I have a friend who is good at working with his hands, especially with wood.  He’s so good with wood, in fact, that his pastor asked him to build a large cross for use during a Lenten program his church is doing called 24 Hours by a United Methodist Minister named Adam Hamilton.  What I love about my friend is that as he began to plan out this work, he began to wonder what it must have taken to build one of these things in the time when they were the torture and execution preference of the Roman government.

He began to research the kinds of tools that would have been used to craft one of these horrible devices, and to see if there were ways he might be able to replicate some of the methods.  He wanted to see how authentic he could make it.  When he told me about this, I told him that he really ought to create a blog to track such a project.  What a journey it must be during the Lenten season to actually build a cross.  Why did I find this project so compelling?

I found it compelling because the cross, the cross that we “lift high” the cross that we “take up,” is one of the central symbols of who we are as Christians.[1]  We may not agree on much with some other groups of Christians, but most every Christian group has a cross somewhere in their church.  And those churches who have completely removed crosses from their sanctuaries because they bum their congregations out too much did so to great cries of concern from brother and sister churches.  But generally, there are crosses everywhere.  There are crosses on my stole.  There are crosses on the altar.  Many of you have crosses hung from your necks. There are crosses all around our church.  We have a cross over the altar that is metal.  The cross in the fellowship hall is wooden. The crosses on my stole are made of thread.

There are crosses everywhere at our church and at most churches.  We bear this cross as a mark of our identity.  We bear the cross as a mark of who we are and whose we are.  The cross is a rich symbol that carries a multitude of meanings within itself.  Many of us bear oil crosses on our forehead at our baptism as a sign of the sealing of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.  Just a week ago we bore ash crosses on our foreheads as a sign both of our mortality and marking us as ones who have entered into Christ’s death, so that we might have a share in his resurrection.  Crosses are everywhere…and yet…

To see what my friend is doing, slowing down and considering the creation of this cross, I wonder in our multitude of cross, if a large share of those meanings of the cross has been lost on us?  We also experience crosses as ubiquitous.  They are everywhere.  The easy shot to take here would be at rappers who wear large ornate diamond studded crosses, which, compared to the Old Rugged Cross are riddled with irony.  But let’s step back from the easy shot and turn the camera back on ourselves.  It is easy enough to point fingers at other people who wear crosses, but don’t follow through with lives that seem to be Cross and Christ-shaped.  What about us, who wear these crosses around our neck, who set them in our places of gathering and worship, who actually claim to be ones who recognize and embrace this cross as a symbol of our redemption?

Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to bear the cross?  Do we grasp fully the depth of what it means to wear, to accessorize with the cross.  It is an object that is an instrument of execution and death.  What does it mean to accessorize with an instrument of torture?  If were to translate it into contemporary terms, if we saw someone wearing a little needle or a little electric chair around their necks we would receive that persson bearing such objects as jewelry as at best having a sick sense of humor and at worst having some deep-seated issues.  Why would you wear an instrument of death and execution around your neck?  Why would we lift it high?  One of the first gifts Mary Alex received on the day of her baptism was a little cross around her neck.  Why would we do that?  How are we to handle this?

Perhaps that a cross would be received at a baptism may help us to understand how it comes to be that we wear this object of death, this instrument of pain, around our necks.  Our baptism is the place where we God claims us and grace begins to work in us.  When we respond to that grace, we begin the life of discipleship.  The Gospel lesson today is really about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus begins to describe to the disciples that he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death.  Peter won’t stand for this.  Mark tells us that Peter “pulls Jesus aside,” and tries to rebuke Jesus privately.  As we have seen before, this isn’t the kind of Messiah Peter was looking for.

Yet, to deny this piece of Jesus’ life is to become an adversary, which is what the word and name “Satan” literally means.  And so Jesus rebukes Peter publicly.  Further, Jesus doesn’t just tell the disciples, but he tells the whole crowd exactly what it means to be a follower, to be a disciple.  It is to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.  When we respond to the grace of our baptism that is the beginning of discipleship, and it is the beginning of we picking up our cross and beginning to follow Jesus.

Lent is the perfect time to begin to consider what it means to reflect on picking up our crosses because it is the season where we intentionally focus on our discipleship in way that we often don’t during the rest of the year.  Lent is the time when we become the most conscious of Jesus’ call to take up our cross because it is the time when we are following him to his cross.  This has been true in the church for a long time. In the early church, those who were preparing to be baptized would be the most focused on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  About the responses they would give and the actions they would take in their baptism.  40 days seems like a long time to wait for a baptism, but in reality it took more like 2 or 3 years of preparation before a person could be baptized and be a part of the church.  Before you could be baptized, you had to learn how to live and act like a Christian.

We tend to think of it in the reverse, with the heart experience leading our changed behaviors.  However, in the early church, changing of one’s behavior was part and parcel of the change they were experiencing in their heart.  So, by the time the Lent before their baptism rolled around, they had already been reflecting on what it means to be a disciple, to take up their cross and follow Christ.  Lent was a deeper, intentional time leading up to their full reception of life in the church and their first admittance to receive Holy Communion.  Lent was a time when they would prepare to answer questions that are pretty close to what we who are baptized have answered ourselves.[2]

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”[3]  That’s first question we ask when we are baptizing someone.  In the early church, they would actually have to face the west and renounce “Satan and all his pomp.”  As we join Jesus in the wilderness, we encounter the temptations.  But the temptation isn’t just to do explicitly evil things.  No, the temptations we experience are much more sinister.  After all, Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” isn’t because Peter is asking Jesus to go out and steal from other people.  No, Peter wants Jesus to be the kind of Messiah that is the conquering the Romans and ruling the world sort of Messiah.  He wants Jesus to take over.  He wants to be part of the people who run things.  He wants to rule the Romans.  It is the kind of dominance we see Satan offer Jesus in the wilderness in the other Gospels.

It’s that kind of dominance that we still tempted with.  The temptation to skip all of that suffering stuff and just get to Easter.  The temptation to try to keep our own security and power in the world by trying o take over things, forcing others to see things our way, as opposed to offering up all the power we think we have to be weak in Jesus, who rules the world by suffering and dying on a cross.  It is that kind of control that Jesus rejects in the wilderness, and it is the kind of control that leads Jesus to see Peter as an adversary.

The next question we ask is, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil?”[4]  The freedom and the power God gives us to resist evil.  This question assumes that we need both freedom and power to resist evil.  The General Rules of the United Methodist Church basically say, “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Attend Upon the Ordinances of God.”  In addition to simply feeding people who are hungry, we begin to ask why they are hungry in the first place.  Are there structural things in our society that keep people hungry, that keep them in poverty?

I guarantee you when we begin to resist those structures, not everyone will take kindly to it.  We need freedom and power to resist evil in the world because to do that means not just that we “behave” ourselves, but it actually may mean getting into some trouble.  It will mean bearing a cross and being rejected by many.  It means we will look different.  We will look weird.  We will not fit in.

The third question we ask is, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord?”[5]  To do this means that we pick up our cross, that we are willing to following Jesus in that cross bearing.  It isn’t just an intellectual assent or an emotional change in our lives, but it is a re-ordering of our lives based on Jesus’ love those who are the “least of these.”  It means that we are willing to resist evil by changing the way that we live in the world.

