Scripture reference: Matthew 3: 13-17 Debz Ferber
Have you ever thought about changing your name or your identity? Many of us talk about or have talked about being different from what we are in the past. Perhaps you wished you were quieter or more outgoing. Better at math or at science. That you were taller, thinner, more muscular, or had blonde hair instead of brown. It was 14 years ago yesterday that I decided to legally change my name. When I applied for a name change at the age of 16, I received a new birth certificate, a new driver’s license, and a new social insurance card. It was almost as if the old me had never existed. That old person was struck off any legal documents, and a new identity was formed.
Today is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, and it’s monumental because it shows us how in Christ we have been formed as a new creation. We likely have all heard the phrase “new year, new you” but the Bible actually says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that in Christ, the old aspects of ourselves are done away with, and we are transformed. Romans 12:2 says that our minds are renewed. The word “renewed” literally means to re-establish, to rebuild, to repair, to restore after decay or deprivation.
Today’s Scripture passage might have only been 4 verses, but to me, they are powerful and transformative. For those of us who grew up in the church, we likely have heard the phrase “remember your baptism” which is a curious expression because many of us were baptized as infants. There are many traditions that baptize adults only and some of us here today might have made the choice to be baptized later in life perhaps due to not having been raised Christian or because we wanted to make a public declaration of our own accord, yet in the United Church these occasions are rather uncommon. Instead, I wonder if there is a holy mystery that occurs through the corporate act of remembrance on the part of the congregation, even if we, ourselves, slept or cried through the water being poured on our heads.
The United Church is not a “sacramental” church in the way the Roman Catholics and Orthodox denominations are, so we don’t often talk about what the sacraments mean and yet they are an important part of our communal worship. In the UCC we only have two sacraments: baptism and communion. Both were decreed by Christ Himself who said in Matthew 28:19 that we are to go into the world, making disciples, and baptizing in the name of the Triune God. If you’ve never given much thought to the theological basis for sacraments, they are tangible ways God reveals Himself, ways to identify ourselves as believers, and visible sermons to others.
I will admit that I, myself, never gave much thought to sacraments until I was forced to consider them in light of my ordination, for when a pastor is ordained, it is a calling to both the ministry of Word (Preaching) and sacrament. At first, I found it difficult to figure out how one could be called to sacrament, but then it became clear to me: for baptism is actually a sign of invitation, inclusion, hospitality, and healing. More than that, it is a sign of purity, of passively receiving something which we do not have to earn of our own merit, and of being part of a community of friends. It is a way of honouring life, bringing the community together, and baptism is ultimately about being welcomed, accepted, and loved by God.
Last summer during my first clinical pastoral education unit also known as my chaplaincy training, I had a classmate encourage me to see my worth as a beloved child of God. I have struggled with seeing my value as a worthy individual my entire life. I have always been striving and seeking after the next thing, feeling that I needed to prove myself based on my degrees, my job performance, my popularity, or how the world saw me. So, I decided to challenge myself to spend a year thinking about what it truly meant to be God’s beloved. It has been a slow process and I’m not entirely sure even now that I can articulate it, yet, through my preparation for this sermon, I have come to see how our belovedness is uniquely tied into our baptism. Of course, this does not imply that if you are not baptized you are not God’s beloved. We are all God’s chosen and cherished children, yet baptism to me exemplifies this very act of God’s outpouring love.
In Baptism we are chosen, called out and marked in love. When Jesus came up out of the waters, it was the beginning of His ministry and marked a unique turning point in His life. At that very moment, a voice from heaven called Jesus the delight of God’s life, the apple of God’s eye, and affirmed that Christ was on the right, true, and faithful path.
Some of us might have experienced the horror of being chosen last in school when it came to picking sides for a team sport. As a single person, I often felt extra lonely and rejected because I felt that not having been married was a sign that I was not special enough to be chosen and I have heard many other singles say the same. Perhaps we felt rejected because we were not hand picked or selected for the job, scholarship, or other opportunity we so desperately sought after. Yet, in baptism, God shows us that we all are part of His family. That we are all part of His church. That we are gifted, called, and chosen because we are His.
