Sunday, January 10, 2016

More Like Jesus: Holy Water and Power Clothes (Mark 1:1-11, Galatians 3:26-28)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

26 You are all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up?  Who actually became what they wanted to be?  Who actually hasn’t grown up yet?  Perhaps you are grown and you’ve already tried one of your dream careers, and maybe now you’re ready to try another.  Reality is that most people will be and become multiple things throughout their working lives.

Indeed, life itself is a process of becoming, and we are constantly “becoming.”  So long as there is breath in our lungs, there is still more for us to be and become.  We are all inspired by the 85-year-old Grandma who completes her college degree, or the person who loses 300 pounds and goes from being a couch potato to a marathon runner.

I was in seminary in my early 20s, and I had a few classmates who were in their 60s and even 70s, some preparing for a new career in ministry, others there simply for the joy of learning.  Many of them had already had highly-successful careers, and I was struck by the realization that, in a season in life when many are starting to slow down, these folks were getting ready to start a new chapter, out of a distinct sense that God was still working on them.

And friends, far more important than any job is the sense of what sort of person we are and are becoming.  You and I are called to become like Jesus.

Occasionally, someone will buck against that.  “Become like Jesus?” they say.  “But he was so good and perfect and holy and loving, and I’m just not.  I’m so far from that.  I could never be like Jesus.”

But, take a look at the meaning of the word, “Christian.”  It literally means, “mini-Christ,” or “like Christ.”  The book of Acts tells us that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26), and did you know the word, “Christian” was first used as a slur?  It was used to mock and make fun of the earliest followers of Jesus.  “Look at those people.  They follow Christ so closely, they try to act like Christ, they look like mini-Christs.  Look at those Christians!”

Interestingly enough, a label that first applied from outside the church was soon adopted by those inside to describe ourselves.  “Christian” – mini-Christ, following Jesus so closely that we become like him – yes, that describes what we’re about – yes, we are Christians, and thank you for noticing!

The old adage is that actions speak louder than words.  Don’t tell me you’re a Christian, show me.  Don’t just say, “I’m a Christian,” show me in living a life that’s overflowing with unconditional love and forgiveness and humility and a desire to serve.  In everything we do, we reflect Christ, so that people who don’t even know us should be able to say, “This person is a Christian.”

The great Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, became a good friend of Mahatma Gandhi.  Gandhi was never a Christian, but he incorporated many of the teachings of Jesus into his own.  In one of their conversations, Jones asked, “Though you quote the words of Christ often, why is it that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming a Christian”? Gandhi’s reply was clear: “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Are you troubled when you see people who call themselves Christians, but don’t act a thing like Jesus?  When I see Christians who are mean and hateful, selfish and stingy, narrow-minded and self-righteous, arrogant and judgmental, I think, “Well, I know I don’t have all my stuff together, but at least I’m not as bad as that person!”  But then another voice says, “Why are you comparing yourself to other Christians?  You should be comparing yourself to Christ.  He’s the one you’re following.”

More troubling than seeing other people who call themselves Christians but don’t act like Jesus are the times I’m convicted that I’m not acting very much like Jesus, myself. 

We don’t act like Jesus so people will think highly of us, it’s simply that being a Christian means being like Christ. We are called to follow Jesus so closely that we become like him.

And that journey of becoming like Jesus begins in the waters of baptism.  When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove, the voice of God the Father boomed out over the whole scene, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased, in whom I delight, in whom I take great happiness and joy.”

Something similar happens in our baptism.  In that beautiful, grace-filled moment, by water and the Spirit God says about each of one us, “This is my son.  This is my daughter.  This is my child.  This is my beloved.”  In baptism, we receive the family seal of God upon us; God is claiming us as members of the family forever.  The words “Property of God” may as well go across our foreheads in indelible ink, because God is promising to us and proclaiming to the world, “This one belongs to me.”

If you’ve noticed, we don’t use last names when we’re performing a baptism.  We’ll use a person’s first and middle names, but never their family name.  Do you know why?  Because baptism makes us part of the Christian family, and being a part of the Christian family is more determinative than any other part of our identity, even our family of origin.  Baptism gives us a new name – “Christian” – and that name tells us and the world that we belong to Christ and find the truest expression of our identity in him.

Think of it this way.  Where does a North Carolinian live?  In North Carolina.  Where does an American live?  In America.  Where does a Christian live?  In Christ.

We live in Christ!  “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  We are baptized into him and are clothed with him (Galatians 3:27).  It’s like we are wearing Christ.  You can watch award shows on TV, and as people come down the red carpet, one thing they always seem to get asked is, “Who are you wearing?” meaning, “Who designed your clothes?”

If someone were to ask a Christian, “Who are you wearing?”, the answer should always be, “I’m wearing Jesus,” because we have so opened ourselves us to his presence, his love has made itself at home within us, and the more Christlike we are becoming, not in our ability, but through God’s infinite grace.

It all happens through grace.  The Christian faith is first what God does for us in Jesus.  Claims us, makes us part of the family, offers us forgiveness, cleans us up.  But then, it quickly becomes about what does in us.  Indeed, we are always becoming.  When we look around at Christians who don’t act like Jesus, when we ourselves question whether we should or can become like Jesus, I wonder if it has to do with only accepting the part about what God is doing for us, but not also the part about what God is doing in us, which is, of course, to make us more like Jesus.

In baptism, we celebrate both.  It’s where we accept and trust what God has already done for us, and open ourselves to what God will do in us over a lifetime.

Ethel was driving their big sedan down the highway, with Charlie across the car in the passenger seat.  A young couple in a convertible drove by, obviously in love, or possibly in heat, as the woman was practically sitting in the guy’s lap, which was no small feat given the floor shifter.  Charlie looked wistfully at them as they drove past, looked across the car to Ethel, and said, “I remember when we used to be like that.”  Ethel, hands at 10 and 2, never took her eyes from the road and said, “I’m not the one who moved.”

That’s why we don’t re-baptize anyone – because God isn’t the one who moved.  Baptism is more about God than it is about us.  Our promises can be less-than-reliable, but God’s promises are always good.  We don’t need to re-do what God has already gotten right the first time.  We don’t re-baptize anyone because baptism is more about God than it is about us; God isn’t the one who moves.

But, from time-to-time, we do recommit ourselves, remember who we are, and reaffirm the promises we’ve made.  We remember what God has already done for us, and we open ourselves to what God is doing in us.

Maybe we’ve moved further away from God than we first realize, or maybe we’ve never been closer to God.  Maybe we’re not acting much like Jesus, but we’re committed to doing better.  No matter where you are on that spectrum, today is a day to recommit yourself to God, to thank God and be renewed and refreshed in the grace that claimed you as God’s beloved child in baptism.

Perhaps you are here this morning and you’ve never been baptized.  If so, then I want to talk to you after the service, so we can talk about baptism, and you can have the opportunity to experience the wonderful gift of God’s grace in baptism.

If you have been baptized, today you’ll have an opportunity to remember your baptism, recall the promises God made to you in these waters and the promises you made in response, and recommit yourself, with the help of God’s grace, to living like Jesus.

In a few moments, we will reaffirm our baptism.  You’ll notice I’m asking the same vows that were taken at your baptism, and today is a chance to recommit ourselves to them.  Then, anyone who desires renewal of soul is welcome to come to the front, where I will touch the water, make the sign of the cross on your forehead, and invite you to remember your baptism and be thankful.

When it comes to what we’ll be when we grow up, there’s a lot of ways we can answer that.  But, as Christians, we’ve been to the water and we’re clothed with Christ.  What do we want to be?  Let’s be like Jesus.

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