The final question we ask is, “Will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy Church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world?”[6]  What does it mean to do that?  Jesus tells us exactly what it means in our Gospel lesson this morning.  Lose our life for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Gospels.  Deny ourselves in favor of others is how we represent Jesus.  In short, that is what it means to be a faithful member of Christ’s Holy Church and be his representative in the world.  We do this because in losing our life we actually find it, rather than being ashamed of this Savior who seems so weak that we have to make him look strong.

In my opinion, one of the scariest movements today in many Christian circles is one that suggests that Jesus has become too weak and too “feminized.”  Jesus is just not strong enough , and so they want to emphasize what they see as Jesus’ more masculine traits, with paintings in their churches of Jesus whipping the money-changers out of the temple.  The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t fit into the categories that we want to create for him and for ourselves.  Jesus’ power is made perfect in weakness, and so ours is.  Jesus conquers the world by saving it with his own weakness.

To bear our cross, to take up our cross, is a paradox now, even as it was in Jesus time.  Even as it is a symbol of government oppression and execution, we also experience it as a sign of Jesus’ victory.  Peter was horrified at what Jesus said because it is a paradox that the one who is the Messiah, this Son of Man the one who came to save Israel and the world would do so by suffering and dying.

In the same way the cross stands as this paradox that we would “lift high” the cross.  That this symbol of death, pain, and torture could become a symbol of love.  A symbol of victory.  A symbol of life.  How powerful is that this instrument of death could become a sign of life and victory?  A stumbling block the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles, right?  It is the just the same as the paradox that we find our lives by losing them for the sake of one another and the sake of the Gospel.

It is the same kind of paradox that will allow us later in the service to sing about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as a “dance.”  Read the word when we sing “Lord the Dance,” later in the service.  It is a very upbeat, even whimsical tune, that folks love to sing, but it is describing in some parts events that are horrible.  Yet, we sing it joyfully because in it we hear the story of our life that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  The difference between wearing a cross around our necks and wearing a little electric chair is that the cross has been transformed by the one who hung upon it, and the one who calls us and helps us to bear our crosses in the world.

[1] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 68.

[2] “Worship Notes – Calendar,” United Methodist General Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps, Online:, cited March 4, 2012.

[3] United Methodist Hymnal, “Baptismal Covenant I,” (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.


It was only a couple of months ago that we were reflecting on Jesus’ baptism, and what it means for our own baptism.  Here, in our Gospel lesson today, Mark tells us what happens next.  One might think that after such a powerful event in which Jesus’s identity as God’s beloved Son is revealed, as we see that God is revealed to be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that the next logical step would be to immediately rush into public ministry.  Instead, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.

As we have seen, Mark is his concise in his description.  Within the forty days, there is no grand dialogue between Satan and Jesus.  Instead, Mark only mentions that Jesus was “tempted by Satan” in the wilderness.  The sparse view of the scene we receive also lets us know that “Jesus was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him.”

Mark gives us so little information, and yet it is clear that something is different before and after the wilderness.  In his Baptism, Jesus’ identity has been revealed and his mission initiated.  After he emerges from the wilderness, Jesus picks up here John, who has been arrested, has left off, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”[1]  The difference, of course, between John’s proclamation and Jesus’ is that John was pointing to Jesus, but when Jesus says, “the kingdom of God has come near,” he is pointing to himself.

Jesus’ presence, as he emerges from the wilderness finds those he encounters, and us, as the one whom the voice from heaven named as God’s beloved.  It is an encounter with the Kingdom of God because it is found in him and he embodies it by his very life.  And yet, he feels the need to go into the wilderness.  We also find ourselves beckoned there by him.

For many of us, this isn’t how we would have our first experience after baptism and/or join the church. We are part of the community, we have received our baptism, and we are ready to get to work.  And yet, before Jesus begins his public ministry, is driven to the wilderness.  Why would we follow Jesus into the wilderness, besides the obvious that he bids us to follow him wherever he may go? Why walk with Jesus into the wilderness?

I had a friend in seminary who thought that Lent was foolishness.  He wasn’t from a liturgical tradition, which is certainly fine because not everyone is.  But he would always wonder aloud, “Why are you all spending forty days feelin’ all bad all the time?”  For him Lent was the ultimate bummer.  He wondered why, if we have the joy of Jesus Christ in our lives, should we spend forty days bumming ourselves out?  Perhaps that is not what is happening in Lent.  It may appear that way to those who are not familiar with the practices.

Perhaps it suggests that the joy that comes in the Lord is more than just being happy all the time.  Perhaps it suggests that going out in the wilderness from time to time is part and parcel of being shaped like Jesus.   We find ourselves beckoned to the wilderness, not just because Jesus is there, but because we know that God shows up in the wilderness.  A quick look at the history of God’s people, in the story of Israel as well as the Church we see again and again that God shows up in the wilderness.

Even as the Israelites wander through the desert, God is ahead of them and behind them.  When the early church experienced the wilderness of martyrdom, it was an incredible time of growth in the life of the Church.  So, we find ourselves confronted by a call to the wilderness, even as we find ourselves confronted with the fact that we live in a society consumed with consuming, and things like Lent doesn’t make much money.  A call that finds us being shaped differently.  A call that suggests that to come to waters of baptism, while we receive our new identity there, it is an identity that we will spend the rest of our lives living into.  And so we journey together into the wilderness, preparing for the great feast of Easter.

The first way that we enter into this preparation is we shape ourselves different as a worshiping community.  We still gather together.  We still proclaim the resurrection each time we gather together as church on Sunday.  And yet, we operate differently.  We mark time differently.  For example, that we don’t stop doing Holy Communion during Lent, but you may have noticed on Ash Wednesday, and you will notice the next time we share Communion that we will not sing the Communion responses during Lent.

It is a way to continue to practice, and at the same time it is to recognize Lent as a “lean” time, a time of introspection, of change.  It is a time where we continue our practices, even as we recognize that we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  The result of this is that when we gather together on Easter and meet at the table, after we walked with Jesus to the cross, after we have followed Jesus to the grave, and after we emerge with Jesus from the tomb, our song of Christ’s saving body and blood shall again ring out!

Another way that we mark this time differently is by the practice of “burying” our alleluias.  “Alleluia” is a word that is deeply associated with Easter.  Therefore, when we are in Lent, we bury it, we covered it, and we live together knowing that the Allelluia is still there, but we are preparing to shout it on Easter.  We still proclaim the resurrection each week, but we know we are walking with Jesus in the wilderness.  It a time of barrenness.  It is a time of denying ourselves.  Futher, we know that as we mark time differently as a community, we also mark it different individually.

We “give up” things for Lent.”  Not to show how righteous we are.  Not to prove how much we love Jesus.  Rather, we deny ourselves during Lent in order to remind ourselves of our utter dependence on Christ, that we “do not live by bread alone.”  In doing that we open ourselves up to the Spirit’s re-shaping of who we are.  Lent is a time of refining where the dross is burned away in fires of self-denial and the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, when we give up things for Lent, we must be clear that this is not an endurance trial.  Remember, Naaman expected some sort of difficult trial in order to receive healing.  And yet, he only had to wash in the river seven times.  Lenten disciplines are not an endurance trial.  If we just fast, and we don’t replace that time of eating with prayer, then we are undertaking nothing more than a holy diet.  Even more deeply, we are called to reflect on the reality that as we gather together and as we seek individually to observe a Holy Lent that we must also be careful to not let our practices be distorted in such a way as to contribute more deeply to those thoughts and actions that oppress and destroy us.

