January 8, 2017
My first “protestant” pastor was Don Doane, pastor of the Methodist Church in Atwater. Julie and I joined that fellowship in 1980? Matthew and Richard were baptized there. He was our pastor but also our friend, which was a new experience for me. I grew up Catholic and we had a tendency to place our priests on a bit of a pedestal. They seemed to live on a higher plain and the church polity tended to keep the laity and the priests separated. As I got to know Don, I discovered that real people could be pastors! He even swore on occasion! I bring him up because one Sunday during his sermon he got a little brave and tried his version of an altar call. Now it was the only altar call I ever saw him try and perhaps he never tried it again as no one went forward. And I think a big part of it was that we were all caught by surprise. This morning I'm going to do my first version of an altar call and I'm telling you now so perhaps some will work up enough courage to come forward.
Our gospel is the story of the baptism of Jesus. Jesus came to John at the river Jordan, and Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented him (from being baptized), saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'” John was preaching and baptizing for the repentance of sin. We don't read it today, but here is how Matthew introduces John, “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt 3: 1-2) John called the people out for their sins. The he called them back to God...repent means turn around, go back, change course. John taught the people to leave their sin which leads to death and follow God. And there are many scholars who look at John as being extra hard on sin and Jesus kind of soft on sin; I have at times as well. But if we look ahead to Matthew's account of the message of Jesus, the first words he records Jesus preaching are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.; exactly the same as what John taught” The message didn't change; the approach did. Jesus, it seems, was much more a “people person” than John. But he never softened his stance on sin and the need for repentance.
We don't preach about sin much anymore. I get teased from time to time about needing a “fire and brimstone” sermon to get the people wound up. But that is not what today is about. In fact, it should never be about me or even what I say. Our faith journeys are started and directed only by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. We can't come to faith without the grace God gives us to recognize our need for forgiveness. We can't walk in faith without God's Spirit guiding us and leading us. We will not live eternally in God's presence without the saving grace of God enlightening our hearts so we repent and believe.
It makes for a difficult theological issue debated through the centuries. Do we come to faith because, in our free will, we decide to follow God? Or does God's Spirit call us and cause us to recognize our sin and turn to God for forgiveness? As Presbyterians, we believe it is the latter. We believe that all of salvation is of and from God. We Presbyterians seldom, if ever, do altar calls for the purpose of “being saved.” I said we don't have to respond to an altar call to be saved. I copied down a quote that takes issue with the churches that preach a need to “do” something to be saved. Let me share parts of it, “They (meaning people who do require us to do something) often require a “decision for Christ”. Sometimes they will speak of “praying the sinners prayer”...or...'opening your heart's door to Jesus'. Whatever exact terms may be used, the basic concept is there is something a lost person must be induced to do in order to bring about his or her new birth.” I believe that the new birth is 100% God's doing and we do not need to “do” something to bring it about. While there is not unanimity on this, the Presbyterian stance is the largely the same. God acts in us by the power of the Holy Spirit and we are invited to respond. This is why I am a proponent of infant baptism; if we wait to make a “decision for Christ” then it is something we do that opens the door to heaven. But a baby can do nothing...it has to be all God.
I'm trying to make a case that our even our response to God is God's doing. And as I make that case, I'm going to invite you to reaffirm the promises made for you at your baptism...and that you confirmed on your confirmation day. (those of you brought up in our tradition) What I'm trying today comes from our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. It is a service entitled “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant for a Congregation.” You may rightly ask, if it is all God, why do we need to do anything? But I will counter with the example Jesus gave us in today's reading. If Jesus was without sin as we confess, why be baptized? He certainly didn't need the repentance John was calling for. Could it be that it was part of the process preparing him for his journey into ministry? Maybe it was humbling for him? Humility was a huge part of his ministry.
