we “were sinners”:  “While we were sinners,” the Scripture says, “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Get this clear:  Jesus does not die for good people, but he dies for sinners, for the ungodly, and for the people who rejected him altogether.  In God’s love, God does not want to be alone so he does  the work of salvation “for us” and in our behalf.

Will Willimon, a Methodist Bishop from Alabama, tells of a couple who came to their pastor telling about the trouble they’d been having with their son.   “Our son has been putting us through hell,” she said.  “Didn’t even know where he was for months until last night.  My husband and I were eating dinner, and suddenly, without warning, he brusts through the front door and begins cursing us, demanding money, refusing to join us at the table.  After an ugly scene, he stormed down the hall and slammed the door to his room.”  (It’s sad what parents are sometimes forced to endure from their children.)

“Well, my husband gets up,” she recalls, “and goes over to the kitchen, pours himself a drink, turns on the T.V., and slumps down in his chair.  That’s how he handles these moments.  I walked down the hall and said, ‘Son, can we talk?  I just want to talk.’   I could hear him curse me from inside his bedroom.  I tried to open the door, but it was locked.”

“So I went into the garage, got a big hammer, walked back in, stood before my son’s bedroom door, drew back, and with only one blow was able to knock the doorknob clean off the door.  Took about a third of the door with it.  Then I lunged at my surprised-looking-son, grabbed him around the throat, and said, “I’m not going to put up with this (crap) any more.  (She used another word).  You are better than this!  I gave birth to you, went into labor for you, and I’m not giving you away!”

“I really think something important happened for us last night.  I think he heard me.  We’re on a new track,” she said.  (From "Who Will Be Saved?" by William H. Willimon, Nashville, Abingdon Press, p. 67).

I believe God’s effort to save us is something like that.   God is willing to break down any door or wall to get through to us.   Because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the impossible has become possible.  The question is no longer ‘who will be saved’, or ‘who can be saved’, but the question is now this: Will you let God save you? 
Now is the acceptable time! 
Today is the day of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6.2)
Amen. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

TURN ON THE LIGHT!

A sermon based upon Psalm 27: 1-9
Charles J. Tomlin, DMin.,
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
3rd Sunday of Epiphany, January 23, 2011

A little bit flaky, that’s what you would call Wilson Bentley.   He lived in Vermont from 1865 to 1931 and was fascinated with snowflakes.   They even nicked named him, “snowflake”.  

Bentley actually studied and documented over 5,000 snowflakes and photographed them on black velvet either to prove or disprove the theory that no two snowflakes are alike.   It seemed that he proved the theory to be true.  He affirmed with his study that each individual crystal is a unique, masterpiece of design that was never repeated.  Sadly, he also wrote, “when the snowflake melted, that design was lost forever.  All the marvelous beauty was gone, without leaving any record at all.

One snowflake the catalogued was numbered 892.  It was especially notable.  It was a bit irregular and the top left arm did not cap the top like the others.  “Even though it was irregular,” said Bentley,  it was still very beautiful.”   (As told in a sermon in Homiletics.online, Jan. 2011).

That could describe any of us as human beings, couldn’t it?  We are all a bit “irregular” at times.  But we are also uniquely created and no design is ever repeated.   Even our “strangeness” can be viewed as a divine work of art as we are like snowflakes in the mind and heart of God.

But this also means that we are short-lived and vulnerable to “meltdown”.   This is the kind of thing that happened to Jared Loughner, the deranged person who committed those terrible murders in Tucson.   He was a man who slowly slide from normalness into madness; from stability into schizophrenia.   We are created as marvelous, capable thinking, feeling and loving minds, but we are also at risk of short-circuit.  Our minds and spirits are vulnerable to breakdown and worse, complete madness and evil that can lead the kind of darkness that can spread to the world around us.

It is perhaps because of our human vulnerability that the Psalmist declared in today’s text: “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear.  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?   Like the Psalmist, at some time or other in our lives we will come to realize that we have lots to fear if we try to face life all alone.  As the Psalmist realized, there are always people, diseases, or stresses in our lives that can appear to want to figuratively “eat our flesh” (vs. 2) or in today’s slang, would like to “have us for lunch.”   How do we live in a world where we are always threatened, where we are always vulnerable, and where there is no love, no living, and no life without great risk.   How can we remain faithful to God and to ourselves when we are constantly threatened?  Sometimes it could seem to be practically impossible.

Recently on a World War II documentary,  real-life Marines who survived the landing on the island of Iwo Jima, recounted how they felt when the ships approached and sent them out on small landing vessels to attack the island.   One of them said, “When I looked around me and watched as others ahead of me left the boat, they were entering the sea water that had turned as read as blood.  I didn’t want to get off.  Everything in me was frozen.  Then suddenly the commander pushed us out of the boat, whether we were ready to go or not.  I felt as if that sea of blood would soon be my own.  The next thing I remember was falling down on the shore, then getting up and proceeding ahead to what I knew would be the end of my life.   But to my surprise, I survived!,  while so many others didn’t.   To this day, I’m still trying to figure out why a bullet didn’t take me out, when they were flying all around me?  (As remembered from a documentary, WWII in N.C., aired in January, 2011 on UNCTV). 