One of the biggest concerns that I’ve seen raised, and I think this person is right, is that Lenten disciples, such as fasting, are a time-honored holy tradition, yet they can also carry with it some potential hazards.  About a year ago I read a blog entry from one of my favorite professors in seminary, who raise a very important question, which is, as your pastor, as a I call us to this season of self-emptying, could I be contributing to your oppression and destruction?[2]  I thought of this particularly about women, some of whom have been told from an “early age to bite their tongue and offer their food.”[3]

Lent is about becoming more human, not less human.  Christian virtue is about moving towards a mean.[4]  Lent is about embracing Christ as the beginning and end of our lives. Perhaps, for some of you among us, men and women both, there are things that we need to give up or take on to become more human.  And that might not always mean stopping eating.  For some of us, it may mean to begin eating.  This same professor in seminary speaks of a time when she recommended that a young woman with body image issues bake herself cookies every day during Lent.  For this woman, such a discipline became a time of healing, even though we might at first glance consider her actions a sign of indulgence.

Or perhaps we find ourselves in Lent giving up our own sense of entitlement.  I have two friends that I am planning on paying close attention to this Lenten season.  One fellow pastor has committed to live using only the equivalent amount of money that she would get from food stamps.  That’s $30 a week, by the way.  The other is a guy I went to seminary with who gave up his house for Lent and has resolved to live as a homeless person during Lent.[5]  Giving up the things that separate ourselves from Christ and from one another.  This is to become more human.

Even as I fast myself at different times, even as I recommend fasting to others, I also wonder about the places that my recommendations might do damage.  What does it do to a group of people, who see television commercials, constantly telling them “DON’T EAT!” to say, “For Lent, don’t eat”?[6]  The worse thing I could do as your pastor is to baptize that message without qualification.  Perhaps the fast to which some of us are called is to fast from doing things that destroy us.  From running ourselves ragged.  Perhaps our fast must be from busyness.   Perhaps it is for those who have felt unable to speak for one reason or another to give voice to the pain that is within them.

The question before us as we begin this Lenten journey, as we follow Jesus to the cross, to the tomb, and to the resurrection, is “What do I need to give up to become more human?”  More human in the way God intended us to be.  Human in the way that Jesus makes possible because he himself became like us and draws us into his perfect body.  What are thing things we need to give up to become more human?

Additionally, one of the pieces of Lent that is often left out is almsgiving.  When we give up something that costs money, we aren’t called to just pocket it that money.  That would be “holy budgeting.”  Instead, the money that we save from our fast should be given to those in need.  So, one of the challenges that we have before us during this Lenten season is that if we do give up something during this season, is to save that money, and to contribute it towards the Stop Hunger Now Event that will be happening on March 24 at Mount Hermon UMC.  Even as we see that we do not live on bread alone, we also have the opportunity to provide bread to those who lack it.

When we come to the waters, and we are baptized, we put on a new identity, and identity that we spend the rest of our lives living into as we walk into it with Jesus.   Jesus calls us into the wilderness because it is a place where we are transformed.[7]  It is a place where our identity becomes shaped more deeply to look more like Jesus.  It is a place where we find ourselves looking inside…turning around…to repent literally means to “turn around”…and walking with Jesus.  It is a time where we intentionally walk into the wilderness with Jesus. T

here are times in our lives we can name where we’ve been in the wilderness without asking for it, and those are often times of transformation as well.  But during Lent, as we choose to walk in the wilderness, what are the things we need to give up to become more human.  As we walk with Jesus in the wilderness, and dig a hole and bury our Alleluias there, we wait for those seeds to blossom at the resurrection.  As we live as a people who walk in the wilderness, all the time knowing, feeling that tension building up inside ourselves, that excitement about Easter, where are the places that Christ needs to make you more human during this Lenten season?

[1] Marilyn McCord Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 46.

[2] Amy Laura Hall, “Eating Chocolate for Lent,” J. Kameron Carter’s Blog, Online:, cited February 26, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gavin Rodgers, Forty Days of Haven, Online:, cited February 26, 2012.

[6] Hall, “Eating,”

[7] Adams, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 46.

“Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”

“Seriously?”  Says Naaman.  “That’s what it’s gonna take?”

Naaman expects this to be a big deal; after all, Naaman is a big deal.  Naaman is a well-respected military commander in the army of the king of Aram.  Naaman is a celebrated hero, yet he is also a tragic figure, as he suffers from leprosy.  It’s important to point out here that any number of skin diseases at the time fell under the category of “leprosy,” and in many cases the ailment bore little resemblance what we now know as Hansen’s disease.  However, what remains clear is that Naaman has suffered deeply, so much so, that he is willing to travel to Israel, and to consult with a prophet who he only found out about because his wife’s Hebrew servant told him.[1]

Naaman expects more from a great prophet like Elisha.  He’s already been surprised to find that this powerful prophet isn’t squarely situated in the center of power near the king.  He thought for sure it would take a lot of money and gifts to incur the favor of this prophet.  So, Naaman expects a big production, in which the prophet comes out and waves his hands over the area calling upon [quote-unquote,] “his” God to effect this healing.  Instead, Naaman never lays eyes on Elisha.  Elisha sends a messenger with the simple instructions to go wash seven times in the Jordan.

Naaman is furious.  “This is all you want me to do?  Go wash in your muddy Israelite river?[2]  The rivers where I come from are better than your river!  I should have stayed at home.”  And then, his servants help him to put things into perspective.  “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?  How much more when all he said to was, ’Wash, and be clean’?”  “Maybe just give it a shot?”

Naaman expects a grand ceremony, or at least some feats of strength to overcome his disease.  Except that his stature and his abilities are not what will heal him and cleanse him.  God will.  Elisha doesn’t need to come do a big production, waving his hands over the area because he’s not the one doing the healing.  In fact, Naaman doesn’t know it yet, but the narrator has told us that even Newman’s success hasn’t come from his own efforts, but because God gave victory to Aram.  It is all God.  Elisha doesn’t need to give Naaman a difficult journey of cleansing.  God will do the cleansing.  He just has to respond, to go to the waters and wash seven times, a number of completion, a number of perfection, and let God take care of the rest.

Water.  Simple water.  Today is Scout Sunday, and one of the things I reflected on as I read this passage is the way water can be your friend or enemy.  It can be the thing that gets through your hike when you’re thirsty, yet it can also be the thin that ruins your camping trip as it soaks your socks.  I recalled a time when I tried to dry my socks by the fire, and they caught on fire!  But water.  Naaman is aggravated because water is so mundane!  So normal!  This is going cure my leprosy?  And yet, God chooses to cleanse Naaman through the mundane waters of the Jordan.  And when we think of water, we are naturally drawn to think about baptism.  That God offers us grace through something as mundane and yet as vital as water!  Simple water.

What happens to Naaman is not baptism.  Yet, what we see in Naaman’s cleansing is a prefiguring of one of aspects of the waters of baptism:  washing and cleansing.  We tend to think only in terms of cleansing from sin, which seems somehow different than Naaman’s skin disease.  Yet, isn’t that what sin is?  A disease.  A disease that finds us as people who are sick not just mentally, but physically, emotionally, and relationally.   Just like Naaman, it is not a disease that we can perform our way out of with great feats of righteousness.  Rather, it is a cleansing that is a gift to cure a disease that we can’t cure ourselves.  It is forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, with the only condition being that, with the help of grace, accept it.  It is learning, as we have seen over the past few weeks, how to perform into what Jesus did because we are in him and he is in us.

