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Neglected Holiday

Commentary
Perhaps your congregation is well-acquainted with the liturgical calendar. Perhaps it is a foreign language to them. In either case, this Sunday represents a dramatic shift for most American Christians.

The liturgical calendar features all sorts of occasions for remembrance and celebration. We celebrate Christ’s Transfiguration and his kingship. We remember his Last Supper and his crucifixion. We bookend Holy Week with two festive Sundays — Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday — to commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and his triumphant exit from the tomb. And the list of holy occasions for which we designate a day each year for celebration goes on.

But the holiday we celebrate this Sunday exists in the shadow of the holiday that we celebrated just a few weeks ago. The Baptism of the Lord hardly compares in most people’s minds and experiences with the birth of Jesus. And so this Sunday — and the occasion it represents — pays a certain price for its proximity to Christmas.

The holy day that we call Christmas has leapt out of the church year and entered into the larger culture. For better and for worse, it has become arguably the most significant holiday celebration in the United States. No other occasion can hold a candle to the number of weeks, volume of time, or amount of money invested in decorating and celebrating Christmas. Hundreds of radio stations give up their usual programming for an entire month just so that they can play the music that has grown up around Christmas.

But who sings about Christ’s baptism? Who decorates for this occasion, or gives gifts on this day? Who makes long trips in order to guarantee being in church and with family for this celebration? As holidays go, the Baptism of the Lord is not on most folks’ radar. And the ignorance is especially conspicuous because it comes so soon after Christmas.

Yet you and I know that only Matthew and Luke tell the Christmas story, while all three synoptics tell the story of Christ’s baptism, and John’s gospel alludes to it. If the Gospel writers do not ignore the event, neither should we. And so we set aside this Sunday, in the wake and shadow of Christmas, to remember and celebrate the Baptism of the Lord.


Isaiah 43:1-7
I don’t know that scholarly speculation about second and third Isaiah is very fruitful for most folks in our congregations. I do know, though, that the pattern we see across the whole of the book of Isaiah is important and meaningful, as well as consistent with the larger theme we see across the canonical prophets. That theme is persistent mercy and grace of God.

Isaiah of Jerusalem is generally categorized as a “judgment prophet.” The folks with that designation are generally the bearers of an unwelcome (and usually unheeded) message. The Lord has chosen to exercise judgment upon his own people because of their recalcitrant sinfulness. And that judgment will not be a slap on the wrist; it will be nightmarish devastation.

How, we wonder, does that speak to the mercy and grace of God?  How is such a harsh message consistent with the God who is love? Just this: the very existence of prophets who bring such a message is proof of God’s mercy and grace. After all, if God’s greatest desire was to demolish a people, would he warn them in advance? Does the burglar announce his coming? Do the ambushing troops send up a flare to publicize their location? No. If the Lord’s deep desire was destruction, he would enact it without warning. The very fact of the judgment prophets — like Isaiah — is proof of the mercy and grace that prefers repentance over judgment — redemption over destruction.

And then we come to our sample passage which is often attributed to a later prophet, and which is at least later in the book. It is a message from the same God, if not through the same human being. And that message is one of restoration and hope. That message is an expression of God’s love and good will for the very nation that he had threatened to judge.

Without an understanding of the mercy implicit in the judgment message, we might think this God rather capricious. One moment he is shaking his fist and then next holding out his arms to embrace. Which is the truth? Will the real God of Israel please stand up!? Yet they are not competing impulses or contradictory purposes. The same God of love sends the judgment prophets to warn in the first place also sends these words of comfort to reassure and give hope to his people.

This selection from the book of Isaiah has a very personal quality to it. God is the one who created the nation, redeemed them, called them by name, and claimed them as his own. This is not a detached and disinterested God. This is God in intimate relationship with his people.

Neither is this a pollyannaish God, who blithely pretends that everything is all good. No, he matter-of-factly recognizes the troubles his people have faced and will face. Yet in it all, the Lord promises his presence and protection. Verse 2 reminds us of the famous testimony of Psalm 23. And it also prompts some of us to begin singing that great, anonymous hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.”

Finally, the same sovereignty of God that was on display in the judgment messages is operative in the redemption messages as well. He is in covenant with the nations of Israel and Judah, but he is God of all the nations. They are all under his sovereign sway. And so, just as surely as he might use them to judge his people, he will also require them to release his people from their captivity and dispersion.

Whether the book of Isaiah comes from one prophet, two prophets, or more, it comes from one God. And through all the fluctuations in his people’s condition and all the vicissitudes of earthly armies and empires, that God remains the same. He is the God of love.


