January 12, 2014

Moral Agents of God

Passage: Isaiah 42:1-9 & Matthew 3:13-17

I don't know what you remember about your baptism . I f you are young you very likely have a clear picture in your mind and also you can recall the feelings and thoughts of that moment . I think I was 14 at the timearound 1956 and have a limited memory of how that took place. There were 6 or 7 of us and we all knelt at the altar railing as the pastor came around to each of us after a few questions and with cupped hands let some water roll down our heads. Of course there was some conversation later on of who got the most water and the congregation came by and welcomed us into membership in the church. 

I don't remember the heavens opening or any voice from on high, but it was the culmination of a delightful church member class which included some field trips to historic places of Mennonites in Eastern Pennsylvania such as Christopher Dock Schoolhouse where Christopher is recognized as a leading early educator in the colonies. We also visited the Germantown meeting house built not long after the first Mennonite s landed in the New World in 1683. My zeal for this church membership class was also fanned by the presence of a 14 year old girl with whom I would return to that altar rail and married 7 or 8 years later.
Our lesson today is about the baptism of Jesus as we read in Matthew 3. Jesus' baptism is noted in all four Gospels. One day Jesus came down to the Jordan River from Nazareth where John was baptizing people.John was calling people to confess their sins and repent in preparation of the one who is to come. He did not mince words as some of the religious leaders came see what was going on…He called them a brood of vipers and warned them that any tree not producing fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. John is also quoting from Isaiah that God is on the move and about to do a new thing.
When Jesus comes to be baptized, John takes a step backwards and does not want to baptize Jesus, but says that he should be baptized by Jesus. However Jesus responds that he should be baptized, ``for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness''. So John goes ahead with the baptism…realizing that this is different from the baptizing he has been doing. Jesus does not have anything to repent of or change his direction, but it is rather accepting his call and mission in the world. We might see this as more like ordination or yielding to a call. Years back in the church before gender equality when young men were baptized, they also committed themselves to have their name placed in the lot a nd be available for ordination if chosen.
For Jesus this was accepting the mission for which God was sending him into the world.
In Isaiah 42:1 the mission of th is moral agent of God is prophesied. This servant of God is introduced. The Spirit of the Lord is put upon him and he will bring forth justice to the nations. What does i t mean to deliver justice…it may include judgment , but more importantly what is right. It can mean a right way to live. A parent might say to a child, ``You cannot go to your friends because you did not do your chores `` , Onecould also say, ``Finish up your chores and you will have time with your friends''. There can be both a word of judgment and a word pointing to right living.
Verse 2-4 speaks of the character of the servant. ``
He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.''
The servant is not loud or shouting, but listens to the weak and the faint hearted. The servant moves about in a gentle man ner with the confidence of his commission from God to bring justice and mercy. There is a resolution and certainty in the servant knowing that he is living in obedience to the Lord's Spirit.
The nature of the mission of the servant gets some definition in the verses following:
·         invalid font number 31502 =-->One could get started here on the blindness we see around us . To mention several of the areas of blindness and imprisonment in our world
1.       invalid font number 31502 =-->The challenge we face is not to become complicit or fail to see the false prophets that spin a theology to justify these evils. While President Obama is not perfect and human, I think many of his struggles to lead are complicated by subtle but deep racism. The road blocks to universal health care are in large part a result of the people with wealth do not want to pay the health care of those who have less. In my life time alone we have been in 5 major wars and other numerous military operations. As I think about these matters the refrain of the 60's song come to me, ``When will we ever learn…when will we ever learn.
I did catch a report that there is less poverty today in the US than there was 50 years ago when President Johnson began a war on poverty. I hope that it right.
There is a part of me that wants to know what is happening in the world. I get the Economist magazine, check NY Times on line, and Kay and I are a bit addicted to the 6:30 news with Brian Williams. I am not sure it is all good for me. Sometimes I get depressed and sometime I weep. It is the children in these difficult places in the world that really get to one. A bright story from the Central Republic of Africa which is on the brink of ethnic warfare is a young women physician who's 12 year marriage broke up in Seattle is determined to stay there and minister h er healing skills to the people in spite of the dangers of the region
