Sunday, January 8, 2023

The Sign of Grace

Baptism is the sacramental sign of God’s free, full, and infinite grace at work in our lives to save us, sanctify us, and fill us with the Holy Ghost. We affirm in our baptismal ritual:

"Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.  We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price." (United Methodist Baptismal Covenant I)


Manuscript of the sermon preached on January 8, 2023, for Briensburg UMC   [Audio Podcast] 

Baptism of the Lord Bible Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29;  Acts 10:34-43;  Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism is the sign of God’s grace calling us, authorizing us, and empowering us to minister our spiritual gifts in love and service reflective of Christ’s love for us.

The sacramental act of baptism is the laying on of hands with water by someone who was similarly baptized, going back through all the centuries to John the Baptist, who baptized Jesus in the Jordan river. This baptism physically and mystically connects the entire body of Christ, in this room, in this community, on this earth, and in heaven for all eternity. The mark is indelible and cannot be undone any more than a bell can be unrung.

The words that complete the sacrament are spoken as they have been through the ages with little variation and in every language of the earth, “I baptize thee, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” 

We not only follow Christ in baptism, but we also join Christ in baptism.

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:16-17 KJV)

The heavens opened. For most of human history, heaven was associated with up. But in recent centuries, humanity has come to understand that “up” is more like “out” in every direction from the earth, meaning the physicality of the heavens is not separate and away in the distance but rather all around us, including our own present location.  Jesus began his ministry preaching that the kingdom of God has come, and taught us in Luke 17:21 that the kingdom of God is within and among us.

The spirit of God descended on Jesus.  At the baptism of Jesus, a distinction is drawn between the spirit of God, which breathed the breath of life into Adam and our fellow creatures, as we have been studying about in Genesis in our Wednesday Bible Study group [on Zoom].  Jesus already had that spirit along with all humanity and all living things. We can only imagine to the outermost limits of our most inclusive thoughts the extent of creation that thrives on the universal breath of God.  But there was an important nuance in the spirit descending like a dove and lighting on Jesus.

This was what John the Baptist had been saying all along, as recorded in verse 12 just before today’s reading starts:

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: (Matthew 3:11 KJV)

This was the same holy spirit that, from ancient times, had been poured out with measured reserve on certain selected prophets and priests and kings. Now it was being poured out on Jesus with the intention that through Christ, the Holy Spirit would be poured out without measure or reservation on all people without exclusion.

This is the spirit we share that was poured out on Pentecost with “a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind,” as the Bible describes in Acts 2:2.  Peter  went on to say as worded in the Good News Translation:

this is what the prophet Joel spoke about:

‘This is what I will do in the last days, God says:
I will pour out my Spirit on everyone.
Your sons and daughters will proclaim my message;
your young [people] will see visions,
and your old [people] will have dreams.
Yes, even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will proclaim my message. (Acts 2:16-18 GNT)


Jesus began his Messianic role at his baptism, leading humanity into God’s kingdom.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles.     (Isaiah 42:1 KJV)

“Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—
the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased.
I have filled him with my Spirit,
and he will bring justice to every nation. (Isaiah 42:1 GNT)

Jesus was a Servant leader, just like Isaiah described. Jesus said he did not come to be served but to serve. How many leaders do we see on the news every day who share that objective of wanting to serve everyone else, in contrast with those whose objective is to get everyone else to serve them?

Isaiah prophecied that the Messiah would be “Filled with God’s spirit.” And now, through the mystical ties that bind us with Jesus and with each other and with all God’s people in heaven and earth, we share that same spirit of God. In addition to the incorporeal thoughts and feelings and will as part of our being we have by virtue of our creation along with all God’s creatures, we are learning to share God’s vision and dreams and goals and aspirations for God’s creation in general and God’s family in particular, of which we are all members.

Isaiah said the work of the Messiah would be to bring justice for all. We tend to think of “justice” and “judgment” as punishment, but Jesus demonstrated in his life and teachings that God’s idea of justice is fairness and forgiveness and love for all people without any limitations. It is the ultimate vision we touch on briefly when we say in the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag, “with liberty and justice for all.”

We are invited to join Jesus in the work he is already doing throughout the world.

How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.     (Acts 10:38 KJV) 

Peter said that Jesus, ”Went about doing good.” What a wonderful tribute to Jesus, and what a wonderful thing for us each to remembered for, that we went around doing good!.  The early Methodists passed down the quote attributed to John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

Jesus was famous for, as Peter went on to say, “Healing all that were oppressed.”  We share that as part of our commission as baptized Christians, to do what we can to provide healing and wholeness in whatever forms we are able.  And, Peter says, “God was with him.” “God with us” is the translation of “Immanuel” and the whole point of the Incarnation. 

God provides us with the capability to fulfill God’s call on our lives.

The Lord will give strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.     (Psalm 29:11 KJV)

God empowers us to keep the commandment Jesus gave to love others as Christ has loved us. God empowers us by the Holy Spirit to minister our spiritual gifts in ways far more effective than our personal skills and abilities would permit. God blesses people directly and indirectly. God enables us to be a blessing to each other and to allow others to be a blessing to us. God’s gift is peace. The wholeness and harmony of God’s peace are our salvation from the turmoil and suffering of the world.

Today, we join Christians of many denominations in celebrating the Baptism of Jesus and in reaffirming our own baptism. As we go forward from this hour to the next, may we be conscious of the Holy Spirit within and among us, authorizing and empowering us to make whatever new beginnings are necessary. May we take the authority of our baptism to love and serve the people around us in union with the whole Body of Christ. May we gladly discover new elements every day of the kingdom of God within and among us.

 In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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