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Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2020
In the context of human frailty and sinfulness, baptism and ordination
affirm the worthy and dignity of each person, as well as the call to humble, selfless service.
Today, we affirm the dignity and worth of those being ordained as well as their call to service
and their need for God’s help in seeking to be the people God has called them to be.
Today, we remember the baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus has long been viewed as an ordination of sorts as Jesus began his public ministry.
Baptism and ordination are two distinct, but in some ways similar practices of the Church.
Hear the Word of God from Matthew 3:13-17.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
One of the more memorable moments during worship is when all the elders come forward
to pray and to lay their hands upon newly elected elders who kneel before us to be ordained.
This is a sacred moment, a holy act, meant to communicate before God and all the world
the importance of the event.
Ordination, like baptism, is one of the few things we receive in the church as individuals.
As Presbyterians, so much of our practice is corporate.
We most often focus upon what we do as a community, as a body of faith,
like singing hymns together or praying together or receiving communion together.
But baptism is intimate. We call an individual by name and sprinkle water upon their head,
or, in other traditions, a person is dunked under the water of a baptismal pool.
This is a very personal and powerful reminder of God’s grace at work in the life of an individual.
In the context of human frailty and sinfulness, baptism is both affirming and humbling.
In baptism, as an individual turns to God for help and hope,
the words we use affirm both their worth and dignity as a beloved child of God
and remind them of their call to humble service for the sake of God’s kingdom.
When Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan,
the words attributed to the voice from heaven in the Gospel of Matthew
include two Old Testament references.
The first reference is from Psalm 2 – Jesus is proclaimed as “my son”, son of God,
a royal king who will make other kings tremble when he comes to judge and rule the world.
The second reference comes from Isaiah 42, recalling the prophecy of a servant who would suffer
on behalf of the people, a suffering servant described throughout chapters 42-53 of Isaiah.
Jesus is identified as “King Messiah” and “chosen servant”.
Jesus is the One in whom God’s soul delights,
One who would willingly suffer as he faithfully executed justice,
as he took upon himself the sins of the world.
As world leader and selfless servant,
Jesus would embody not power over, but power under.
He would be baptized and ordained not to be served but to serve.
He came down not to receive adulation and honor, but to bear a cross.
This is the task we are all given by virtue of our baptism.
In the context of our human weakness and sinfulness,
when we are baptized, the Church affirms that our weak flesh is chosen by God, beloved of God,
and the Church affirms that we, as individuals, like Jesus,
are called to serve God with humility and love.
A few days ago I was discussing the challenge of parenting teenagers with some parents of youth.
We were reminded that parents of teens hold the delicate balance of blessing their children
and tasking their children.
Parent help their children know that yes, they are beloved, even when they disappoint us,
even when they push the boundaries too far and go against our will,
and parents help their children know that they are called, called to be faithful,
called to respond to the challenge of humble service.
As parents seek to inculcate that affirmation that their teenager is a beloved child of God,
made in God’s image with infinite worth and dignity, even with rebellious attitudes and acne,
they also seek to encouraging their teenagers to submit themselves to their wills as parents,
and even more than that, to submit themselves to God and God’s will for their lives.
This is no easy task for any parent, especially when their children are in the midst
of the “belly button” phase of life, as it has been called,
when everything in life is all about me and my feelings.
Learning Jesus’ ways of self-giving love and service may seem impossible at this stage of life,
but even so, it holds true that many of the most important faith commitments,
commitments that often last for a lifetime, are made before a person reaches the age of 18.
Baptism enacts God’s welcome of undeserving individuals into the family of God.
In the New Testament narratives, we find a very low bar for admission into the church.
When the Philippian jailer was baptized, along with his whole household,
he was among the first Christians on the continent of Europe,
though he had only just heard the name of Jesus.
The jailer had not done anything to deserve the sacrament of baptism,
other than to turn his face toward God.
When the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by the roadside by Philip,
he was among the first Christians from the continent of Africa.
The Ethiopian’s curiosity about the prophecies of old and how they related to Jesus
were the inspiration for his baptism, but he had not yet done anything or proven anything
about his faithfulness to Jesus.
His baptism as a Gentile and a eunuch broke expectations
about who would be included in the family of faith.
When we think of our own baptism,
we should think of it as God’s special affirmation of us as individuals.
We are reminded in our baptism that, created in God’s image,
we embody a certain dignity and worth that cannot be taken away.
And we are reminded in our baptism that we are called, as was Jesus, to humble service.
Ordination to elder in the Presbyterian Church is similar in this regard to baptism;
ordination is an affirmation of the worth and dignity of those who have been elected,
as well as an affirmation that they are being set aside for a particular form of Christian service.
As our bulletin states, all members of the church are ministers.
By virtue of our baptisms, all of us have an important role to play.
Ordained elders are those who have been nominated, elected, and prepared for a particular role –
the role of spiritual leadership in a congregation.
Our Book of Order, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church,
makes it clear that ordination is not an honor conferred for being a leader in the wider community.
Ordination is not a reward for doing well in the business world or for being a terrific volunteer.
Ordination is not recognition that someone has been generous in their giving.
Ordination is a call to humble service, a call to fulfill an important task,
a call to a critical role focused on the care and up-building of a congregation.
Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.
The very next verse after Jesus receives the divine affirmation –
“My Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased” –
reads “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt. 4:1)
The Greek word here is firm – Jesus is “driven” into the wilderness,
compelled to go face a time of temptation and testing.
The Church has found it common over the years for a new member of a church community
to face some form of testing after a fresh commitment has been offered.
Not long after an elder is ordained, they will attend their first elder retreat.
What have I gotten myself into?, some may wonder.
Do I have the spiritual resources, the faith experience, let alone the time to serve in this position well?
After an adult has been baptized, there often comes a time of testing and temptation.
Questions arise: Who is God? Who am I and why am I here?
Why did I do this? Do I really believe? How can I believe when life can be so challenging?
Not long after our 8th graders complete the confirmation process,
they experience serious testing of their faith in high school.
Not only do they face many of their own questions,
many of their friends do not understand and do not care about their faith commitment.
Their teachers and coaches often do not understand or support their faith commitments.
The barrage of social media they experience daily has little to do
with affirming them as children of God or encouraging them toward selfless service.
Baptism, confirmation, and ordination all occur in the context of human frailty and sinfulness.
Even when we doubt, even when we go astray,
even when our human weakness and frailty are most evident,
even in the midst of our lagging faithfulness and constant doubtfulness,
still the affirmation holds, God has claimed us as God’s beloved children.
And God will call us again and again, day after day, to a life of self-giving love and service.
Today, as we ordain and install a new class of elders,
a few individuals will kneel before us and be surrounded in prayer.
Just as the baptismal water reminds us all of our need to be cleansed from sin,
so the ordination prayer reminds these elders of their need for constant help.
Those who would serve the Church in any role need the strength and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What I would hope for all of us today, and especially for this new class of elders,
is that we would once again be reminded of God’s affirmation, God’s blessing,
that we would all take to heart that we are truly accepted and loved unconditionally by God.
Each of us is a unique and special child of the Most High God,
a “beloved one” with whom God is pleased as we turn toward God in trust and hope.
And I would hope that we would be reminded that One who is far more powerful than us is here, with us.
We are not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,
and yet he has promised to baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Let us turn toward Jesus and receive his blessing, for he can burn away the chaff of our lives
and strengthen us to respond to his call.
Along with these new elders, may we all submit to God’s will for ourselves and for this congregation.
May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church