When I begin to work up a sermon on a designated passage such as the lectionary would provide…I read it over and over until something grabs me. Now sometimes what gets my attention is clear and understandable and sometimes it is something that leaves me more clueless , but curious. . At such pointswhen I don't understand the passage or line… I find some comfort in the words of Mark Twain, who said, ``Some people get all up set about the Bible because of what they don' t understand it…I get all upset about the few things I do understand ''.
What caught me up for today was the brief response back to John the Baptist from Jesus at his baptism , I need to be baptized to ``fulfill all righteousness''. Then I saw the phrase in Isaiah 42 that, ``I am the Lord, I ha ve called you in righteousness. `` After pondering this response of Jesus at his baptism for a day or so, I sent an email to John Kampen to see if he had any insight on this matter. A day later he sent me two papers he wrote some time earlier on the topic of righteousness in the Gospel of Matthew. As I read those papers (one being 26 pages) I realized that John should be preaching today and I should worship leader. Nevertheless, it was a good discipline for me and I once again appreciated John's scholarship and commitment to scripture and also to the Qumran materials.
There is a simple answer to what Jesus meant that he should be baptized to fulfill all righteousness…IT IS SIMPLY OBEDIENCE. Jesus was simply responding to the call of God with a big cosmic YES. A YES to bring forth justice to the nations (Isa 42:1). Justice and Righteousness are the heart and character of God.Thus God responds to this cosmic yes of Jesus with the heavens opening and the Spirit descending and landing on him as a dove. The words come from heaven , ``This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased''.
So we see that Jesus was simp ly obedient to the will of God of his own free volition. He came from Nazareth on his own, not driven or coerced. We note that immediately after his baptism he is LED , DRIVEN into the wilderness and tempted by the devil. There seems to be a cause and effect here in that you choose A and automatically get B. Cho o se obedience (baptism) and you get temptation . This observation raise s the question of if you never feel tempted are you really being obedient?
So how are we to understand obedience or righteousness? Righteousness is a popular term in the Gospel of Matthew and if we look just ahead to the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5 & 6 we find that righteousness is mentioned 5 more times. Chapter 5:
Verse 6 - `` Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled'' 
Verse 10 - "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven '' .
So those with a burning desire for righteousness will be blessed and filled. Even those persecuted in the process of seeking righteousness will receive the Kingdom of heaven or of God.
A warning comes in verse 20 as we seek righteousness:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven .
At this point we need to conclude that righteousness and obedience are not black and white matters as the scribes and Pharisees thought they were. Unless your righteousness EXCEEDS are the words of Jesus. That ``exceeds'' is speaking not of a quantitative difference, but rather a qualitative difference in righteousness. John Kampen makes this point in his paper. Not everything we call righteousness is of the same quality . That is clear in Jesus' words when he calls for a righteousness that is different from what the scribes and Pharisees come to claim.
Thus, our obedience and righteousness is in our desire to follow Jesus and rooted in love. This is in contrast to some religious system s of perfec tion that are rooted more in law rather than love. It is an obedience that allows the Spirit of God to blow where it will . It m ight even be viewed by some as living a life of reckless abandon. I am sure people like St Francis of Assisi who forsook the status and wealth of his family to better seek God left many people scratching their head. The same might be said of Julian of Norwich who cloisters herself in a room a djoining the church for decades to teach and counsel from her small window out onto the public square.
We don't use the term `` obedience '' per say much in our church circles . I think the last time I he ard the word obedience before getting into this passage of Jesus' accepting baptism was from one of our children and their dog going to obedience school and how his behavior was improving. I could tell that obedience school was working for him as I did not get ambushed at the door as we stopped by their house.
Well, we may not use the word obedience very much, but we as a congregation continue our journey of discernment each week , each month, each year so that we may be able to see the high road that Jesus is leading us along. We are agents of God who are seeking a righteousness that exceeds the righ teousness of those limited by the many distractions of our culture, Isaiah calls it present darkness in the world. We are called to be a light to the nations…to all the world.

Thus we do this moral discernment not for ourselves alone, but for all who can see and hear.
·         We do this because Jesus is calling us to be part of the God Movement and join him in the journey with our own cosmic YES
·         It is possible that we may be persecuted by accepting this agency for God
·         Will we be blessed and given the Kingdom of God
·         That is the promise Jesus gives to his followers
·         That is all we are ever going to need
·         Thank you Jesus!

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