Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Common Strength Baptism

Text: Luke 3 : 15-17, 21-22

Today we recall Jesus' baptism at the hand of John the Baptist. John was a fiery preacher, a preacher of righteousness and repentance. But at Jesus' baptism, something tender and touching happened. When Jesus was baptized, Luke tells us, "heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'" That is such a wonderful verse.

Luke doesn't tell us whether other people besides Jesus heard God's voice that day or not. But it is a beautiful scene. Jesus is baptized and his Father God tells him how proud he is of him. It's good when any parent says, "I'm proud of you," to a child.

Pastor Andy Cook tells about a touching moment at the end of the 1980 Winter Olympic Games. That's the one in which the US hockey team beat the Russians. It was an incredible feat.

During the final game of those Olympics against Finland, the ABC cameras started following different stories. Jim Craig, the goalie, was very close to his father. "His mother had recently died, which made the two men even closer. And the cameras would show [Jim] in action, and his dad cheering.

"When the US team won the game, the celebration was unbelievable. Players embraced, fans were going wild, but Jim Craig wasn't celebrating. He was near the stands, looking like a lost little kid . . . and then we read his lips: 'Where's my dad?' he asked. 'Where's my dad?'

"Craig finally found his dad, and the celebration was complete. They embraced, they cried, and they remembered the years of practice, the years of playing, the years of drills, the years of discipline, the years of bonding. They remembered the woman they both loved, a wife for one, a mother for the other. For Jim Craig, such a moment demanded the presence of his father."


This is a very special moment in Luke's Gospel when Jesus is baptized and "a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'"

Every child needs to hear that message from a parent. The Father was giving His personal blessing to Christ's mission in the world. But here is what should be most heartening to us: God was also granting God's blessing to all who have been baptized. We read in I John 3 these words, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!" We incorporate that scripture in our service after the baptism of an infant when the minister holds the infant and walks her down the aisle saying, "This child is now a member of Christ's church and of this particular church. See here the love of God, that we should be called children of God, which indeed we are." Baptism tells us who we are. We are children of God. At our baptism there was an unheard voice from heaven saying, "This is my son, this is my daughter, whom I love."

The world tries to tell us otherwise. The media - Internet, TV, radio, newspapers, magazines - tells us we are not good unless we buy this or do that or use a particular product. But the Bible teaches us that God loves us and when we are baptized, God says, "You are my cihld, with whom I am well pleased."

Next week we will be celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Dr. King often stood at the front of civil rights demonstrations as firefighters and police turned on him and his fellow demonstrators with high pressure water hoses. It had to sting badly.

Dr. King once remarked that he and the other demonstrators had a common strength baptism. Recalling the fire hoses that Bull Connor turned on peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Dr. King once said: "There was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out . . . We had known water. If we were Baptists or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodists, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water." (Cited by David Reynolds, http://www.gbgm

The water of baptism can be a powerful force in our lives. When the water was applied to us in baptism something powerful was taking place. The Holy Spirit was taking up residence in our lives. We became part of God's kingdom on earth. As such, we became God's agents in our family and in our community. As we ponder our own baptism, consider the challenge that comes with the blessing. We are saved to serve. 

Today as we ordain and install elders, we acknowledge that we are all called by God through our common strength baptism. God calls each of us to speak the truth with love and work for justice in the world. We can only hear God's call when we move beyond our obsession with ourselves.

Edward DeBono, the creativity guru, once told a wonderful story about elevators and mirrors.

You may have noticed in some skyscrapers, beside the elevator doors, there are often mirrors. Some years ago there were a lot of complaints about the time that people spent waiting for elevators and the higher the buildings grew, the louder the complaints grew. So engineers were called in to try to speed up the elevators or to see if new elevators could be added in the shafts that they had, but there seemed to be absolutely no solution to this problem at all. They spent a lot of money on their consulting fees, until someone spoke up and said, "Let's fix this with mirrors."

"What do you mean, fix it with mirrors?" Well, the person suggested, the problem really wasn't the speed of the elevators or the number of elevators in the building, but the real problem was in the minds of the people who were waiting for the elevators.

So he suggested, "Let's give them something to do. What do people like to do most?" Oh, they like to look at themselves in the mirror! "How can we enable them to do this?" they asked. "Put mirrors all the way around, and the time will just fly by." And sure enough, they did it. And the time flies by. (Cited by David A. Renwick,

Let me ask you a question: How much time to you spend looking at yourself in mirrors and how much time do you spend looking out windows, considering the needs of others and society? That's another way of asking, are you living a life centered in self or are you living a life of significance?

This is an appropriate question to ask at the beginning of another new year. God has called us to join Him in "reconciling the world unto Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19). Baptism reminds us that we are God's children. Baptism offers us the opportunity for a new life, a life of purpose, a life of significance.

"A voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'" That was the voice of God at Jesus' baptism. But it could have been our baptism. We are part of God's family. As such we are part of God's kingdom, God's ongoing plan to redeem the world. We belong to God. Wherever we go, whatever we do, God is there with us. There is no more important statement about our lives than this: We have been baptized. 

