Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon for Epiphany I

Trinity, Lincoln--Luke 3:21-22, Acts 10:34-38

Today we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of Christ. All three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—tell the story of this event, but each in a different way, from a unique perspective. In St Luke’s version, which we read in this Year C of the three-year lectionary cycle, there is great emphasis on two particular details: First, Luke wants us not to miss the fact that Jesus operated in the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus was praying after his baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove. As we read Luke’s gospel, the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’s ministry is an important theme. And as we read the book of Acts, also written by St Luke, the presence and power of that same Holy Spirit in the life of the early church is also an important theme. Second, Luke’s account of the baptism of Christ lays great emphasis on the voice of God the Father sounding from the heavens: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” So, just as Jesus works in the power of the Spirit, so he works on the authority of the Father. In the tenth chapter of Acts, St Luke records the words of St Peter about Jesus’s career, how he “proclaimed Good News throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about healing all those that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” 

So, in this miniature two-verse narrative from Luke, and the brief summary from Acts, we are put in mind of all the mighty acts of God, from the beginning of time, to the present age, and into the promised future. We do not worship a God-concept, a philosophical hypothesis, a passive, disinterested supreme deity. We worship an active, passionate, and involved God, a God who is a “mover and a shaker,” a God who is present in human experience.

Stephen Covey was a writer and speaker who deeply influenced they way I think and act with respect to the use of time. One of Covey’s cardinal principles is that, if we want to be effective in life, we need to be what he called “proactive.” To be proactive is to live life, rather than letting life live us. It is to be one who initiates, not one who reacts; one who is engaged, not one who is passive. In my mind, there is a profound theological implication here that is virtually screaming to be spoken, so I will speak it: God is the perfect example of proactivity. God does not react; God acts. God is not passive; God initiates. When we forget these core attributes of God’s nature, we do so at our own spiritual peril. When we forget that God is quite capable of advancing His own agenda, it’s all too easy to jump to the conclusion that it’s up to us to take up the slack. When we do that, we eventually begin to treat our life of faith as a “cause” to be advocated. We begin to treat our church involvement as an “issue” to be defended. We take up banners—and these are good banners—we take up banners such as renewal, or evangelism, or mission, or social justice, or, in a year like this, our favorite political candidate; projects like upholding tradition and maintaining theological integrity, or lobbying legislatures and office holders over issues of public policy—and pretty soon these banners become surrogates for a living relationship with the living God; the cart gets in front of the horse, the good overshadows the best, the means become more important than the ends.

Similarly, when we forget that God is proactive, our involvement in the world is cut loose from its theological and spiritual moorings. If our politics lean toward the left, we become consumed with issues of social justice, but lose sight of the Just One, God who is the plumb line of justice. If our politics tilt toward the right, we become obsessed with issues of personal morality and security, but lose contact with the one who is the fount of righteousness, and who “is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In our personal lives, when we forget that we serve a proactive God, a God who makes Himself known in mighty acts, we are vulnerable to attack from constant anxiety over finances and health. During good times, we worry about hard times, and during hard times, we think they’ll never end. And in our anxiety over finances and health, we hunker down into a defensive posture, and become good stewards of neither one. We are defined by our anxiety—reactive and fearful, or apathetic and fatalistic. When we forget that God is proactive, we lose the ability to be proactive ourselves.

But when we remember the nature of God, when we recall the mighty acts of God, we are reminded, among other things, that we are the heirs of a Christian and Anglican tradition that is life-giving and has helped perfect the holiness of men and women and children for at least the last 1,500 years. We are reminded that we are part of a strong and vital worldwide Anglican Communion that 80 million souls call their spiritual home, and it’s still growing. When we recall the mighty acts of God, we are reminded that we have this beautiful place, and others like it, in which to worship and pray, that lives are being changed in and through the witness of this parish community. When we recall the mighty acts of God, we are reminded that we have been entrusted with a message that is life itself to the thousands of Logan County and central Illinois residents who are waiting to hear it.

We serve a God who is active and watchful, and never turns His back on those who put their trust in Him. The same Holy Spirit who landed on Jesus at his baptism landed on us at ours. The same Father who proclaimed Jesus His Son, and took pleasure in him, has also adopted us as His children, and delights in us. This knowledge frees us and enables us to be proactive ourselves. We need no longer be reactive. When we react, we are behaving by instinct, immediately, without thinking. Now we are free, rather, to respond, not react. When we respond, we behave intelligently, by intention. And our response is one of faith and obedience. We will still be involved in projects and causes. We will still advocate for justice and righteousness, and make prudent provision for our personal and corporate security. We will still take our place in the political processes of church and society. But we will see these causes and projects as contingent and temporary. God isn’t depending on us to advance His agenda on His behalf. Rather, God is inviting us to cooperate in what He is going to accomplish anyway, with or without us!

In my current life, I suspect I qualify as a frequent flyer. I made nineteen trips by air during 2015. But, as commonplace as this is for me nowadays, I have never yet slept through a takeoff or a landing. I have never yet failed to experience a moment of transcendent wonder when the laws of aerodynamics trump the law of gravity, and several thousand tons of steel ascend gracefully into the air. I have never watched an airplane take off and not marveled at the sight. As familiar as it gets, it’s still a mysterious wonder. I hope, for myself and for all of you, that it works the same way with the mighty acts of God—that we will never lose our sense of wonder and joy at who God is and what God does, and that we will always respond to those mighty acts with proactive faith and obedience. Amen.

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