This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.
I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.
Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.
The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.
What is the big deal about Baptism? Is it just a holy bath with some sacred words said over you by a preacher? What does it matter today, whether it happened to you when you were a baby or an adult? Does it matter if you were sprinkled, poured, or dunked in the river? How does it change your life? Does it erase “original sin”? What difference does Baptism make?
To answer these questions, we must understand how we got to baptism as we know it today. Baptism didn’t fall from heaven as in its current, well-defined form. What is baptism intended to do? What is the practical and spiritual benefit of being baptized? How does baptism change your life? Is baptism crucial to our salvation? Jesus told his disciples to go out and baptize people, but is it needed to get into eternity? Remember, back in the middle ages; people would wait until right before they were about to die to be baptized. They didn’t want to sin after their baptism and nullify the impact of baptism, preventing them from getting into heaven. Most of us are baptized as babies, and then we go about living and sinning. How did that notion change? When did that shift occur?
Do you understand what I’m saying: people of faith viewed baptism as something so sacred that it wiped away all our sins, something we did at the end of our lives to guarantee our entry into God’s presence to something we now do at the beginning of our lives, fully aware of our sinful nature. At some point in Christian history, theologians and people, not God, decided that Baptism became a symbolic act that addressed original sin, not our daily sins. And if we were managing our daily sins and asking Jesus for forgiveness in something such as the Lord’s prayer and our original sin was addressed by baptism, our likelihood of living a virtuous life and having a shot at heaven was better than average. Someone came up with that idea and invented it out of whole cloth. Jesus, Paul, or no one else in the Bible said to wait until you’re about to die to be baptized, baptize babies, or baptize people when they can decide for themselves. We made up the rules.
This theology of Baptism, whether the medieval wait-until-you-die method or the modern, do it when you’re a baby to address original sin, and the community of believers will raise you according to Christian standards, are nowhere to be found in the Bible. They are the work of theologians, written 300-plus years after the death of Jesus and John the Baptist, by regular people trying to write rule books for the early church. They tried to connect an ancient Jewish purification ritual to what evolved into an early Christian initiation rite, then create a practice that has remained unchanged for a thousand years. That was until the Protestant Reformation, and the first Baptists bought a swimming pool.
John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, not purifying people for entrance into the temple. John wasn’t preparing people to become Christians or baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit. What we read about, what John said, what Jesus experienced, and what we do are different expressions of similar practices.
Much human intervention went into creating what modern Christians call Baptism, what it means, what it represents, and how it plays a role in our faith. It’s a very subjective sacrament. We know this, and we see evidence of this because most denominations have different views on how they regard baptism when they baptize people, how they baptize if they baptize people more than once, does baptism erase original sin, and so on. Churches of all shapes and sizes share language, theology, and some commonalities in Holy Communion. It’s not the same with baptism. Most denominations have made their rules about baptism as they go along. First, they say, “We think this is what God wants us to do.” Then the next denomination comes along and makes different rules.
Baptism is a variable. Baptism’s meaning is subjective and, in our day, depends mainly on your denominational tradition. Besides, Jesus telling us to “go baptize” doesn’t explain what he means by baptism, his theology of baptism, when to baptize, and how to baptize. (Remember the debates about “John’s baptism” or “Jesus’” baptism, what were those differences?) Whether baptism is about original sin is never covered. We’ve filled in the blanks and hope we’re right. That’s a giant leap to infer meaning from Jesus’ understanding of a vast theological concept. Essentially, we’re trying to read the mind of God from a few words in a 2000-year-old text. Talk about presumption. (Maybe that’s our original sin, presuming to know the mind of God?) I prefer to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to guess what Jesus meant. I think that’s where Christians get into trouble. I want to go with what I know.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Baptism evolved from a Jewish purification ritual. People had to take a ritual bath to go to the temple. This had nothing to do with moral or ethical cleanliness (for the most part) but with becoming clean after all those things in daily life (sex, death, menstruation) that made a person unclean and unable to enter the temple grounds and participate in the ritual life of the Jewish community. Living life made you unclean. Doing ordinary things in ordinary ways leads to ritual uncleanliness. That’s not sin; that’s just living. So people would go to a ritual bath, enter on one side and come out the other clean. Then they go to the temple. This is what large portions of Deuteronomy are about. How to stay clean in life.
