Sermon
January 10, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Matthew 3:13-17
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" 15 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. 16 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. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (NRSV)

Isaiah 42:1-17 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

3 a bruised reed he will not break,

and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4 He will not grow faint or be crushed

until he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

5 Thus says God, the LORD,

who created the heavens and stretched them out,

who spread out the earth and what comes from it,

who gives breath to the people upon it

and spirit to those who walk in it:

6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,

I have taken you by the hand and kept you;

I have given you as a covenant to the people,

a light to the nations,

7 to open the eyes that are blind,

to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,

from the prison those who sit in darkness.

8 I am the LORD, that is my name;

my glory I give to no other,

nor my praise to idols.

9 See, the former things have come to pass,

and new things I now declare;

before they spring forth,

I tell you of them.

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Sermon

How would you like to celebrate this season with a swim in a green bayou. Well, you can guess by the word "bayou" that this is not a New England tradition. No, this tale I’m about to tell has the dateline Tarpon Springs, Florida, January 6:

For Some Divers, an Epiphany for All Their Lives

By Rick Bragg

TARPON SPRINGS, Fla. -- As the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of the Americas tossed a white wooden cross into the green bayou, a young man, destined for glory, plunged himself into the cold water after it, while an old man, warm and dry on the bank, sank deep into his own legend.

It began on an unusually cold day in Florida. Thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians, here to celebrate one of their faith's holiest days, ringed that bayou as Archbishop Spyridon, on a platform facing the water, held out the Cross of the Epiphany.

Before him, perched in a semicircle of dinghies, waited 60 teen-age boys, legs flexed, fingers clenching and unclenching.

As the cross tumbled toward the water, the boys sprang from the little boats, making the water roil. In seconds, 16-year-old Jason Kolbe surfaced with the cross raised high in one hand, mouth wide open in a scream of joy. The boy who finds it, said Greek Orthodox Christians, is the chosen of God.

Fifty years ago Friday, it was Hercules Ypsilantis who dived into the gloom of Spring Bayou, who knelt on the bank to receive the special blessing from the Archbishop of the Americas, who became a living symbol of Christ's resurrection.

A lifetime later, he can still warm himself in its glow.

"We still believe in some things, here," said Ypsilantis, who was 17 in 1949 when he outswam the other young men of his village to win the right to stand at the center of what has become the grandest celebration of the Epiphany by Greek Orthodox Christians in the Western Hemisphere.

The Epiphany in Greek Orthodox teaching celebrates Christ's baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. It was then that God said of Jesus, "This is my Son." The word "epiphany" means other things, including the appearance of the Magi. But for 80 years, here in this city built by Greek fishermen, it has given teen-age boys a singular gift.

"It's everything," said Jason Kolbe, whose eyes flooded with tears as he climbed from the 65-degree water. "All my life, I've been waiting for this. All my life."

Epiphany Day is certainly not marked with such enthusiasm in New England, although in New York City there were several parades to mark the celebration, also called Three Kings Day. But, without getting in over my head, I would like to focus on the Orthodox emphasis, on the Baptism of Christ, on the meaning of that Baptism for Jesus, and on the meaning for us, the church.

The story of the Greek Orthodox celebration in Florida says that the one who finds the cross in the water is the chosen one of God. Although I don’t know if that is true for the boy in the bayou, I’m sure that was the primary meaning of the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan river. Jesus was anointed as God’s chosen one, God’s own son, the beloved.

But chosen for what? Anointed for what? Was it for a life time of good fortune? Was it so that as an old man, like Hercules Ypsilantis, Jesus could sit on the sidelines and warm himself with the memories of his own legend.

The clue to solve this mystery comes from the words Jesus hears from heaven: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Like so many important phrases in the Gospel stories, this refers back to the words of the prophets of old, in this case to the passage we read this morning from the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 42:1-17 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

3 a bruised reed he will not break,

and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

4 He will not grow faint or be crushed

until he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

This passage is what we have come to call the first of the Servant Songs in Isaiah. There are four all together, and they present a picture of a mysterious servant who is

  • called by God when he is still in his mothers womb
  • formed by God and filled with God’s spirit
  • is a disciple of God who has opened his ears
  • who, by establishing justice on earth is able to instruct all of humanity
  • who judges the nations by his word
  • who performs this task gently and without display
  • who appears to fail in his mission
  • who accepts outrage and contempt, but does not yield because God is with him
  • who suffers and is treated as an evil doer
  • who is condemned to a shameful death
  • who accepts all this as his own free offering for sinners
  • who takes on the guilt of others and prays for them
  • who achieves through this the salvation of humankind
  • who is raised up to eternal life by God so he can see his posterity and become the light of the nations.

Does this sound like the path Jesus followed? Does it sound like the role, the task, he took upon himself?

One of the reasons we have celebrations like Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost is that we might, in the cycle of a year, relive the story of the life of Christ. We do this so that the story of his life might shape our lives, his spirit might shape our hearts.

