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And New Things I Declare

Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Bigfork Community United Methodist Church


Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John this morning. The place is full of meaning. It is the last barrier that had to be crossed before God’s chosen people could re-enter the Promised Land.

The Promised Land is the land that God promised to Abraham, way back in the Book of Genesis, when Abraham heard God’s voice tell him to leave his home country and go to a land that God would show him.

They settled in the land and began to grow crops and raise livestock. But a famine struck and they resettled in Egypt for 400 years before Moses led them out of bondage…through the Red Sea… into freedom of…the wilderness.

After 40 hard years they cross the river again and re-claim God’s promise of land to Abraham…The Promised Land.

So it is a special place Jesus comes to be baptized in order to claim another promise for all humanity: that God would send a savior to God’s people …even in their distress, after 500 years of waiting.

John the Baptist may have known Jesus before our Lord and Savior stepped up to the riverbank. In Luke we see that John’s mother and Jesus’ mother were cousins and John leaps…even while still in his mother’s womb…when Mary approaches…with Jesus in her womb.

But that was long ago now and these cousins have found different roads to follow to this special place. There may also have been some understanding on John’s part as he saw this prophet from the hill country approach that this was God’s true child…and loving gift to the world.

Like all of us, called by the Word to serve God in the world, his first reaction is to feel unworthy. “I should not baptize you. You should baptize me.”

Maybe all of us can identify with that feeling. Who are we to claim any authority to share Jesus’ story? Who are we to think we are able to add anything good to an understanding of God’s perfect son?

But if we do not do this work, who will? If we cannot share the story again and again, how can it travel… through time and around the world …to land where it can bear fruit?

Lincoln felt the burden of his days.He understood that the South had seceded simply because he had been elected. At Gettysburg he humbly confessed, “We cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground.”

Those who had gathered there were not worthy of the task they had come to do any more than John was worthy of baptizing Jesus. But someone had to do it and they were humbled to be asked to give that much of themselves.

Jesus understands this all and cajoles his cousin to do what had to be done, “that all righteousness can be fulfilled.” Likewise, Lincoln understood the responsibility that had fallen to him and the crowd that had gathered that day.

“The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Sometimes we are called to do more than we deserve to do. That’s the way I feel about being the United Methodist pastor in Bigfork, Montana…but someone has to do it.

And sometimes we can surprise ourselves. Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”

But here we are, quoting Lincoln’s words 156 years later. And here we are, remembering John’s baptism of the Lord 2,000 years later.

It is good for us to pause every once in a while to look back at what we have done…then look forward to what we still have to do. We gather our thoughts, we reflect upon all that has brought us to this surprising and blessed place called Life.

We envision what remains undone and wonder how we will ever find our way through the thicket we find ourselves in. Lincoln saw that, too:

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

It is for us to be grateful for all we have been given and to accept our lot so we can be worthy of the trust that the circumstances have thrust upon us.

It’s like that scene near the end of Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks tells Ryan with his dying breath “Earn this! Be worthy of this!”

John and Jesus both know the terrible task that is Jesus’ calling. He is the servant that Isaiah described so long ago.

He is to bring justice to the nations. The islands will put their hope in his teaching. He will not falter or be discouraged. Foreseeing the hardship, Isaiah adds that he will not cry out, not even when the forces of injustice mock him…whip him…scourge him…crucify him.

He is to usher in a new era of understanding and hope for a people who have been bewildered and oppressed for centuries. That is the calling for all God’s people who believe in the truth and seek to find ways to live out their faith here and now.

It all begins with a baptism. Perhaps you remember your baptism, but I do not remember mine. I was an infant and it was something my parents gave to me…and to themselves.

Not every denomination believes in infant baptism but United Methodists do. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

There was the time that Paul was in prison and an earthquake opened up the jail and he could have walked away a free man.

The jailer would have been put to death for permitting and escape but Paul remained his prisoner, praying and singing hymns. He told the story of Jesus to the jailer to explain why he had stayed when he could have gone.

