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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, January 18, 2008

2008-01-20 John 1:29-42

Defining (the) Moments: Named

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher)...

"We have found the Messiah" (that is, the Christ).

If I were still in charge of the remote control - and I figure I’ve got about 15 years until it reverts back to its rightful owner (me) - I would probably never land on the show, “American Idol.” As a minister, its very title presents some pretty significant issues. Back when *I* was a boy... back when we still had sin... making someone or something an idol was a bad thing. Now we make TV shows about it, as well shows about avarice, gluttony, adultery and greed. Which are the ones I would watch, if I could ever get my hands on the remote.

Anyway, what was I talking about? “American Idol.” The new season began last week. My advice is, if you haven’t watched it, don’t. It’s joyful, cruel, uplifting, heartbreaking, and completely addictive - everything good TV ought to be.

In my opinion, the best weeks are the early ones, when pretty much anyone who can - or can’t - hold a tune gets to audition. Some of the auditions are fantastic. Normal people belt out a tune and you think, “Wow, how’d that voice come out of that average-looking person?” And, some of the auditions make you wonder if the people spend much time outside the house, or outside their shower where they must sound so much better.

Even though the people who don’t make the cut are often off-key, weird, or downright rude, my heart goes out to them. No one ever walks away saying, “Oh well. That’s how it goes.” No, they walk out flooding the floor with tears. Or saying bleepable things to the camera. Or calling themselves names like, loser. One girl in particular - the one dressed like Princess Leia from Star Wars - kept ranting about what a loser she was, telling her parents, telling the camera. Loser, loser, loser. (Actually, it was a different word, but we won’t get into that here.) If there are people who leave saying, “Oh well, at least Jesus still loves me,” Fox Network doesn’t show them.

The thing that makes the show tug so hard at the emotions is that - in the early weeks - it’s not the contestants’ singing ability that’s being judged. At least, that’s not the way the contestants seem to take it. What we see is people being judged. It’s as if they leave the auditions convinced that they, personally, are winners or losers, good people or bad people, blessed or cursed, because of how Simon, Randy and Paula judge them. How three people judge them - three - looks as though it’ll define the remainder of their lives.

We know the labels put on us when we’re kids often has incredible influence on us. A beloved teacher tells us, “You are the smartest student I’ve ever taught. You could make straight A’s if you wanted to,” and suddenly, we’re like the Scarecrow who realizes he has a brain. A coach says, “Boy, you are the sorriest excuse for a ball player I’ve ever seen,” and we quit the team. Our parents tell us by words or by actions we’re smart, we’re dumb, we’re important, we’re invisible, we’re worth the world, or we’re worthless - and it sticks. Maybe a bad review becomes the motivation to prove them wrong. Maybe it becomes confirmation of what we already suspect. How we are judged - how we think we’re judged even if we’re not told - has awesome, frightening power over who we are and who we might become. How we’re named, what we’re named, defines our moments.


Jesus walks past, and John the Baptist shouts after him, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” His disciples call him, “Rabbi (which means teacher).” They talk about him when he’s not around and say, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).

What would you think about yourself if someone heaped such superlatives on you? How would you handle such extreme compliments? You’d think, “This person is nuts.” But if everyone surrounding you twenty-four hours a day puffed your head full of such ideas, after a while, might you begin to think, just a little, like an “American Idol?” Might you begin to believe just enough to enjoy all the praise, especially if it came with fame, wealth and paparazzi? Might you start to behave like some of the fallen idols whose pictures are plastered all over the grocery store magazines? I’d surely hope not, but until we’re in that situation, how would we know?

Jesus simply walks down the street, and people start calling him names. In this case they’re good names. But a few verses later, they won’t be. Other people will be calling him plenty of names that aren’t nice at all.

We teach our kids the rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We teach them that because we’re trying to protect them from the truth. Names are much, much more powerful than sticks and stones. If we believe them - and we do - names are infinitely more powerful than sticks and stones. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can break our spirits. Spoken at the right time by the right person, names can lift our spirits and change our lives in good and positive ways. Spoken in other times, in other ways, names can have tragic consequences. If you’ve ever been picked on or bullied, as a child or as an adult, you know how bad it can be.

So what does Jesus say when he’s called, in this case, good names - very, very good names? Does he say, “That’s right! You’re the winning contestant!” Does he say, “Who me? The Messiah? You’ve got to be kidding?” Does he ignore them?

No. Jesus says, “What do you want?” And then, a little later, “Come and see.”