HOW DO WE FACE OUR DEEPEST FEARS?
In a world that can scare any of us half to death, what is the source of human faith?

For the Psalmist who lived in the darkness of the ancient world, the source was having the “the light” of the Lord in his life.   But notice how the psalmist expresses his faith.  He does not say that the Lord is “a” light or that the Lord is “a” form of salvation, but he says very personally and intimately, “The Lord is MY light; the Lord is MY salvation….”

One of the first things we must understand about faith is that it must be personalized or internalized to become real in our lives.   Only an inward, living and personal relationship with faith gives us the confidence we need to face our greatest fears.   Here the Psalmist says that his relationship with the light is to “desire” to “dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” (vs. 4).  The daily, personal dwelling in the presence of the Lord is what gives him hope, peace and the strength he needs to overcome his fears and live his life with confidence and faith.

Recently the magazine Christian Century related the story of Mary Schertz, a professor of New Testament at Associate Mennonite Seminary.   In all her academic studies, she had forgotten most of the “evangelical notion” of having a personal relationship with Jesus.
She reports that “it all began one warm spring afternoon as I was working with a group of women pastors in a Bible study that we had been calling "Luke's quest stories," a phrase used by Robert Tannehill.  They are a cycle of stories in which someone approaches Jesus regarding a quest for something vitally important to human well-being.  There are obstacles in the way of the quest, sometimes physical, sometimes social, psychological or spiritual. The obstacles are overcome, or not. The quest is fulfilled, or not.
These stories are simple stories that many of us have known all our lives: the paralytic, the centurion with a sick slave, the woman of the city, Mary and Martha, the lepers, Zacchaeus, the rich ruler, the thieves on their crosses with Jesus, the women at the tomb.  But the stories' simplicity is deceptive. The more deeply one looks at them, the more complex they seem. There is often more than one quest and sometimes more than one quester. Sometimes the quest presented is not the quest completed…
….The second hour, (she writes) after a break for tea and scones (which was very important), we laid the text next to our experience: What does this quest story have to do with my life and my ministry? Where am I in this story today? How is this text calling me? We divided into two groups for that discussion, and the conversation became more personal, more intimate. There were silences. There was laughter and sometimes there were tears.
…..Usually members of the group would readily volunteer for any part except the part of Jesus.  So this particular month, as we were preparing to read the text together, I teased the group. "We don't need Jesus today, he's not in this story."
I was unprepared for the intense wave of grief that washed over me at that moment. I missed him. I felt bereft. Of course, I thought immediately, he is still present in the same ways he has always been present—so what is going on here?  I pulled myself together and we went on with the session. This jumble of emotions was too new and too raw to mention at the time. But I have been pondering these things. What the quest stories did for me that year was help me know Jesus and for the first time experience his death in a human, personal way. Thanks to the company of my pilgrim friends, Jesus had become a person.  As a result, I have reclaimed the language of personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I found Jesus—and some of the old evangelical language I had forsworn seemed newly relevant to the somewhat jaded and shopworn New Testament professor that I had become.”  (From Christian Century, “Now it’s Personal”, by Mary Schertz, January, 2011).
For those of us who grew up being taught the need for a “personal relationship” with the Jesus of the Bible we read about and worship, this word from Mary Schertz is a great reminder.   Our understanding of faith must become personal, realized, and internalized into who we are and how we live our lives, or it has no real effect at all.  Faith must be personal and real to us, or it doesn’t help us overcome the fears of life and death.  This is what Mary realized and we all need to hear again in our own walk of faith.  We must daily ask ourselves, for the sake of our faith and our sanity in life, “am I walking daily with Jesus?”  “Do I find it my desire and delight to dwell daily in the presence of the Lord?”  When God is “my” light and “my” salvation, then we can also say to ourselves, no matter the situation: “Whom shall I fear?”

HOW DOES FAITH BECOME PERSONAL?
The Psalmist reminds us with his image of light that the first step out of our own fear and darkness is to “turn on the light”.  

Think about what it’s like to wake of early in the morning in the darkness and to get a glimpse of shadows that you are unsure of?  All those things you left laying on the floor could become dangerous objects or even your furniture or pet could be “dangerous” for you, until you simply “turn on the light.”  When you turn on the light, the shadows and uncertainties disappear and as your eyes adjust the way becomes clear.

Or think about it another way.  Have you ever seen a horror movie?  My favorite are the classics, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.   In all these movies there is something to fear, but every good filmmaker of horror knows that once you expose or introduce the “creature” or “monster” in the movie, he begins to lose some of his fearfulness.   The more familiar and clear we see, even fearful things, they can become less fearful and less monstrous.

In the same way, God calls us not remain or live in the darkness, but he challenges us to come closer to the light.    This is how John’s gospel brings us closer to the light, when John writes about the “light of Jesus”: “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  "For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 "But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God." (Joh 3:19-21 NKJ).