I love how Zephaniah 3:17 reminds us that God delights in us and rejoices over us with singing. When was the last time you were delighted in being you? When was the last time you looked in the mirror and told yourself how much you love yourself? It’s easy to tell others how much we love and appreciate them, but it’s much harder to list out those good qualities for ourselves. It’s easy to compliment others, even complete strangers, and so easy to criticize ourselves, yet, when God made and formed us He pronounced us as good. Not “good enough” but as whole and treasured children. Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are God’s handiwork and each one of us here today was born into such a time as this to accomplish a task which only we can do for God’s kingdom. There has never been and there will never be anyone else just like us - with our temperament, our redeeming qualities, our quirks, idiosyncrasies, and flaws. It’s easy for us to “show our best and save the rest” but sometimes it’s exactly because of our brokenness that beauty exudes from us. Sometimes it’s because of the scars in our stories that we are able to offer hope and reassurance to others. Or, as Brittany Estes, an American pastor says, “if I wouldn’t have been shattered the way I was, I wouldn’t shine like I do now.”
One Bible story that is not often talked about but which has been a huge road marker on my journey is the story of David’s son Solomon found in 2 Samuel 12. This story is one of the best illustrations of how God loves us even despite who we are or where we came from. After David had an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and then proceeded to murder her husband, God still showed favour to David and gave him a son. David named his son “Solomon” which means peace, but the Bible says that God gave him a different name. To God, he was called Jedidah which means “loved by the Lord.” God loved Solomon even though his father was a lustful murderer. God also loved David even though he committed this sin because David’s heart was in the right place. He made a mistake, but God is full of forgiveness. We might also have made a wrong turn, we are imperfect, we fail, we choose the wrong path sometimes. But still, to God, we are called “Beloved.”
We might not be able to remember our baptism literally, but I’m willing to say that our parents remembered it well. That they remembered the anticipation and excitement leading up to it. Carefully choosing beautiful and special clothes for the occasion. Giving thought to who our godparents would be. Cheerfully inviting friends, relatives, and neighbours. Delighting over us. Taking pride in us. Giving expectancy over to God for their hopes and dreams over who we might become.
This is what it means to be a beloved child of God. It doesn’t matter who we are, who we were or where we came from, because the Bible tells us that we are all given the same spirit and that we have all been clothed in Christ. To be a beloved child of God means that we have entered a covenant with him - not a casual contract that can be easily canceled, but a binding promise given because God is committed and values us. We do not need to hide who we are in Christ, we can take pride and joy in the fact that God continues to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about changing your name and your identity. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to be called something different than the name your parents gave you at your birth. Yet, in Revelation 2:17 we are told that one day we will all receive a white stone with a new name on it. It might be fun to consider what our new name could be. Could it be the name of a celebrity we’ve always adored, or the name of a mentor we’ve had who has had a place of prominence in our lives? It very well could, but to me, it will be the same name as we were all given at our baptism. The name will remind us that we are loved, that we are redeemed, that we have a place in the Kingdom, and that God has chosen us as a vessel for whom His Kingdom life will pour out of.
May it be so. Amen.
(Epiphany Sunday -January 2, 2022) (Rev. 21:1-7)
New Year’s Day has long been one of my favourite holidays of the year. Almost as sacred as Easter, more exciting to me than opening up my presents on Christmas, and certainly more jovial than my birthday especially now that I’m over 30, there’s something profound about the clock striking midnight on January 1st. The other day my colleague and I were talking about how we celebrated New Year’s as children. Back then it was so exciting that our parents let us stay up well past our bedtime and as we got giddy and started dozing off to sleep, they would nudge us awake with promises of goodies and non-alcoholic champagne which my parents used to call “Kiddy wine.” As an adult, I stay up past midnight more often than not, so that part is not novel to me, but there’s still something magical and exhilarating in the air as I look back on all I have seen, experienced, met, and accomplished the previous year and make plans and ideas for what is to come.
When I was originally asked to lead the inaugural sermon of 2022, I was drawn to the beginning of the Bible. The story of the Garden of Eden found in the book of Genesis. The origins of humanity, the understanding of where we came from and as such where we are headed. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it necessary to start at the back of the Bible instead. The last book, the penultimate chapter - Revelation 21. For you see, God is the great author and knew how to write a compelling book. We have a poetic and serene introduction, the middle bits are filled with paradoxes and parables, with both turmoil and triumph, with sin and salvation. Then finally our creative God ends with a Happily Ever After scenario.