It is when we accept that forgiveness and new life that is offered to us, that we begin to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.  And yet we know that we will experience times of difficultly even after baptism.  Times when we stop listening.  Times when we might walk away.  Times when we turn our back on the love offered  to us by God.  Times we reject God’s invitation to be a part of God’s life.  Times when we as members of the church do not offer that same love and forgiveness to those in our midst.  Times, when lose sight of the effect that the grace offered to us in the waters of baptism has had on us, in drawing us into Christ’s body and to doing the things that Christ did as members of his body.

When that happens, and we find ourselves far away from God, far away from church family, that we begin to create great barriers for ourselves to return.  This is reasonable because when we begin to recognize God calling us back, we are aware of what we have forfeited.  And, like Naaman, we begin to expect that great feats will be necessary for us to be cleansed and return back to the community.

Yet, what is simply required is to dive back into the waters.  I don’t mean to be re-baptized.  What I mean is that after we are baptized, we spend our lives swimming in those waters, learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and we are helped to live in him and let him live in us through the grace regularly offered to us by God.  That includes even those times when we have walked away from God and the community.  It doesn’t mean coming back into the community will always be easy.  There are consequences for our actions, there are relationships that may have to be mended, but isn’t that what the community of the baptized is supposed to be?  The primary location of where such relationships with God and one another are healed.  It’s why we confess our sins and pass the peace before we share Holy Communion with one another.  Just as Naaman must dip into the river seven times, our lives as Christians is the story of us being shaped, formed, changed, healed, and brought back to Christ by the waters of our baptism.

The scene that keeps running through my head as I consider Naaman’s cleansing and our baptism comes from The Apostle starting Robert Duvall.[3]  Duvall’s character, “Sonny” Dewey is on the run.  He is a preacher who has had what many might consider a successful ministry at a Pentecostal Holiness Church in Texas.  However, things are now out of control.  His wife has decided to leave him for another man, a younger minister in the church.  In an angry drunken rage Sonny takes the life of this man at his kids’ little league game, where this other man is a coach.  Sonny flees town, eventually ending up in Louisiana.  He ditches his car in a lake, and begins walking, trying to figure out what to do next.  As he is walking along the river, he runs into an old man fishing, and he asks if he can hang around the man’s property.  Sonny begins to search his soul as begins to fast and lay in a small pup tent that the man lets him borrow.

As Sonny lies down in this tent, he reflects on his life, his ministry, his family, and his call.  When he emerges from this tent, we find Sonny in the river, praying:

With great humility, I ask permission to be accepted as an Apostle of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and with your gracious permission, I wish to be baptized as an Apostle of our Lord.  I therefore, without witnesses, baptize myself in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and in the name of Jesus.[4]

I watched this movie for first time during seminary for a class, and this scene was a topic of great discussion.  It doesn’t take a seminary student to see that what Sonny does is rife with problems.  First and foremost is that Sonny re-baptizes himself. As I’ve already alluded to, while some traditions permit and may even call for re-baptism as a sign of commitment and membership, we as United Methodists believe that we only require one baptism.  We accept the baptism of other churches as valid as long as water is used and God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is invoked because we understand Baptism as God’s act of claiming us even as we understand the need for a human response to the grace offered.   Even more peculiarly, Sonny baptizes himself.  Even Jesus had someone else baptize him!  Not to mention this baptism occurs outside of the context of a faith community.  Finally, what in the world does it mean for this new baptism to confer on Sonny the title of “Apostle”??

There are plenty of problems with what Sonny does, and yet, it is a profound moment of transformation for both Sonny and the viewer.  We don’t recognize it at first.  As the “Apostle, E.F.” as Sonny calls himself now, emerges from the waters, and he begins to do his “preacher thing” again.  We don’t trust him.  It seems he has used his religion to don an alias to hide his identity while he is on the run.  He is just a murderer who now sets about doing the only thing he knows how to do, creating a ministry, not out of sincere faith, but because he needs to create some income.   The Apostle, E.F., begins to establish this ministry, first on the radio station where he gets a job as a janitor, and then as he begins to gather a congregation around him and work to renovate an old church.  We want to view Sonny as a charlatan, a cheap huckster of a false gospel.  Seriously?  He baptized himself?  Who baptizes himself an apostle?

The only thing is, that as the movie proceeds, we find that, even with all the problems with what Sonny as done lives begin to change in his midst.  We begin to root for Sonny, even though, as viewers, we know for certain that he will eventually have to suffer the consequences of what he did.  What becomes clear is that Sonny’s transformation, while there may be some self-confirmation and self-deception in that self-baptism his action is actually a function of him knowing nothing else than the practices and beliefs of Christ’s Church.  In his own weird way, he knows he needs to repent, and he knows that baptism, repentance, and cleansing are related, and so he makes his way to the waters.

His new ministry, as much as at it may be an effort to start a life somewhere else after his crimes, comes because he knows nothing else than preaching the Gospel in such a way that people are compelled to have their lives changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It doesn’t excuse what Sonny did, and even Sonny knows this.  However, Sonny’s problematic baptism in that river turns out to be also a turning point in his life as a Christian.  It unfolds complete with the Biblical drama of receiving a new name.  His time in that pup tent turns out to be a tomb, and his emergence from it a time of resurrection culminating in his return to the waters.  Sonny, who has been preaching since he is 12 years old, is returning the beliefs and practices that have shaped him as a Christian.  In his problematic baptism, we find Sonny returning to the waters for another dip, in his own weird way.

The preacher and theologian in me doesn’t like what Sonny did.  It is, after all, my responsibility to teach rightly about our beliefs, especially with regard to the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.  Yet, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am compelled by Sonny’s character.  As a disciple I am reminded that the Spirit may work outside the normal channels.  I am compelled by Sonny’s character because Sonny isn’t all good, and Sonny isn’t all bad.  He isn’t all righteous, nor is he all evil.  He’s somewhere in the middle.  He is, I think, a lot like you and me.  Sonny recognizes this himself.  As he walks along after his re-baptism, he prays and talks with God:

“Thank ya Lord. I’m your Apostle from now to the end of eternity.  Ever since you rung my bell when I was 12 years you’ve been with ya.  Sometimes I zig-zagged off course, more zaggin’ than ziggin’, but I’m on’ tell ya I’m with ya now on a straight line forever!”[5]

More zaggin’ than ziggin’.  How many of us have done more zaggin’ than ziggin’? Sonny doesn’t need to re-baptize himsel, yet the transformation that comes from his odd activity looks and sounds someone who Jesus has got a hold of.  He still suffers the consequences of his actions at the end of the movie, yet we root for him, I think, because we want to believe that, like Sonny, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’, there is still redemption for him and for us.

Naaman expects a big production with a powerful healer-prophet, but what he finds is healing and cleansing from the mundane waters of the Jordan and God’s touch in the Jordan.  It is the same cleansing that beggar experiences from Jesus’ touch in our Gospel lesson.  It is the same cleansing that we experienced in our baptism, and that continues to happen in our lives and in our church as we come the table of Holy Communion over and over again.  We spill out into the world to invite others to the cleansing, not because we are so clean, but because we’re somewhere in the middle, and we know that we find cleansing at the waters of the font.   It is a cleansing that comes because God’s invitation to us never ceases.  It never expires.  It comes because God knows us each and everyone of us by name.