If you committed a moral transgression, that would have to be addressed with a sacrificial offering in the temple. If you needed to atone for murder or another violent crime, you had to be made pure to enter the temple first for the right offering for that specific sin and forgiveness to be sought. The water didn’t forgive you of the murder. Instead, it cleansed you of your daily impurities and got you to a place where you could enter the temple. Once in the temple, you could address a more in-depth sacrifice with the priest for the more severe offense you’ve committed.
What John does in the desert has nothing to do with temple worship. He’s baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a new thing, independent of the sacrificial system in the temple (recognizing the corruption in the temple) and trying to renew the spiritual life of ordinary Jewish believers. He’s not starting a new church. There are no babies in pretty white outfits. It’s a simple proposition. John is a prophet. People trusted him to cleanse their souls more than they trusted the priests in the temple.
Jesus gave John’s actions validity. When he showed up at the Jordan, it changed the entire baptismal dynamic. This was to be more than an off-the-beaten-path symbolic step in the river. Instead, something bigger was happening. Once Jesus arrived, John realized that forgiveness was more significant than he had imagined. With Jesus on the scene, Baptism wasn’t ultimately about sin, the depth or depravity of sin, but the expansiveness of forgiveness. This is what Jesus brought to the riverside.
Whereas we usually focus our discussions of Baptism on sin and repenting, Jesus, here in Matthew 3, has two clear and distinct emphases: forgiveness from sin and being beloved. Far from stepping into the waters, the river, the swimming pool, and the font and being reminded of washing away the stain of original sin, we are reminded that baptism marks us as part of a community from the beginning of our time in God’s community we are forgiven (what I call original forgiveness-not your identity as a sinner), and that forgiveness is made manifest in being called “beloved” of God. In this way, Baptism is not a choice we make or a choice our families made for us as infants. Ultimately, baptism is a gift to us from God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace, freely entering our lives. I don’t think we need to make up an elaborate theological system as to how baptism works. Isn’t being told that through this one action, we are God’s forgiven beloved enough? Why do we need more? Why is our trust in God’s providence lacking?
What do we do about our original sin? Doesn’t it need to be addressed? Isn’t this what baptism is all about? Again, this is a question first posed by Saint Augustine and refined by later generations of Christians, one that Jesus never mentioned or discussed. To Jesus, sins were rather ordinary, a fact of life. Nobody was so broken that they couldn’t be put back together or redirected toward God. Instead, as we talked about last week, Jesus restored people to a right relationship with God. We didn’t understand that God had blessed us and the full implications of that blessing. God wants to be in a relationship with us. Our failure to comprehend God’s over-the-top willingness to love us-that’s the root cause of sin, not whether Eve ate an apple from a talking snake. (Besides, the word sin doesn’t appear in the Bible until the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 3.)
Blessings are God’s original trademark. Creation began not with condemnation and evil but with God proclaiming blessing over the entire world, exclaiming, “It’s all good.” Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing God reaching out with blessing after blessing and began to focus solely on sin and judging others. At our baptism, God redirects our priorities. This is what we read in the Gospels and what we hear the voice of God reiterate as if proclaiming the blessings of Genesis again, “You are my beloved, and I am well pleased. Be blessed.”
The gospel is not a story of sin. It’s a love story. If you listen to the message from most churches, you’d think God is obsessed with sin. It’s the other way around. We’re obsessed with sin. God is consumed with love.
Sin is about division. Sin separates us from God. Everything Jesus does is about bringing people closer to God. God is inviting us to stand in the water together. In the waters of creation, recreated in the waters of Baptism, we are reminded that God did not create us to be originally sinful.
On the contrary, we were made in God’s good image. Sin is not at the heart of our being. Even in our most malformed moments, we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when God looks upon us, even the disaffiliated community of Christians called Methodists, God calls us beloved and blessed.
Jesus is about restoration, healing, and wholeness. Our brokenness can be mended. The dirt on our souls can be cleaned. By accepting the invitation to embrace a life of watery-infused, creation-inspired fullness, we can live holy lives, even on days with severe ups and downs.
I have decided to give up on robes, vestments, and the like. This isn’t because I’ve been thrust into an ultra-contemporary setting that doesn’t do liturgical-style worship where these are out of place. This is entirely my decision. I don’t feel comfortable wearing them any longer. I have a closet full of cassocks, robes, albs, beautiful stoles, and even a chasuble or two. As a Methodist, I have a well-stocked religious wardrobe that I wore during the four years I served in the British Isles. I lived among Anglicans and dressed similarly. Back home, I wore a cassock, stole, and collar tabs on most Sundays. I’ve always considered myself a High-Church kind of guy. However, my attitude toward vestments (and worship in general) began to change during the pandemic.
