“What Everybody Needs”

A sermon by Rev. G. Lynn Turner, Senior Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 13, 2013

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I love following the Christian calendar in worship, because I think it creates for us a rhythm in our Christian journey. We are in the second Sunday of our calendar year, but actually the Christian calendar began back in December when we started with Advent, the four weeks of waiting for the coming of Christ. We went through his birth at Christmas, we met the kings on Epiphany Sunday, and then these next Sundays leading up to the season of Lent, up until the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain, the light of Christ will be getting brighter and brighter. The manifestation of his power, the revelation of who Christ is will be expanding each week.

Today’s gospel lesson takes us to the first public appearance of Jesus as recorded in scripture, since we first saw him in the temple at age twelve, the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan river. Our text is from the gospel of Luke, chapter 3, and I’m going to ask you to turn there in just a minute as we read that passage, but first I want to ask you a question this morning.

How are you?

It’s a familiar question we ask people when we see them in the hallways or when we run into them in the grocery store, “How are you?” And usually the polite answer “I’m fine, how are you?” I had an uncle every time I would say “How are you Uncle George” he would say “I’m finer than a frog’s hair, how ‘bout you?” And I never knew what that meant. I have no idea to this day what that means, but it sounded like he was okay.

If you have a little more of a relationship with someone you might get a little more truthful answer: I’m just so busy, or I am so tired, or I am so stressed. I am anything but fine. Or you might get an answer that tells you a little bit about what’s going on in their life. You might hear things like, “You know I’m worried I might not find a job.” “I’m struggling in school.” “I just got news that I have cancer and I am so scared.” “My life seems so empty right now that he or she is gone.” “I’m very sad, my Mom and Dad are having problems.” “I don’t know what it is but I’m having a hard time finding joy in my life. I just need a break from the craziness of this world.” 

I don’t know what those eighteen years of Jesus’ life were like between the temple and the river, but I have to believe that all of his days were not just fine. And certainly we know that the next three years of his life are going to be the most rewarding, but also the most difficult and challenging days that he will face.

I just have to believe that on that day God knew exactly what Jesus needed to hear to prepare him for those challenges that he would face over the next three years. It’s the same thing that you and I need to hear today when we find ourselves facing challenges in our lives.

Let’s read this very short account.

Luke 3:15-17

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And then down in verse twenty-one:

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

You know all four gospels record the story of Jesus’ baptism. In Matthew the emphasis is more on the obedience of Christ to fulfill all righteousness. But there are several details in the gospel of Luke that are not recorded in the other gospels. I want you to look at verse twenty-one one more time with me: “Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized. And while he was praying, heaven was opened.”

According to Luke, Jesus was baptized with all the people. Maybe a detail that we in the church overlook sometimes. Jesus had no need for repentance, he had no sin in his life, but perhaps in an act of identifying with each one of us, he got in line just like everybody else. In fact he was the last one in line according to Luke. Everyone who had been broken by the wear and tear of this world maybe ready to give up on God. He was dipped under the water just like everybody else, identifying himself with the worst of sinners, as he continued to do throughout his ministry on earth.

Luke does not have Jesus say a single word but what he does say that after Jesus was baptized, he prayed. And it was during his praying that heaven opened up and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove and he heard the words of his heavenly father say, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

From baptism onwards Jesus knew that his core identity was that he was the beloved son of God. And this knowledge informed every relationship and every encounter with profound acts of compassion in his earthly life.

I want you to think about a few of those with me.

To the woman at the well in Samaria he said, “Regardless of your past, you are the beloved daughter of God.”

To Zaccheus, “Zaccheus in spite of your oppression of people come down from that tree. You are a blessed son of God; I’m going to your house today.”

To Peter, to Mary Magdelene, to a Canaanite woman, to a synagogue official, all the encounters that Jesus had, he left them with the message that you are a beloved child of God.

Perhaps this morning we can glean from this very familiar story of the baptism of Jesus and epiphany of our own.

Henry Nouwen, who was a priest, a scholar, the author of numerous books, dropped everything and lived the last fifteen years of his life as a spiritual director at a place called Daybreak. It was a community for developmentally and mentally disabled folks in Canada. It was here that Nouwen says he truly found his calling and understanding of his life.

You have to understand this was a huge things for him to do. Here was someone who had taught at Yale Divinity School, but he decided that he needed a change in his life. And one of the books he wrote is called Life of the Beloved. One of the most revealing things in this book was that he was insistent that Jesus identity as the beloved of God was transferrable. It was like a certificate or diploma. Belovedness is conferred upon every follower of Jesus. When we accept the love of God through his son Jesus, scripture tells us that we become the children of God. You don’t need a formal education, you don’t need achievement or evidence of merit, no grades are required, no birthright, no citizenship papers, no possessions, status or evidence of potential, no references are needed. He says, “As for the Christ I serve, my identity is beloved of God, and this reality alters every aspect of my life.”

So often Nouwen says we base how we are doing in this life on three things: what we acheive, what other people say about us, and what we have. How sad if we come to the end of our lives and our measure of what our life has been on this earth is measured by those three things. This is the world’s way.