One of my favorite phrases in the Apostle comes as Sonny performs a healing:  “I always call you Jesus; you call me Sonny.  Now heal this broken heart!”[6]  That, I think, sums up what we as church experience, and are called to offer to others, even though we’ve done more zaggin’ than ziggin’.

“I always call you Jesus, you call me by my name.  Now heal this broken heart!”

[1] William J. Carl III, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 339.

[2] Carl, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 341.

[3] The Apostle.  DVD. Directed by Robert Duvall. 1997; Universal City, CA: Universal Home Video, 2003.

[4] The Apostle.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

“Alan, would you mind coming by my house today? And if you can, you might want to bring Morgan. This is important.” Those were the words I heard on a late March Saturday morning from Larry Davies, my District Superintendent. Morgan was at work. I texted her to tell her Larry had asked me to come over, but he hadn’t told me what it was about. Larry didn’t say why he wanted to talk to me, but every United Methodist pastor knows what a call like this between the months of February and April means. It means a potential move. I texted Morgan to let her know what was going on, and I got into the car. As I drove over to Larry’s house, a million things were running through my head. “Where in the world is Larry going to try to send me?” “Morgan is 8 weeks pregnant, and no one knows but us. How is this going to affect whatever I’m about to hear?” And, one other question loomed large in my mind, “What is this going to mean about going back to school?”

All along, even when I was attending seminary having admitted that I was called to ordained ministry, I have always felt a tension. When I was working in the local church, I felt the tug of the academy, and when I was in school I felt the tug of the local church. I lived in that tension, thinking I would eventually end up back in school. When Morgan and I found out we were headed to Heritage in Lynchburg, I told God and myself, I’ll serve in the local church, get some experience to ground the academic work I might do later, get ordained, and THEN perhaps I will be able to go back to school. That was the plan. It seemed to be going well. By the time Larry was talking to me I knew I was going to be ordained. So, I had been at Heritage for three years, and in the next year I could start applying to programs. Then it would be time to go back to school.

Larry offered me a soda, and we sat down in his living room. I’ve shared this part of the story with some of you before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t know where Larry was going to say or where he was going to send me, except I knew where he wasn’t going to send me. I KNEW he wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. I knew he wasn’t going to. I knew this because I had already talked to some people about it, and I had explained to them why this wasn’t possible. (I guess it’s not so impossible). Just three weeks earlier, I had been having dinner with a colleague of mine named Dori Baker. And she said, “Alan, I think you’d be great at Lane, I wish we could get you there.” I explained to her all the reasons why that was impossible. I didn’t have experience. The Sr. Pastor at Heritage was retiring. I was planning being there for another year or two and then going back to school. These were all the reasons I knew it was impossible that I would be sent to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church.

Further, I just knew Larry wasn’t going to say Lane Memorial United Methodist Church because several times over the previous three years I had told my friend Shawn Kiger that it was impossible when he told me that he thought my gifts would match up well with Lane. I told him it wasn’t going to happen. You know how these things work. The appointment process, like it or not, is often treated like a ladder that one climbs. In my mind (and in the mind of many other folks), to come to Lane wouldn’t make sense because it would feel like skipping a couple of rungs. I knew for a fact that Larry Davies was not going to send me to Lane Memorial United Methodist Church!

And so after Larry offered me that soda, he said, “How would you feel about going to Lane Memorial?” And then he gave me about 18 hours for Morgan and me to think about it. Needless to say, neither of us slept much that night. We were wrestling with all those things I had been thinking about on the way to Larry’s house: I hold told Larry about the pregnancy and made him swear not to put it in an email or post it on Facebook. How would this move affect the new member of our family? What would the folks at Heritage say when they found out both of their pastors would be changing? And, what about going back to school? In my mind, I knew that to move churches would be to put that dream on hold for a long time. While there are no guarantees in the appointment process, in my mind, a new appointment would mean at least five, if not more, years of serving the local church. It meant indefinitely, the dream of going back to school would be deferred.

Last week, when we looked at Samuel, we asked the question, “How do we know when it is God speaking, and how to do we know it is just ourselves?” We answered that question with the baptized community’s reflection and discernment. So, when Morgan looked back on those conversations with friends, and the words Larry and I exchanged in his living room, it was clear that God was present in this. God had been present in what Shawn was saying to me. God had been present in my conversation with Dor. It was clear that God was calling me to continue in the local church, specifically Lane Memorial United Methodist Church. God was preparing the way and making it possible for me to stand here before you today. My appointment here to be in ministry with you is not some haphazard accident of the appointment system, but it is a calling. I am called to be here.

A couple of months later I was at the ordinands retreat where we go to reflect on our call to ministry before we are ordained at Annual Conference. At that retreat they get you to sit down and tell each other your call story over again. It’s a really excellent thing to do because we get so used to telling that story, that sometimes we forget how powerful it is to experience God’s calling, and to see the way that God has led us into our vocations. As I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a professor at Candler School of Theology, he was telling me about how he always knew he was called into the local church. Except that God kept opening up all these doors for him to be in the academy. So he said that as long as God kept opening the doors, he would keep stepping through them.

As I listened to what he said, I realized that I was experiencing something of the opposite. I had convinced myself that I needed to be back in school, but God was opening these doors, one after another, for me to remain in the local church. What I realized I had been doing all along, what many of us do throughout our lives, is that I was constantly trying to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I was trying to say to God, “Yes, that sounds good, but I have a better idea.” Except that it wasn’t a better idea because God was calling to right where I am. God calls us where God wants us.

And so, as I read Jonah, I realized I could identify with him. The thing about Jonah is, is that he isn’t unfaithful. Jonah is not an unfaithful prophet. He’s a good prophet. He hears what God says; he knows what God wants him to do. He just doesn’t like it very much. Even as he flees to Tarshish, he probably has a good idea that he’s not going to be able to get away. Jonah’s resistance can even be construed as heroism. Jonah likes the idea of what God is going to do to Nineveh. Nineveh is this huge city in the Assyrian empires, the great enemy and oppressor of the Israelites. In Jonah’s mind, the Ninevites could use some smiting. Jonah wanted to be one of those old school prophets who prophesy some fire raining down on some evil people.[1] He doesn’t want to be one of those prophets who speak about God’s love, God’s mercy, and God’s forgiveness. He wants the Ninevites taken out. He has a better idea than what God is suggesting. And so he runs. He runs because he would rather sacrifice himself rather than see the Ninevites survive. Nineveh was famous for their unholiness.[2] They did horrible things to people when they conquered them. Unspeakable acts. So Jonah, sort of has a point.

We know how the story goes. Jonah runs away, he’s on the boat, the storm begins, they cast lots to find out whose fault it is, they throw him overboard, and as he is in the sea, the Scripture says that God “provided” a fish to eat him. That’s what the fish did, by the way. It ate him. It’s not like Pinocchio hanging in the belly of a whale. The fish ate him. He’s being eaten, and all the things that come along with eating and being eaten. Yet, even inside this fish Jonah is faithful. He cries out. And he thanks God for delivering him from death. The implication of Jonah and this big fish is that the fish has eaten him, and he is dying. When the fish spits Jonah back up on a land, the Hebrew indicates that it literally vomits him back on to land. Jonah’s delivery from death in the fish is an image of resurrection. Jesus speaks of the sign of Jonah. This is what he means.