Acts 8:14-17
This “Samaritan Pentecost,” like the Ephesian one a little later in the story (Acts 19:1-7) prompts many questions and can cause a great deal of consternation. Some believers have built their whole pneumatology around these two unusual episodes, while others have had to close their eyes and ears in order to preserve their own paradigm of the work of the Holy Spirit. Personally, I am uncomfortable in either camp, for I am reluctant to try to compartmentalize the work of God.

By way of illustration, consider the healing ministry of Jesus. He heals the Roman centurion’s servant from a distance (Matthew 8:5-13) while he goes to the house of Jairus to heal his daughter (Mark 5:22-43). He heals this one by touch (Luke 5:12-13), this one by word (Matthew 9:4-7), and this one by mud (John 9:6-7). The healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter seems to come reluctantly (Matthew 15:22-28), and the healing of the bleeding woman appears to come involuntarily (Luke 8:43-48). These examples form a small cross-section of the healing ministry of Jesus. And based on them, what shall we conclude about Jesus healing?

Personally, I come to the conclusion that there is no single recipe for how and when Jesus healed. And that is increasingly my conclusion about the broader work of God in scripture and in my own life. Human beings are sometimes referred to as “pattern-seeking creatures,” and so we are. But the ways of God remain inscrutable to us. And the work of the Spirit? “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NASB).

For our purposes on this particular Sunday, with this brief passage before us, I would preach two observations as primary.

First, there is a cautionary word to be said about one’s baptism. Just as John had to say to his audience that they should not be complacent in the fact that they were descendants of Abraham, perhaps there are church folks today who should not be complacent in the fact that they have been baptized. Externals — to the extent that they are external only — are never sufficient for the man or woman of God. And the fact that these new believers in Samaria were baptized but still needed something more is a cautionary word for us.

The second word, then, is a natural extension of the first. Namely, this: there is always more to be had with God. We human beings will not come to a point where we have exhausted our experience of God. We will not check all of the boxes or travel every acre of the terrain. And so, whether we are preaching to the young believer in the front pew or the elderly saint in the next pew, we can speak the same truth to both: there is more!


Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Our Gospel lection is the one that brings us most directly to the subject of the day. This Sunday celebrates the Baptism of the Lord, and our Gospel passage offers Luke's reporting of that event. And it begins, of course, with the ministry of John the Baptist.

It is a testament to the incarnational nature of God's work that his activity is again and again placed in the context of human events. The work of God is not vaguely “once upon a time” or portrayed in some unidentifiable, mythic locale. No, our story is solidly placed on the banks of the Jordan River in the days of this prophet named John, whom Luke has earlier placed during the administrations of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, and others (Luke 3:1-2).

John himself is an underappreciated character among most American church folks. The Gospel writers and Jesus all highlight the importance of John. Furthermore, John is identified as one who fulfills certain Old Testament prophecies, which is more than can be said for others who get more attention, like Peter and Paul. Yet John generally receives less attention in the church than he does in the Bible. We will say more about John below, for he is a worthy role model for us.

Meanwhile, it’s important for us to clearly see Jesus and John side by side in this episode. In spiritual terms, they are both very clear about themselves and one another. They know who they are and the roles they play. But we mustn’t take our this-side-of-the-empty-tomb understanding and project it back onto the Luke 3 scene. For in human terms, John was at that moment something of a celebrity, and Jesus was not.

While Jesus’ coming was both foretold and announced by angels, and for as fond as we are of the stories of the shepherds and the wise men, the fact is that he was not a public figure yet. At this moment in the story, there were no disciples, no multitudes crowding around, and not even any antagonistic scribes and Pharisees conspiring against him. Jesus, it seems, was largely unknown. At this juncture, the fact is that the one with the crowds and the headlines — indeed, the center of curiosity and speculation — was not Jesus, it was John.

As Luke reports it, this may be another way in which John prepares the way for Jesus. It’s not just the message of repentance, the proclamation of the kingdom, or the promise of “one who is...coming.” It may also be the heightened expectation. “All the people were filled with expectation,” Luke writes, wondering whether John might be the Messiah. Perhaps expectation of the Messiah is essential for reception of the Messiah.

In this regard, I wonder if misunderstanding and misplaced expectation can sometimes serve the purposes of God. Perhaps pinning our hopes on the wrong person, place, or thing can be instrumental in our recognizing the right place to pin our hopes. Perhaps the awakened longing or excitement drives us to search. And while the search may tempt us to settle for wrong destinations, they may prove to be halfway stops on our journey to the truth.

