January 11, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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Sermon: The Humble God

One of the holiday rituals I enjoy is watching the Christmas Eve mass from St. Peter’s in the Vatican. Late at night, coming home after the two services here are over, it’s such a relaxation to just sit and take in all the majesty of that cathedral and the magnificence of the liturgy with readers and celebrants from around the world.

It’s especially relaxing now that our children are older and I’m not trying to put together the wagon, sled, or Barbie Dream House with instructions in four languages but none that are clear to me. This year I had only a couple of presents left to wrap and there was nothing to distract from the beauty of the space, the loveliness of the singing, and the familiar rhythm of the readings.

Well, there was one distraction - a little thought that kept popping into the back of my head – a nagging doubt that all this pomp and splendor was somehow contradicting the very message it was proclaiming – that it was less a testimony to the glory of God and more an indication of how we take the Gospel and adapt it to fit our human agenda.

People love the big show, and this is certainly one of the biggest. And yet everything we teach about the nature of Christ’s coming is contrary to the big show, for in his incarnation Christ embodied an ethic of humility and reversal that was a foretaste of his preaching, the formation of his disciples, and his redeeming death on the cross.

The ethic of reversal is well illustrated in sayings like “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” or “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” In the formation of his disciples he told them “the greatest among you must be the least and the leader the servant of all” and “whenever you do this to one of the least among you, you do it to me.”

The ethic of humility is evident in the very act of God becoming manifest as a human being – Paul quotes an early Christian hymn when he writes:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:4-8)

The ethic of humility and reversal is also evident in the story we mark with today’s readings – the story of the baptism of Christ by John. We read the account in Luke, with the emphasis on John’s proclamation that “one is coming who is more powerful than I; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”

Yet when the one who is more powerful, more worthy comes, it is he who seeks baptism from John – an act of humble obedience to God’s righteous will. This fact is not lost on John – Matthew presents it this way: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”(Matthew 3:13-14)

As Jesus preaches and teaches, we see that nothing infuriates him more than people who take advantage of their position and power to Lord it over others – this, above all, brings his condemnation and wrath. He who truly is the Lord is forgoing all privilege to identify completely with those in need of redemption, mercy, and hope – and so he submits to baptism and so he submits to the cross.

The baptism we remember today is a foreshadowing of the cross. Jesus himself draws the link quite clearly, and he does so in response to a question from his disciples where they are maneuvering for position and stature.
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:35-39)

You don’t have to look to deep to see that the ethic of humility and reversal is evident in the Gospels from the very first episodes of Jesus life to the very last. Maybe the Christmas Eve mass from the Vatican is the last place you’d expect to find that ethic exemplified, - you have to think that there’s plenty of maneuvering there about who gets the good seats up front - but nonetheless this contradiction remained a nagging distraction as the cameras panned around the grand building and then focused on the linen and gold of the altar and the vested clergy elevating the host and proclaiming: The Body of Christ.

I couldn’t help but wonder if rather than having the Gospel transform our values, the church had simply used the Gospel to bless and baptize our privilege and power.

Now I don’t mean for this to be an anti-Roman Catholic judgment. I mean church in the broadest sense. And the minute you ask such a question about anyone or any group in the church, you really are forced to look in the mirror and examine your own situation with an equally critical eye – what is our privilege and power; how have our values and concerns been blessed or transformed by the ways we preach, teach, and live the Gospel?

We are not exactly without privileges. Not that we are exempt from sickness, suffering, or tragedy, but simply that in the scope of human experience and from the perspective of almost any indicator of well-being – economics, health care, shelter, sanitation, education, etc – we have every advantage. How does that shape our agenda when we come to church – how would our agenda be different if there was hunger in our households, or if we lived as refugees in a foreign land, or if our future was full of fear rather than freedom and promise?

When this question comes to mind, I am reminded of a poem by William Blake:

It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage
And to sing on the waggon loaded with corn

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted
To speak the laws of prudence to the homeless wanderer
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is filled with wine and with the marrow of lambs

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity;

We worship a God who in love and perfect freedom leaves the tents of prosperity to sojourn in a land of hunger and affliction. In accepting the Baptism of John, Jesus humbles himself to identify with the human need for repentance, healing, forgiveness, and mercy. He does not preach patience to the afflicted and prudence to the homeless wanderer, but hope to the poor and a word of warning to those who use their privilege and power for their own benefit and neglect the needs of others.

I’m concerned that the church in our culture, in the desire to maintain the big show, is taking a consumerist approach to the Gospel and presenting it as something that serves us rather than calling us out of ourselves to serve the larger purpose of God – a culture that fosters covetousness more than compassion. To give in to this approach, I fear, kills the soul of the church and separates the believer from the source of their redemption.

The water of baptism is a sign of our unity with Christ and our willingness to be formed as disciples. As adults seeking to grow in faith, gathered here this Sunday, reflecting on the example of Christ in his baptism, we should think deeply about this ethic of humility and reversal, about what it means to die to self, to take up the cross, and to become a faithful follower of the one who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all.  Amen.

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