Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, baptized for us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning we continue our journey through the month of January. Our consideration of God’s Word is centered on our theme of “His Faithful Love; Our Thankful Response.” Last week, Pastor Nuckols taught us about God’s faithful love being revealed to us. We learned that this not only has taken place through the visit of the Magi to worship the Christ child, but also the many ways His love has been shown to us in the blessings we enjoy in creation and in our daily lives. It is also especially revealed to us here in the Christian community into which God has placed us, this St. Paul parish family, in ways too numerous for Pastor Nuckols to list them all.
This week, as we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, we will consider how we have been joined into God’s faithful love. It is in Jesus’ baptism, and in our own, that the joining of our lives to Jesus (and to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, too) takes on a special dimension—one which reaches far beyond the faithful love God has for all His creatures and His creation. It is in baptism that the perfect, faithful love of God becomes even more perfect and more faithful—not because God changes, but because we are changed by it. Therefore, our relationship to God and to everything else—and everyone else—changes, too.
The brief section from Genesis 1 which was our Old Testament lesson today reminds us that, from the very beginning of time, God was a giver. His first gift of creation was to give us light—to give us illumination and hope, even before we ourselves existed. From that gift, all of God’s gifts of creation flow.
But those few verses only record what happened “in the beginning.” They don’t tell us anything about God from before the beginning, and we sometimes forget that God existed apart from creation. Yet even in that state, God had faithful and perfect love. And, because love requires both a subject and an object, a relationship in which love flows from one to another, the Father begat the Son. Within the Godhead, a relationship of perfect, faithful love.
From the strength and power of that relationship proceeds the Holy Spirit of God—the One who is sent forth as the powerful agent and cause and mover and achiever of His will. First hovering over the waters to create order from void and chaos, then bringing all of God’s gifts into reality. His faithful love, outwardly expressed toward all creation, always ready to provide what is needed by all.
Even when His faithful love was rejected and we turned away from it toward death, He continued to provide. Not just the light from the darkness, the earth and sky, the dry land from the waters. Not just the sun and moon and stars, the plants and the animals, our very lives, and all that is needed to sustain us for a few decades on this earth. Throughout man’s wavering, fickle, rebellious journey, God has provided hope through His faithful love.
First, He gave it to the man and the woman: The promise of a Seed who would destroy the one who had first killed them with the poison of twisted words. Then, to all their offspring through the ongoing proclamation of His faithful love: He would send rescue, restoration, and righteousness through that Anointed Seed.
And finally, in the fullness of time, the Seed arrived. Born of a woman as was promised; fulfilling all the prophecies and expectations. The Son of God became the Son of Man: Obedient; given completely to the will of the Father; full of faithful love. In faithful love, He became joined to us in His incarnation.
Today, we celebrate His being joined to us in faithful love through His baptism in the River Jordan. Already connected to our predicament of being fleshly, He now enters the waters that are tainted by our sin and connects Himself to our mortality, too. As the Holy Spirit had once hovered over the chaotic waters of the earth at the beginning of creation, the Son now immerses Himself in the turbulence of our lives, blessing and consecrating these and all waters, and foreshadowing the new creation which He was now undertaking.
The One who has left the glories of heaven to take on the form of a servant comes from Nazareth in Galilee, leaving behind house and home and family to begin His ministry and proclaim the kingdom of God. He travels to Bethany Beyond the Jordan, to receive the baptism of one who is unworthy to untie His sandals, John the Baptist.
John is no stranger to giving things up for God’s kingdom. He has left behind the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his father, Zechariah, as a priest serving in the temple, so that he might take on the far greater role of serving as the prophet and forerunner of the Christ, God’s Anointed. To the world, John’s role is certainly less comfortable and much less prestigious. He has left behind the conveniences of city life and the security of a home. He has sacrificed having a comfortable, stylish wardrobe for a garb of camels’ hair and a leather belt. His nourishment is whatever he can find and catch, farming no land to harvest crops; raising no animals to provide his food.
Perhaps the biggest thing John has had to give up in all of this, though, is the comfort of making others comfortable; of being constantly pleasant and non-confrontational. He knew what had to be done, and it didn’t involve telling people what they wanted to hear. He warned people from all walks of life that they must repent of their sins; he offered them a baptism of forgiveness. He didn’t even shy away from telling those who thought they were at the top of the religious establishment that they were a brood of vipers, fleeing from the destruction that was in store for all who remained apart from God’s kingdom. He earnestly desired that those who heard his words, repented of their sins, and received his baptism would be renewed—not only forgiven of their sins, but also restored and energized as God’s people; joined together as one; receiving and expressing faithful love to God and to one another.
But we are a people who by nature as well as nurture prefer not to have to give up much of anything, unless we absolutely have to, or we see the payoff in it. We also fight against being joined to anything that isn’t of our choosing; isn’t comfortable; isn’t convenient. We don’t want to go without, and we don’t want to be tied down. Sacrifice and commitment sound like great attributes for others to have. They’re highly admired, but that’s primarily because they’re always in such short supply. It’s not that we aren’t capable of sacrifice and commitment, but rather that we’re just not consistent in exercising them.
That inconsistency in our willingness to be sacrificial, and that spottiness in being committed, are why we need the external influence of others so much and so often. God knows this, and this is one of the many reasons He has joined us together in communities of faithful love—congregations where we can be taught and encouraged, supported and, yes, sometimes even prodded and cajoled and chastised.
Pastor Nuckols reminded you last week of the many ways God’s faithful love has been revealed to us here at St. Paul, and also how—in us and through us—it has been revealed to others in our community, our church body, our nation, and the world. He also mentioned that our congregation was blessed in the last fiscal year by fully meeting our budget commitments for the first time in recent memory. Those are great blessings, indeed. Yet God continues to challenge us and provide us opportunities both to be blessed and to be a blessing to others as well.