The beginning of the movie Schindler’s List is unforgettable.   In a day of Technicolor,  the whole movie is produced in Black and White to show the contrast between Light and darkness.   As the movie begins, the camera follows the smoke of the candles from the Jewish menorah which blends into the smoke coming from a fires of a smokestack in a Jewish concentration camp during WWII, where Nazi’s had imprisoned and killed millions of innocent Jews.  You can’t help, in the rest of the movie, to see the contrast between those, like Oscar Schindler who joined the light in their attempt to save lives, with the darkness of those who were determined to bring great darkness into the world through the murder of innocents.

How do you know where the darkness ends and the light begins, a student once asked a Jewish rabbi?  
        The student goes on to suggest, “Would it be when you can see the difference between a dog or a goat at 20 paces?” 
        “No,” the Rabbi responds.  
        “Would it then be when you can see the difference between an elm or a birch tree at 50 paces?, the student continues to question.
        “No, that would not be the moment of distinction either, the Rabbi responds once more.
        Somewhat frustrated, the student asks a third time, “Well, Rabbi, what is the exact moment when the darkness of the night turns into the light of day?”
        “That’s simple,” the Rabbi answers.   “It is when you can look into the eyes of the person beside you and see that they are your brother or sister!”

We don’t get rid of our fears by memorizing something or by holding on to a mere philosophy, says the Psalmist.  We don’t even get rid of the fears themselves, but we can make friends with our fears.   How?  Because the Lord is his “light” and his “salvation”,  the Psalmist says he can depend upon God as his safe shelter.  From that “high” position and “holy” perspective of life and hope,  the Psalmist can “lift his head above his enemies” and continue to offer his life as a “sacrifice of joy” in God’s tabernacle.  He sings, and his life ‘sings’ even thought enemies are all around him.  He can sing because he has already “offered” his life to God and has nothing to fear!:  For in the time of trouble He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set me high upon a rock.   6 And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me; Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the LORD (Psa 27:5-6 NKJ). 
 
Making God his personal “tabernacle”,  the Psalmist’s fears are dispelled and everything, even his enemies look different.  In the “light of the Lord” he can make friends even with the worst of fears.  In the light of the Lord, he can  sing his way through the best and the worst days of his life.  The “light” of the Lord, which he has made personal and real in his own life, makes everything look different.   It can be a light that reveals “salvation”  and “hope” to any of us who are willing to reside in it “all the days of (our) lives.” Amen.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hurry Is the Devil

A Sermon based upon Psalm 40: 1-11
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
January 15, 2011, 2nd Sunday of Epiphany

Van Kemper tells how twenty-five years ago, a young band of Irish musicians, who called themselves "U2," was recording an album at the Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, Ireland. They had recorded nine tracks, and needed just one more song to complete their work. But the long night was turning into morning, with another band waiting in the hallway to begin the next recording session at 7:00 a.m. The band’s lead vocalist, a 22-year old known simply as Bono, realized that the band was in need of a miracle.


He sought inspiration in his Bible, opening it to the Psalms, where his eyes fell upon Psalm 40. With the words of the psalmist in his head, the last track—known simply as "40"—was created. Ten minutes for the lyrics, ten minutes for the music, ten minutes for the band to record it, and ten minutes to mix it—and the miracle song was completed.


And thus was completed their album titled "War." It was their third album, but the first to go "gold" in the U.S—eventually selling more than 4 million copies. Over the past twenty-five years, "40" has become one U2’s most famous songs, often used to close their concerts and send the crowds home with a new song in their hearts and minds.


The message of the album "War" and its closing track "40" was overtly political. U2 and Bono expressed their outrage about the conflict then raging in Northern Ireland and decried the prospects that the political leaders of the superpowers would bring nuclear war on all our heads.  But, like the psalmist, in the midst of their despair they urged solidarity among the world’s people, and in "40" closed with a call for peace and understanding—urging all of us to sing a new song.  (From www.goodpreacher.com).


But how can we sing a “new song” when we are all in such a hurry to get where we think we are going, but have little time to stop and think about where we are really going?  Someone has said that the only way to gain true perspective in this life is for us “to peer into an open grave”.  Only then, it is said, can we see exactly where we are going and why we, as the old saying goes, need to take time to “stop and smell the roses.”


This Psalm we’re considering speaks directly to one of the greatest spiritual needs of human life: our need to slow down, to take time to stop, and also to learn, as the Psalmist did, to “wait patiently upon the Lord.”   I’ve entitled my sermon not after the words of a preacher, but after the words of one of the world’s most famous psychiatrists, C.G. Jung, who studied under Freud, had a more practical mind, and a great ‘doctor of the soul’.   He has said: “Hurry is not of the devil, but HURRY IS THE DEVIL.”  What I think he meant by this phrase is that when we rush through life, seldom taking time to reflect or consider where we are going and who we are becoming, we don’t grow in our soul and personality, and then, even without realizing it, we can destroy the “new song” we could sing and person we could become.  This is how Satan  becomes our “adversary” (which his name means), his deceptive power is displayed through the rush, the hurry, and an unexamined lives which destroy all God would create in us.   

A REASON TO PAUSE
But slowing down, being patient and waiting on the Lord is not something our world knows as much about today.  Even this very simple language of the Psalmist can be very difficult for us to comprehend.   We live lives that demands things to happen fast, instantly, automatically.   Most everything we value today appears to run counter to what the Psalmist is saying in this text.

