Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Sunday To Preach

Here is this morning's sermon:

Fulfill All Righteousness
January 12, 2014

I’d like to read to you first from the gospel of Mark, who was the earlier gospel writer. Then I will share from Matthew and we will compare the two.

Mark 1: 9-11.

“During that same period, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And just as he got up out of the water, he saw the skies torn open and the Spirit coming down toward him like a dove. There was also a voice from the skies: “You are my favored son – I fully approve of you.”

Now Matthew 3:    13-17.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.  And John tried to stop him with these words, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

In response, Jesus said to him, “Let it go for now. After all, in this way we are doing what is fitting and right. “. (or fulfills all righteousness as our theme statement announces) Then John deferred to him.

After Jesus had been baptized, he got right up out of the water, and amazingly, the skies opened up, he saw God’s Spirit coming down on him like a dove, perching on him, and listen!... there was a voice, which said “This is my favored son. I fully approve of him.”     

The words Matthew has created for Jesus are meant to account for Jesus’ baptism by John.  Matthew had Jesus take the view that any devout person would associate with the Baptist’s call for repentance.  That’s reasonable. Among the gospels, Matthew alone regarded Jesus’ baptism by John as a question to be addressed. His dilemma was if Jesus was without sin, why would he have wanted or needed to be baptized? Yet, this apologetic statement of Matthew’s itself later became problematic for the early Christian church.

The fact that Jesus had been baptized at all by John and that John was his mentor for a time was an embarrassment for the early Christian community that wanted to distance itself from both the Baptist movement and rabbinic Judaism, so it developed various apologetic ploys to explain these earlier connections to John and Judaic religion.

For example:

John preached that the end of the age was at hand and he called on the people generally to repent and be baptized to prepare for the coming end.

Jesus rarely spoke of baptism or, for that matter, end times.  His disciples had earlier been disciples of John’s and it was they who practiced baptism. 

Most scholars also agree that for a time, Jesus was a disciple of John.  Jesus, after all, did not begin his own formal ministry until after John was killed. 

Jesus did not speak of God’s rule as the end of an age. He taught that God’s rule was close by or already present and even already among them….just unrecognized.  We know this because he spoke of God’s rule in so many different sayings and parables.

For Jesus, the act of fulfilling all righteousness was his way of signaling the sharing of his life. Jesus was willing to enter into relationship, solidarity, and community with those who were considered sinners…and the broken and unloved… to make God’s kingdom known and real for all people.  He taught his disciples those values. They didn’t always “get it” but on the other hand, we, as modern people, don’t always “get it” either…do we?

Some do not like the term “righteousness” It denotes an impossible situation to them.
So what is righteousness?  The dictionary says it is “acting in a just upright manner” “doing what is right.”  That doesn’t sound so hard does it?  It sounds pretty simple. Unfortunately we often get our own “wants” ahead of doing what is right. I have been guilty of that and very probably some of you have as well.  Luckily, God continues to work with us…urging us toward the path that eventually is best for us. 

In this account we must hear the invitation to recognize and experience the great love God has for each of us.  Traditionally in our baptism and confirmation, we signal our commitment to live in the rightness that restores us to one another and to God.  Sometimes we fail. But God knows we are human and does not stop speaking to us because we fail. God is probably even more concerned for us when we fail.  We have failed to hear or heed God’s voice of advice.  But God still attempts to persuade us..

So why are we baptized?  The only valid reason I can think of is because Jesus set an example for us. Baptism is symbolic. It symbolizes the laying down of our old life style and taking on a new one. It doesn’t mean we have arrived. But when we know right from wrong and we choose the wrong, we are ignoring the voice of God within us…pleading with us to hear that inner voice of reason and rightness.  

It is entirely up to us to choose. And when we choose for self interests, we have to be willing to bear the consequences of our actions. We have become what Henri Nouwen calls Wounded Healers and that’s not altogether a bad thing. Out of our own woundedness, we can relate to others who are also wounded but are unable to accept being wounded and castigate themselves for failing to live up to their own goals.  Yet, we know the person who can help us through the worst moments of our lives, is the person who has “been there” and gone through some really bad times themselves.  So sometimes we find that our personal failures become avenues for service.  

Often, even when we try to do the right thing, things don’t turn out well anyhow. We get no guarantees in life. Even Jesus found that doing the “right thing” at the wrong time often has dire consequences. But one thing we all know is that regardless of the consequences, God is still with us…working with us to tune us to be a better person before the end of our lives.  God knows that “better person” will be a happier person too. 

Victor Frankl story:
Victor Frankl wrote a riveting memoir about his experience and the lessons he learned while in a Nazi concentration camp.  He learned there lessons in spiritual survival.  He learned that we cannot escape suffering but we can choose how to cope with it and move forward.  At the heart of his study is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure but the pursuit of what we find meaningful. 

Frankl concluded that the meaning of life is found in every moment of living; life never ceases to have meaning, even in suffering and death..  Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed. He concluded from his experience that a prisoner's psychological reactions are not solely the result of the conditions of his life, but also from the freedom of choice he always has even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future, and that once a prisoner loses that hope, he is doomed.

Frankl also concludes that there are only two races of men, decent men and indecent. No society is free of either of them, and thus there were "decent" Nazi guards and "indecent" prisoners, most notably the kapo who would torture and abuse their fellow prisoners for personal gain.

What Frankl learned from his terrible experience:
What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We have to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life - daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

We can do much good with our lives if we choose not to live selfishly. We have constant opportunities to do good things with the blessings we enjoy. We may not have a lot of money to share like the philanthropic rich.  But we are each capable of compassion. We can each be an ear for someone who needs someone to talk to. We can do thoughtful things for those we come into contact with.  We each have God given gifts to share.

The act of baptism is not an end of a journey. It is a beginning. It makes a statement about the depth of our commitment. It launches us on a journey of discipleship and into personal and corporate mission.     

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