Trust the Affirming Voice
Sunday, January 11, 2015
I am a fan of North Carolina author James Dodson’s book Final Rounds. If you like golf, a good sports story or a tear jerker about fathers and sons it is a great book to read. Final Rounds is the heart-warming story of Dodson’s own relationship with his father. When his dad learns that he has terminal cancer and that he is in the last stages of life, Dodson decides that they need to go on one final trip together. Since many of their most memorable moments in life have been spent on the golf course, Dodson decides to take his dad on a trip overseas so that the two of them can play the great European courses while on one final journey together.
Final Rounds, though, is much more than a book about one last golf trip. It is also very much about the need of a son to be with a father one final time. Sure, there are some things that he wants to say to his dad before his life ends. But, there are also some things that Dodson wanted to hear from his dad one last time too. After all, his life was going to continue on and many of these final times together would become the foundation that Dodson would continue to build the rest of his life upon. As he says so succinctly and yet aptly in the book, “a man is never finished being a son.”
Most all of us can relate. Most of us know what it is like to spend those significant moments either as parent with a child or as a child with a parent where we remind one another one last time of what is important, what our values should be and of how we feel about each other. It is the conversation that we have right before our daughter’s wedding, as we drop our son off for college for the first time, as our parent celebrates our graduation from high school or college with us or when we embrace at the airport before walking down the terminal into the armed service or a career far from home. We know what it is like to need to say or to hear again a reminder of love, a restatement of hope or a reaffirmation of values that our particular families are built upon.
In many ways, I liken the scene of Jesus’ baptism to this type of experience.
“You are my beloved son,” God the father says to God the son, “and with you, I am well pleased.” I love you and I am proud of you – it really is as simple as that and again it is eerily similar to what we as parents say to our own children. If you think about it, one has to admit that these words offered to Jesus are uttered at a similar time. Jesus’ earthly ministry was in front of him. Over the next three years, many of the people that Jesus encountered were not going to be nearly as loving, affirming or gracious as was God the father. Over the next three years, there would be many times when Jesus would wonder what he had gotten himself into and if it was all worthwhile. So, before the three year journey began, God the father makes sure that Jesus knows where he stands.
In several regards, this text could be considered to be similar to our focus for last week on the Wise Men in that there are countless questions associated with this gospel story. Just as scholars still wrestle with the number of wise men, where they came from and what exactly it was that they saw in the sky, there are also countless questions that plague the story of Jesus’ baptism too. We want to know why Jesus needed to be baptized if he had not sinned. We also wonder how Jesus’ baptism should be considered different from our own? Like the story of the wise men, we get caught up in all of the questions that we cannot answer and risk failing to appreciate what we do know. What we do know is that Jesus was baptized. And, what we also know and where I want to place to focus for today is on this moment, at the very beginning of Jesus’ three year earthly ministry where God the Father made it clear to Jesus the son how he felt about him.
The first thing that we need to hear from this part of the story is that as we stand on the starting line of a new year, we need to hear the same affirmation. Just as it was very beneficial for Jesus to hear how God the Father felt about him, it is amazingly beneficial for us to know how God feels about us too. Over the next twelve months, people will say things to all of us that we will not want to hear. Over the next twelve months, things will happen in our lives that will cause us to question our own intelligence, abilities, standing with others and what will happen in the future. Without question, all of us will have our share of difficult moments in the days in front of us. As we struggle with the feelings of others it will be invaluable to rest assured of the feelings of God. So hear me say clearly, if we have been baptized into God’s family then we too are beloved children with whom God is well pleased.
In many ways, we have equated God’s love with the stock market. We anticipate that it will ebb and flow based on the reports and changes that take place every day. But, the truth is that God’s love is the one thing in our world that doesn’t fluctuate nor does it react in that way.
Sure we have and we will mess up again. Yes we will get it wrong countless times over the next year. And, as we do, you can bet your bottom dollar that those mistakes will dictate our value in the eyes of the world. But, even in spite of ourselves, if we are baptized children of God then our value and worth is secure. So, above all else, in this year, trust God’s affirming voice in your life. Trust it, in spite of what everyone else says and in spite of what may happen, trust that this is true.
If you are not a believer, that is to say if you are a seeker who has yet to affirm your faith in Christ or to be baptized, this without question, is one of the great benefits of that decision. Being a believer allows you to know that come what may, how God feels about you will never change!
Having said, the other truth for us to hear is this – God’s affirmation of Jesus was also offered as a way of preparing him for the work and journey that was ahead. These words were not an end in and of themselves. God’s affirmation wasn’t offered as simply a warm and fuzzy feeling. Rather, it was meant to provide an underpinning as Jesus went out to meet the needs of the world and as he went to call the world to faith, discipleship and to embrace the Kingdom of God.
There is a real danger, I think, afoot in modern American Christianity. We have done a fairly good job in recent years of speaking about God’s grace and unconditional love. Prior to the last twenty years or so, our presentation of faith had turned into so much hellfire and brimstone that it seemed that God was waiting to zap us at any moment with the first sign of our misbehaving. But, in the process of restoring the idea of grace and mercy, we have created a form of consumer Christianity that is all about what God does for us and devoid of God’s expectations of us.
The story of Jesus’ baptism provides a strong corrective here. Jesus’ baptism was about his both soaking up God’s love and being sent out to spread God’s love. One demanded the other.
I know that many of you are devotees of the British series Downton Abbey which is now underway in its fifth season on PBS. If you don’t watch the show, the series begins in the year 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and now over five years of episodes has reached the mid-1920s. The series follows the lives of an Aristocratic British family, their manor home and the lives of the servants who work for them. True to history, one of the ongoing themes of the show is the dying life of aristocrats that really picks up speed in Europe after World War I.
One of the stars of the show is Lady Mary, the oldest daughter of the family who owns and lives in Downton Abbey. As an adult, Mary is now helping her father, the Earl of Grantham to run the estate. In many ways, her life is one of unimaginable privilege. She lives in a beautiful home, is cared for by many servants and has everything anyone could want in life.
But again, estate life is coming to an end and the money needed to run such a grand place is also drying up. The servants want a fair living wage and the government just isn’t set up anymore to ensure that things at a manor house will go on in the future as they did in the past. In turn, the future of Grantham and the home Downton Abbey rests largely on her shoulders and it is a heavy, heavy responsibility. She is privileged and you cannot deny that – but, she also has heavy expectations. She has responsibilities and they will require all of the energy, focus, and hard work that she can muster.
Baptism makes the same reality true for all of us and we need to know it as we start a new year. The great German church leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it cheap grace. What he meant is that when we only accept the affirming side of faith without also embracing the responsibility that comes with it then all we are doing is cheapening the whole work of being a child of God. In 2015, I would say it this way – if we are fully embracing God’s love, unconditional grace and mercy but have no desire to devote our lives fully, completely and sacrificially to God’s work and to how God’s love should change how we behave and act then we are cheapening the entire process.
Today, I invite you to hear again that we are loved. But, as we do, I invite us to also reaffirm to God our pledge to allow this love to change everything about our lives as well. Amen.