Right here in my hand I have an IPOD Touch.   I had a classic IPOD that was recently stolen out of my vehicle and had to replace it.   This new, but already “outdated” IPOD is a very small, compact device, but all this is very deceptive.  When I am connected to a wireless network,  like the one in my home, I can get pick this IPOD up off my night stand and through the push of one button, automatically download access to the headlines and front page articles to over 4,000 newspapers around the world.  I can surf the Internet and have access to immediate information that even world leaders didn’t have 20 years ago.   I can check the outside temperature or take a glimpse of an approaching storm on a weather radar.  I can access a Bible, turn on the local FIRE or POLICE scanner or access thousands of others around the world.  That’s not to mention gaining access to Twitter or Facebook, which I seldom have time to do.  Oh, yes I can also access all my music or most any radio station around the world.  I can even review my Greek and German vocabulary.  The only thing this device does not have is a camera and a phone, but they have that too.

This small piece of amazing technology is transforming our world and hopefully will be wonderful tool used for good purposes, and it is not my purpose to denounce technology or our good use of it, but what does concern me and what this Psalm speaks to, is something that this great piece of technology can’t do, or might make us forget or neglect.  It can cause us to become so distracted that we overlook the great value of slowing down, of being still, and of reflecting upon what all this information mean and what all this information cannot do.   It does not insure the growth of our soul.  For, what the Psalmist suggests, is that we have not been put in this life to know anything and everything, but the Psalmist reminds us, we are here, if anything, to learn to “wait” and to “partner” with God in singing a “new song”.  That’s the very point U2 make the chorus in their song, 40: “How long to sing this new song?  How Long? 

This week our nation found reason to pause, albeit a very tragic one: The death of many innocent people at an outdoor political meeting in Tucson at the hands of a mentally deranged young man.   There is, of course, even political controversy surrounding why this happened.  But beyond all the mostly useless rhetoric remains what we need to stop and consider.  In the tragedy we learned that a young 9 year-old girl, who wanted to get involved in politics and do good for the world, was unduly murdered.  A conservative Judge too, who was there to support his opponent was also killed.  So were others senselessly killed or injured, including congresswoman, Gabriella Giffords.  But still the question remains, not whether or not we have access to all the information, or can fully explain “why” it happened, nor who’s to blame, but the real question of such tragic events like this, is whether or not, we who live and remain, will stop, pause, learn from it all, and learn to “sing a new song” because of it.   Our old songs of division, hate, self-centeredness, self-centered political agenda is not getting this nation where it needs to go.   The only hope in any time of great tragedy is that we will stop and learn to “patiently wait” upon the LORD for answers we can’t seem to come up with ourselves..  It is a shame that we can know so much, hear so much, gain so much information about life, but still can’t learn “how” we should live it.  That is the real tragedy of life; that we might rush through such terrible events without stopping to consider what we can learn and how we can grow through them.

What is the value of pausing, stopping, having patience to “wait upon the Lord” for what only God can teach us?  What really is the value of not rushing to our own rationales for such things and to truly stop and wait on God for what He can teach us?  Do we even have time to stop?  Are we so busy with our own agendas, our own concerns, our own desires, our own opinions that we have little or no time to “stop”?    What really is the value of “waiting on God” and not rushing to our own conclusions?

The Psalmist gives us a very interesting “reason” for stopping, listening, taking pause, and waiting on God in our lives?  Do you see it right there in the very first verse?  Only when he “waited patiently for the LORD” did the Lord himself, “incline to me, and heard my cry.”  It was only when he stopped to wait patiently on God did he know that God was with him, knowing his situation, hearing him and responding to his cry for help beyond himself.

Most all of us know what it is to lose our patience with someone; perhaps with our spouse, our children or our friends.  We normally regret it, when we do.  What the Psalmist reminds us is that the worse thing that happens when we “lose patience” is that we also lose our knowledge of the presence of God in our lives.    The Psalmist would have us know that not only does God inhabits the “praise” of his people he also inhabits the “patience” of his people.  Even God does not get in hurry to answer us, because life, in the great scheme of things, is not about having the knowledge, having the answers, nor getting everything done.  What does getting anything done mean when you are staring in a grave?  No, life is about finally about knowing that God is with us, that we need him, and that he hears us.  

A REASON TO TRUST
Life is finally and ultimately about “waiting” and gaining “patience” because life is about learning to trust and learning to trust in each other, even learning to trust again within   ourselves when trust has been broken by life’s experiences.   Listen to what the Psalmist calls the greatest value of learning to “wait patiently on the Lord” as the he becomes the person who is “blessed” to “make the Lord his trust.”  (vs. 5)   What most of us know already is that you don’t learn to trust by knowing everything, having everything, or getting everything but you learn to trust by making something out of what you already know and have.  In the same way, you don’t come to trust God by rushing through life to get more of what you want out of it, but you come to trust God by learning to wait patiently for what you know only God can give you: himself.