When we’re called names - or worse, when we suspect we’re being called names, we usually react by agreeing (“They’re right, I am a loser”) or by disagreeing (“Oh yeah? I’ll show you”). It’s no surprise that Jesus is smarter than we are (something we tend to forget). Instead of agreeing or disagreeing with the names other people call him - even if they’re positive - Jesus asks, “What do you want?”

That’s else we tend to forget. Whenever anyone calls us a name - positive or negative - because they’re also human beings, what they’re saying about us is also saying something about them. Maybe they don’t want anything outright. Maybe they just want the thrill of being on the panel of judges for a minute. Maybe they want to make you feel bad so they can feel good. Maybe they want to feel less important by making you more important in their own minds than you really are. We hear praise or condemnation and we forget what Jesus knew, praisers or condemners almost always want something. Maybe it’s not your approval, maybe it’s their own personal need to be right in their judgments. Maybe they’re secretly saying, “Prove me right or prove me wrong. Just prove me.” Jesus asks, “What do you want?” and exposes the truth about human idolatry. We make people into idols in order to justify our own judgment. We make ourselves into idols in order to define who we are. We all know that if we believe we’re better than we really are, we’re turning ourselves into idols in our own minds. But it’s also true that if we believe we’re worse than we really are, we’re making negative idols out of ourselves, anti-idols we can throw emotional, or mental, or spiritual stones at. We do the same when we label others, too. We make them into idols, or anti-idols, in our minds. We set other people on pedestals we know don’t have the legs - or we bury them under the pedestals so we can walk on them. Idolatry cuts both ways. In any way, it distracts us from the real question, what is it, really, that we’re looking for?

The other answer Jesus gives the people naming him, is, “Come and see.” How lucky Jesus was that the disciples actually did. They followed him, and they saw living proof of who he was and how he lived. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. People can’t follow us around in both our public and private moments to learn who we really, really are, instead of who we say we are, or who we believe we are. People usually only have a few moments to make their judgment as to whether we’re “winners” or “losers.” And we only have the same few moments to make the same decisions about them. The label or the name we place upon them, or they place upon us, is the shortcut to “Come and see.” The label is the idolatrous alternative to really, really getting to know each other.

Jesus sidesteps the idolatry of the people who would label him before they knew him. He invites them to follow him. And, blessing to them, they do.

It’s strange to think that we might make an idol of Jesus. But that’s what we do when we call him names without following him. We make an idol of Jesus when we make judgments about him - good or bad - without getting to know him, where he lives and how he behaves. We make an idol of Jesus when we use him as a tool to get what we want - approval of others, approval of ourselves - without becoming his follower in word and in deed.

The flipside of this is that we make idols of ourselves when we don’t let Jesus get to know us. Whenever we think we can get away with something because Jesus isn’t looking, we’re making an idol of ourselves. Whenever we think Jesus doesn’t know who we really are, we’re building an idolatrous little wall between us and him. Instead of hiding our sins from Jesus, we have to lay them down at his feet. We have to try living in his footsteps if we’re ever going to smash the idols of our own minds.


If you ever try out for American Idol, let us know. We’ll find someone with a big TV and pull for you. We’ll be the big cheering section they sometimes show of the friends back home. But if you ever do try out, please remember this: You are not defined as good or as bad by what three well-paid judges say about you. Nor are you defined even by how loudly we cheer for you. Instead, your moments - all your moments, not just the ones in the spotlight - ALL your moments are defined by Jesus Christ. All your moments are defined by Jesus Christ who calls you, good or bad, good AND bad, to follow him. Are you a winner or are you a loser? Truth be told, we’re all some of both. Whether you’re a winner or a loser really isn’t the important question. The important question is the one Jesus put to the disciples: “What are you looking for?” If you’re looking for Him, and if you’re willing to follow him, judgment falls by the wayside. If you’re looking for him and if you’re following him, you’re moving beyond judgment and idolatry; you’re defining yourself by faith. That’s when the question changes from “What are you looking for?” to “Who?” Who are you looking for? If it’s Jesus, are you willing to come and see? Are you willing to follow where he leads? Are you willing to know him as more than a winner or a loser, but as your Savior?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Baptism of the Lord

2008-01-13 Mt 03 13-17 Baptism of the Lord

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

“Defining (the) Moments: Baptized”

A couple of Sundays ago, when we baptized baby Louise, I told the kids during the Children’s Sermon that my number one, favorite part of being a minister is getting to do baptisms. It is. It’s the best.

