About Me

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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Who's Baptizing Whom?

2015-01-11 Mk 01 04-11 Who's Baptizing Whom?


If you have small kids, or if you had children who were small before becoming progressively larger, you know the true joy of Christmas isn't just in the getting of gifts; it's also in the getting rid of gifts. The Gifts of Christmas Past. It's called, The Purge. There's so much more room in Santa's sleigh than there is in your house. Right? Now that the tree has turned dangerously brown and everything's covered in needles, you do The Purge. You hold up the aging Polly Pocket and you say to your child like a southern prosecutor, "You're not really going to play with this dilapidated, old, toy, ever, again. Isn't that right?" And you put Polly and last year's version of Elmo, and Woody and Buzz the dinosaur in a box. And with a big Sharpie you write, "Garage Sale" on the side. Just like in Toy Story. And you take it down to the dark, damp basement with all the other boxes marked, "Garage Sale," that you're going to get around to. THIS spring. And you just feel, lighter. Cleaner. Relieved. And so will your kids. As soon as they let go of the box and feel their way back upstairs. There's only so much stuff you can put in your house before the people from the TV show about hoarders show up. And once you've done The Purge, you feel good. You feel free.

We all accumulate. Sometimes it's physical stuff, like toys. Power tools. Shoes. Games, gizmos and gadgets. Ball caps. Star Wars action figures. Beanie Babies. UT bobbleheads. There's a thin line between "collecting" and a cry for help.

But sometimes, we're more weighed down by stuff we can't see. You know, the stuff stuffed in our heart, our spirit, our mind? They tell us we only use 20% of our brains, so there's a lot of space up there. Some have more than others. We accumulate habits that turn into addictions. We pick up points of view that turn into prejudice. Or ways of speaking, or twisted ways of thinking, or ways of acting that are just plain ugly. Sinful. And we know they're messing us up, but that's the direction we've been going for as long as we can remember. A person in motion remains in motion. A brain at rest remains at rest.

And we build up immunity. If you've spent the past year, or past years, or past generations being a certain way, you've got a lot of momentum. It's so hard to stop. It's so hard to stand firm when the tide's slamming against you.

Maybe that's why John the Baptist was so popular even Jesus came to him. When we do that purge, that confession, that repentance for the forgiveness of sin, there's this incredible lightness that falls over us. We feel lighter, cleaner. Maybe even born anew. We open the box and shake out all the broken pieces and it feels so right. Right with God. Right with the world. Almost as if the skies are opening and God's saying, "Well done. I'm proud of you."


Mark, chapter 1, verse 9 says, "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." He came with all the other people from the countryside and the big city to be baptized in repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This much we know. 

People always ask - or often ask - Did Jesus really need to? 

Preachers do all sorts of gymnastics around this one. Because confessing sins you don't have makes no sense. Maybe Jesus had some secret sin the Bible won't talk about. Or maybe it was because he was tempted, and temptation itself is sinful. You could argue that our traditional, Christian definition of sin is too limited. That sin is more than our personal peccadilloes (and that's a good word that just sounds naughty). You could say sin is more than just bad thoughts or bad actions; sin's the general human condition of separation from God. OK. Explain that in a Children's Sermon.

But see what comes next. I think that's the really, really important part.

Verses 10 and 11 say, "And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

What's clear in verses 10 and 11 is the affirmation. The blessing. The love. The pride. Jesus was blessed. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all sang as one in a mystical moment of Triune harmony. There was a blessing. And it was glorious. Could Jesus have gone on to do what he did without that moment of blessing in the river of confession? I have no idea. Baptism is a sign, and an act, of unconditional love. Unconditional love does not do gymnastics.

People talk a lot about unconditional love. But until conditions are unfavorable, it's just talk. God's love dives past, parts the waters of conditions. The entire, physical world is built on laws of condition, laws of cause and effect, laws of action and reaction, of force against force. True, heavenly, unconditional love is not from this world. It's just kind of one of those things we that we know it when we see it. 

Like the man with nothing to confess going to be baptized.


In this part of the country, you can get into arguments about baptism. How much water you use, how deep it is, and whether you can do it every Sunday. We don't baptize as often as some churches. And we only do it once. And we sprinkle. In the Presbyterian church, we say, once you're baptized, you're always baptized, whether we do it here, or you had it done in some other church, or in a river, or in a hospital. You just get it once, and it sticks. And it doesn't matter if the minister or the priest messed up and called you by the wrong name, or spilled the water, or forgot half the words. But in our church and our Tradition, baptism is one and done, and it's good.

And we baptize babies. Babies who are just as sinless as Jesus. I've talked before about how baptizing babies is my absolute favorite part of being a minister. It's as close to heaven as we'll ever get on earth. And it's not because the babies are so cute (they are). And it's not because the parents and grandparents are so happy (they are). It's not because of anything any one of us does. Or accomplishes. Or confesses. Or doesn't confess. Or forgets to do. I look out after a baptism and some of you are crying. Usually the same ones. You're the town criers. That's what you do. Tears and laughter and splashing with joy are completely appropriate responses when there are no words to describe the wonder and peace of unconditional love. Through our actions, God saying, "This is my son. This is my daughter. This is my child in whom I am well pleased." It's a blessing. And it sticks.