But of course, there are all kinds of things only God can give you when you learn to “wait upon the LORD” says the Psalmist.  Only when you slow down and wait upon the Lord can you be assured of his presence, as we have said, but also only when you slow down and wait upon the LORD can you know his power to deliver you out of the horrible “pit” you’ve got yourself in.   If you are always rushing to save yourself, you don’t experience God’s ability to bring you up “out of the pit”.  You have to stop.  You have to slow down.  You have to wait.  You can’t even know you’re in the “pit” until you slow down or until something slows you down.   

This is what happened to Ted Williams, that homeless guy who has been made an immediate household name and American sensation by the media the last couple of weeks.  But Dr. Phil was right to stop the fellow and the whole episode in its tracks.  Dr. Phil, as an expert of the soul, knew that you can’t really get out of the “pit” until God helps you and you can’t have God’s help until have to stop and consider the pit you’re in, and you can’t really get out of it unless you stop to get “real” help.  Only when we stop, and fully come to know his presence, and feel the need of his deliverance will we gain the “new song” that only God can put in our hearts, which will leads us, as the prophet Isaiah also said, “to put our trust in him.”

But trust in God, in people, or in life itself, is not always easy to have.   Sometimes any of us can lead lives that have become “broken records of negativity” due to our loss of trust.   We may not become addicted to alcohol and drugs, like Ted Williams did, but we can become addicted to a host of other things, including money, our skills, or our own false opinion and false sense of power and rightness.  When we rush through life,  wrongly thinking that our lives are in our own hands, or that we have to figure it all out, or that we’ve got it all figured out, this is when that negativity really begins to swell and will finally come to crash on the shore of all our experiences.   It was that way for the Psalmist too, until he realized the value of “waiting patiently” on the LORD.   Only through “waiting” did he realize God was present, did he get out of his miry pit, did he began to sing a new song, and did he regained his ability to trust.  It wasn’t in “getting” but in “waiting” that the Psalmist grew up in his soul and gained the peace he needed for life.

When we are able to wait on the Lord, we grow up in our soul and we learn to trust.  That is what we all need, and it should be our single agenda, but sometimes finding time to learn to trust God falls way down on our priority list.   All kinds of things can cause of to lose trust, in God and in each other.  This week the Biblical Recorder had a shocking article about Clergy Reputations in the U.S.  Did you know, according to a recent Gallup Poll, who Americans trust more than Clergy?  A majority of Americans now say that nurses, police, elementary school teachers, soldiers, and doctors are more honest and ethical than their pastors.  How can we rebuild a trust that has been broken and has brought a negativity that stifles our ability to trust and do God’s work in our own time?

The way of rebuild trust comes, of course through learning to wait upon the Lord, but the Psalmist also shows some very practical ways trust can be rebuilt, both in the Lord and in the Lord’s work.   In his time of reflection and pause, he come to consider not what humans are doing or not doing, but to ask himself to stop and consider what “God’s wonderful works”.  Didn’t you hear that happen this week as that medical neurosurgeon who was taking care of Gabriella Gifford said, “miracles happen every day in medicine we like to attribute miracles to what we do, but so much of medicine is out of our control.”  (http://healthland.time.com/2011/01/14/doctors-call-giffords-progress-called-a-miracle/)
   
How do we consider the “miracles” in our lives each and everyday?  This is the way to begin to regain trust in life and in each other---to look for the good, to look for signs of God’s presence in our world and to pause to consider just how “many are (his) wonderful works.”   This is how trust begins to be rebuilt, when we put the focus on God, but then, says the Psalmist, we must also “declare and speak of them” (vs. 5).   Nobody knows the miracles still happen, that God is still at work in our lives, unless we tell them.   Trust doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but it happens when we stop and take time to talk and share to each other.   And out of this sharing come the greatest revelation of all, whether or not, we find “delight” in God’s “will” (vs. 8). 

In his very recent book, The Rise of Christianity, Sociologist Rodney Stark tells about some of the things that made Christianity different than the pagan religions of Rome.   More than anything else he tells how Christians offered the world a meaning and hope in crisis the world was facing at the time.   But another major difference was that in pagan Rome, the gods and the religion  required dedication and sacrifice, but it only did this out of a sense of duty owed to the gods, and it was never done out of a sense of “love”.  The original truth Christianity offered the world, which it had never known before is that God loved the world and that God expects us to love each other too.  This is exactly where the Psalmist is going, when he tells us that we learn to trust God because we find in God the deepest “delight” of our souls and we all know very well, that the ultimate delight of the soul is to find true love.  

And this brings us to the final word of this text, which ends with the highest value of all, where trust is learned and where we know that we can learn to “wait” and “trust” in the Lord.  Listen to what the Psalmist says in verse 10, as he declares the deepest feelings of his heart as he had again learned to trust God through waiting patiently on the Lord.   In verse 10 and 11 he ends with this honest confession of his soul that is growing through patiently waiting on God: "I have not hidden your righteousness within my heart;  I have declared Your faithfulness and Your salvation; I have not concealed Your lovingkindness and Your truth from the great assembly.   Do not without Your tender mercies from me, O Lord; Let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me” (NKJV).    