First, you get to hold the babies. When I started out in ministry I don’t think I’d ever held a baby. So, in preparation for my first baptism, I got together with the parents a few days before, to practice the handoff and the hold. The parents were friends of ours, and understood at least that one of my deficiencies. Several of you have commented that after having two kids of our own, I’m a lot more comfortable with the babies, and it’s true. They usually cooperate pretty well. I don’t know if you could see Louise, but she was watching my every move, as if she were listening to every word. And who knows, she may have been listening and understanding in some miraculous Holy Spirit kind of way. The first gift of the Spirit was translation; who says it has to be limited to adults? I’ve only had one baby scream through the entire baptism, and she was screaming way before the handoff, so I’m pretty sure I wasn’t responsible for the outcry.

Which leads to my second favorite thing about baptisms. Even if the baby screams, or spits up, or does some other unpredictable, baby kind of thing, it’s still OK. Short of the minister dropping the child (which is always an occupational hazard), the baptism is going to happen. The congregation knows babies do baby things, oftentimes *to* the minister. In fact I think you kind of enjoy it – “Oh look, she’s yanked out a fistful of his hair.” It’s still OK. The baptism is going to happen. The parents can’t back out, because there’s a row of relatives seated up front, with video cameras, hoping for something amazing to happen so they can send it to America’s Funniest Videos, or worse, YouTube. The baptism is going to happen. Providence and the Holy Spirit step in and make certain that no matter what human deficiencies we have, God will see us through.

Which is, when you think about it, the whole point of baptism in the first place. Providence and the Holy Spirit step in and make certain that no matter what human deficiencies we have, God will see us through.

Jesus was an adult when he was baptized. John the Baptist was, after all, Baptist, so they did it by immersion. The process back then was, in some ways, more predictable and less stressful for the baptiz-er and the baptiz-ee. Except for one tiny problem. John knew who Jesus was. John knew his own role was to announce Jesus’ arrival. John was not The One, but the one who comes before The One, crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Make straight the highway of the king!” The problem of Jesus’ baptism was that John knew Jesus was the Messiah, the one promised, the one on whom John’s entire life was built. So, here, the baptiz-er, not the baptiz-ee was the one who created the fuss. John said, “I need to be baptized by you; and do you come to me?”

And listen to Jesus’ reply. This is interesting. He says, “Let it be so now. For it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, this baptism is going to happen. Prophesy, providence, God’s plan have stepped in and made it OK. John may think he’s not worthy, which is how all us baptizers feel. We know we’re not worthy of baptizing anyone, much less, in John’s case, the promised Son of God. John says, “I’m not worthy.” And Jesus doesn’t argue with him. John’s right; he’s not worthy, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that God’s plan of setting the world all right – righteousness – demands that this baptism is going to happen, no matter what. No matter what human deficiencies John might have, this baptism is going to take place. God and Providence are going to step in and make it right.

Now. Think about what the act of baptism is saying to a little baby. Babies don’t have any sins to repent, and neither did Jesus. But it was still proper for him in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Babies don’t have any sins to repent, but unless they’re Jesus, they will. They’ll grow out of that cute, cuddly stage. They’ll turn into teenagers. They’ll turn into college freshmen. They’ll turn into grown-ups who have the infinite variety of the Sin Smorgasbord spread out in front of them. But rewind back to this little baby, and think of what baptism is saying to him or to her. It’s saying, “These people around you may not be worthy to be doing this (and they aren’t), but God and Providence and the Holy Spirit are going to step in and make it OK.” Baptism is saying, “Even though you’ll grow up and someday realize you aren’t worthy of this, Providence and the Holy Spirit are going to step in and make sure that no matter what human deficiencies you have, God will see you through.” It’s saying, “You’re going to be OK.”

Apparently, even Jesus – even Jesus – need to hear what Baptism had to say. Even Jesus needed to know God’s promise. Even Jesus needed to know that God would see him through, come whatever. Even Jesus needed this blessing. So do you. Providence demanded that baptism was how he – and we – would begin to see God making things right. Baptism was God’s first step in fulfilling all righteousness.

And what’s God’s word in this baptism? The skies open, the Spirit of God descends and a voice from heaven says, what? “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s blessing, God’s promise, God’s declaration. No matter what else happens, this is God’s Son. No matter what anyone might say, this is the Beloved. No matter how displeased the world might be with him, God is well pleased with Jesus.

This is why we baptize. This is why we do it. To try to bring one, tiny drop of this righteousness into our ever-deficient lives. Even Jesus needed to hear this word spoken over him. And holy smokes do we ever need it, too.

