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The Presentation

bellini2Purification

Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. From the Gospel of Luke we read:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  (Luke 2:22-24)

Let us look at this event as if it were part of a three act play. This was the first act of purification – a ceremonial purification. Mary was considered unclean on the birth of her child, according to Jewish law. After a waiting period of about forty days, she and Joseph were required to offer up their son to God. Mary would then be considered pure and her child would be declared holy before God.

A ritual of ceremonial purification was not without meaning or significance. It was a rehearsal of a spiritual purification which was to come. Today, in many churches, parents present their children to God with the expectation that these children will be raised in the Christian Faith.

At the time of Jesus’ presentation the prophet Simeon blessed the family of Jesus and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

This prophecy foretold the second act of purification – a purification of the Law of God. Simeon prophesied that Jesus will bring about major changes in Judaism. Jesus said that he did not come to set aside the law but to fulfill it. The essence of the Law had to do with loving God and neighbor, but it had become merely an elaborate set of rules to follow. As the Word made flesh Jesus demonstrating by his life the true righteous requirements of the law. God requires transparency and truth. We cannot cover up our sins by our works.

Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus to God in the Temple. Jesus would soon change the whole temple worship by becoming the temple himself. He would become the new Temple by satisfying all the requirements of the old Temple. His blood, spilled on the cross, would become the atoning sacrifice for all our sins once and for all.

From Hebrews we read:

Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.   (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The last act of purification has to do with the purification of the saints. We read in Malachi:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.   (Malachi 3:3-4)

The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, by his atoning sacrifice, is able to present us pure before the Father:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.   (Colossians 1:21-23)

Paul makes it clear that we must continue in the Faith. Jesus makes this promise for those who do:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.   (Matthew 10:32-33)

Mary and Joseph presented Jesus holy to God. Jesus turned the tables. He presents Mary and Joseph and all saints as holy to God. Mary and Joseph offered up their son before God. God, the Father, offered His Son as a sacrifice to us all that we may be made holy before him. The Presentation of Jesus is our presentation as well.

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First Sunday after the Epiphany

The Baptism of Our Lord

This Sunday we have another major epiphany in the life of Jesus. The Wisemen spoke about Jesus being a King. Today we learn about the Sonship of Jesus through his baptism by John as told in the Gospel of Luke.

John was preaching a baptism of repentance. Nevertheless, Jesus, who was without sin, asked to be baptized by John. From the Gospel of Luke:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”   (Luke 3:21-22)

If our baptism is like the baptism of Jesus then God tells us that he loves us and has chosen us. God spoke through the Prophet Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
    I will bring your offspring from the east,
    and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
    and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
    and my daughters from the end of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
    whom I created for my glory,
    whom I formed and made.”   (Isaiah 43:5-7)

We are not to be fearful, but, rather, to put our trust in God. We are assured by the Apostle Paul that our baptism is linked to the baptism of Jesus:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.   (Romans 6:3-5)

Is baptism a onetime occurrence in the life of a believer? Or is it an ongoing process? Perhaps that depends on who does the baptism. From Luke we read:

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:15-17)

Jesus baptizes with the Spirit and fire. Baptism apparently has something to do with purification. That purification is the fire of God burning in our hearts.

Do we accept our baptism the way Jesus did? Do we value it? Are we willing to fully participate in it? God has forgiven us for our sins through the blood of Jesus. He also wants to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we believed that God loves us then we will not hide from him. We will hide in him. That is one of the primary meanings of our baptism.

Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus. He needed baptism because he needed the guidance of the Holy Spirit and his power while he was here on earth. We, too, need the assurance of God. God tells us he loves us. We need his guidance by the Holy Spirit. And we need the power of God in our lives to sustain us as we struggle in a fallen world.

What about the baptism of fire? God the Father does not condemn us. Our condemnation occurred on the cross of Christ where Jesus bore our sins. God does convict us of sin. From we read:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:8-9)

The psalmist told us that we “should not fear for God is with us.” If we believe that then we will fully submit ourselves to him in faith, knowing that he has our best interests at heart. We have his promise: “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). The Apostle Paul writes:

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.   (Philippians 1:6)

Thus, we see that our baptism is the beginning of God’s work in us. We are to live in the promise of our baptism so that God can complete his work in us. We are a work in progress. Let us continue in faith, knowing that God is completing the work of the cross. The blood of Jesus removed our condemnation. That is true. The blood of Jesus is also continually cleansing from all unrighteousness. We are being reformed in the image of Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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Third Sunday of Advent: Year C

What Must We Do?