I wondered, is this what Jesus intended? If Jesus were to walk into my congregation (wherever I happen to be serving at the time) and see me standing up front in a fancy black cassock or white alb, a stole over my shoulders, and maybe a pectoral cross around my neck, what would he say? Given what I know of Jesus, I started to think he might say, “Dude, what are you wearing? This is not at all what I intended.” Of course, I worked hard to earn the right to wear a robe and stole on Sunday morning, wear a clerical collar, and dress like a Roman Catholic priest, but that doesn’t make much sense to me anymore.
I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hanging out with my friends in my simple robes, sandals, and such, teaching, eating, and learning about the kingdom of God. Where did you get the idea that I wanted you to dress like a late 18th Puritan cleric once a week? Be honest, did you make this up or did a friend tell you this was cool?”
I know where the idea came from; I took church history, theology, and liturgy. After serving for two years in Russia, I know the vestments unique to Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and my own tradition. I also understand that my beliefs have evolved. The “uniform” no longer makes sense to me. If Jesus walked into our churches, so much of what we say and do would look foreign, out of whack, and contrary to his vision of the kingdom of God. I’m reasonably sure Jesus never intended me to dress like a wannabe Dumbledore once a week. If you think about it, it’s a little weird.
I’m not sure the people we need to reach in 2023 will come back to churches led by women and men who dress like they stepped out of the Middle Ages. We just survived the medieval style plague; why dress the part too? Instead of wasting valuable catechetical time on why we dress the way we do or expecting people to simply accept our historical eccentricities, we could be talking about loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I’m all for removing any surplus weirdness from our church services. Don’t get me wrong; I will not dress like a slob or preach with my shirt untucked. My shoes will be shined, my shirt pressed, my pants ironed, and my blazer will be dry cleaned. But, we can still be relatable and present the gospel without looking like a disheveled character on a 90’s sitcom.
Whatever clothes we’re issued in the afterlife, I sure hope it’s not the white robes described in the Book of Revelation. If I’m going to be there for eternity, I want to be comfortable. So count me out on the forever robe. I’m asking God for a hoodie, sweatpants, and crocs.
Besides, Sheriff Andy Taylor never wore a gun (or a necktie), yet everyone knew who he was. He was just Andy. From here on out, I’m just Richard, and I’m going to let my reputation speak for me.
Would we let wise men (or women) inside our church or churches today? I’ve been considering this question over the past few days. Matthew’s gospel is the only account we have of these mysterious visitors from the east, often assumed to be Zoroastrian astrologers, who arrived in Nazareth sometime after the birth of Jesus. Christians don’t know that there were three kings, magi, dudes on camels, or whatever we want to call them. A “Subcommittee for the Determination of the Number of Wise Men” was formed at the United Methodist General Conference held in Nicaea in 372 CE. They duly reported back to the next General Conference (held in Damascus) in 376 CE that three gifts indicated one gift per person. As such, paragraph MMDLII of the 380 CE Book of Discipline would suggest that for all time and any subsequent United Methodist Christmas pageants and Epiphany sermons, three wise men, was the accurate, appropriate, and orthodox number. Twelve people may have shown up in Nazareth, eight men and four women carrying three gifts purchased under an agreed ten-dollar limit, but because the text said three, our Book of Discipline and we United Methodists settled on three men from out of town, representing ill-defined and mystical eastern religious practices, who wanted to show some respect to a wholly Wesleyan baby Jesus.
That’s how we got here. My question is this: would we do it today? Imagine we’re in church, doing our thing, singing “We Three Kings” and “Joy to The Word” sometime over the next few weeks. Things are rocking and rolling along. It’s a spirit-filled New Year’s Day service. The pastor preached about turning the page and making a new start with God or some other generic New Year’s Day nonsense. No sooner than the congregation has rattled off number 880 in the United Methodist Hymnal, the Nicene Creed, by heart, and you’re ready to start your community prayer concerns and celebrations, everybody notices some strangers have walked in the door.
It’s cold outside, just below freezing, and these three guys are wearing neither coats nor shoes. They are bald and clad in maroon, saffron, and orange robes. You hear some Captain Obvious observe using their outside voice, “I think they’re from out of town.” The gentle whiff of incense follows them as they process down the church’s center aisle. What do you do? Does the usher who works the door, the one with the concealed carry permit, draw his gun? Does the mom in the back row pull out her phone and dial 911? Who are these strange men, and what do they want? Do they want anything? Are they a threat? Yes, brother and sisters, what would we United Methodists do if into our neat and tidy Epiphany services, as we sang “We Three Kings,” Tibetan Buddhist monks, Theravada Buddhist monks from Myanmar, or Jain monks from India walked into our services unannounced and asked to pay reverence to our God, the Christ child, the anointed one of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem?