God’s way is for each one of us to understand the depth of love he has for each one of us. So much that he sent his only son to die on a cross for you and for me so that all who trust in that love may have abundant life on this earth and the promise of eternal life, living in the light and in the love of God forever. God’s way is understanding that no matter what life may throw at us, regardless of our circumstances, we can claim the blessing that we are his beloved child. And when we can hear and accept the blessing of God it is then that we are free to live our life with joy and we are capable of offering blessings to others.

This should be the measure of our life, not what we achieve, not what others say, not what we have, but the measure of our life ought to be joy and blessing.

Nouwen said that blessing is one of the most powerful things we can offer someone. It’s more than a word of appreciation, or praise. It’s more than pointing out somebody’s talents or good deeds. It’s more than putting someone in the light. To give a blessing is to say “yes” to someone’s belovedness. To give a blessing is to reach that place in the heart where only God sees, and to touch the original goodness in someone’s soul.

He shared a story about a girl named Janet who was one of the handicapped members of the Daybreak community. She came to him one day and said, “Henry, can you give me a blessing?”

He said, “I responded in a somewhat automatic way of tracing my thumb on her forehead and the sign of the cross, and instead of being grateful she protested, ‘No! That does not work! I want a real blessing.’ And I suddenly became aware of my ritualistic response and I said ‘I am so sorry Janet, let me give you a real blessing when we gather for prayer in just a few moments.’ She nodded with a smile and I realized that something special was going to be required of me. After the prayer service I said, ‘Janet asked me for a special blessing today. She is feeling that she needs that right now.’ And before I could finish Janet did not wait, she jumped up out of her seat, immediately came up towards me. I was wearing a white robe with ample sleeves that covered my hands, and spontaneously Janet came and put her arms round me and put her head against my chest, and without thinking I covered her with my sleeves so that she was almost vanished in the folds of my robe. And as we held each other I said, ‘Janet, I want you to know that you are God’s beloved daughter. You are precious in God’s eyes. Your beautiful smile, your kindness to the people in your house, all the good things you do to show what a beautiful human being that you are. I know you feel a little low these days and that there is some sadness in your heart, but I want you to remember who you are, a very special person, deeply loved by God and all the people here with you.’ And when Janet heard those words she raised her head and smiled letting me know that she had heard and received my blessing, and immediately Jane raised her hand and said ‘I want a blessing too!’ And before I knew it she was standing before me and had her face against my chest. Then one after one, all thirty in that room followed their desires to be blessed. The most touching moment came when one of the assistants, a twenty-four year old grad student raised his hand and said ‘Can I have a blessing too?’ And so he came forward and as I put my arms around him I said, ‘John, it is so good that you are here, you are God’s beloved son. Your presence is a joy to all of us, and when things are hard and life gets burdensome, always remember that you are loved with an everlasting love.’ And as I spoke those words, he looked at me with tears in his eyes and he said, ‘Thank you. Thank you so much.’” 

The blessings that we give to one another are really expressions of the blessings that we have already received from a God who loves us more than we know. As the beloved children of God we are blessed. Often I think we get caught up so much in our lives that we forget that.

My guess is that there is not a single one of us in this room today or watching us on their computer or watching us by television who does not need a blessing, whether you’re five or ninety-five. Some of you are facing huge challenges in your life. Others of you might say to me, “You know, Lynn, life is okay for me right now.” But the truth is at some point in all of our lives we will face challenges. It was that way for Jesus that day on the river bank at the Jordan. God knew that the challenges were coming. And he knew more than anything that what Jesus was going to need during those challenging times was to remember that he was the beloved son of God.

I think every time you read in the gospels where Jesus went off by himself to pray, what he was doing was asking God to say it one more time God. “Today has been a tough day. Let me hear it, that I’m your blessed son, bless me today.”

And maybe we need to do that. Maybe it’s as if God is saying to each one of us, “I want you to just stop. And sit down and take a deep breath, and open up your heart and let me bless you today. Let me remind you how proud I am of you, how deeply I love you, let me remind you that you have all the power on this earth to live a life full of abundance and joy if you will just stop for a minute. I want to remind you that you are my beloved daughter and my beloved son.”

In our passage from Isaiah this morning we have some of the most powerful words of blessing from God. Isaiah the prophet speaking words of hope to a people who were bound in fear of the condition of their lives at that time. The fact of the matter is that we are all afraid at times. Our fear is not just about the stock market or the possibility of violence in our schools and in our streets, it’s not just about the fear of illness or the fear of dying, or the fear of loss of relationship. Those are all symptoms of a deeper fear that we are all frail and temporary creatures set in a very uncertain world. But here’s something we can be certain of, Isaiah says, and he said it with great confidence. “Do not be afraid, says the Lord.” Because Isaiah knew that the Lord who spoke these words is not some distant deity, some impersonal force loose in the universe. God is more like a mother who listens in the middle of the night for the cry of her children.

“Do not be afraid,” says the Lord. “I created you, I formed you, I have redeemed, I have called you by name, and you are mine. You are precious in my sight.”

The God of Israel, the God whose story is told in this scripture always calls us by name. This is the God we see in the face of Jesus. The God who opened the heavens that day and poured out his blessing and said, “You are my boy Jesus. I am so proud of you. What you are about to face in your life, remember that.” 

And for each one of us, maybe he is saying the same thing today.

—Lynn Turner 2013

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