Sermon from January 2, 2011

A Fierce and Loving Respect

Matthew 3:13-17

How do we find a fierce and loving respect for the people in our lives?

The second daughter of Queen Victoria was Princess Alice.  Alice’s son, at the age of 4, was infected with a horrible affliction known as black diphtheria.  Doctors quarantined the boy and told the mother to stay away.  But she couldn’t .  One day she overheard him whisper to the nurse, “Why doesn’t my mother kiss me anymore?”  His words melted her heart.  Princess Alice ran to her son and smothered him with kisses.  Within a few days, both were buried (Max Lucado, “Down Deep from Heaven,” Today’s Christian March/April 2004).  I want to suggest today that though that is a tragic story there is something there in the fierce, sacrificial love, the profound respect demonstrated by Princess Alice for another that appeals to us, somewhere deep inside.  In fact I would also suggest today that in Jesus’ baptism we see not only such sacrificial love and profound respect, but one which overcomes even death and the grave.

We’re beginning a series of sermons this month dealing with the topic of Respect.  You see, the Smyrna School district each year at this time lifts up one of its community core values and invites students and adults in the community to write an essay about the core value.  I hope some of you adults will join the students in doing that.  This year the theme is Respect.

Now when we speak of respect in an environment of Christian spirituality and faith we soon come across a word that is a kissing cousin to respect and that is the word reverence.  To reverence something or someone is to treat them with the gravitas, the profundity, the attentiveness, the meaning that they are due.  The opposite of reverencing something is to go “phphphphphfffphphp – no big deal.”  You just blow it off.  Just let it go.  In our Christian faith we worship only God, but we reverence people and things that point us to God and enable us to worship fully.  Today as we look at Jesus’ baptism I want to talk about reverencing baptism and holy communion as a way of life, and how this might affect the way we relate to the people in our lives.  I’ll suggest that in order to reverence baptism and holy communion properly we need to see them in terms of a journey.  In baptism we experience a journey TO God.  Baptism defines our journey once and for all.  In communion we experience a journey WITH God.  Communion sustains our journey.

Baptism defines once and for all, our life as a journey to God.  You see, here in Matthew 3 the people have been coming to John to be baptized in the Jordan.  For these folks if you were to ask them in their most profound moments, who are you, how do you define yourself, they would say, we are the people God rescued from Egypt and brought to the promised land.  Their forbears had crossed Jordan to the promised land but lo these many years later they knew something was missing.  So they went back to the Jordan and crossed again, received forgiveness of their sins and made a new start on their journey with God.  In baptism we embark on a journey that is not merely to a physical place but is a lifelong journey toward God and the fulfillment of his kingdom.  If someone were to ask us who we are as Asbury Church we should a pretty good response would be to point to the baptismal font and say we are the people who God is rescuing from wherever toward heaven, toward the kingdom of God, toward eternal life – would you like to come along?

Now, some of you have spent times in recent days with relatives you may not see every day during the year.  They’ve journeyed to you or you’ve journeyed to them.  That can be good or bad depending.  Have you ever noticed that some relatives are such that no matter how much you try you are always on pins and needles with them, they are never pleased.  On the other hand other relatives are just the type that anything you put your heart into they are going to love and they are just loving and content all the time.  Which kind of relative do you think we have in the triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

You see, there is something very interesting we see here in Jesus’ baptism about this journey and our family relationship with God.  It has to do with this word righteousness.  John said to Jesus in so many words, look you are alright as you are, you don’t have any sins to repent of, you are already on the right track you don’t need to be baptized.  And yet Jesus gets baptized with us.  He identifies with us in order that we might identify with him on this journey to life eternal.  Romans 6 makes that clear.  Here in Matthew 3 Jesus says it is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.  What is righteousness?  Righteousness is two things, it is right standing in a relationship, it is a state of being.  But it is also state of doing, it means doing the right thing.  A normal expectation that we have in many human relationships is that if we do the right thing toward somebody, that earns a right relationship with them.  In baptism, God Jesus and the Holy Spirit tell us it’s just the opposite.  Usually right action earns right standing.  In baptism, right standing enables right action.