I think Jesus' baptism did as much or more for the practice of baptism than it ever did for him. By following his example, we have a model for how to say the unsayable. We have an outward sign of inward grace that simply is. We don't know how or why it works and it doesn't really matter whether we do or not. It just does. And for that, we are grateful. 


It's interesting to me that the Lectionary pairs this passage with one from Genesis, first chapter, first verses.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

The first day. A new day. A new beginning. The beginning of beginnings. The start of starts.

The new year is when people make resolutions. All the commercials that aren't for GEICO are about weight loss. Or health clubs. New year, new you. Shed the pounds. Shed the sins of Sonic Blasts. Repent the foul fiend of fried food. Call upon the holy name of Marie Osmond and ye shall be saved. Yea, verily, brothers and sisters, you can be cleansed and start anew.

But it's so hard. Which is why we see the same commercials year after year, why we keep losing the same 20 pounds, year after year, why we keep making the same promises to ourselves and our loved ones, year after year after year, why there's so much regret piled up in our spiritual basements, so much anxiety in our mental attics. There's so much we have done we wish we hadn't. There's so much left undone that should have been.

A new day, a new beginning, the beginning of beginnings – the dumping of darkness, the start of a new creation – it's almost, almost something only God can do.

Jesus rose up out of the darkness covering the deep. Jesus rose up while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters and there was light. There was lightness. Jesus showed us that God is all about washing away the junk that weighs us down. Jesus shows us God's all about the light and the lightness of new beginnings.

John baptized Jesus in the waters. But Jesus baptizes us with the new light of a new day. How does it work? We don't know. It's not about what we've done; it's about what God is doing. God is still creating. God is still baptizing us with grace enough for another day. Day after day. Days enough to fill a new year.

What if? What if your life was filled NOT with all the junk you've accumulated – and sometimes that can be a lot – what if your life was NOT filled to bursting with all the junk you've accumulated, but instead ful-filled with the light of Christ? 

What if this year was guided NOT by all the stuff you resolve to do? What if instead your days, your year was a new creation, formed and re-formed by God who says of you: "You are my beloved; with you I am well-pleased"? No fees. No conditions. No even unreasonable offers refused.

What if?


All of us have stuff we need to get rid of this year. But the baptism of Christ shows us God's already gotten rid of it. God got rid of it long before we knew we needed to. You're already God's beloved. Be pleased and be pleasing today, tomorrow, and all year long.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Late For the Party

Mt 02 01-12 Late For the Party
Have you ever opened up a Christmas gift and thought, what in the world is this?
Why in the world would anyone ever give a gift like this?
Did I tear the paper, or can I tape it back up and re-gift it to somebody else?

Mary and Joseph must have been wondering something similar.
"Who are these well-dressed wise men, and why are they bringing our poor baby these expensive presents?
Huggies? No.
Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Gold – Joseph’s thinking, “College Fund.”
Gold is for kingship, earthly kingship.
You brought the king your very best, your most valuable possessions.
So the wise men brought gold.

OK, frankincense and myrrh.
This is so cool.
One of our members brought me hand lotion, “Frankincense and Myrrh.”
Staying moisturized – very wise.

Now, there’s an odd little gift.
Spellcheck on my computer always wants to turn it into Frankenstein.
THAT would have made the Bible different.
Frankincense is a kind of very strong incense.
It was used by the priests who performed the rituals that brought the people closer to God (and vice versa).
The Temple reeked of frankincense.
So frankincense had a priestly significance.
It symbolized Jesus' priestly role as the one who would bring the people closer to God (and vice versa).
Which is exactly what Jesus does for us.
He brings us closer to God, and he brings God closer to us.
And something else about frankincense.
It was often used in religious services to anoint infants or individuals who were recognized as moving to a new phase in their religious lives.
In the baby Jesus, all the world was moving to a new phase in its religious life, hence, the frankincense.

Myrrh was another kind of incense, even stronger than frankincense.
Myrrh was incredibly valuable, worth more than its weight in gold.
But if frankincense was for the start of life, myrrh was for life’s end.
Myrrh was used for embalming, and was burned at funerals.
Myrrh symbolizes a foreshadowing of Christ's earthly death.
So the gifts were more than just Christmas presents.
They were part of the good news of the gospel.
They symbolized far more than they were worth because they described who Jesus was.
An earthly king - a heavenly king.
A priest, a mediator, a Messiah who would bring God and the people closer together.
And, they symbolized that this baby would grow up into a person whose death would be very, very significant.

OK, so why wise men?
Who were they, and why are they here?
This is a question that's bugged people for centuries.
The Bible says they were magi.
That's short for magician.
Actually, magi were more like what we'd call fortune-tellers; they looked at the stars and predicted the future.
We'd call them astrologers.
We kind of poo-poo astrology and horoscopes - except when they're right.
(“Oh look, Herb. Your horoscope says you’re an overweight middle-aged man who reached his prime his senior year of high school. Spooky.”)
But, more than mere fortune-tellers, the magi were men of science, at least as much science as you had back then.
They were the Ph.D.’s with facial hair.