The jailer was so amazed and grateful that he and his whole household were baptized. There was no putting it off until his children and servants could make up their own minds. It was a blessing he wanted for himself and for those he loved…just as my parents wanted it for me.

We read this morning about Cornelius, a Gentile, a pagan, and a Roman centurion. He sent for Peter because he had had a dream in which he was commanded to do so.

Peter told him his religious beliefs were not to have anything to do with Gentiles…but he had just had a dream that told him the opposite.

Non-kosher food had been offered to him by God three times and he had refused it three times, then a voice spoke to him saying, “When God says that something can be used for food, don’t say it isn’t fit to eat.”

So when Cornelius’ men had come for him he went. Then Peter told him about Jesus and Cornelius’s household was so moved by the story that the Holy Spirit fell upon them and Peter baptized all of them.

This was big news: that Gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit…and it opened the church to all the world …regardless of age or race or cultural heritage…or even faith.

The United Methodist Church believes that from the moment you are baptized, Christ enters into your life and we place great trust… complete trust…in Christ’s sovereign power, as Lord of all, to provide anything that might have been left unsaid or undone by the baptizer…or the church.

We also believe that we are not baptized into a denomination but into Christ’s Holy Church. That leads us to two conclusions about our baptism that is not shared by some other denominations.

If you were baptized in a church that proclaims Christ and God and the Holy Spirit in a traditional way, you do not have to be baptized again by the United Methodist Church to become one of us. Once you are baptized you are a brother or sister of Christ and you have been adopted into the family of God.

The other belief is that any form of baptism is effective so long as the one being baptized or the people presenting a child for baptism do it with an open heart.

Back in 2011 the drought was so severe in Texas that one of my fellow deputy city attorneys reported that “Baptists were sprinkling, Methodists were using a damp washcloth, and Presbyterians were giving out rain checks.”

Baptism is a symbolic act, just as it was that day that Jesus came to John at the Jordan…just as the Jews passed through the Red Sea…and crossed the Jordan…to reach the Promised Land…just as we passed through the waters of our mother’s womb…baptism delivers us to a new life, cleansed and blessed by God…prepared for a new and deeper meaning…a new purpose in your life…that changes everything.

All that has gone before has been preparation for what is to come, and all that comes will be changed because you bring the blessing of Christ…that you received long ago …with you…to this moment, now.

We read this morning that when Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and everyone heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

We receive that blessing, too.It lasts a lifetime. We might forget about it and we might do things that are not worthy of it, but like the Prodigal Son, when we come back to our right mind, we head back to the place we know we belong.

In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost writes of a farm worker who returns to the farm out of season. He is in terrible shape and they put him to bed.

There is some discussion about how long he will be permitted to stay. Finally, the wife says to her husband,

“Warren,” she said, “he has come home to die:

You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.”

“Home,” he mocked gently.

“Yes, what else but home?

It all depends on what you mean by home.

Of course he’s nothing to us, any more

Than was the hound that came a stranger to us

Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.”

“I should have called it

Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

We might chuckle now about people who worry about their baptism, but while I was at Huntley I got a few calls in my 14 years there from people who were obviously very old and they wanted to know if we had a record of their baptism.

I am happy to tell you we did have good records and in each case I was able to tell them the date and the name of the pastor who had officiated at their baptism. It also pleases me to tell you that each of them responded to the news with great gratitude at receiving that assurance.

When we reach that time when worldly things are of less importance and what comes next is a mystery that confronts us, it is a surpassing comfort to know that we belong…that we will not be left alone…have to finish the journey alone…because there is one who has always been at our side and will be with us…always and forever.

In all of this…Moses at the Read Sea…John and Jesus at the Jordan…Cornelius and Peter…and the prophecy of Isaiah…we find that they have been changed and the world has been changed and we have been changed…by faith.

The former things have already taken place, and new things have been declared; before they spring into being God in Jesus Christ…by the grace of the Holy Spirit…God has announced them to us.

We are blessed by the love of God which is higher and deeper and wider and richer with meaning and greater than anything we can understand.

That is the blessing that we take into the world…and we are the blessing we carry with us. We receive it again…every time we freely give it away.

O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.