I don’t know if anyone here today is a big movie buff, but there’s almost always this expectation that a movie ends on a happy note. Even when villains seem to be winning, even when destruction and doom seem to permeate the set, and even when all seems hopeless, we all hang on to the edge of our seats, tightly gripping our bowl of popcorn, eyes wide at the screen believing that in the end a hero will swoop down and save the day. There have been a few movies which have tried the opposite - where in the end of the day the villains wins, and likely most of you won’t even know about these movies because they generally fell flat. People don’t like to watch movies where the bad guy does not meet a fair end.
Speaking of movies, if you’re anything like me you enjoy watching a movie through with no interruptions and get irritated when your friend or relative continues to ask questions or make comments through the film. Or perhaps you’re the opposite and you are the person who enjoys being the commentator. Generally people will shush others because they don’t want to miss anything. Of particular note are those who have already seen the movie who are told not to spoil anything. People say they want to be left in suspense, they don’t want to know the ending because it will ruin their movie pleasure. Yet, interestingly enough, a 2011 psychological study actually showed the opposite. The truth is that the general public actually enjoys a movie MORE when they know what to expect…but don’t try to tell them that.
I believe that God is like a great film director. He knows that we will enjoy the movie of our life more when we know the ending. Yes, there are times in our lives when we ask God when something will happen for us or even if it will happen for us. Sometimes in my 20s I wanted to know how my life would unfold - where would I eventually live, who would I eventually marry (or would I even get married), would I have children, what type of job would I have, would I get ordained? At that time, I thought that knowing all these answers would take away my anxiety and stress. Well, God never did give me those answers at the time I thought I needed them, but God has given us all the answer for how good will ultimately triumph in the end of the day.
Revelation 21 acts as a great SPOILER ALERT and in it God makes eight unique promises to us. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, there will be no threats, earth will be restored, God will dwell among us, God will wipe away every tear, there won’t be any of the unpleasant realities we face in this world, the old ways will be done away with, and free water will be given for all who thirst.
I found it particularly interesting that while the story of humanity begins in a garden - a serene and peaceful place surrounded by nature, it ends in a city. Think of the big cities we know in Canada - Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. They are places of great opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity, and artistic expression. Yet, they are also places filled with poverty, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing. Yet, the new city promised to us by God is one where all will find a home, where all will be loved and cherished, and where all will feel welcome. When I lived in Toronto I sometimes felt alone in a concrete jungle even despite being surrounded by millions of people - yet in the new city God promises there will be no isolation, no quarantines, no lockdowns, because there will be no virus, no threat to our safety, and no harm to our loved ones. No longer will the world be abolished by consumerism and the destruction of our environment due to corporate greed, rather it will be restored, flowers and plants will grow, trees will bear fruit again, and there will be endless fields for children to play in.
If you’re like me, you probably grew up with the notion that when we die we go to heaven, yet, the Bible actually says that heaven comes to us. That heaven is the restoration of this world that we already live on. That heaven is made possible because we (through Christ) make it possible for others. The New Heavens have not only been mentioned in Revelation, however, but the Apostle Peter and the Prophet Isaiah also knew about it and mentioned it to the Israelites.
The next great promise is that God will dwell among us. We saw this very truth revealed to us at Christmastime when Jesus came to us as a helpless infant. He was born in an ordinary way, and yet the events surrounding his birth were extraordinary. He was born without pomp, ceremony, or fanfare, His origins were humble, and yet He came as a king to rule in righteousness rather than in riches. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We have seen His glory. The glory of the One and Only Son of the Father.” The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 6:16 that we, as ordinary human beings, are God’s temple, carrying His light and love into the world and as a result that God lives and walks amongst us. We see Christ’s glory, and in turn we give this same glory away to others.
This passage is not all theoretical future musings though, it also offers us hope for our present reality. John, the author of Revelation, writes that God will wipe away our tears, and that there won’t be any death, sadness, crying, or pain for those are former things which are done away with.
There is an old cliche that the only two things certain in this world are death and taxes. It is a glib way of looking at the world, almost a sarcastic pessimistic nod to the fact that life can be harsh and difficult for so many people. As the pandemic rages on, we see that sad reality continuing to be played out in our midst. We know that many will continue to be affected and infected by the virus. We know that loneliness and despair will continue to surface. We know that issues of racial injustice, systemic oppression, and violence will not go away on their own but will continue to thrive. We know that hatred and animosity will continue to flourish even amongst those who hold fast to militant views and extreme beliefs on any number of topics. It is a difficult time for Christians and for society in general to live in. And while the virus is one very real physical threat, we know that there are many other threats to our well-being and our desire for justice that are rarely discussed. We think of issues of Indigenous rights, gun violence, food insecurity, the refugee crisis, and more.