Last Sunday we talked about the appearance of the Magi was a turning point in Jesus’ life. The gifts didn’t *make* Jesus a king. He born King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The gifts didn’t make him king, but they were a sign unto us of how universal his kingship would be. It was a defining moment for Jesus, maybe not personally, but prophetically. The gifts of the Magi defined him for us.

Likewise, this Sunday, Jesus’ baptism is a defining moment. Did the words of baptism make a difference in his inner psyche? We don’t know. Jesus was already without sin, and Jesus was already blessed, long before his baptism. What we do know is that Jesus knew his baptism was a defining moment. Jesus knew his baptism was a defining moment in God’s plan of righteousness. The Baptism of the Lord is a moment that helps define our moments, whether we’re lifting up an infant, or falling to our knees. Jesus’ baptism defines us.

And so now, when we baptize – whether it’s baptizing babies or adults – whether we’re sprinkling or dunking – we know it’s a defining moment in our lives, and in the lives of our children. How we apply the water, how much water, the source of the water – that’s really not the important, defining thing. What’s important is that in baptism, we believe – we know – that this is a first step in God’s righteousness. What’s important is that in baptism we know – we believe – that God’s love is mixed and stirred and poured over our souls so completely, that no matter what deficiencies we have, God will see us through.

There’s a story that the great Martin Luther, when life got really rough, would repeat the sentence, “I am baptized,” over and over and over. It was kind of like a mantra when life was ugly. “I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.” You might want to try it, next time your life goes nutty. The baby does some baby thing on the new sofa: “I am baptized, I am baptized, I am baptized. (And so is the sofa.)” It probably won’t solve your problems. But it might give you a little perspective. The point of saying it over and over is reminding yourself that you aren’t defined by your momentarily unpleasant moments. Instead, your MOMENTS are defined, YOU are defined by the power of baptism. So, who are you? You can answer, “I am baptized.”

That’s the good news of baptism. But now, here’s the little “Void Where Prohibited” speech. Knowing that we ARE baptized, knowing we have the blessing that God will see us through is *NOT* license to ignore our deficiencies. Knowing that God forgives our sin is *not* an invitation to help God keep from getting bored. Blessing is only the first side of baptism. Realizing our deficiencies, confessing our sin, vowing to stay away from evil – this is the flipside of the blessing. Without the confession of your own sinfulness, you don’t appreciate the blessing. So, if you think you’re perfect, and if you act as though you’re the only person who really matters, your baptism may not be made void, but it sure won’t mean as much. It won’t define you as it could. Confession of sin is the necessary ingredient to make your baptism a defining moment. That’s the ingredient *you* add to the water. And, if by chance, you don’t have any sins to confess… wait a few minutes.

Before worship on baptism mornings, members see me walking down the hall, carrying the big silver bowl of water that fits into the frame of the font. You’d be amazed at how much attention is generated by walking down the hall with a big metal bowl. In a different context, walking around with a bowl in your hands might generate a different response, but here, people know what it means and everybody notices, everybody makes a comment, “Oh, a BAPTISM today.” “Who’s getting baptized today?” It’s exciting. And it’s really neat, during that short, unceremonious walk, to be The Bearer of the Bowl. I feel like the servant-boy sent to fetch water for the king. You know you’re not the important one; you know your job would look ordinary to most outsiders. But you also know someone who IS really important needs it.

I think, for me, that’s the very best part of all. Theological explanations aside, this is how, for me, baptism is a sacrament, a truly holy mystery. I carry the water, I say the words, but it’s the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are doing the work. The ancient words are spoken, the water is placed, the vows are made – and God defines the child, God defines the parents, God defines the church… God defines the moment. In baptism, God is here, God is real, God is at work – and we kind of fade into the scenery. This is why people cry at baptisms. It’s not because the baby’s so cute; it’s because the meaning of the moment is so strong that it defies words. God is with us. We can’t explain it, but we can feel it. I’m so grateful just to be there.

In this small way, I can identify with John the Baptist when he said, “I’m not worthy,” and Jesus essentially said, “You’re right.” In that way, baptism is a defining moment for us all. None of us are worthy to be part of something so special. But for some blessedly strange reason, this is how God chooses to fulfill all righteousness for now. It’s a reminder of how grateful we should be just to be here, to be anywhere. It reminds us how grateful we should be just to be a part of God’s way. It’s a defining moment that defines all our moments. Baptism makes us worthy, even though we’re not.