Finally, after all this time of trying to renegotiate the terms of his call, Jonah finally does what God asks. Jonah listens to God, but one can imagine that as he walked through Nineveh proclaiming the word of the Lord, that Nineveh would be overthrown in 40 days, he probably wasn’t going out of his way to make sure people heard him. One can imagine him grumbling through the streets, hopeful that that he would be ignored, so that destruction might fall upon these enemies of Israel. But something happens. The Ninevites not only hear him, but they go crazy with repentance. Not only does every person, great and small in Nineveh put on sackcloth and begin fasting, but also the king goes so far as to declare that animals are included in this act of repentance. Make them fast as well, and make them put on sackcloth. A bunch of animals were repenting along with the people in the face of the coming destruction.

Jonah of course, is furious. He goes and he pouts his way out of town, and he makes a booth for himself. And he sits by himself. God makes a little tree for him, and the Scripture says Jonah was very happy about that. But then, of course, God sends a worm to destroy the tree. This makes Jonah very angry. God says, “Jonah, are you angry about that tree getting destroyed?” And Jonah replies, “YES! Angry enough to die!” And says, “You didn’t have anything to do with that tree getting created. You didn’t make. You didn’t grow it. Yet you’re furious about it being destroyed. How am I supposed to feel? I created all those people in Nineveh, Israelite or not, I created them. Am I not supposed to care about them?” I love what God says last. “This is a city of over one hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants, and also many animals.” God remembered the repentance of the animals, which I love. I don’t know what to do with it, but I love it. God remembers that the animals joined in the repentance along with all the people.

And Jonah is furious about all of it! He hates the Ninevites. But the reality is that God wanted to used Jonah to be an instrument, a voice, a vessel of God’s love, and forgiveness, and mercy in the world, but Jonah didn’t want to have anything to do with it because Jonah had a better idea. Jonah wanted to renegotiate the terms of his calling. I wanted to renegotiate the terms of my calling. I thought I had a better idea. I’m a nerd. I like to read. Big deal. It doesn’t mean I need to be in school for the rest of my life. It also doesn’t mean that it won’t happen one day, but what I did learn is that we cannot renegotiate the terms of our contract because we are always acting in response to God’s promptings. I don’t want to talk in simple terms of a “plan” in which you’re headed in one direction, and if you deviate from it you’ll fall off a cliff. It is more like we’re walking on that line, making choices that God is able to work with our choices, but also able to put up gentle dividers to direct us towards God’s calling for us. Almost like a maze perhaps.

The reality is that we can be very faithful people. We can be in church every week, worshiping and serving God, and we can still be trying to wiggle our way, squirm our way, talk our way, worm our way, renegotiate our way out of what God would have us do. But we know that at the font, we receive God’s calling. And often our vocation is various, including both those things we do for our jobs as well as perhaps being part of a family. What it comes down to is God is intent on using us, and God is faithful in that calling. God pursues us, so that we might be vessels of God’s love, vessels of God’s mercy, and vessels of God’s forgiveness in the world. We can try to renegotiate this, but if we are attentive, we will begin to see that God is preparing the way for these things. God is present in them. That no matter how good our ideas are for ourselves, that God’s ideas are bigger. God’s ideas are better. God’s ideas match up with exactly what we need and what the world needs.

We are called, each and every one of us to be vessels of mercy. Each and every one of us, we are called to receive mercy. To receive forgiveness. To receive love. And to take it and to pour it out wherever we may find ourselves. We are called to pour that mercy out. To pour that healing out. That is who we are called to be. We can try as hard as we want to suggest otherwise. But God knows us. God knew Jonah, and Jonah knew God. Jonah never pretends that he doesn’t know God. When the storm begins, and the lots falls on him, they ask him who he is, and he rightly confesses that he worships “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t try to avoid the truth. He knows who God is, and he knows that God, who made both the sea and the dry land has a hand in what is happening to this boat. He knew who God is, and he knew he wasn’t getting away, even though he tried. But God used him to be a vessel of mercy. Even though Jonah had good reason not to want to. Even though I might enjoy going back to school, God had a better idea.

I share that story about me today for two reasons. One, I think it illustrates some ways to identify with the Scripture for today. Two, I tell it as a reminder to me, and as a reminder to you, that I believe that we are called to be right where we are right in this moment. WE are called to be here together. The stories we are following in the lectionary during these weeks are about calling. Last week we heard about Samuel. The week we heard about Jonah. The Gospel lessons for the last two weeks have been about Jesus calling disciples. We are being called. This is a time to reflect on our calling. How? Where? In what ways is God going to use us here at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church, the church to which I had decided it would be impossible for me to be appoint to, how is God going to us? It is abundantly clear that nothing is impossible with God because God will send us where God wants us to be. Thanks be to God.

[1] Russel Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” on The Hardest Question, Online:, cited January 22, 2012.

[2] Rathbun, “Prophet or Loss,” The Hardest Question.

The books of Samuel are the beginning of a time of great transition in the life of Israel.  Most crucially it is a time of transition from Judges to a King.  We remember the Judges like Deborah and Samson.  These Judges arose as charismatic, divinely appointed leaders that rise up in response to trouble in the life of the Israelites, which is normally caused by their turning away from God. Yet, we see in the books of Samuel that God’s people are no longer satisfied with the Judges.[1]  The people want a king.  They want to be like the other nations (1Sam. 8).  Even though this leads us into some of the great figures of the Old Testament, such as David and Solomon, it is clear that the author is mistrustful of the monarchy.  After all, if the Israelites have God, why do they need a king?  Further, it is always a sign of trouble when God’s people seek to be like the other nations.  God’s people are called to be distinct, to live differently.  When we start wanting to fit in with everything around us, problems and idolatry are not far away.

In addition to a transition in leadership from Judges to Kings, there is also a priestly transition.  It is the transition of the lineage of Eli to the lineage of Samuel.  Eli’s family has squandered their role as God’s priests because his sons are as corrupt as can be.  They would come by while people were offering sacrifices, and they would thrust their fork into the container, and pull out as much as they could.  It wasn’t that they weren’t supposed to have any at all.  It was customary for them to receive a portion of the sacrifice, they were abusing their power and responsibility.  Even worse, they would take advantage of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.  In our era, where we see pastors regularly abusing their power and position, we can identify with the deep violations committed by Eli’s family.

Eli tries to reason with them, but they don’t care.  Not long after this, a “man of God” delivers the bad news to the Eli.  Even though God chose Eli’s family to be God’s priests, now as God looks at the abuses of Eli’s his sons, the sentence is that Eli’s sons will both die on the same day, and the rest of Eli’s family will die by the sword.  God promises to raise up a new “faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in [God’s] heart and [God’s] mind.” (1 Sam. 2.12-36).  This faithful priest will be Samuel.