Stopping to find the deepest expressions of love is the key to our human preservation.   This is the only thing that we are really waiting on: to know that we are loved and to know how to love in return.   The one thing that true love always strives to do is to stop, to pause, and to wait patiently on the one who is the object of our love.   This week I was hurt to see where our lives can go when we stay stuck on what we want and forget how to love.  There was a young family sitting behind us with two children.  The children were sitting there looking rejected.  The entire time the two parents, both of them, were punching their fingers on their phones, texting to who knows who, impatiently rushing to text, to talk, to someone way across the world, all the while they were ignoring each other and the two who needed their love the most.   More than anyone, they needed to pause, to stop, to think, to consider, and to wait patiently for the Lord to show them what was most important for their lives right now.  But this is what they couldn’t do. 

This is what too few of us know how to do today in our rushing, hurried and harried world.  We are rushing through life ignoring what we’ve been given while we are still going who knows where, to get what we are still missing but can only be found when we learn to “wait patiently on the Lord”.   Only then, when we discover this love, as both the Psalmist and even a Rock singer like Bono declares, can we sing the song we were made to sing.   Amen.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

What Does Baptism Mean?

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 13-17
By Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock Zion Baptist Partnership
January 9th, 2011,, Epiphany 1, The Baptism of Christ. 

Today’s Bible text is most familiar.   In the opening moment of public ministry, Jesus comes to the Jordan River to present himself for baptism.   It seems simple, right?  Wrong!

What happens next is quite amazing.   This strong, earthly, manly John the Baptist who has been pronouncing judgment, fire and the wrath of God, and apparently stands ready to “baptize” anyone who will repent is suddenly stopped in his tracks.   When John sees Jesus entering the water he does not want to baptize him.  In the most humble reversal, John says to Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, and you are coming to me?” 

Are you confused, yet?  At least this was one of the “hottest” issues we used to discuss in my junior boy’s Sunday school class.    About the time in our lives when we were getting baptized, we wondered aloud: Did Jesus really need to be Baptize?   We’re baptized because we’re sinners and John’s baptism was a “baptism” of repentance which confesses sin, so the question came to us: Since Jesus is the perfect, Son of God, the lamb who, as Scripture says, “was without blemish and spot” (1 Pet. 1:19) and was said to “be the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1: 29) why did he want to be baptized?  To our young minds, it just did not stand to reason.   Why did Jesus, who did not need baptism, allow himself to be baptized?   And what did he mean, when he tells John: “Permit it to be done, for it is fitting for us TO FULFILL ALL RIGHTEOUSNESS.”  (vs. 15).
           
BAPTISM AS A “CLEANSING” OF THE HEART
To help us understand why Jesus was baptized, let’s begin by taking a closer look at John’s baptism.  John the Baptist did not invent the concept of “baptism” but he is the first person in the Bible who goes around baptizing people.   Before John, baptism was normally reserved for Gentiles who converted to Judaism.   Baptism was a ritual of conversion. 

But more than a way to mark “conversion”, John’s baptism also pointed backward to all those ceremonial washings we find in the book of Leviticus.  In Leviticus 14-17, we find rituals of “washing” for various life situations.   You’ll find washing rituals for a person healed of leprosy (Lev. 14:1 ff.) and a washing ritual for a man or woman who has had an infection (15:1ff.), a washing ritual for someone who comes in contact with a dead body (17:1) and a ritual of washing for someone  about to enter the temple of the Lord (16:1ff).  What all these “washing” rituals have in common is that they draw a line, make a boundary and create a distinction between what was considered “clean” or “unclean” holy or profane.  

You can also see that these rituals are not only “religious”, but they were also very practical rituals.   A community which observed rituals of cleanness was able to fight off infection and to preserve its life.  Some of these “washing rituals of cleanliness” were precursors for the some of the most basic sanitation laws of our modern society.   When I go into a hospital today, one of the first signs I see is a sign with the word: WASH!   The best way to prevent the spread of disease is the easiest thing we can all do: WASH YOUR HANDS!   We know this because we all know about germs.   But amazingly, rituals of washing and cleanness predate scientific knowledge of germs, going all the way back to some of the earliest forms of religious rituals of the Bible.   Through these ancient rituals, the ancient Law of God was getting at something very basic to life: If you want to live, you’d better keep yourself CLEAN !

The Baptism of John goes back to this simple, but powerful human need for “cleanness.”   Interestingly, even in our scientific world, this need can become a neglected part of our lives, even forgotten by doctors and nurses.   When I came out of my foot surgery just a month ago, I was preparing to come home.  The nurse came in to take out my IV, and he was not wearing gloves.  As he started his work, he pulled out my IV and blood was going everywhere.  I looked at him and complained, “Hey, you’re not wearing gloves!”  He responded, “Oh, that’s O.K., I’m the one who’s not protected!”  That was pure ignorance and it was right there in the hospital!

When we lose the concept of what is clean and unclean, we are dealing with something that is more than a science problem.   When we take start taking life   for granted and let things slip, we no longer visualize the power of the unseen and invisible around us.  When we do this, we invite all kinds of uncleanness into our lives, not just physically, but also spiritually and emotionally. 

