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New beginnings

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Baptism of our Lord Sunday – January 8, 2017

Luke 3:1-22 and Psalm 51:6-17

It happened, somewhere off in the future that a group of scientists got together and decided that man had come a long way and no longer needed God. So they picked one scientist to go and tell God that they were done with God.

The scientist walked up to God and said, “God, we’ve decided that we no longer need you. We’re to the point that we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don’t you just go on and get lost.”

God listened very patiently and kindly to the man. After the scientist was done talking, God said, “Very well, how about this? Let’s say we have a man-making contest.”

To which the scientist replied, “Okay, great!”

But God added, “Now, we’re going to do this just like I did back in the old days with Adam.”

The scientist said, “Sure, no problem” and bent down and grabbed himself a handful of dirt.

God looked at him and said, “No, no, no. You go get your own dirt!”

Don’t we as humans often tend to think we can start things on our own and that God is merely in the background, just as an aside?

“New beginnings”…how exciting! Back in the days of Jesus’ ministry on earth a radically new beginning was about to take place according to the gospels.

But before Jesus could start, John the Baptist, one of the last prophets to come on the scene before Jesus’ arrival, announced and encouraged something he called “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Yet, when the crowds came he shamed them. Why would John do that? A clue to the answer might be found in his reference to Abraham. Apparently, the crowds he scolded were relying on their blood, their ancestry, and their inheritance through Abraham to receive God’s blessings. But John knew it was not enough to do nothing and hope for everything. When Jesus was baptised, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove. When the heavens tore open it was a symbol of the barrier that separated humanity from God being torn open. It was the beginning of God’s kingdom here on earth. And the bringing about of God’s kingdom on earth depends on the lives, words, thoughts, and actions of people.

People can spend far too much time worrying about what they must do to inherit eternal life. Salvation is already ours. Our time might be better spent figuring out how to bring God’s kingdom to life here on earth. Every time we feed a hungry soul, visit one who is isolated, celebrate a widower’s birthday, give money to charity, reduce, reuse, and recycle, we are bringing about God’s kingdom on earth. God’s kingdom is not an otherworldly, unreachable place. This is God’s kingdom. Right here. Right now. John’s reprimand was for those seeking a quick fix to the world’s problems, a Messiah who would magically make everything right. John knew, as did Jesus, that the world is made well slowly, one right move at a time.

Ever since I could remember my childhood, my Dad was the one to cut my hair. We were four boys of which I was the oldest. I always got the same haircut; short, but not too close. For years, my Dad would keep it the same style. I think when I got around 16 or 17, I started telling my Dad what I wanted. He only used one style and that was short, but not too close. Well, once I got to do compulsory military service, I was in the position to tell the barber I wanted it cut short. So he went to work and I sat not paying attention. When he was done and spun me around, I was shocked; he had cut my hair really short. I mean we’re talking the next step was looking like Kojack. Here it was, I wanted a little off the top; and I what I got was a buzzcut. I was a little startled.

This got me thinking about today’s passage; some people wanted a little off the top and John the Baptist was preaching a total buzzcut.

John the Baptist is not anyone’s favorite Biblical character. He’s rude and can’t say anything nice and he certainly lives up to that in today’s gospel, if you can call it that. The passage opens with the crowds who were listening to John. Many in the crowd decided to come forward to be baptised. I’ve learned that baptism is about being reminded of God’s love for us, but I don’t think John was sitting in on my seminary class, because he calls those coming forward a “brood of vipers.” He tells them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance and to not rely on religious or family ties for salvation. He talks about an axe that is getting ready to cut down poor producing trees and throw them into the fire.

When was the last time you saw a preacher say that at a baptism? If they did, I can bet they didn’t stay in the pulpit very long.

There was a time when I would have said that poor John was off his rocker. He was preaching a message of hell and damnation, a message of what my reformed friends like to say, “works-righteousness.” On the other hand, Jesus preached a message of grace. But these days, John was preaching a message of salvation and grace, but he reminds us this grace isn’t cheap, but costly. John, like Jesus, was concerned with how we live. Yes, we are saved by grace not by works, but the evidence of our faith relies on how we live. The best testimony of being a follower of Christ, is how we live our lives. Do we live them in the same way Jesus did, welcoming all, forgiving others and helping those in need?

I think if John was around today, he might call many of us snakes as well. There are too many people, especially Christians, who will shout loudly that they are religious, holy people and yet their actions say sharply otherwise.

There are a lot of people who think that to be a Christian means accepting certain truths; Jesus is God’s Son, Jesus died and rose again, Jesus is coming soon. If you believe that, then you are all set. But John seems to be saying that’s not enough. Of course Christians must believe in all of this, but if those beliefs aren’t lived on in our daily lives, are they real to others? If we say we believe in Christ, and yet ignore the poor, or turn people away because they are different, will people really believe us?

Being a Christ-follower isn’t just about accepting certain beliefs; it’s also about living as a Christian. John the Baptist told those in the crowd to share with those who have none, don’t extort and don’t overtax the populace. He was telling people that if they were coming to be baptised; they need to live lives of repentance and not do this just for show.

On an Advent night a decade ago, there was a memorable passage from the slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. He summed up nicely what Advent and by extension what following Jesus is all about.

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. They are Christ, and whatever is done to them Christ will take as done to himself. Isn’t this what we profess? Christ living among us.

God isn’t interested in shaving a little off the top. God wants us changed, to live lives for others. God is about new beginnings, and God gives us the power to perform these new beginnings. We don’t just do it on our own. As we enter 2017, let’s be open to new beginnings, and let’s do it with the sure knowledge that nothing happens without our Lord. God loves us, God loves Dayspring.

 

Copyright 2017 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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