Our Old Testament lesson today is that familiar story of Samuel’s call.  It is one we know well.  Because God granted her a son in Samuel, Hannah has turned over Samuel to be trained by Eli.  God calls out to Samuel in the night, “Samuel!” which literally means, “God has heard.”  Samuel mistakes God’s call for Eli.  Eli tells Samuel it wasn’t him and sends Samuel back to bed.  It happens again.  Then Samuel turns up again.  The third time, Eli, this priest who has lived a life of service to God, full of experience, though his eyesight is dimming, perceives that it may be God calling out to Samuel.  He tells Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  When Samuel does this, God reveals to Samuel what will happen to Eli’s lineage.  I love that the author describes Samuel lying there until morning.  I don’t imagine it is easy to sleep after hearing such a Word?  And imagine what Samuel must have felt when Eli wants to know what God has said. Yet, Samuel trusts Eli, and Eli knows what his sons have done, and Eli knows and is known by God well.  Eli still trusts in God, even though Samuel has bad news for him.

This story of Samuel has a lot to teach us.  Yes, it is a story about calling.  Yet, the character of this story about calling is different than the ones we usually hear.  Samuel isn’t like Isaiah being caught up in a blazing flash of heavenly worship and given a specific charge.  Isaiah’s call is unmistakable.  Samuel, on the other hand, doesn’t even recognize that God is even speaking to him at first.  He thinks it is Eli.  In fact, it takes the suggestion of Eli, with Eli’s “knowledge of the Lord, and his experience of the revelation of God’s word” to alert Samuel that the voice he hears is God’s.[2]  The young Samuel needs the experience of the one who has gone before him to help him see that he is being called.

The other thing that is striking about Samuel’s call story is that it is not instantaneous like many of the ones we hear.   There is no blazing bush calling out to Samuel here.  Instead, Samuel’s call emerges over time.  Samuel is in Eli’s care, and Eli helps him to grow, to learn the ways of God, and to learn how to serve God. He grows up in the Lord.  Even after the call, Samuel’s trajectory doesn’t change a great deal.  Instead, he continues to grow in the role to which God has called him as one of the last judges over Israel, bringing God’s word to the people.  All of this comes with Eli’s guidance and support.  Eli is incredible here.  How many of us would keep going when we heard that bad news from Samuel?  We spend our whole lives as a priest of God, and suddenly we hear that it is all going to be taken away?  Not only that, but it isn’t because of anything we did.  Rather it comes as a result of what our children have done?  Yet Eli remains in his role of priest.  Just as importantly, Eli remains in his role as Samuel’s mentor.  He assists Samuel in hearing God’s call, and when Samuel hears God call, Eli helps him live into the role to which God is calling him.

What we see in the relationship of Eli and Samuel is a model of who we are called to be as a community of baptized persons.  We noted last week the promises that we make when someone is baptized.  We promise to embody a community of love and forgiveness with the guidance and support of the Holy Spirit.  We promise to pray for one another that we might be found faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.  In essence, we are promising to be a community where older priests help younger disciples pay attention to and hear God’s call in their lives.  We are promising to be a community where younger disciples find themselves apprenticed to older priests, so that as they grow up, they will be able to rely on the knowledge and experience of God of the older priests.

Why priests?  As I pointed out last week and at other times, baptism is the ordination of all Christians into the priesthood of all believers.  We are all called. We are all holy priests. Though we as priests may not share Eli’s curse, it is true is that none of us will always be here.  It is true that one day our lineage will run out.  The lineage that God creates comes not through flesh, but through water and the Spirit.  There will be a new generation that God will call to be priests when we are God.  The older priests are called to be Elis for the Samuels among us.  The older folks are responsible for helping take care of, guide, and mentor the younger ones among us.  I’m not going to tell you who the older priests and younger disciples are because at one time or another, all of us have, still do, and will fall into both categories.  We’ve all been younger disciples, and we’ve all been older priests.  God calls each and every one of us to be older priests to those younger disciples no matter our age.  It points to God’s call on all of us as younger disciples to rely on the wisdom of those who have come before us.

In a time of radical change, where the Word of the Lord is rare, the older priests must be willing to mentor those who will maintain the faith and traditions of the Church.  To do this doesn’t mean that older folks hold on to the church and give to the young when they are finished with it.  It means that we are called to look for, to listen for, and to help younger folks to recognize when God might be calling out to them.  It is our responsibility to be present with disciples who are younger than us to help them hear God’s voice.  They might not know it is God.  It might sound like just a friend.  Or it might sound like just a teacher.  Surprisingly, it might even sound like just a parent!  But it could be God.

If Samuel’s story tells us anything, it is that younger disciples might not recognize God’s voice.  It might take an older priest asking the question, “What if that deep passion you feel, that deep inclination towards this or that vocation…what if that is what God wants for you?  What if in your baptism, God’s grace is drawing you towards this?”  A younger disciple might not realize that what is going on deep in their heart and keeping them up at night is God’s voice until they have that holy conversation with an older priest.

When it comes down to it, how do we know when it is God, and when we might just be talking to ourselves?[3]  We hear lots of pastors, politicians, and other people suggesting that God is telling them things.  That God is speaking directly to them?  How do we know when it is God and how do we know when it is just us trying to make God want what we want?  How do we know? Some of us lamented this difficultly during the youth lectionary bible study.  One youth wanted to know why there aren’t burning bushes anymore.  Yet the reality is that Samuel and Eli shows us that God still speaks, but we need ears to hear.  We need older priests who have heard God longer to help our younger disciples to perceive when it is God and when it isn’t.

The younger disciples in turn will also find themselves sharing their visions and dreams with us.

We need each other.  We need the community of the baptized to help us realize when it is God talking and when we are just talking to ourselves.  It takes the faithful, experienced, Elis of the church being willing to take the time to listen to the stories, the desires, and experiences of the Samuels among us.  That might mean you are a senior adult, and you are called to be an Eli to a youth.  It might mean you are a youth and you are called to be an Eli to child.  And though I have broken it down by ages, there may even be times when younger persons are called to be priests to older persons.  After all, once Samuel perceives that it is God, he shares that Word with Eli. The fact is, each of us are Elis called to help Samuels hear God’s voice, so that as they mature and develop they might connect their deepest to desires to the needs of the world, the needs that God is calling them to meet.

We are, as Peter says, “ a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2.9).  We are called to show that goodness to our younger disciples, so that all of us might able to show God’s light to a world full of darkness.  And to be clear, this need not just be a male model.  We see it throughout the Scriptures the same mentoring relationships developing between holy women as well.  Consider that the bridge between Judges and 1 Samuel is Ruth, who bound herself to Naomi in a holy friendship.  You can even argue that we see in Ruth and Naomi and Eli and Samuel a holy adoption, created by bonds God created, not the bonds of flesh.  We know our own holy adoption because God adopts us in baptism, and we adopt one another.  We become God’s children, and we adopt one another.

This is an incredible responsibility.  Yet, it is also an unimaginable gift.  And when we open ourselves up to that responsibility God is able now, just as God was able in Samuel’s time, to do something that will make “the ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (1 Sam. 3.10).

Are your ears tingling yet?

The Title for this Sermon came from a comment from Richard Boyce in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 247.

[1] Richard Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2008)  p. 243.

[2] Boyce, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 245.

[3] Unvirtuous Abbey, “Do You Hear what I Hear?” on The Hardest Question, Online:, cited January 14, 2012.

“Who invented baptism?”  This was a question I received in an email from Shawn Kiger about 3 years ago.  I was still serving in Lynchburg at Heritage, and I had just spoken at the District Youth Retreat, focusing my conversation on Baptism and Communion.  Shawn was not asking the question.  Rahter, he was asking on behalf of one of the youth from Lane Memorial United Methodist Church who attended the retreat.  They were discussing the retreat at youth group the next week.

