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Belonging to the Greater Decatur Community
Isaiah 40:1-5; Luke 3:7-14,21-22
January 13, 2019
Our theme for this year is “Belonging”.
We have been talking since August about belonging…
belonging to God, belonging to Church, belonging to Jesus…
Throughout this series, we have been reminded that belonging requires something of us.
Belonging to God requires our devotion – “you shall have no other gods before me.”
Belonging to Church requires a commitment of time, talents, and resources.
Belonging to Jesus requires that we learn his ways and seek to follow as best we can.
Today we begin a new emphasis in our annual theme of Belonging.
In this season, from today until Lent, we will focus upon Belonging to Community.
Typically, when we talk about community in church, we talk about the ties that bind us together
within the family of faith. We talk about the community of faith, the family of believers.
For this series, however, when we talk about community,
we will be talking about the broader community in which we live, the Greater Decatur community,
the community which includes all the people and all the businesses,
all the governmental and educational and healthcare institutions, all the sports teams and arts alliances.
Today, as we ordain and install a new class of elders,
we will talk about the broader community in which and for which we are all called to serve.
Our Old Testament reading comes from Deutero-Isaiah,
a passage for comfort and a new day for exiles returning to their spiritual home,
a passage quoted by John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Our New Testament reading comes from the third chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
The context is that “all the people” were coming out in the wilderness to be baptized by John.
Crowds of people from the surrounding villages –
rich and poor, tax collectors and fishermen, soldiers and farmers.
When we read this text from Luke 3 in worship, most often we focus upon Jesus’ baptism,
upon the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry.
In our lectionary calendar, this Sunday is even called Baptism of our Lord Sunday.
But for today, we will dwell upon the context of Jesus’ baptism,
this spiritual preparation by John the Baptizer for Jesus to enter the scene.
Hear the Word of God from Luke 3:7-14,21-22
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’…
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Have you ever heard a friend or a loved one say that they feel like God is missing from their life?
Have you heard someone lament that they cannot see or feel God’s presence?
Sometimes in our human experience, God’s absence can seem far more acute than God’s presence.
The psalms speak often to the reality of this human experience.
It appears as though villagers of first century Israel were ripe for some new Word from God.
It had been almost 500 years since any Word from the Lord had given to the community.
The common people were oppressed by the Roman occupiers;
those in charge and those with any power used any advantage they could to leverage their positions.
The rich were getting richer; the poor getting poorer. The people were desperate for a Savior.
As we read in the gospels, John came not simply to baptize with water, but to change hearts,
to lift up valleys of despair, to bring down mountains of pride,
to prepare a way where there had been no way in the parched desert of many souls.
How did John prepare the way for Jesus to show up?
He cried out to all who would listen: Repent! Turn around! Start living in a new direction.
John’s words in the wilderness, as he prepared the world for the coming of the Messiah:
Stop! Stop going in the direction that you have been going and turn your life around!
John’s call to repentance is sort of like a new year’s resolution,
except he was not just calling for some self-improvement scheme
that may or may not last past next week.
He was not simply calling for a “tweaking” of our behavior,
not simply calling us to be a better us by focusing on us.
John was calling for repentance, for life-altering, life-transforming,
even community-transforming change that would involve focusing upon neighbor.
Repentance is defined as turning away from seeking after that which is not our god
and turning and moving in the same direction as our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
As we make this turn in our hearts, our minds, our souls, and of course, in our behavior,
the ripple effect will bring change – not only to us as individuals,
but this change will also reverberate to everyone around us.
Such repentance is life-altering and life-saving work.
I love the old story of Ebenezer Scrooge –
Somehow I made it through this past Advent and Christmas season without seeing the Christmas Carol
even once, neither on television nor on the stage. It is such a wonderful, symbolic story.
And nowadays, there are many spinoffs of the classic, the classic story of a miserly curmudgeon
and his or her experiences with the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.
Some of you may have seen movies like Ebenezer, Scrooged, or Chasing Christmas,
There is a Smurfs Christmas Carol and A Dennis the Menace Christmas that follow the theme,
as well as called The Ghost of Girlfriends Past starring Matthew McGonaughey and Jennifer Garner.
All the stories follow much the same theme.
Scrooge was all about himself, all about selfish gain. He belonged to no one but himself.
Not until he began to share with others, to focus upon the needs of others,
to pay attention to the condition of his neighbor, did he begin to belong to his community.
The theory is so simple and yet not always so easy to achieve…
We tend to hoard what we have received.
We tend to focus only on our own needs or the needs of our families.
We tend to be afraid there will not be enough to go around.
Vernon Gramling’s Faith in Real Life small groups discussed this passage this week.
If you are not attending one of our small groups, this is a good time of year to begin.
Vernon’s groups this week discussed that what ultimately matters in our relationship with God
is how we treat our neighbor.
“Turning toward the Lord means turning toward each other,” wrote Vernon.
“If you miss that point, all other ‘religious activity’ is fruitless.
