Sermon
January 12, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

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Sermon: Born to Give Us Second Birth

Television tells no lies. Do you believe me? I know that is a radical statement, so I want to repeat it - Television tells no lies! I don’t mean that everything said on television is true, but what is brutally honest about television is that it tells no lies about what really interests people, what catches their attention, what causes them to tune in, what massages their social, psychological, and spiritual aches and pains.

So the popularity of a given show, no matter how dumb, how low, how dangerous, how down the gutter we might think it is - the popularity of a given show is like a mirror held up to the face of society and in that mirror we see a true likeness of who we are.

Which leads me to talk about the Osbournes: MTV’s answer to Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky Nelson in the persons of Ozzie, Sharon, Jack and Kelly Osbourne.

It’s not possible to explain this show in a few words, but if you’ve never seen it, let me just say that this is a family like any family except for a few key points that make them total lunatics and irresistible to a global audience. They are very rich, very raunchy, and completely batty.

I am not here, good people of Rome, to condemn the Osbournes, but to examine their appeal. Why would aberrant home life be such popular television fare? One editorial writer, Adam Cohen, examined this question in this article: “America’s Favorite Television Fare? The Normals vs. the Stigmatized”

Cohen found one answer in the work of Erving Goffman, a sociologist whose two main works were entitled “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” and “Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.”

Goffman suggested that most people are desperately insecure about who they are and they are constant putting on little performances designed to present acceptable selves to the world. People are more worried, Goffman argued, about their “fronts” - about what is visible to other people - than about what is going on inside them - sometimes to the point of sacrificing what is going on inside.

The Osbournes seemed to have dropped the front, to have no socially acceptable self, and so watching them is like watching someone walk a high rope without a net. How much can they really get away with? How long before they crash and burn? And if this is their “front” how truly crazy is what’s behind it.

I do believe if you want any further argument that Goffman is on to something, all you have to do is consider another so-called reality TV show, Extreme Makeovers. I don’t know how many of you have seen this, but thousands of people vied for the opportunity to engage in a process of transformation of themselves - or at least of their “fronts” - before an audience of millions.

Their transformation included new wardrobes, new hair styling, a workout and weight loss program, cosmetic dentistry, and plastic surgery to remove fat, saggy skin, and to reshape their facial features, including chins, noses, eyes, and cheeks. Makeovers have been popular fare for some times, but this really took it up a notch.

Whatever we think of this, we can be sure the decision by a major network like ABC to produce such a show and air it in primetime did not come without sound market research, and that research must have agreed with Dr. Goffman - people are desperately insecure about who they are and how they present themselves.

I said television tells no lies, but in one sense the premise of this makeover show was both a truth and a lie - it was a truth in understanding the desires and hopes of the audience and the participants, but it was a lie in suggesting that a path to satisfaction could be found in plastic surgery or a new hair style. It played into the anxiety of people about the presentation of their public self while all the time avoiding the real issues that keep people feeling out of place, uneasy, unworthy, alienated and inadequate.

In this way, with this focus on externals, mass media is a little like the devil in the wilderness tempting Jesus - there is an understanding of our every need, but God help us if we agree to the deal and sign the contract.

Of course, God’s readiness to help is precisely what brings us here this morning.

The idea of the makeover is not something invented by reality TV - it’s a theme of religion that is ancient and widespread. A makeover in religious terms is not concerned with what is on the outside, but the character, the conscience, the core of the person. It’s not a theme excusive to Christianity, but the Christian faith does have a perspective that opens the path up to us in a personal and immediate way and frames this change in terms of conversion and the power of grace to overcome sin. It frames it as a gift rather than an accomplishment, a baptism of repentance rather than a conquest of pride. It frames it as a second birth.

People say that if you want the surest way to good health, pick healthy parents. Well, we don’t pick our parents and that is precisely the point - we don’t pick our parents and we really have no responsibility for our own birth. We are born into the world as a gift, shaped and molded by forces that are beyond our control and in a state of helplessness that requires the love and sacrifice of others for our survival.

Jesus came into a world where it was taught that to get right with God one had to observe many rules and regulations, follow rigid rituals, and work through the intermediary of priests and temple authorities. All this emphasized the inadequacy of the individual and the distance between the human and the divine.

But Jesus came preaching a Gospel of forgiveness and nearness - the Kingdom of God is at hand. People would open their eyes, ears, and hearts to the closeness of God not by their spiritual striving, but by their humility, their letting go.

God already loved them, God already chose them, God already intended every good thing for them - every healing, every blessing, every abundance of grace.

This was not something to be accomplished, but something to be believed and received. The human response to the divine initiative was to accept all this as a gift and allow the power of the gift to penetrate every particle of our being.

Accept also that God created us in our humanness and that all that anxiety about externals that occupy so much of our time and energy, that causes us to invest so much into the “front” we put up to the world, that is the source of much hypocrisy and judgment of others - that all this anxiety is a) a waste of time and b) an impediment to peace - peace being freedom of anxiety on the inside and righteousness on the outside.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above; you must be born of water and the spirit.” Now there is a certain amount of discussion within the church about exactly what Jesus meant here. Did his mention of water refer to the natural birth of a baby from the womb of a mother which is usually preceded by the breaking water or release of amniotic fluid, or is he referring to baptism, the water blessing of the sacrament that welcomes us into the life of the Church?

I guess you could take it either way, because it’s a very neat parallel and the point of the message remains the same - coming to an acceptance of grace is like a second birth and while it is a gift it will probably require some labor and some pains and you may well feel like you’ve unleashed forces in your life that are beyond your control and if anyone had ever really explained to you what is was like you might have chosen otherwise but it’s too late now!

Today we remember the baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan. In that baptism God proclaims Jesus as the beloved child in whom he is well pleased. It is a message not just for Jesus but for all who are in him, in Christ, who share in his baptism and eat at his table, who serve in his name and die in the hope of his resurrection.

God’s love is God’s gift to shape us and form us in the image of Christ; God’s love is a gift that frees us from fear and makes us over from the inside out - the only true transforming power of new life, new hope, new worth, new birth.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 
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