How are we at letting others with different faith traditions and have no intention or desire to convert to Christianity, but respect our faith enough to be respectful to us and our God, share our joy? Do we have the common decency to say, “thank you?” Or, will we find ourselves wanting to say, “Can I tell you about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know about Jesus. They’ve traveled a long way to show Jesus homage. We could learn a thing or two from the Wise Persons and the different traditions they represent in our day and time. If other people are willing to go out of their way to show Christianity respect, we need to be more respectful of others and their faith traditions. The visitors from the east offered gifts (both tangible and spiritual), went home, and lived the rest of their lives according to their beliefs. Awareness and appreciation for someone else’s faith does not diminish our own. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.” If we learn anything from Matthew’s story of the wise men, remember that. Allow the strangely dressed foreigners from other traditions to respect Christ, then show them the same respect. Invite them in. We’ll all be better for it.
John leads to Jesus in much the same way Yoda leads to Darth Vader. (Go with me on this analogy. Jesus is not Darth Vader.)
Luke Skywalker wants to be a Jedi like his father but he can’t get there unless he goes through both Yoda and Darth Vader. Yoda is a rite of passage that points him to the one person he must confront to be truly considered a Jedi in his own right, Darth Vader (who also happens to be his father). But you get my point, all roads to your own light saber lead through Yoda.
It’s a little like that at Advent/Christmas. We can’t get to Jesus, at Bethlehem, without going to meet and spend time with the wild man Yoda of the Jordan River, John the Baptizer. When you encounter John, you’ll also encounter your Father (e.g. “this is my son, I’m pleased with him, listen to him…)
There are several roads to Jesus at Advent/Christmas.
They all begin in Galilee (the North/Nazareth) and lead to Bethlehem (in the South).
You can’t get to Jesus without going through this encounter first and then seeing Jesus:
Gabriel delivered the message
Jesus’ mother, Mary (an unwed, teenage mother)
Joseph (Jesus’ stepdad, a man doing the right thing)
Mary’s family, specifically Elizabeth (John the Baptist’s mother)
Shepherds outside Bethlehem
John the Baptist
You must go through all these people, at some point, in one way or another, to get to Jesus.
Not like obstacles on a quest, but people whose purpose is to help you stay on course.
They play a crucial role in the essential story.
Unless we meet them, hear them, and understand them, when we finally meet Jesus, it’s not the most complete, total, joyous experience it is intended to be.
We may not even make it to Jesus on our own. When we meet these people, they keep us on the right path toward Jesus; they say, “No, you need to go that way; he’s just down there.” Will we listen?
John is the main guy pointing the way to Christ. He is a sign and a symbol. He points to something else and gives directions.
He unmistakably grabs your attention. (e.g., Beethoven’s 5th four opening notes. You know him anywhere.)
When you hear John and John’s message, it can be only John.
He takes the themes and ideas of the ancient prophets, particularly someone like Isaiah, and weaves and into something new and unforgettable. It holds you. Pay attention to what John is saying. Don’t read along with the old scriptures, this is something new. He’s not your grandfather’s prophet. If you want someone to do it “the way we’ve always done it before” John is not your guy.
However, he does have this in common with his prophetic ancestors: he’s not afraid of poking the bear and being controversial.
He purposely offends the religious professionals who trek to the Jordan River to hear him preach.
Self-righteous holy rollers who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
John attracted people from all parts of society; rich, poor, dirty, clean, women, and men.
What connected them was that the traditional religious establishment rejected them.
You can’t look away from John. You are familiar with his message, but it sounds completely new. You wonder, is it this guy? No, he says, someone else is coming.
(He wants you to pay complete attention to him.)
So, to review: To get to Jesus, we go through John (and others). John’s message is unique and definable.
Specifically, what’s his message? Repentance. John is all about repentance.
Repentance isn’t just saying sorry or a fancy word for a New Year’s resolution (e.g., a new habit.)
Repentance is a systemic life change. John is talking about altering the entire direction of your life, fully turning from one way or path, and going down a new approach.
Stop what you’re doing, change your behavior, and then start something else in the opposite direction: this is the essence of repentance. Sure, many small factors might lead to such a significant change, but that’s not what John meant.
