First Congregational Church
January 12, 2014
First Sunday in Epiphany
Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17
"Being an Example to Your ___"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A young businessman had just started his own firm. He had just rented a beautiful office and had it furnished with antiques. He saw a man come into the outer office. Wishing to appear the hot shot, the businessman picked up the phone and started to pretend he had a big deal working. He threw huge figures around and made giant commitments. Finally he hung up and asked the visitor, "Can I help you?" "Yeah, I've come to activate your phone lines."
Last week's scripture was from the rarely mentioned book of Ecclesiastes, the passage that reminds us that there is a time for war and a time for peace, a time to embrace and a time to let go, and all those other eloquent 180 degree opposites that are necessary in life. What was/is so precious about that passage, in my humble opinion, is that it gives us permission to be human - in all the vast arrays that we can express our humanity.
This week's passages are more aspirational - more about what we might try to attain. I might have brushed off either or both of these passages, except that I fell across a poem by a Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes that just about stopped me dead in my tracks. But more on that later.
To set the scene for our two passages, way back, God delivered the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt, made a covenant with them - to be their God and they God's people, and brought them through wilderness into the land of Canaan. They became a nation and built a temple for God. For centuries they saw military victories and defeats under kings and generals. They strayed from God’s covenant but prophets called them back. Then, in the sixth century before Jesus was born, the unthinkable happened.
The Babylonians defeated Israel. They destroyed the temple, plundered Israel’s treasure and livelihoods, took them into bondage, and marched them back to the gates of Babylon in chains. That event is why the Psalmist wrote “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1). The Babylonian victory over Israel was absolute. This was utter, complete devastation of the political, social, economic and religious life God’s people had known for centuries. Against all of that, the prophet Isaiah offers a word, reminding the people of who God is. More than that, Isaiah's mission was to remind the people of 1) who they were and 2) the one that would come to serve them, who would be unlike the "rulers" they had ever known.
Then there is the passage from Matthew, where John baptizes Jesus. It may be familiar, maybe not. But it beautifully paints the picture - of who we are.
Isaiah 42:1-9 NIV
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. 2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. 3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the Lord says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the Lord, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
8 “I am the Lord; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. 9 See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare; before they spring into being I announce them to you.”
Matthew 3:13-17 NIV The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
Thank you, John and Leslie. There are some interesting parallels between these two passages. Isaiah wrote, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold." Matthew wrote, "This is my Son, whom I love." Isaiah wrote, "my chosen one in whom I delight," Matthew wrote, "with him I am well pleased." Isaiah, "I will put my Spirit on him," Matthew: "he (Jesus) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him." There is a term called the elephant test, which refers to situations in which an idea or thing "is hard to describe, but instantly recognizable when spotted." Isaiah described the promised Messiah, and Matthew revealed the humble Messiah.
One thing we learn from television cop shows is that when a situation happens, watch for the quiet ones or the ones that are easily overlooked. In the Matthew passage, that would be John the Baptist. He would definitely stand out: long hair, funky clothes, rather unsavory diet. We forget that he was the one to point his finger at respected religious figures and call them a slithering heap of snakes. He actually looked like somebody. Today, his picture would be on the cover of Newsweek, one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People of the year and the darling of every grocery store tabloid.
I think John may have been brash, but he was also bright - bright enough to realize that Jesus was looking good to take over and set the religious dunderheads right. He was bright enough to realize how crazy it was for him to baptize Jesus. And he was bright enough to back down without making a big fuss. I'd not thought of it before, but John is a good example for us - in allowing God to do what God is asking of us, rather than getting all snarky or stubborn. Imagine the real, humble, blessed - stunned - feeling John must have felt at baptizing Jesus.
Because I was the oldest of three girls, I forever heard certain things. "If you don't do thus and such, you will be grounded." "You can't beat up your sister." "You're supposed to set an example for your sisters." I secretly laughed at the grounding bit, because I could walk wherever I really needed to go.
I am guessing that those who were also the oldest or at least older than others, got tired of "being that example." After all, when did we sign up to be examples? The thing is, after those to whom we were to be examples grew up, we don't get to stop being examples. In fact, all of us, just by our very being, are examples to other people, whether we know it or not. We probably should work at being the best examples we can.
So we remember the Isaiah passage, to remind ourselves to try not to bruise or break or snuff out the souls around us. We remember that God keeps us and calls us to be a promise for all God's people, a light to Gentiles and non-Gentiles, young and old, men and women, Scandinavians and non-Scandinavians. We are to help in opening blind eyes and freeing those caught in personal prisons.
John the Baptist is our reminder that we are an example in the way we go through things that seem confusing, over and above us, odd or uncomfortable. There are blessings we can't anticipate by doing that which seems awkward or that stretch us beyond our comfort zones.
We always do well to follow Jesus' example: of remembering that there is a high, righteous road that we can chose to take - or not - of remembering that sometimes in dying to ourselves - what we want - God can show us how much we are loved.
The thing is, sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we wander off the path or feel lost; life happens. How can we be an example if we don't have enough energy for an ex, much less an ample?
Many of you remember the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen-year-old kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom at night by Brian Mitchell. Mitchell and his wife brutalized Elizabeth for nine months until she was finally recognized and freed. During her captivity, Elizabeth couldn't call out or own name, because Mitchell had threatened to kill her and her family. During those nine months, the only people who knew the real name of the young woman were her two captors and herself. But she never forgot who she was, even when no one recognized her.
Going back to the afore mentioned Pastor's poem. Dearly Beloved, Grace and Peace to you. "You are my Own, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. This is as unalterable as the heavens: you are God's Beloved, God's own. Nothing you do or fail can change that.
You are anointed with the promise of the Messiah, the task of bearing God's will into the world. You are upheld in your work. Unseen though it may be, and seemingly unimportant, it is God's desire; it is God's delight.
Nonviolently as Christ, without force or coercion, with only love for all, you will act for the fullness of life for all those to whom it is denied. The promise is not happy trails or the comfort of triumph but the mystery of the cross, dying and rising as you enter the suffering of the world. It is not your power or success but your belovedness, and that of all whom you meet, that you bear gloriously into the world, that transforms it. Go in peace, and serve the Lord with joy. May it be so, as all God's people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.