What that means for us is this: Think of that relative you can never please.  God is NOT that relative.  With someone like that you usually have one of two responses.  Either you go ‘nutso’ with this fearful striving trying to please this one who will never be pleased, or you give up and say pfffff, forget you, I’m not even going to try.  Yet in baptism, God defines our journey by rescuing us from fearful striving or flippant indifference and moves us toward non-anxious serving.   God says I’m already pleased in you just as I am pleased in Jesus.  Right standing in Jesus enables and motivates right living we could never achieve by fearful striving alone, and certainly not by flippant indifference.

Several years ago while my mother was still living she began to make homemade Raggedy Ann dolls for all her granddaughters , but then they all kind of grew up and she passed away before she could finish making all the clothes for them.  Well this year in our Christmas family drawing my sister got my niece Kathryn and she made her some clothes for her poor naked Raggedy Ann doll even though Kathryn is 20 years old.  And Kathryn was so pleased with this little doll outfit you’d thought Nancy had just paid for the rest of her college education and a new car to boot.  She even put a picture of it on Facebook and said, I love love love my family.  Now Kathryn already loved her family.  Nancy didn’t go into a fearful striving about this gift for Kathryn, but here is the thing.  When you know that someone is going to be pleased with anything you put your heart and life into, it motivates you and enables you all the more to put your heart and life into it.  When Jesus came out of the water to continue his journey God said, this is my son, in him I am well pleased.  That favor folks, rests as well, on us.  It righteousness, right standing motivates and enables right living.  Baptism defines our journey, it is a journey TO God, and we could not possibly be more loved along the way.

Speaking of along the way, we were on our way home from Maryland visiting relatives last week and I was driving and took a little chance and didn’t get gas and when we got to Blackiston and I thought how embarrassing, how irritating, how mad everyone is going to be at me if we run out of gas.  Well, we didn’t run our of gas, but it made me think about the pleasure, the favor, the grace God pours out constantly upon us in Jesus.  In any relationship, in any situation, I know I might run out of gas, but I’ll never run out of grace, I could never possibly ever run that supply dry.

You know folks, baptism defines our journey, but communion sustains our journey, it is a journey not only TO God but WITH God in Jesus.  He is right here with us, so that in the midst of life and relationships, we like him, might be the wounded healers, broken builders, loved lovers, favored givers of favor we need to be.

On the Saturday before Christmas we had had that little bit of snow but there was a lot going on here and the east end of the parking lot still had a lot of packed ice and snow and was rather dangerous.  I was thinking about all the people who would be coming the next day and a couple of choir members offered to help.  I got a spreader and put ice melt on it and the youth council people were here and Angie and Jordan got out there and helped me shovel what we could.  Then to top it off some boy scouts were here to work on an Eagle project with Alex Rueben pm the courtyard but the ground was too frozen for them to do a whole lot so they were just there, and I invited them to help and all I know is I went in to work on my sermon and when I came back out two hours later there wasn’t a speck of snow or ice on that lot.  There was no flippant indifference, no complaining or angry striving out of anybody.  All I saw was non-anxious serving.  Can the favor of God as it rested upon Jesus in his baptism rest on people cleaning off ice from a parking lot?  I know life is not always that smooth, and I don’t expect it to be, but whether we are clearing ice, or trying to love our family, or sharing our faith, or just trying to make ends meet, there will always be enough grace, always enough favor, always enough love for the moment.   How do I know?  Here is how I know (pointing to baptismal font).  And here is how I know (lifting bread and cup).

Baptism defines our journey to God.  Communion sustains our journey with God.  See life that way.  Live life that way.  Reverence these things.  And a fierce and loving respect will find you.   Reverence these things, and like Princess Alice and beyond, like Jesus coming up out of the waters of baptism, a fierce and loving respect will rest upon, and flow through you.

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

January 2, 2011

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