There is a theory of science which promotes a popular idea called “The Butterfly Effect”    The Butterfly Effect says: “that something as small as the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, can cause a typhoon halfway around the world.”  This is a rather popular ways to express a mathematical theory about the interconnectedness of everything.    It is theory of science which has opened up all kinds of new discussions about God at the University.   How do we see chaos theory at work in the world?   Chaos theory is in the constant unpredictability of the weather.   Chaos theory is what makes the Stock Market erratic and impossible to determine.   It is also theorized that Chaos theory is what makes life possible on earth and may very well be the exact place where Science meets God.   In all of this, Chaos theory makes a very important point about life; that even smallest event in one place, or a single action in one single moment of our lives, can change the course of everything else.   

You and I know how this to be true, don’t we?  One right or wrong decision can change everything.   You break the law and you can end up in prison the rest of your life.   You send one text while driving and you could wreck.   You say one wrong word, and a relationship ends.   Small things we do, or we don’t do, have a very huge impact on us and determine who we are or who we aren’t.   Right now, I’m thinking about something tragic that happened last week in the local.   A 23 year-old Winston-Salem middle school teacher named Mark Mercer, is facing sexual misconduct charges.   As a result of irresponsible behavior off the school campus, when he sent inappropriate text messages to a couple of young female students, the paper says that the young teacher will suspended without pay and recommended for dismissal.  

 I can’t help but grieve over this young man.  He is so young, and only starting his life, but it seems to be ending before it is beginning.  He didn’t realize the “Butterfly Effect”.  He didn’t realize that there were consequences to his actions.   Isn’t it a terrible tragedy we see too often in our times?   People like us, even “good” and “smart” people, seem not to have a clue about the difference that small things make in their lives.   They seem to be completely “lost” and unable to realize the simple difference between what is “clean” and “unclean”, what is “right and what is “wrong”, what can give life, or what can destroy. 

Your baptism is supposed work like a sanitizer in your life.  It is supposed to be the moment you’ve decided to partner with God to work against all the deadly “germs” of immorality and sinfulness which can destroy your life, kill your spirit, or worst of all, even kill your soul.  When you take your baptism seriously, and you don’t play games with it and when you practice and live it out daily, it is amazing---no, it is miraculous, how such a single, seemingly, small decision to “be” and “stay clean” can have a such a huge, life-changing “effect” on the rest of your life. 

So, at it’s very foundation, John’s baptism was a baptism of cleansing and a step toward holiness.  John took one look at the world around him and realized what a mess it was in.  The Baptism he practiced was a call to a complete cleansing of the heart.   Until the heart was clean---and until we really want God’s holiness, then the future, as John saw it, was going to be nothing but chaos, fire, judgment and destruction.

BAPTISM AS LIVING YOUR WHOLE LIFE IN GOD  
Now we come back to our question:  If Baptism points to getting our hearts “clean” before God, why is Jesus submitting to it.   Jesus tells John that he wants to be baptized in order to “FULFILL ALL righteousness.”   Maybe we can begin to understand how Jesus “fulfills righteousness” by showing just how important it is for any and all of us, to keep our hearts clean before God.  But still, there is something else going on here in his baptism that should be going on in ours.

When Jesus was talking “fulfillment” of righteousness, he was also speaking about his “commitment” to join with the Father in what he was doing in the world.  To grasp what this should mean for our own baptism, consider how Jesus refers to “baptism” among his disciples.   In Matthew 20, we read the mother of two disciples, came to ask Jesus to favor her sons and allow them to sit next his throne in the coming kingdom.   The disciples then end up arguing over who was going to have the privilege of sitting next to Jesus on the throne.  That is how some of Jesus disciples still wrongly understand the meaning of baptism.   Many only see baptism as a ticket to heaven, a way to be part of God’s inner circle, or “right” to have special privileges.    

Considering what actually happened to Jesus, and what his baptism did come to mean, all this arguing over the throne seems quite comical and tragic.   It is misses the point of baptism altogether.   While the disciples are arguing over the privileges of discipleship, Jesus is preparing, not to sit on a throne, but to die on a cross.   Knowing this, Jesus turns to his disciples, and says rather sharply: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  Are you able to drink the cup, I will drink?  Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I will be baptized with?” (Matt. 20:22).   Still not realizing what this means, they respond in complete ignorance: “Oh Yes, We are able!” “ Ok,” Jesus says rather sarcastically, “ You will indeed drink the cup and be baptized in the baptism I am baptized with, (in other words, you’ll get what’s coming to you) “but to sit at my right hand is not mine to give!” (Matt. 20: 23).

When I read all this, and how the disciples missed the whole point of the meaning of their baptism with Jesus, I’m reminded of how hard it still is for us today to understand, but that could change.   A couple of weeks ago, I told you about a Christian woman in Pakistan, who was about to be hung for her faith, because it was when she was defending her faith, it was claimed that she insulted the prophet Mohammed.   I also told you that a Pakistain governor was trying to get her released, but the hate against her was too strong.  If you were watching the news this week, the Pakistaini Governor who tried to defend her was ruthlessly murdered by his own guard.   Also, right now in Nigeria, a nation that used to predominately Christian, Muslim extremists are trying to take over and are threatening and killing Christians and pushing the nation toward anarchy.  Last week, the cost of Christian commitment came to Egypt, where there has been a large Coptic Christian community since first days of Christianity.  These Coptic Christians were worshipping Jesus on New Year’s eve, thinking they were protected by Egyptian law, when they were suddenly attacked by extremist Muslims and Christian worshippers were murdered.  