We are living in troubling times. We need a breakthrough that only God can provide. Such a breakthrough could help change our conditions; and also our lives, if we respond to it.

The early English colonies in American were experiencing what seemed to them an increasing tyranny from the home country. People were losing hope. Then the Spirit of God broke through. During the 1730s to the 1740s a spiritual revival ushered in bold changes. The period was called The Great Awakening. One of the event that was a great catalyst for this awakening was a sermon by Jonathan Edwards. He preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It emphasized God’s coming judgment on sinners who refused to listen to abide by his commandments. At the end  of the sermon Edwards made one final appeal: “Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come.” He was interrupted many times during the sermon by people moaning and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?”.

The Jewish people were living in troubling times. A prophet of God had not spoken to them for four hundred years. They were under the tyranny of Roman rule. People were hungry for change. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance. He warned of God’s coming wrath against those who continue to break his commandments. From today’s Gospel reading:

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   (Luke 3:7-9)

An awakening has to do with the exposure of sin by the Spirit of God and a warning of God’s coming wrath against unrepentant sin. A number of John’s listeners heeded his message:

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”   (Luke 3:10-14)

Notice that an awakening elicits a response from the people. The common question appears to be: “What must we do?”

Are we experiencing an awakening in America today? Perhaps an awakening in the world at large? What we can say is that evil is being exposed. If we are truly awake then our response should be: “What must I do?”

When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost he told the people that they had crucified their Messiah:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.   (Acts 2:37-38)

We need to see the evil around us, but we also need to see the evil within our own hearts. The good news is that God is ready to take that evil away. In today’s Old Testament reading God speaks through the prophet Zephaniah:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
    shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
    O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
    he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
    you shall fear disaster no more.   (Zephaniah 3:14-15)

An awakening is not a spectator sport. Each one of us is called to do specific things. We must get involved. Getting our hearts right with God through the cross of Christ is just the beginning; We need his daily guidance and strength. We live in very unsettling times. If is difficult to know just where to begin. The Apostle Paul reminds us that our “doing” must always begin with prayer and rejoicing:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:4-7)

We need a peace that passes all understanding. Only the Prince of Peace can provide this. He wants to change our world, but first he must change our hearts.

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Second Sunday of Advent: Year C

A Highway for Our God

John the Baptizer was special. He was spoken about in the Book of Isaiah:

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.   (Isaiah 40:3-4)

His father, the priest  Zechariah, prophesied over him when he was born:

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.   (Luke 1: 76-79)

John’s ministry was to prepare the way for the coming Messiah promised of old. Israel had not heard the voice of a prophet of God for four hundred years. There was a longing to hear from God. There was a longing for a savior that would save the nation from its enemies. But were they ready for John the Baptizer?

The Lord spoke through the Prophet Malachi concerning John:

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.   (Malachi 3:1-3)

John the Baptizer was like a refiner’s fire. Israel needed purification. They were looking for someone to subdue their enemies, but like many of us, their real enemy was themselves. Are we ready to receive the Christ into our hearts today? Israel was not. They were living in a wilderness apart from God, though they were careful to observe their traditional religious practices. These practices were not necessarily wrong, but they were often empty.

God wants to build a highway in the wilderness which leads directly to him. Whether people consciously realize it or not, they are looking for God. God is offering them a highway on which to travel. What is that highway? Or who is that highway? The children of Israel were that highway. And today we are that highway.

The modern way of road building is to smooth out the terrain underneath. That was not always the case for Virginia before the interstates. I was once driving up and down the many hills from Richmond to Charlottesville, Virginia. My young daughter, who was riding in the back, got very sick. I won’t go into all the details. The highway we were riding was faithfully tracing out the contour of the land and it was very hilly.

What does it take to build a highway? A lot of heavy earth moving equipment. God is building his highway and we are the earth he is moving around.

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. e level,
    and the rough places a plain.”

God is refining us. He is reshaping us. If we will allow him to have his way the world around us will see a different terrain. Through us God will “shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide them into the way of peace.” We are living in a terrible darkness today. People need to see the light of Christ.

The Apostle Paul prayed for the Church in Philippi:

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.   (Philippians 1:9-11)

God is preparing his Church for the final harvest. He needs us to help produce that harvest. We must be pure and blameless. We must be the light of the world. That can only happen when we abide in our Lord Jesus Christ. This Advent season, will we allow God to use us as part of his highway. There may be some pain as God rearranges the earth. But if we bask in the love of Jesus all the while, not losing his peace, we will pave the way for a great harvest, both within the Church and the world around us. Amen.

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