In the same vein we ask, why would we do a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows? Maybe we need to be humbled again. Humbled because we can get to thinking we are pretty good people; we are good church members, we don't murder or steal.... John the Baptist, Jesus, the first sermons preached by the apostles all start with the call to repent. If we believe we are pretty much self sufficient, what do we need repentance for? This morning what we need is to be reminded that sin is real and sin is real in our lives. If we are not aware of our sin, we are not aware that we need Jesus for salvation. Barbara Brown Taylor is a modern day author and theologian; not one I see eye to eye with very often. But in her book Speaking of Sin she has a chapter called, “Sin is Our Only Hope”. This is where I got my sermon title and here is the point she makes, the key to experiencing salvation is to be aware that we need saving. That means we must recognize our sin. When we recognize we are sinners, we open the doors for God's grace to flood into our lives. And so we are strengthened in spirit for our journey of faith.
What has gone wrong in our theology is that we define sin too often as a list of things we do or fail to do. That's part of what sin is, but certainly not all. The Hebrew word that is translated sin in English didn't deal with what we do or don't do. It dealt with archery. Sin originally meant to miss the mark. I like that. If we look at our need for repentance in that sphere, it is easier to recognize our sin; those areas in life where we miss or fall short of the mark. Do we ever fall short in being loving and understanding and patient with our spouse? Do we miss the mark in responding to people with grace and kindness, even when they are rude to to us? Are we missing the mark in how we spend our time or our money? Do we fall short in our generosity, our time spent with God in prayer and study, the strength of our faith? If you answered yes to even one of these, then you agree with what the bible teaches about you—you are missing the mark; you are a sinner. And recognizing that fact is where our hope for forgiveness through Jesus comes in. Recognizing our sin is our only hope. And so what I'm calling us to do today is to recognize and acknowledge the fact that we are sinners. And that we need Jesus. Here's a question that the Presbyterian Church (USA) asks at a baptism, “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn away from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?”. Notice it doesn't just ask us to reject sin but reminds us that God is gracious and merciful. It doesn't leave us to our own power to resist sin but calls us to trust in the power of God's presence. The next question builds on that, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love?” The basic formula for redemption is “repent and believe” And so these two questions reinforce these two requirements...but even as I write that word requirement, it seems I am limiting the power of God to save us. It is a bit of a conundrum...we trust in God's grace and we act on it. By God's grace.
There is a third question which seems a little out of place in today's message; “Will you be Christ's faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” Wow, that's tough. Where is God's preeminence in this I want to ask. If it is all up to God, where does this question fit in? And the formula works as the answer we give is, “I will....with God's help.” We cannot answer that question in the affirmative without adding that caveat. None of us are fully faithful or fully obedient. But we can seek God's help, and we can and must trust in God grace, mercy and love all of which are covered in our ceremony.
Several times in Adult bible study the idea of kneeling has come up. I say we don't do enough kneeling in our protestant heritage. Kneeling is a humbling position; we are acknowledging that when we pray we are coming into the presence of the King! And so my altar call this morning is for those who would like to come forward and kneel for the renewing of our baptismal promises; there will be no water, I don't believe in any re-baptizing. But in humility and sorrow you can kneel and pledge your trust in God's grace and mercy as you acknowledge turning to Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Not a traditional altar call; not a call to come forward and “be saved” because I believe you were saved on a hill called Calvary 2000 years ago. I invite you to come forward. If not, simply bow your head where you sit. As a spiritual exercise I invite you to remember your need for Jesus and acknowledge the power he has to forgive by asking you to answer those three baptismal questions.
Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn away from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world? (I do)
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior; trusting in his grace and love? (I do)
Will you be Christs' faithful disciples, obeying his word and showing his love? (I will, with God's help)
Prayer: Dear Lord, We praise you for sending Jesus your son, who was baptized in the waters of the Jordan, and anointed as the Christ by your Holy Spirit. We rejoice that you claimed us in our baptism, and that by your grace we are born again; born anew. Renew us in the power of your Holy Spirit to be empowered to be your faithful disciples and that we may continue forever living in the risen power of Jesus Christ, to whom with you Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Hymn: Baptized in Water