Today we look at the Baptism of Jesus, and it is important that we understand its meaning. In the context of the whole Gospel story this is a critical moment, the moment when Jesus is given, and accepts, his work, his task, his identity, his place in history. He will be the Servant of God. And he will accomplish the work of the servant.

It is important to note that the servant comes neither at the beginning nor at the end of the big story. The Servant comes in the middle, for there is work that needs to be done to prepare the way for the Servant, and there is work that needs to be done to finish what the Servant begins.

That is why this story of baptism has meaning beyond the life of the one baptized - it has meaning for us as well, we who take on his name in our own baptism, we who gather as the church to engage in the work he began, we as the ones whose richest blessing is the gift of his Spirit.

At the beginning of the sermon I asked if you would like to celebrate this season with a swim in a green bayou. Let me rephrase the question. How would you like to celebrate this season by plunging into the water of Christ’s baptism and renewing your commitment to forming your life as a servant of God’s justice and mercy. How would you like to refocus on what is this essential message of the Gospel and see how it shapes your life in the year ahead?

Let me give two practical suggestions on how to do this. The first is found in scripture. I invite you to join with me in reading through this small collection of scripture selections, selections organized around twelve themes of human rights. You will recall the opening lines of the servant song:

Isaiah 42:1-17 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

This booklet digs into scripture to describe what God means by that word justice. It is a word worthy of our study.

The second practical suggestion I have is that you consider attending the forum which the New Milford Clergy Association is co-sponsoring along with the New Milford Social Services Committee. Instead of a Sunday evening worship service to honor Martin Luther King’s birthday, the Clergy Association wanted to see if we could mobilize the churches to work together on the issue of child poverty in New Milford.

While there are many issues of justice that face us, some seem very distant and some seem very political, and we didn’t know that we could look to those kinds of issues to shape cooperative action within our own community. But the issue of child poverty is already being addressed by almost every religious community and offers us an opportunity to build a broad consensus and have a positive and practical impact.

So I invite you to this evening, Wednesday, January 27, 7:00, hosted at the United Methodist Church across from Pettibone School on Route 7.

This morning I entitled my sermon the tenth song. Let me end by explaining this. There is a lot of fascination with the upcoming turn of the calendar to the year 2000. All those nines rolling over into zeros suggests to us both the end of the old and the beginning of the new. This is a enduring fascination, and among the Rabbis of ancient times there was a tradition that at each moment which marked a time of critical transition in the history of Israel a new song was composed and sung. The idea was that nine songs had already been composed, but that the tenth song was awaiting the arrival of the Messiah and the time of final redemption. That is why, immediately after the Servant Song in Isaiah, we read these verses:

10 Sing to the LORD a new song,

his praise from the end of the earth!

Let the sea roar and all that fills it,

the coastlands and their inhabitants.

11 Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,

let them shout from the tops of the mountains.

12 Let them give glory to the LORD,

and declare God’s praise.

As we allow our lives to be formed in the image of Christ, the Servant of God, we become singers of the Tenth Song, the song that ushers in the age of promise. This is a much more appropriate and trustworthy object of our fascination that the upcoming year 2000.

Let us plunge into the water of Christ’s baptism. Let us put out of our hearts the old songs, songs that look to a troubled past, people divided against people, race against race, religion against religion. In this new year, let’s sing a new song, a song of justice, a song of the Servant Lord, Jesus Christ.

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Let us pray:

Spirit of God, we have gathered together in this place to open ourselves to you, to recall and relive the mystery of your love revealed in Jesus Christ, to pray for ourselves and other and to seek the blessing of your Holy Spirit.

Give us faith, that when you speak to us a word of challenge or comfort, we may hear your word of truth and sense your power working in our lives.

Give us courage, that we may not fear what is new or different, but might be open the future of your promise and peace.

Give us an open heart, that we may embrace all people as children of your creation and set no limits to your justice, love and redemption.

Encourage us in the practice of prayer, that we might each day recall your great love for us and not neglect the needs of others.

Today we offer our prayers for:

and those we name in the quiet of our hearts.

Remind us in the week ahead, O Lord, to daily pray for ourselves, for one another, for our church, and for all people. Help us to remember that you listen more to our hearts than to our words, and simply bring to you an offering of repentance, love, and openness.

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart

be acceptable to you,

O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

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 Benediction

 Give Peace, O Lord, to all the world; guide us in a way of justice and mercy; help us to rejoice in the abundance of religious diversity in this world and to see your grace behind every impulse of prayer, compassion, and loving devotion. Let not the needy be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be taken away. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and sustain us with your holy spirit.

 

Go forth from this place, Servants of God,

Let your lives witness to Christ's love.

Let your words bring reconciliation.

Let your thoughts be of peace.

Let your touch bring healing.

Let your actions count for justice.

Go and may God's blessing go with you.
Amen

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