Today, I’d like to remind you that all these blessings, both spiritual and temporal, are made ours because we have been joined in faithful love; joined first to God in Christ Jesus, and then joined to one another in this parish family and in the one holy Christian and apostolic church. I don’t think too many of you have trouble with the first part of that.
The challenge is in the second part. We have a tendency to think of our Christian faith as being all about “me and Jesus.” In fact, a lot of people in the world today, even Christians, have bought into the whole “I’m spiritual, but not religious; I’ll define the parameters of my own faith” nonsense. And that’s what it is, nonsense. God sent His Son into the flesh to die for you, but not for you alone. He came for all people—those already your brothers and sisters in the Church, and those who have not yet been joined in faithful love. The kingdom of God is not just about your salvation; it’s about spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others, too, and it’s about keeping and supporting and encouraging those fellow members of St. Paul to whom He has joined you in Holy Baptism and in a common confession of the triune God and all the teachings of Scripture.
I imagine that there are more than a few St. Paul households that will steer clear of church for the rest of our stewardship focus, and especially on the 29th when we turn in our financial pledges for this year. That’s not only unfortunate, it’s sinful. They’re despising the gifts of God’s Word and Sacrament. They’re distancing themselves from the community of faith and love into which He has placed them. They’re showing that words like “sacrifice” and “commitment” don’t have a place in their vocabulary.
So, what’s it going to be for you in the coming year? What’s the plan for your household? What’s your goal going to be? Seek first the more prestigious home? Seek first the vacation property or the hunting land? Seek first the designer labels? Seek first the cruise; the ski trip; the exotic vacation to a distant land?
Or is it, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you,” because your heavenly Father knows what you need?
Are we demanding poverty of you? Suggesting avoidance of financial responsibility to any entity but the Church? Giving up all worldly comfort and pleasure? No, not at all. God doesn’t want you to live in pain and desperation and sorrow and fear. He loves you, and has given His Son to die for you, that your sins might be forgiven. He has baptized you, so that you might daily emerge and arise to serve Him and serve others; to be His agents and facilitators to bring His kingdom into the lives of others.
So, if you’re not going to take a tough look at your financial situation and your commitment to God’s kingdom and to the place He has joined you in faithful love, repent of your avoidance.
If you’re afraid that you can’t live on 90% of what God places in your life, repent of your fear, and maybe repent of some of your priorities and past financial decisions, too.
If you don’t pledge because you think you’ve got the self-discipline to give generously and consistently without a commitment and the encouragement and support of others—and even if you’ve been able to do that previously—be careful; Satan loves to prowl around to tempt and devour those who think they have everything in hand; everything under control.
If you’re resistant to making a commitment and writing it down and turning it in, because you think that what you give to the Church is just between you and God—and only about you and God—repent of your self-importance and your self-alienation from the communion of saints.
Maybe you’re just afraid that—once you’ve actually made a pledge, and once God has led you and provided for you to fulfill it—that He’ll keep on motivating you with His Holy Spirit to do it year after year, and you’ll not get to do everything with His blessings that you want to do with them.
Frankly, God has heard all the possible excuses, and I’ve heard a lot of them myself. Heck, I’ve even used a lot of them myself. I rationalized and I resisted for years, both inside myself and with others, to avoid pledging. I wanted to keep that autonomy and maintain the flexibility to fudge on consistent weekly giving. Sacrifice and commitment? I’ve done enough of that, I thought.
You can not pledge; it’s OK. It’s neither sinful nor righteous; neither commanded nor forbidden by the Scriptures. But I don’t advise avoiding it, especially if you do it on account of stubbornness. You’re only limiting yourself and hampering your spiritual maturity.
You can get mad at me for suggesting it and maybe for even being a little bit pushy about it. Although that would sadden me, I’ve had scarier people than you mad at me.
You can even run away from St. Paul, whether hiding just until the pledge drive is over, or taking your itching ears elsewhere. You can probably find a place where you’ll hear what you want to, or at least avoid hearing what you don’t. I won’t follow you. But these words will, just as our guilt and our guilty feelings always cling to us when we don’t give God His due—our fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.
St. Paul’s words in our Epistle lesson this day are instructional about what it means to be joined in faithful love. It all comes about through Christ, and by no other way. Apart from Christ, there is no faith; apart from His sacrifice, all other love is meaningless. Jesus’ baptism connected Him to our life; our baptisms have joined us to His death—a death that cleanses, renews, and gives us re-birth because it cancels the power of sin.
We are joined in faithful love to Jesus, and through Him, we are joined to the Father and the Spirit, too. Through the Spirit we are joined to one another in the Christian Church—called, gathered, enlightened, sanctified, and kept with Jesus Christ in the one true faith, as we are taught regarding the Apostles’ Creed. Forgiven together. Raised together on the last day. Given eternal life, together with all believers.
It is in the togetherness, the shared confession, the shared understanding of the Scriptures, the shared service to the world, that we in the Church have our identity in Christ. Faith is ours both individually and collectively, but faith is always of God, working through His Church to bring Jesus to us and to the world. In our unity with Jesus in His death and His resurrection, we also have unity with one another—a unity of hope and promise; a unity of purpose and will; a unity of sacrifice and commitment that we can never fulfill alone in our own weakness.
So join together with Jesus and all the baptized. Join Him in death of self. Join Him in the freedom that faith provides through forgiveness. Join Jesus in resurrection and in a life lived to God and to others. A life of confession; a life of prayer; a life of being fed, forgiven, and strengthened by His body and blood. A life dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus; sent forth with His blessings, joined in faithful love. Amen.