Now, I want you to know that I’m not an alarmist.  I’m do not hate Muslims.  I respect all religions that are sincerely seeking the truth.   I think Christian can live in peace with other faiths and we all seek God.   But I tell you all this, because of what an Egyptian Christian attending Fuller Seminary, wrote this week in a letter to Egyptian leaders, demanding they take a stand against extremism in Islam.  Ayman Ibriham wrote:  “Muslim fundamentalists want to destroy Christians and to form a completely Muslim nation.  They want to destroy all others they call “infidels”.  He called upon Egypt’s leaders to save Christians from Muslim fundamentalists.”  (http://www.ethicsdaily.com/egypts-president-needs-to-ensure-egyptian-christians-safety-cms-17243)

What we need to realize today, more than ever before is that there are evil people in this world who totally committed to evil, to hate, to murder and to destroying anyone who doesn’t agree with them.   They are totally committed and will die for what they believe.  I wonder, today, just how committed we are to just the opposite?  How committed are we to love each other, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God, even do the most impossible task of loving our enemies?   What Coptic Christians, Nigerian Christians, and Pakastani Christians know very well, is that their baptism is not some kind of privilege or status, but it is serious business, and it is a gift and a it is a true calling of God to live a life of love, of compassion and of service to Jesus, in life and death. 

This is what “baptism” has always meant, but somehow, some keep missing it.  Even some who go to church, hold back their heart of full commitment to Jesus, and they keep making “baptism” only what they want it to be, rather than submitting to what God has called them to be.  I keep wondering, how and why this happens?  Why do some Christians taking their baptism so lightly when others in the world take their own faith so seriously?  How could this happen? 

Maybe some people are confused by the differing traditions and practices in the churches.  Some churches celebrate the baptism of Infants, celebrating the birth of a new baby and the faith of the parents that these children will someday be confirmed in their faith in Jesus Christ.   I don’t see anything terribly wrong with this, even though it is not our tradition.   I think God can work this way, if people really want him too and if our hearts are in the right place.   Other churches, like ours in the Baptist tradition, celebrate the baptism of a coming of age child, or of a repenting adult, who decides to accept Jesus as their personal savior.    This can also be wonderfully used of God to point us to Jesus, but even in this very biblical tradition, we can still miss the whole point of what baptism means.  Even if we think we are doing baptism “right”, we can still do “baptism” wrong.   Whether we “sprinkle” water on infants or “dip” children or adults under water, we can we can still miss what those first disciples were missing about their own baptism.    

What we must understand is that our baptism must mean what Jesus’ baptism meant: a full and total commitment of our life to service and faith in Jesus Christ.   If we mean anything less, than that our full commitment to Christ, it will not take long for other “powers” of uncleanness to take over.  Evil is real, and what we all know too well, is that evil also uses religion to destroy, and it can even use a false form of Christianity that does more harm than good.    Any kind of Christianity that is not of our “whole” heart will not does bring healing to our souls, but it can makes us weaker, sicker, or even meaner, and it is a baptism that doesn’t have the power to save us from anything because it doesn’t mean anything! 

At his baptism, Jesus committed his whole self to God, even if it killed him.     And this is exactly what Baptism is supposed to do. It’s supposed to “kill you”!  In Paul’s letter to the Romans (see 6:1ff.) baptism means nothing less than total commitment, even a commitment to “death.”  It meant death to sin, death to the old self and the old life, and it also meant taking your new life so seriously, that everything else in your life would take a back seat and would die so that you could live fully and completely in God’s fullness until the very last day you lived.    

Today, I wonder how many of us still take our baptism with that kind of “dead” seriousness?   As I look at the evils lurking in our world, the roaring lion of Satan that still “seeking whom he may devour,” I’m concerned about how lax many have become in living their baptism and what it might mean for our future.  I wonder and pray about what we can and should do to renew our commitment to follow Christ with all our lives.  When I reconsider Jesus’ baptism today, as see how he entered those “baptismal” waters in the Jordan, I realize that he knew very well that this was not a “baptism” to try to be a “better person” nor, merely get a ticket to God’s heavenly throne.   When Jesus entered those “baptismal” waters, he was fully committed to live his life for God, even if it killed him.   And it did!  And that is how we are all saved.

Today, I ask you to consider again what your baptism means to you?  Is your baptism one that both kills the old you and offers you new life at the same time?   Is yours a baptism lived every day that makes real demands upon your life, but also gives you the deep joy and peace that is fully known in your heart?  That’s what baptism should be, but what a shallow substitute we can make of it?  Our baptism is supposed to have God’s voice of affirmation, saying in our hearts: “This is my beloved child, in whom I’m well pleased.”  Who doesn’t need that kind of positive voice in their head and heart every day?   Who doesn’t need a life of forgiveness, not guilt; a life lived in hope, not despair, and a life lived for truth and justice, not with lies and regret.  This is what your baptism should be, and must be, if you want the life Jesus gives.   This is what God meant as you were baptized with water and with his Spirit.  What did you mean?  Amen.