No matter how important it is to cultivate a relationship with God,
if that relationship does not lead us to be less exploitive (of neighbor) and more mindful (of their needs),
we are fooling ourselves to believe we (have) turned toward God…
Gaining at the expense of another is not ok. It is sinful. It leads us away from God…”
John’s baptism of repentance, his preparation for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry,
calls all of us “to turn away from measuring life by self-gain
and turning toward measuring life by our contribution to the common good…
This is the direction to(ward) which God calls us (to turn)…
Our faith is never a private faith. (Our faith) always leads us to each other.”
The faith that is given to us in Jesus Christ is always faith that must be lived in and for community.
In his “prepare the way of the Lord” sermon, John the Baptizer put it this way:
If you have two coats, then share one of them.
If you have food to share, then do so.
Thank you, by the way, to whomever left several coats here in the foyer for Threshold Ministry.
The other day, I came through the foyer and saw two thick, warm coats in the Threshold box.
Those coats are going to make someone’s day, perhaps even save someone’s life.
Thank you, by the way, to our Sandwich Brigade.
Every month, our volunteers make over 500 sandwiches to share with our community.
Raise your hand if you have ever participated in the Sandwich Brigade at DPC. Thank you!
John calls to all of us: If you have food in your pantry, then give some away.
If you have any money to spare after grocery shopping, help provide for someone who is hungry.
If you have more clothes in your closet than you need, don’t pile them up in another closet
or store them in boxes under the bed, take them to Goodwill!
Then John tells those listening: If you are a tax collector, collect only the amount due.
We are very fortunate in our country to have regulated tax collection.
Can you imagine if we had IRS agents who were able to charge whatever they wanted?
Imagine how you would feel, once the shutdown finally ends and everyone gets back to work!,
if you calculated your taxes, were prepared to pay what you owe,
and then some agent of the government shows up at your door and demands that you pay 50% more,
directly to that person, just because that person has the power to make that demand of you.
This practice has not been uncommon in human history.
If you are a soldier, John says, do not extort from civilians.
Imagine if you lived in one of those places in the world where soldiers still today
take whatever they want or need?
A group of young soldiers enters a neighborhood,
goes from house to house with rifles and machetes,
and walks away with the community’s most valuable possessions, sometimes even the children.
Countless people in the world still face this tragic situation today.
Surely, part of our work as the Church is to remember them, to pray for them,
and then to act on those prayers by trying to build a world community
where such violence and oppression can no longer happen.
Be satisfied with your wages, John told the soldiers.
Implied in these verses perhaps is the command to allow others to earn and to keep a living wage.
Whoever has (fill in the blank), must (fill in the blank)…
Whoever has two coats in their closet must share with those who are cold.
Whoever has food in their pantry must share with those who are hungry.
Whoever has any money in the bank must share with those in need.
Whoever has a good education must work so that all can receive a good education.
Whoever has gained a place of leadership must work so that others can become leaders as well.
Whoever has must give.
As the Scripture says elsewhere: “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
If you have worked hard and it has turned out well for you, well done!…now you must share.
If you have inherited from another, good fortune for you!…now you must share.
The biggest obstacle to sharing is not greed or selfish concern, but fear.
We humans tend to be afraid, afraid of what the future may bring,
afraid of those who are different from ourselves, afraid of appearing foolish.
Throughout the Bible, the first words from any messenger of God are: Do not be afraid.
John the Baptist’s work of preparation for the presence of Jesus is do not be afraid to change your
minds, to change our mindset. Do not be afraid; instead share. Share with your neighbor.
Most of you are aware that the stated mission of Decatur Presbyterian Church is to “share”,
to share Jesus Christ’s love for the world.
This mission statement connotes first that Jesus loves the world, all the world, all of its people.
Second, the statement connotes that this congregation has received this love, and enough to spare.
Third, the mission connotes that this love, the love that comes from God,
is something that we can and must share!
Any measure of love that we have received from God is not meant for ourselves alone,
not simply for our own comfort or edification, but is meant to be shared.
Someone recently said that this not a Church with a mission, but a mission that has a church behind it!
This Church exists for our broader community, not simply for this family of believers.
From its earliest days, 194 years ago, this church was planted for the broader community
in which it is located.
I have been told that as you travel through India, particularly western India,
you will find schools and clinics in the rural villages that were built by Presbyterian missionaries.
Nearby you might find a chapel built some years later.
When missionaries would enter a community, they would attend first to the physical and mental needs,
laying the foundations for later building congregations.
What was the goal of John Baptizer?
John appeared in the wilderness, a place often known for God’s absence,
to make a way for the presence of God to be known,
to prepare for Gods reign to take root through the ministry of Jesus, the Messiah.
John came to make the rough places a plain,
to lift up any valleys of despair, to bring down any mountains of pride.
And how did he intend to do this?
By commanding the people to turn away from their fears, to turn away from their selfish concerns,
and to turn toward their neighbors with generous hearts.
John’s sermon reminds me of a passage from Jeremiah 29:5-7,
a passage in which the prophet was instructing his people how to live in a cultural context
very different from where they had been:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage,
that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
And seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
In the welfare of our Greater Decatur community, we will discover the well-being of the Church,
and not only that, we will prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church