It bothered people that such wise men had no names.
So around the Eighth Century AD, someone came up with Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior.
They sound like friends of Sheldon on Big Bang Theory.

But still, that wasn't enough.
The idea that they were magi-icians bothered people.
Except for these few verses, the Bible says nothing nice about magi, magician-types.
Like, stone them to death.
So somewhere along the way, the magi were morphed into kings.
In 1857, the Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. wrote the hymn, "We Three Kings of Orient Are," for a Christmas pageant in New York City.
And pretty much every Christmas pageant since then has had the three kings visiting at the manger, in their bathrobes.

But even that's different, because for the previous eighteen hundred and fifty-seven years, tradition had them arriving sometime after Joseph and Mary had moved out of the manger.
For more than a thousand years, the church had them arriving on the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which would be January 6, the holy day we Protestants call, Tuesday.
Christmas? That was a long time ago.
Back before the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Which explains why people would slide the three kings back to December 25.

But even that’s not quite right because the Bible never says there were three.
The Bible never gives any number.
There were three gifts, but there could have been any number of wise men.
There could have been more.
Could have been six. Could have been two.
The Bible doesn't say.

All we know for sure is that they were foreigners from the East (Gentiles, pagans, not Jews).
We know they followed the star.
And we know they brought Jesus gifts fit for a king.
The Bible’s story of the magi is a lot simpler than we make it.

Christmas Season does NOT begin the day after Halloween.
The official church season of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and ends twelve days later, January 6.
Why is why some churches with unpopular pastors don’t sing Christmas carols until after Christmas Eve.
The wise men arrive during the work week and we don’t even notice.
But on the official church calendar, January 6 is the holiday, the holy day, called Epiphany.

About once a year, someone asks me, "What's Epiphany?"
This is one of those questions ministers just live for.
Someone will ask, "What's Epiphany?" and I'll say,
"It's the day when the unspecified number of unnamed wise men who weren't kings but were probably Gentile astrologers came late to visit the baby Jesus in a place that wasn't the manger."
Which explains why I'm only asked once a year, and never twice by the same person.

Epiphany means a flash of insight, an appearance or manifestation.
An epiphany is an “Aha” Moment, a God moment, when you “get it.”
An epiphany is a moment when you feel like your eyes have opened for the very first time,
when you may not be able to explain what you just realized about God
but when you know you know.
You just know.

The gospel writer, Matthew – who is the only gospel writer to include the magi in the Christmas story – Matthew was Jewish, like really Jewish.
Matthew was an Old Testament kind of guy.
For Matthew, if it wasn’t Jewish, it wasn’t worth much.
And yet, he’s the only gospel writer to include these Gentile, pagan magi.
Under normal circumstances, Matthew would have crossed the street to avoid these guys.
And yet, he not only includes them in the gospel, he has them helping define who Jesus is.
“Imagine there’s no countries… and no religion, too.”
It’s a very John Lennon kind of moment.
Matthew – good, Jewish Matthew – is sneaking in a little heresy, here.
It’s not just that on Epiphany the eyes of the world might have peeked open just a little bit to understand who the Baby Jesus is…
it’s also that the new Christian world, the people who remembered and wrote the gospels – Matthew – might also have had his eyes opened just a little bit to understand that maybe, just maybe…
some unspecified number of unnamed pseudo-scientific, strange-skinned, chronically late magicians… even people like these might have something to teach Christians about Jesus.

What people, or what group of people, would you think would be the last people in the world to teach you something about Jesus?
Maybe they’re kings in disguise.
Maybe they’re gospel preachers, disguised as the absolute last people you’d expect to know more than you about Our Lord.
Those strangely wise people, strange-looking, strangely accented, strangely appearing from the East or some other place…
…the “Those People,” of the world.
Wouldn’t it be weird if, over time, they snuck into your personal manger scene?
Over time, you might have an epiphany,
You might see that all this time, it’s not the kings that were late for the party, but you.

Every year there’s this, “War On Christmas.”
These signs that say, “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Because, if he broke out and got into Hanukkah, who KNOWS what might happen.
Oy vey.
I think what people are trying to say is don’t let Christmas get diluted or polluted by foreign substances or political idealists, or, God forbid, foreign people who don’t look or talk or dress like us.
But what’s weird is that the manger has always been visited by strangers.
The manger’s bigger than petty politics, even bigger than one religion.
A group of people figured that out a long time ago, and – guess what – they’re in the Bible.
And the Bible calls them, “wise.”
That’s kind of a mind-blowing epiphany.

As you put away the decorations, as you find places for the presents, as you calculate the re-gifting and good-willing, remember
Remember that there are going to be reminders of Christmas coming from strange people, in unexpected ways.
Remember that Christ won’t stay in Christmas, no matter how hard we try to shove him in that box.
Jesus is going to keep sneaking out, and sneaking into our days, on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and every other day.
Jesus might be late for the party.
But he’ll get there.