One young man in particular, in the way only a youth can, wanted to know who invented baptism.  I had touched on most everything else regarding Baptism and its significance for our lives as Christians:  receiving the Holy Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, forgiveness of sins, new life, and the grace the follows us throughout our years growing in us and helping to direct us towards the person God is calling us to be.  Yet in this young man’s mind I had left out a critical detail.  Who invented it?  The great part about the answer to this question is that the answer is less than clear.   Sometimes, now that I find myself serving at Lane Memorial, I wonder to myself who it was that asked this question!

It is one of the things I love about the beginning of the Gospel text for today.  John the Baptist suddenly appears.  This figure in the wilderness suddenly comes on to the scene.  He speaks a word of judgment, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  He is not the one we would expect to be saying such things.  He appears not in courts of Herod.  Rather, he appears in the wilderness as far from the centers of powers as possible.

He is a rugged character, complete with camel hair garment and leather belt around his waist.  He is eating bugs.  And perhaps most surprisingly, people are responding to his message.  They are coming from all over the place to receive this baptism and confess their sins.  Mark gives us nothing more than he thinks we need to know.  We receive no back-story except that in Mark’s opinion all we need to know is that people have been expecting this unexpected character to turn up for a long time:

“‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century Swiss theologian, had a reproduction of a famous altar piece painted between 1510 and 1515 by Matthias Grünewald for the monastery of the Order of St. Anthony at Isenheim.  This painting hung over the desk at which he worked.  Barth because he referred to this altar piece at least 50 times in his speaking and writing.[1]  

Barth’s imagination was captured by Gruënewald’s depiction of John the Baptist’s hand.  John the Baptist extends a skinny small finger, and he points.  He is pointing at Christ.  But not just Christ, Christ crucified.  He points to the wound in Christ’s side, from which bright red blood flows.  It is, as we see today, John’s job always to point. He points not to himself, but to another.

John says in our passage today, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”  He points to the one who comes after him.  Barth understood this to be at the heart of our identity as Christians.  He says, “Shall we dare turn our eyes in the direction of the pointing hand of Gruënewald’s John? We know whither it points. It points to Christ. But to Christ the crucified, we must immediately add. That is your direction, says the hand.”[2]

John appears.  He points.  But it doesn’t tell us who invited baptism.  I could go on and talk about the history of ritual cleansing in Israel, and I could expand and describe on the outsider community of fringe Jews called the Essenes of which many people believe John the Baptist was a part.  Yet, it still doesn’t answer the question.  It doesn’t answer it because while it is a good question and one worth thinking through, when we look at John’s finger pointing at Christ we begin to ask different questions.  He points at Christ.  Baptism is important because Christ underwent Baptism, and he invites us to do the same.  It is interesting that Jesus chose to undergo Baptism, considering it was for forgiveness and repentance, which he did not need.  Yet, he insists that John baptize him.  Why?  The youth and I wrestled with this for a while on Wednesday in our Lectionary Bible Study.

It’s a pretty good question, yet Mark’s matter of fact style seems to circumvent the question to hurry up and get to the good part.  Mark doesn’t care why, he cares that it happened.  More importantly, he cares about what is revealed in the Baptism of the Lord.  The heavens are torn apart.  It’s funny.  When I read these words, I thought back to our conversation during Advent where Isaiah cries out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  It appears that is exactly what is happening.  The heavens are torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.  Then we hear a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

What we see in Jesus’ baptism is nothing short than a revelation of who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit descends on the one the Father identifies as the Son.  In this revelation the church was able to look back and see glimpses and hints of God’s Triune nature from the very beginning.  The Old Testament Lesson comes from the beginning of Genesis today because in it we see God in the beginning.  We see God’s Spirit moving across the waters.  And then God speaks.  The Word of God.  It has been there from the very beginning, yet only in Jesus Baptism do we have eyes to see that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Triune name in which we baptize.

Jesus, though he did not need John’s baptism, sanctified it, so, as John himself points out, John’s baptism is with water; but Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit. We are baptized by water and the Spirit.  This means that while our baptism includes repentance and forgiveness, it is deeper than that.  It is an entry point because God is choosing us.  Jesus has been baptized, and he invites us to join with him and swim in the waters.

As we join him in the waters, he invites us into himself.  We become a member of his body.  He begins to work us more and more deeply into being a part of him, and we are re-born…we receive and live a life that is new, a life that wades into life that is eternal.  Today as we celebrate Christ’s baptism it is also a celebration of baptizing Mary Alex.  Yet, in this act there is also a solemnity present here.  Today, Mary Alex undergoes a death and a resurrection.  This is made possible because Christ invites us to baptism.  We are baptized into Christ’s death, so that we may share in his resurrection.

As we wade into this life, and he lives us in us and we live for him, we experience the working of a grace that comes not to us just one time when the waters pass over us and the Triune name is spoken.  Rather, it is a grace that grows within us, that follows us.  It is the place in which God begins to call out to us, and it is that grace that allows us to recognize within ourselves who we authentically are created to be.  It is, as I have said before, the ordination of all people who follow Christ to be ministers of the Gospel in the world.

Or, perhaps, Barth might say, Baptism is our initiation to pointing.

Mary Alex cannot point yet, as far as Morgan and I know.  Yet, God is choosing her today in baptism to be God’s very own.  Not because she is a preacher’s daughter.  Not because she is somehow more special than everyone else, but because God loves her and wants her to be a part of the body of Christ.  The promises that Morgan and I make today point not to ourselves, nor to Mary Alex as cute as she may be.  They point to Christ and Christ crucified.  And the promises her Godparents make point not to themselves, but to Christ and Christ crucified.

We are reaffirming our promises, and we are promising to direct Mary Alex’s attention towards Christ and Christ crucified.  So that one day, through God’s grace operating in her through the power of the Holy Spirit, hopefully she will decide she wants to take responsibility to point to Christ with her own life.  This is not an individual endeavor; it is a community endeavor.  We make promises today, and so do you.  You promise “with God’s help,” to

proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround this child with a community of love and forgiveness, that she may grow in her trust of God, and be found faithful in her service to others.  We will pray for her, that she may be a true disciple who walks in the way that leads to life.[3]

We are all in this together.  As theologian Laurence  Hull Stookey says, when we receive baptism, “we renounce the popular notion that “I can be a committed Christian without being a member of the church. “[4]  We need each other, and we are drawn toward one another into Christ’s body when we are baptized.  We point together.  We don’t just point for people who aren’t Christians yet.  We point for each other.  We remind each other of who Christ is and that we belong to him.  We point for each other.  God chooses us so we can choose him and each other. In those moment where perhaps we have trouble saying part of the creed, the rest of us can say the creed together and we can speak those words for each other.  We can point.  We can be reminded of who and whose we are.  It is true that right now Mary Alex cannot point.  Yet as she prepares to undergo the waters of baptism in just a few moments, I think of the hymn:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
it was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

[1] James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 2.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1, p. 112. Cited in James E. Davison, “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” Panorama, Vol. XLV, no. 3, Spring 2006, (Pittsburgh, PA:  Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 3.

[3] “Baptismal Covenant I,” The United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville, TN:  United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[4] Laurence Hull Stookey, Baptism:  Christ’s Action in the Church, (Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 45.

God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.

[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question,, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

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