Gospel reading: Luke 3:15-22
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, may your Holy Spirit take the seeds of these words, plant them in our hearts and minds, and enable them to grow and produce the fruits of your kingdom. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
This is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. It celebrates Jesus’ baptism and the revelation that he is the Son of God. It also provides us with opportunity to review our own baptism and the life we have been called into.
Baptism is best understood within the context of God’s revelation in the Scriptures.
We confess that God is the creator of all (Genesis 1). God is the maker of heaven and earth. God has provided for life and God has made human beings in the image and likeness of God. We have been created to live life with God and to serve the life-sustaining purposes of God.
However, we also know the story of our rebellion, Instead of living in communion with God we wanted more than God offered. We wanted to be masters of our own destiny; gods of our own making.
And so we separated ourselves from the Source of life. We pulled the plug and headed down a dark path of brokenness, leading to the destruction of ourselves, others, creation and ultimately ending life in death.
Fortunately God did not leave us to end in total self-destruction. From Genesis 4 onward through the Old Testament, into the New Testament and to this very day God has traveled with us, seeking our salvation: to bring us back home and restore us to life.
The climax of this salvation initiative was God himself coming in human flesh to live among us. In the person and ministry of Jesus Christ God shone forth the light of God’s kingdom, inviting people to follow him into the truth and life of his reign. However, our rebellion again raised its ugly head and we rejected that offer by crucifying our Saviour. His death, though, became the means for God to express his amazing love and grace for us.
While we were yet sinners watching our Saviour die Christ died for us and on that cross cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). In Christ’s death we were reconciled, justified, forgiven, and offered the ticket to come back home.
Christ’s death was not the end though. Death could not hold him and in his resurrection Christ proclaimed his reign over sin, death and the power of the devil. In Christ’s resurrection there is the promise of hope and life both now and forever.
The Word of God in Christ Jesus proclaims that there is nothing we can do to pull ourselves out of our rebellion and its death spiral, but God has done what we cannot do by entering into our lives to reclaim us and bring us back home.
This Word is proclaimed in the Scriptures, in preaching, in the Sacraments and even among God’s people as they share it with one another and with those who do not yet believe.
In the waters of baptism this Word reminds us of how God in Jesus Christ left his home to find the lost (Luke 15:3-7). Through the Holy Spirit God calls us back home. Like the Father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) God welcomes home the lost, cleans us up and restores us as children of the King. But baptism is not the end of the story, it is only the beginning.
When Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize, baptism was the beginning of a journey called discipleship. Baptism is the springboard propelling us into a way of life that centers on becoming like Jesus. That doesn’t mean “being Jesus,” but becoming like him – being recreated into the image of God.
What does it mean to be a baptized follower of Jesus? The following marks of discipleship express the witness of the Scriptures and define the life we are called to live as we faithfully follow our Master.
- Worship. Our life is to be a one expressing honor to God. One of the important ways that God has called us to do this is by gathering with God’s people every week to experience the “bigness” of God, to listen to God’s Word, to be fed in his meal and to respond in praise and thanksgiving.
- Bible reading and Prayer. Every day we need to devote time to be with God. Like worship, time with God orients our life to the true North and connects us to the Source of life. Reading, studying, reflecting over and listening for the Word in the Scriptures is how we do this (see article on “Devotions“). As part of this time with God, prayer is conversation with God. It is the means by which we listen for God’s voice and speak our adoration, confession, thanksgivings and needs.
- Small Group. Jesus gathered his first disciples into a small group (Matthew 10). This was where they and we can experience the intimacy of Christ as we share our lives together, listen to God’s Word and pray together, support one another and participate in God’s mission together. Small groups are essential community for every Christian.
- Proclaiming the Gospel. As we look at Jesus’ ministry this takes two forms. First, it is the verbal sharing of the good news or hope that God’s kingdom offers to people who are broken (Matthew 5-7). Second, it is the actual healing and love that this kingdom brings (Matthew 14:13-21). As followers of Jesus we are to continue to verbally share and actively live this good news out wherever God has placed us.
- Giving. All that we are is a gift from God provided so that we may also give. We give by sharing our time, our talents and our treasures for God’s kingdom purposes. Serving inside and outside the church community, using what we do well and supporting God’s mission through tithes and offerings are all examples of this.
This is what discipleship looks like on a personal level. So how are you doing?
Discipleship certainly has a personal dimension just as our salvation does. However, baptism is as much or even more about community. We are baptized into relationship: relationship with God and with God’s family that we call “the Church” or “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
A healthy, growing church also has biblical characteristics that contribute to God’s mission. Allow me to mention eight of these.
- Empowering Leadership. Leaders must disciple others to be leaders. If the same leaders do everything all the time there will be no one to fill their shoes in the future.
- Gift-based Ministry. Too often we’re looking for warm bodies to fill positions in the church. Through baptism God has blessed the baptized community with all the spiritual gifts needed to undertake the ministry God wants us to be about.
- Passionate Spirituality. The congregation not only needs Bible study, but also ways to translate what we learn and hear from God into real action in the world. We need to walk the talk.
- Effective Structures. Our organization, leadership, programs and finances ought to lead us to increasing health and growth as a congregation. If it isn’t, it’s time to find a structure that will.
- Inspiring Worship. In the last three years our worship attendance has declined by 30%. Are people no longer being inspired by our worship? Perhaps it’s time to ask this question.
- Holistic Small Groups. I mentioned small groups earlier, but healthy small groups not only feed the mind, but also the heart (emotional-relational) and leads people to act on what they have learned and experienced.
- Need-Oriented Evangelism. In the last ten years we’ve baptized 100 people and had 85 people join our congregation. Most of these baptisms and new members were not new conversions. Are we as a congregation connecting with unbelievers so that God can save them?
- Loving Relationships. We all believe that we’re a pretty nice congregation, but are we a loving congregation? Do we stand up for issues of justice? Do we proclaim the truth of the gospel? Do we live by God’s grace? This is what it means to be loving.
This is what a healthy, growing congregation looks like. So how are we doing?
As we look at our personal lives and the life of our congregation we may say, “Heh, I’m (we’re) doing a lot of this stuff. God is at work. Praise the Lord!” It’s true that we have much to be thankful for. God is at work in our lives and through us to others.
Too often though, we stop there and bury our heads in the sand when it comes to all those parts of faith and life where we are weak and God is calling us to growth.
When we consider Jesus’ approach to faith and life we see something different. We read in Philippians (2:6-8):
Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
God’s love was powerfully revealed not in the glory, but in the cross; not in the strengths, but in the weakness. This is the foolishness of the cross we proclaim.
As we begin a new year, 2013, reflecting on our personal discipleship and on our life as a community of baptized persons, we give God thanks for his faithfulness and his great love in Christ Jesus. We thank God for his call on our lives and his reclaiming us in the waters of baptism.
I would encourage us to also look at those areas in our personal lives and our life as a community where we are weak because that is where I believe God is calling as to grow in.As John the Baptist reflected on his own ministry he recognized that although there were many people coming, his ministry was only skin deep, like the water he was baptizing people with. John proclaimed that the One who was to come would baptize more deeply, with the Holy Spirit and with fire.These words you read are only seeds and this year I pray that God would send his Holy Spirit into our lives to open our eyes to those area God is calling us to grow in and that the Holy Spirit would give us the fire in the belly to tackle those areas of faith and life with the passion of Christ.Allow me to pray for us. Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit into our personal lives and into the life of our congregation that we may grow in faith, love and obedience to your will in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.