Imagine a world where there is unity over division, understanding over fear, listening over arguing. It reminds me of an old song by the band Family Force 5 called “Let It Be Love.” The lyrics of this song go: I've never seen a soul set free
Through an argument
I've never seen a hurt get healed
In a protest
But I've seen sinners turned to saints
Because of grace
It's love, love that lights the way
In 2020 we were all introduced to the phrase “a new normal.” It has definitely not been easy for any of us going into year two of the pandemic to adapt and learn new ways of doing things. We often crave the old. We often lament that which we once loved. We often wish things could return to how they used to be. Yet, my charge for 2022 is to imagine and believe that while lots of the old ways were good, fruitful, and meaningful, that perhaps God is calling us to something far greater. In Hebrews 11:15-16, the writer talks about Bible characters who had to leave their home town and mentions “if they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”
As we now enter 2022, may we seek after this new and heavenly city. May our new normal be one of grace and compassion where the dominant variant is love. May our hearts be stirred to support and show mercy to those who find themselves marginalized and afraid. And even as God dwells among us in human form, may we also be Christ with skin on to those we meet.
May it be so. Amen.
Advent # 4 - Love * December 19, 2021 (Sermon theme: Denn Guptill)
Well it’s getting close, isn’t it? Only 6 more days and Christmas will be here. And you know if you were to poll the western world you’d probably find that Christmas is the most popular time of the year, for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Much of what makes this time of the year special is the music. The sacred, “O Come all Ye Faithful”, “Angels From the Realms of Glory”, “Silent Night” to the secular “Frosty the Snowman” “Jingle Bells” “White Christmas” and my personal favourite, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”
Much of how we feel about the Yuletide season is wrapped in songs. That is part of the reason some stores start playing Christmas music in late August. But have you ever looked at the songs of Christmas in the Bible? That first Christmas was full of singing and songs. Songs and music were a vital part of the Jewish culture into which Jesus was born. From the very announcement of the conception of the Christ child until his circumcision and blessing the songs of praise were lifted into the heavens. So what songs are you singing this Christmas?
Luke 1:46-55 records Mary’s Song. Perhaps you’ll recall how the Angel Gabriel visited this young virgin from Nazareth. We don’t stop to think about this but Mary wasn’t a young virgin of 23 or 24 instead she was a young teenager. You see historically in that particular culture the marrying age for females was like 13 or 14 years old. And this particular teenager was engaged to a carpenter named Joseph.
And into her relatively uncomplicated life comes some dude with wings who says “Hey Mary, guess what? You’re going to have a baby. As a matter of fact, you are going to have a son, and you’ll call his name Jesus and he will be great, the son of the highest, the Lord God will give him the throne of David, and His kingdom will know no end.”
Now at this point, I’m sure that Mary interrupted Gabriel and said, “Hey Gabe, there’s just one small problem, my biological knowledge may be limited but isn’t it true that this great and wondrous act can’t be accomplished alone. Am I right here?” And Gabriel would have said, “Right” to which Mary’s response would have been “Then it ain’t gonna happen cause I’m still a virgin.” “Oh” says Gabriel “Did I forget to mention, the child’s father will be the Holy Spirit.”
Can’t you just imagine the smile starting to creep over Mary’s face, “Right, get out of here.” But Gabriel’s response is found in Verse 37, which perchance is one of my favourite Bible passages because it says For nothing is impossible with God.”
You gotta put yourself in Mary’s shoes just for a minute. You’re a young teen, the child of a religious family, engaged to a respectable member of the community and now some one is telling you that you are going to become pregnant. And the Father is going to be the Holy Spirit.
But who is going to believe her story? Her parents? Joseph? Her friends? “Hey Mom and Dad, guess what? I’m going to have a baby, but it’s cool because the Dad’s God!” Now I’m sure that each of you as parents would believe your teen aged daughter if she told you that. Am I right, should I ask for a show of hands?
Think of that when you listen to the first words of Mary’s song, Luke records in chapter 1:46-47 Mary responded, Oh, how I praise the Lord. How I rejoice in God my Savior!
