Bible verses for reflection: Luke 3:15-22
In the context of John the Baptizer’s ministry, and surrounded by the dark shroud of Herod’s evil deeds, Jesus presented himself for baptism by John in the river Jordan. At his baptism, we witness Jesus receiving a two-fold blessing from God. First, “you are my beloved”. You are a beloved child of God. You are accepted and claimed, as you are. Second, “with you I am well pleased”. I am pleased with you; I am proud of who you are. I am thrilled that you have turned to me in trust and hope, offering yourself as a living sacrifice for the good of the world.
I will never forget one bright spring afternoon when a 30-something year old young woman burst into my office and proclaimed “I am a child of God!” Kelly was exuberant. She was the happiest that I had ever seen her in the several years I had known her. Kelly had grown up in church as the daughter of a church musician and sang in the church choir for most of her life. She had graduated from a church-related university. She had completed a seminary degree at a time when not many females did so. She had, for most of her life, been surrounded by Christian community.
And yet…Kelly had not fully taken to heart the good news of the gospel, or, if she had, she had forgotten it or it had been purged from her heart and her consciousness in the midst of the turmoil of her life.
That bright spring day when Kelly’s life made a dramatic turn during therapy came at the end of a long seven years in which she had been recovering from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. Before the marriage had ended, Kelly had gained 100 pounds. She had become frightened of social interactions, she was terribly afraid of failure, and certain that she would not be accepted by others. Kelly’s life had gone from dangerous and destructive during her marriage to depressed and debilitated during her long recovery to hopeful and promising in the years that would follow.
The good news that Kelly took to heart that day is that she is a beloved child of God. No matter what, she is loved – unconditionally – by God. She received affirmation as the unique and special human being that she was. She finally believed that all her sins were forgiven in Jesus Christ, and in relationship with him, she began to discover renewal and transformation every day.
Living with that “blessing” changes the direction of a person’s life. The next several years in Kelly’s life following her affirmation of God’s blessing would not be all daisies and roses, and yet there was a marked difference, both in her life circumstances, and even more so within Kelly herself. Kelly had finally taken to heart the blessing from God – and it changed her. Kelly was different. Her relationships with others changed. She became more marketable for employment. She became the beloved and respected leader of a long term Bible study at church. And, most importantly, she was able to become a loving, encouraging, transformative mother for a troubled 13 year old that she fostered, then adopted.
“Perfect love casts out fear,” Scripture says. (I John 4:18)
Living under God’s blessing in love instead of fear transforms our lives and the lives of everyone around us. What does it mean to live not in fear of neighbor, but in love for neighbor? What would it mean for our state government or for our national foreign policy for love for neighbor and not fear of neighbor to control our decisions? What would it mean for you to approach the most difficult people in your life with self-giving love and not fear?
Jesus is our example. As Shirley Guthrie would teach, Jesus is the human being we are all meant to be. Jesus lived in perfect love for God and for others. He lived a life without fear, or at least fear did not control his life, his decisions, his actions. Because Jesus knew the blessing from God, he was free – free to live, free to love, free to go against the grain, free to speak the truth in love, free to speak truth to power, free to give up his life, free to lay down his life of his own accord so that others may live.
Today, we ordain and install a new class of elders. What I would hope, most of all, for each of them is that they would know God’s blessing, that they would know that they are truly loved unconditionally by God, that each of them are a unique, special, beloved child of God –with whom God is pleased as they turn toward him in trust and hope.
This is going to be an exciting year for Decatur Presbyterian Church. We have two wonderful new staff members who are beginning in the next two weeks. We will have the challenges and joys of an upcoming capital campaign. We have new calls to service from God that we have not yet even heard. Throughout this year, our elders will lead us. They will encourage and support us. They will share the mantle of leadership with our pastors and, by their self-giving service,
they will make a real difference in the life of this church and community over the next three years.
My sense is that this class of elders, in particular, has been “blessed to be a blessing”. It matters significantly to give God’s blessing to others, and that may well be an important part of their calling over the coming years. Some years ago Gary Chapman and John Trent wrote a book titled “The Blessing: Giving the Gift of Unconditional Love and Acceptance”. I commend it to you. The book discusses God’s unconditional love for us, then focuses upon the parent child relationship. Smalley and Trent claim that coming to terms with that parent child relationship, in the context of faith, helps a person redeem any of the relationships in their life.
We have the opportunity in our relationship with Jesus Christ for our life with others not to be limited or stilted or confused by our fallible relationships with our parents, or by our imperfect relationships with our spouses, or by the challenges of budding relationships with any group we’re trying to be a part of. Living under God’s blessing, beginning in baptism, we learn to live in love and freedom, and we have more of an inclination to offer that blessing to others.
Yesterday, we moved Mac, one of our twins, into a house with four other guys at Davidson College. Between college semesters and working in Yellowstone Park in the summers, and then a semester abroad in Argentina, our beloved son has been out of town and out of our home for the vast majority of the last two and a half years. Like all our sons, we miss him when he is away. So yesterday, we unloaded the trailer. We set up his room. We made the requisite trip to Target for food and supplies, and then we took him to lunch before it was time to say farewell and get back on the road. Once again, after lunch, it was time for Mom and Dad to part with their son, now a young man, so that he can live the next season of his life.
Before we left, I hugged Mac, I held him tight, and said the same words I have tried to convey to him and to his brothers every day, through actions and sometimes words, for the past 21 years – “I love you, son; I’m proud of you.”
Like any family, I am sure we have our share of dysfunction. With four similar, yet so different sons, and the pressures of being preacher’s kids, we are certainly not immune to any of the relationship challenges and faith challenges you all face. Yet, I hope, by God’s grace, that the blessing I received from my parents, and the blessing I know from Christ, my Savior, has been fully received also by my sons.
I bless my sons, as best I can, and, in my role as their pastor, I will seek to bless these elders. And they will seek to bless you, their congregation. And today, we had the good fortune of baptizing and blessing two wonderful young girls. But let us all remember, that One who is more powerful than all of us is here. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will burn away the chaff of our lives and gather us in to respond to his call and fulfill to God’s will. He, most of all, was blessed to be a blessing. May we all receive and then share the blessing that God has given us in him.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016
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