John asked people to change the totality of their lives and then announce that change before the whole community through an act of ritual purification, what we call Baptism.
Repentance is not supposed to be easy. It is a living, ongoing, organic process. If we step back and look at the world and think about repentance, it’s overwhelming to consider our collective and corporate sins. So much so that it’s easy to stop and utter a few flowery religious cliches about addressing “global poverty,” “climate justice,” “and racism” and think we’ve done our part to repent for our collective sins. We’ve done nothing at all. That’s the “Brood of Vipers” style religion John is railing against.
If we’re doing it right, repentance should begin with serious self-reflection. “If I’m going this new way, I can no longer be this way or carry these things with me that tie me to this old direction. I need to get certain things off my chest and undo anything that keeps me from turning.”
What do I want to repent of this week (and beyond)?
Some things we need to repent of are personal. Who have we hurt, offended, or wronged? Is there something we need to make right in our personal lives to set us on a course to intersect with Jesus at Bethlehem today, tomorrow, and Christmas eve? Suppose we don’t repent of these minor (or even significant) personal issues. Are we going to be off course, like Magi (didn’t they miss him by nine miles or so?), with gifts intended to be given to the Christ child but constantly wandering around in circles and off course? Kind of like Smoky Bear, only you know what you need to repent from. I can’t tell you what to repent for.
Sometimes, we need to repent of collective sins. Churches and church communities need to repent. We needed to be pointed back toward Jesus. Can you imagine a swimming pool or a river wide enough to fit all of us? Yes, that’s a funny image, but institutions also need to repent. What do we need to repent from? You tell me. I’ve got a few ideas. Nobody’s perfect. We can always be better neighbors and more loving to each other as Christians and our community.
Once we repent, we want to stay repented. That’s the real challenge. You’ve changed course now. What do you have to do to immediately not go back off course? Repentance is not the uttering of “magic words” and expecting our lives to change without work or effort.
Adjust your declination (Magnetic north and true north). If you’re backpacking, that could put you off anywhere from 100 feet to 1 mile off course. Adjust for being on the right spiritual path so you don’t start going further and further off course.
Orient your map.
Find a bearing, take a bearing, and move toward your new destination.
Regularly check your bearings along the way. Make sure you’re still on the right path toward repentance.
Repentance is about checking your bearings and being aware of your surroundings.
That’s how you’ll end up in the place where Jesus is waiting for you to arrive.
If we listen to cousin John and follow his path and instructions, this is how we’ll get to Jesus.
John is our unmistakable compass. He grabs your attention. You know you are listening to John. No one else sounds like John He’ll give us our bearings. He tells us how to repent. What we repent of, the thing we change, that’s up to us. You make that call. The hard work is up to us and will lead us to Jesus. Will we listen? Will we change?
Underlying The Season of Advent is one central idea expressed in three ways:
God’s Love for Humanity
1. The gulf between God and humanity is slightly more comprehensible than ever before in human history. Instead of:
GOD IN THE DISTANCE.
GOD ON A MOUNTAINTOP.
GOD HEARD IN THE ANGER OF THUNDER.
GOD IS HIDDEN AMONG CLOUDS.
We may interact with God directly as we interact with one another. Speak with God as you would speak to a loving parent or friend.
The gulf between humanity and God is permanently bridged. God is present and embodied incarnate in a family and the larger human community.
2. We love each other as we love ourselves. This is our framework for living and relating to other people. It’s how we fine-tune our corner of the universe every day. This is incredibly hard work. It’s easy to see why Jesus distilled 613 commandments into this single idea because it is full-time work.
If we can master this idea, our ability to love more, fight less, make peace, mend the broken fabric of society, feed hungry people, and be as Christlike as possible becomes easier. We have a chance at a kind of love we’ve never had before, making the prophetic ideal a reality.
3. We layer these habits and practices into our lives, one on top of another. (Think of putting on a loud, ugly, colorful Christmas sweater and then another on top of that and then another on top of that one.)
Paul calls this putting on “the armor of light” or putting on “the Lord Jesus Christ.”
If we can put meat on the bone of commandment one by being in a community/relationship, incarnational living with Jesus (internalizing this moral vision), then loving God and loving each other is the natural byproduct. If we put on and internalize outlandish love (spiritually), we will give away Christ’s love extravagantly (spiritually and physically).
Once you’ve put this one on, it’s never seasonal or out of style. You do not need to take it off. It becomes part of who you are – people see the Jesus in you if it’s on you, like a loud Christmas sweater, a Santa tie, or bright red shoes. It’s who you are all year long.