So it is that the people looked for John to be the Messiah. He was not. But he was a proper stop on the way to the one who is the Messiah. And John helped to point the way.

The baptism event, then, marks a watershed in the Gospels, and perhaps their accounting reflects a watershed in the larger context at that moment in Palestine. Up until this moment, John had been the crowd favorite, while Jesus was unknown. From this moment on, John decreases and Jesus increases. The baton has been handed off, and the story from this point follows Jesus — and so do the people.


Application
Trinity Sunday is a different date on the church calendar, and yet the event of Jesus’ baptism, along with the accompanying lections, invite us to give some consideration to the Trinity. This event, after all, is arguably the one occasion in the Bible (in history?) when all three persons of the Trinity are physically manifested. The Son is there incarnate, the Spirit appears as a dove, and the Father’s voice is heard. Furthermore, the role of the Spirit is prominent also in the Acts passage.

Chiefly, however, the baptism is about the Son.

Students of Old Testament Law will recall the importance of multiple witnesses. Nothing could be established on the testimony of a single witness. This is a principle that is clearly echoed at several key points in the New Testament, as well. And John’s gospel is especially sensitive to the notion of various witnesses to Jesus.

So it is that here, in Luke’s account of the baptism, we hear from multiple witnesses. First, there is the testimony of John himself. He knows that one is coming, and in describing that one here (and elsewhere) he speaks of the person and work of Christ. Furthermore, there is the active endorsement of the Holy Spirit. And then there is the testimony of the Father himself, speaking audibly to Jesus.

The witnesses are both human and divine. The witnesses are both visible and audible. And what do the witnesses tell us?

First, there is the implicit message of John that Jesus is the Messiah. That single term captures a wealth of prophecies, promises, and expectations. Furthermore, John speaks to the elevated work of Christ. He will be more powerful than John. Likewise, while John baptizes with water, the one who is coming will baptize with the Spirit and fire. And, finally, the word about winnowing, threshing, and unquenchable fire combine to speak of judgment.

The testimony of John, then, implies what becomes explicit in the testimony of the Father: namely, the divinity of Jesus. The Messiah would not have been universally assumed to be a divine figure, after all. Chosen by God, yes. Empowered by God and an instrument of God, but not himself God. Yet John’s elevation of Christ’s work, plus the association with the Spirit, fire, and judgment, all combine to suggest that the one who is coming is no ordinary human being. Indeed, not even just an extraordinary human being. And so when the Father declares, “You are my son,” our grandest suspicions are confirmed. Jesus is not just a great servant of God, like Moses, David, Elijah, or John. He is not a servant of God, but Son of God.

This was known to Mary and Joseph in the Christmas story, of course. But now, at his baptism, Jesus becomes a public figure. And in this public setting, the witnesses testify to who and what he is. And with that, his work on earth begins.


Alternative Application(s)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 — The One Who is Coming
It’s an intoxicating business to have people crowding around you. It can be addictive to have people talking about you and thinking you’re important. And such was the spiritually vulnerable position in which John the Baptist found himself.

John had become the center of attention. Any of us who has been there — even for a brief period of time — knows the risks. It is a surprisingly difficult test of character. Yet John passes that test with remarkable effectiveness.

Perhaps this test is one of the reasons that John is an underappreciated character in most of our churches. We are more awed by how bravely David faced Goliath or how faithfully Daniel stared down the lions’ den. Yet John navigates a difficult road that is more likely to be a road that we also travel. It seems to us routine, therefore; unspectacular. Yet until we manage it as well as John did, we should be just as impressed by him as we are by those heroes who prevail against less ordinary challenges.

John makes no compromise in order to cling to his popularity. He does not mellow his message in order to keep the crowds coming. He does not soften his style in order to keep the crowds there. And, most important of all, he does not keep for himself the attention being paid to him or the speculation surrounding him.

It would be very natural for a human ego to revel in the curiosity. Keep ’em wondering and they’ll keep coming! But John promptly disabuses them of their misunderstanding, and he puts a quick end to their speculation. He tells them plainly that he is not the one they are waiting for. And then he redirects their attention to that one.

“One who is more powerful than I is coming,” John boldly declares. “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” It’s a remarkable demotion of self in favor of Christ. And it is, at precisely that point, an example to us all.

Whoever we are and whatever our circumstance, John’s model is worth our imitation. Let me, in every circumstance, subordinate myself to Christ. Let me, at every opportunity, redirect people’s attention to him. For while you and I do not play the unique role in salvation history that John the Baptist did, we may always say with him that there is “one who is more powerful than I... (and) I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.”
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