Let's continue to live into our common strength baptism. Pray and ask God to show you the way. Look around at what others are doing in this congregation. Ask questions. Get involved. Support one another. Trust one another. Together we will make a difference in the world as we live into our common strength baptism.

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Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on January 10, 2010.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Text: Isaiah 43:1-7

Back in 1976, America's bicentennial year, a very creative writer came up with an intriguing idea. "Our nation is 200 years old," he thought. "I'll bet I can find someone who is alive today who is old enough that when they were a child, they remember someone who was then old enough to have been alive at the founding of the nation, a living link to the beginning of the country." And, sure enough, he found such a person. He was a Kentucky farmer named Burnham Ledford, who was over 100 years old in 1976; and he remembered when he was a little boy being taken by a wagon to see his great-great grandmother who was then over 100 herself and who was a little girl when George Washington was inaugurated as the first American president.

When the writer asked Burnham what he remembered, he said he remembered being taken into his great-great grandmother's house. She was feeble. She was blind. She was sitting in an old chair in the corner of a dark bedroom. "We brought Burnham to see you," his father said. The old woman turned toward the sound and reached out with long, bony fingers and said in an ancient, cracking voice, "Bring him here."

"They had to push me toward her," Burnham remembered. "I was afraid of her. But when I got close to her, she reached out her hands and began to stroke my face. She felt my eyes and my nose, my mouth and my chin. And all at once, she seemed to be satisfied, and she pulled me close to her and held me tight. 'This boy's a Ledford,' she said, 'I can feel it. I know this boy. He's one of us.'" Taken from a sermon called "Called by Name" A sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 by The Reverend Dr. Thomas G. Long January 11, 2004.

In an even deeper way when we are baptized, God holds us close and says, "I know this one. I called this one by name. This one belongs to me. Fear not. I KNOW YOU BY NAME."

The God of Israel, the God whose story is told in this scripture, always calls us by name: Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Samuel, Mary. This is the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ. The God who walks along the shore and calls by name: "Peter, Andrew, John, follow me."

God knows our name. God knows the number of the hairs on our head. God says to each of us, "Do not be afraid. I know you. I have called you by name. You are mine."

We were first called by our full Christian name in our baptism. I baptize you, Jonathan Lee Burnham, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen." We were named by God during our baptism. The same God who called us by name and claimed us in the waters of baptism now comes to us with a message from on high: "Don't be afriad. When you're in over your head," says God, "I'll be there with you." "When you're in rough waters," says God, "You will not go down." "When you're between a rock and a hard place," says God, "it won't be a dead end." God's word to us is unconditional. No matter what our circumstances nor how bad our problem may be -- God stands with us. No matter how dreadful we have behaved nor how terribly we've been mistreated -- God stands with us.

And God will never let us go! What a liberating thought to know that God will never let us go. No matter how far away we may wander God will come find us like a good shepherd seeks a lost sheep. No matter how dark the night God will light a candle and search the house room by room until God finds us in cowering in fear in the corner or locked inside a closet trembling in fear. God will come and find us when we get lost. Even though Israel was dispersed in the dark night of exile God was coming to find them and bring them home. God said to Israel: "I will come come and find you."

Jesus told a parable of a shepherd who left behind 99 sheep to go and find the one that was lost. When we are lost all we want is for someone to find us and show us how to get back home. That is what God does for us. When we are lost in our own false selves, when we are dismayed by the illusions of this world, when we are confused, God says to us, "Climb up out of that hole and put your feet back on solid ground. Follow me and I'll show you the way home. Rise and follow me! "

Jesus said, "Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask and you will receive." God wants to give us peace and reassurance. All we have to do is ask. All we have to do is knock. God is not playing hard to get today. God is ready to receive us back. Look, He's already coming to get us. God says through Isaiah:  

    "I want them back, every last one who bears my name,

    every man, woman, and child

    Whom I created for my glory,

    yes, personally formed and made each one." (Isa. 43:7)  

We serve God in the world out of a sense of gratitude to God for God's love for us. We serve out of love and not need. We serve out of gratitude and not fear. God has already told us not to be afraid. We don't have to fear God because God loves us. And if we don't have to fear God then what do we have to fear? Death? Even death cannot stop the power of God's love. God's strong love reached into the mouth of death and pulled Jesus back out of the tomb and into eternal life. And God's love will do the same for us. God's love will pull us out of the tomb and into eternal life. We do not fear death and we do not fear life because nothing can separate us from God's love. That is the good news God gave to the people of Israel through the prophet and that is the good news God gives to us through Jesus Christ. Nothing in life and nothing in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place let's remember God's faithful love. Let's remember we are ultimately secure in this life and in the life to come.

A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the bad dream, the person would say, "Henri, Henri, haven't seen you in years. What have you done with your life?" This question always felt like judgment. He'd done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. And when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, "What have you done with your life?" he wouldn't know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. He dreamed that he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, "Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?" But, then, in the dream, when the door to God's throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, "Henri, it's good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I'd love to see your slides." Taken from a sermon called "Called by Name" A sermon on Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 by The Reverend Dr. Thomas G. Long January 11, 2004. The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Long is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Ga.

"Fear not," says the Lord, "I know you. I have called you by name. You are mine."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on January 3, 2010.