I wonder if that’s the song we would have sung, or would we have said, “Why couldn’t you wait until I was married?” or “Why couldn’t you have told everyone, so I wouldn’t have to bear the shame and humiliation?” Instead of those questions Mary sings, "How I rejoice in God my Savior.” Mary’s entire attitude was one of praise and trust, in effect she was saying, “I may not understand it, I may not particularly enjoy it, and if I was in charge I very well may have done it differently, but I will trust that God knows what He’s doing and I will glorify Him.”
There is a vast difference between resigned acceptance, “well I don’t like it but I’ll do it.” and praiseful acceptance where you are willing to take God at his word and believe in his promises. If God has allowed it to happen than God has a purpose in it, and that purpose is much bigger then we can usually imagine. Mary goes on to sing, Luke 1:49 For he, the Mighty One, is holy, and he has done great things for me.
A lesser soul could not have said that. Despised, ridiculed, gossiped about, even Joseph had doubts about her integrity. And yet Mary was able to see beyond the present circumstances to the future promises. Sometimes we get dragged down by those circumstances.
Within God there were four qualities that struck Mary and that she sang about. In vs. 49 she sang of His Holiness, in Vs 50 His mercy, in Vs 51-52 his strength and in Vs 53-55 His faithfulness. What song are you singing this Christmas? What is occupying the prime spot in your mind? Finances? Are you worrying about where the money for gifts will come from, or how you’re going to pay off the plastic in January?
Are you worrying about your kids, perhaps you’re worried about the new Covid 19 variant and it’s potential impact on your life, now that we seem to be shutting down again. Maybe your song should be like Mary’s at this time, maybe we should be singing a song of trust, of Faith. What songs do you choose to sing this Christmas?
The next song is the song of the Angels. Luke 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to all whom God favors.” If you’re familiar with the story, Christ has been born and laid in a manger and in Luke 2:8 That night some shepherds were in the fields outside the village, guarding their flocks of sheep. To us there is little significance in the shepherds.
And yet in the time of Christ they were the despised ones. The religious elite snubbed them and considered them second-class citizens. You see, no matter how much they loved God the demands of the flock were too much for them to obey all the ceremonial aspects of the law, such as hand washing. And so to these who found it so difficult to keep the law came the announcement of the one who would save them by grace.
Perhaps they were special shepherds, we’re told that just outside of Bethlehem there was a very special flock of sheep, a flock of perfect sheep without spot or blemish that were used in the daily sacrifice at the temple. Because these sacrificial lambs were so important to the religious life of the Jews, they were given the very best of everything.
And so maybe it was to those who nurtured the sacrificial lambs that the Angels came bringing the good news of the great sacrifice and that was Jesus. But really the sheep don’t matter, it was to the shepherds that the Angels came and in vs. 10-11-12 they were told the story of the baby who was born in a manger.
Luke 2:13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God: In those early days historians tell us that it was customary that when a male child was born that local musicians would gather at the home and greet the new son with simple music.
Unless of course you were the son of a poor couple far from home and you were born in a barn. But in it’s place the heavenly Father provided a choir of Angels to serenade his son. And you all know the song they sang that night.
Glory to God in the Highest God who had created the earth in six days, who placed the heavens with a wave of his hand, who molded the earth like a great ball, who scooped the oceans with his fingers and blew life into man. God had created man as his companion and then lost him to sin but refused to let him go.
And every time man rejected him God sought to restore him. God never quit. Throughout the Old Testament we read of Noah, Abraham, Jonah, Jeremiah, Nathan, Samuel, Elizah, Elisha, Amos, Hosea and Jephaniah and a score of others. All sent to restore man to his proper place and yet man wouldn’t listen.
And now the ultimate sacrifice, God, creator and ruler of the universe is willing to let go of all of that and to place himself into a human body, frail, fragile with all of it’s problems to seek once more after his wayward sheep. Not coming as a king full of power, but coming as a child weak and powerless.
Not coming clothed in the riches of the world but instead to be born in a stable with only a manger for his crib. Not the child of an Emperor but to be raised by two common people. And the angels had watched God through all of this, going from being the creator to placing himself lower then they were, to actually become on of the creation.
And so the angels sang of this incredible news of hope, that the people were going to find a way to access peace in their lives through a reconciliation with their creator. What an exciting song to sing!
What song are you singing this season? Through God’s promise of Emmanuel your songs could be of hope, peace, joy and certainly love. May it be so.
And may the joyful promises of Advent be manifested in our lives... we pray in Jesus name... Amen.
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