Jesus, Light of the World- Sermon for Jan. 10, 2021 from Pastor John

Sermon for January 10, 2021


     In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, among Finnish heritage people, the message of Communism had a strong appeal during the 1930’s. This was the decade of the Great Depression. Many people were out of work and desperately poor. Communist propaganda would rage against the failures of capitalism. Some people begin to look to the Soviet Union as a better place to live. Some even left the country to relocate to the Soviet Union, unaware of the horrors and cruelty of the rule of Stalin. In the heyday of Communist influence a hall was built not far from here just east of the small town of Bruce Crossing. This building was owned by Communist sympathizers. There would be rallies with speeches calling for revolution. But it was also a place where community dances were held. It was a popular venue for people to have fun and socialize. But something happened to that building….I will tell you near the end of the sermon.

We are now in the church season of Epiphany. The word ‘epiphany’ means revelation or light shining forth. The season of Epiphany began on January 6th. This was sadly a dark day for our country when a mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington and trashed the place with mayhem on their minds. I am sure many of you were not only horrified but angry as well. We wonder why there is so much hatred and division in our country. In this dark time for the nation, not only dealing with insurrection, but the ongoing ravages of a pandemic, Epiphany reveals Jesus as the Light of the World. The Scriptures tell us Jesus is the Light of God’s healing love, light that cannot be extinguished and love that cannot be cancelled.

With all that has been going on it is important to pay close attention to the Gospel for today. The setting is the wilderness where a strange preacher named John in rough clothing proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The baptisms took place at the Jordan River, and this was not just a convenient source of water. The Jordan River was where the people of Israel crossed into the Promised Land after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins was a time of needed renewal for the many people who endured difficult times. But John also made a promise of his own; one more powerful than him was coming. John felt he was unworthy to untie this man’s sandals. The powerful one will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s audience would be excited with hope, for he was telling them to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, the promised Savior.

We heard that the powerful one, Jesus, came without any demonstration of greatness. It sounded like Jesus was one of the many who came to be baptized in the Jordan River. But as Jesus came up out of the water suddenly the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended like a dove on him. And the voice from heaven declared to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This scene may seem a bit odd. If Jesus is the beloved Son of God, the Messiah, the Promised King, how come people did not rush toward him and bow down and worship him? You might think Jesus could have recruited an army on the spot and with divine intervention defeat all the enemies of Israel. But the prophet Isaiah had a different vision saying: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning he will not quench, he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

John the Baptizer was both right and wrong. He was right to tell the people of the more powerful one coming. He was wrong to give the impression that Jesus was so great that he would be unworthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. Jesus would reveal the light of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Inspired by the Holy Spirit Jesus would minister to people who were fragile and frightened. He would not scream at them decrying their lack of faith or record of sins. Jesus revealed himself as the Son of God who was gentle and lowly of heart, seeking to find the forgotten and forsaken and give them the rest, the blessed assurance of God’s peace. Jesus, God in the flesh, would be the one who would stoop down and untie people’s sandals. Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet. Jesus would touch people afflicted with leprosy, people considered untouchable. Jesus would shine with the light of God’s compassion and grace. Jesus was powerful all right, just ask any demon. He would free people from the control of evil by his word, revealing the power of God’s love.

On this Sunday remembering Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan, we are encouraged to remember and be thankful for our baptisms. Jesus commanded baptism, telling his disciples to go throughout the world and baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ command means baptism is his work and not ours. This is why baptism is called a means of grace. Luther explained in the Catechism, a teaching tool meant to be used in the home, baptism is not just water, but water used together with God’s word. Luther referred to baptism as a new birth through the work of the Holy Spirit. This is why babies are baptized in the Lutheran Church. Baptism is God’s gift. Although an infant cannot repent or make a confession of faith, the child is surrounded by the faith of parents and godparents, the congregation, and for that matter the whole Christian church on earth. The Holy Spirit is given in baptism, which is the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, and spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, and the spirit of joy in the presence of God. The Holy Spirit of God is somewhat of a mystery. At baptism we do not see flashing lights or doves descending. But through the pouring of water, or immersion in a pool, the water is a tangible symbol of the Holy Spirit’s work: new birth in the kingdom of God, washing away of sins, the refreshment of grace and growing in faith, and even drowning, which is the death of the sinful self. Jesus, at his baptism, heard the blessing, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well-pleased”. Baptism imparts that same blessing. Baptism offers renewal every day. In spite of the world, the devil, and our own sinfulness, baptism declares ‘you are a beloved child of God’. Luther, when disheartened and discouraged would never give up the faith in spite of thoughts about doing so. He would write on paper or through the dust on his desk, whatever he could write with so he could see the words, “But I am Baptized”. Baptism would be the clincher because it meant he belonged to Jesus for the long-haul of life no matter what came his way. The apostle Paul would say that when we are baptized we ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Now there is the proper clothing to meet each day: surrounded and embraced by Jesus who loves us and gave up his life for us. In baptism we are marked with the cross of Jesus, the indelible mark of love that can never be erased, defaced or disgraced.

A woman moved around a great deal because her spouse was in the military. Where ever she lived she would seek out a church, worship was important for her. But she would happen to be in churches that would insist on her being baptized again. She ended up being baptized five times. This may have been interesting but unnecessary. The first baptism was powerful since baptism is never a baptism into a denomination. One is baptized into Jesus Christ, into his death for the forgiveness of sins and into his resurrection for newness of life. Baptism is never meant to be a reason for squabbling among churches. Baptism into Jesus means unity: the joy of many siblings in Christ, and the call to represent Jesus in the community. The late Civil Rights icon John Lewis wrote in his autobiography that whenever he was home in Atlanta he would walk the streets of the poor and troubled neighborhoods. He wrote “We who do not live in these places might close our eyes or our hearts, we might pretend it does not exist or that it has nothing to do with us, but it will not simply go away. And it has everything to do with us. We have a choice. We can look and listen and respond in constructive, creative ways to our places poverty or we can be forced to respond by outbursts of violence.” It is true what is said, ‘we have a choice’. As the baptized sons and daughters of God, we are marked with the cross of Jesus, a symbol of his steadfast love, and blessed with the Holy Spirit to inspire us to make the choice of love for neighbor in both word and deed. As the baptized together, the church is to be a harbor of hope, a hospital of healing, and headquarters for the presence and peace of God. It is our choice to ask Jesus to equip and guide us with lives of inspiration and not ignoring, lives of building up and not putting down, and lives of bearing one another’s burdens, and thus fulfilling our calling to be like Jesus to one another.

The sermon began by telling of a communist hall not far from here in the U.P. where speakers told the listeners to put away their faith and be inspired by the Soviet Union, a worker’s paradise. That building is no longer a communist hall with speeches calling for revolution. The building is now an active Lutheran Church. Now you can go and hear the truth of God’s love for the world. But you will still hear words of revolution, but not violence, not destruction, and not hatred. Now you will hear of the revolution of baptism: marked with the cross of forgiveness, inspired by the gift of the Holy Spirit who frees us from domination by fear, and speaks the good news that we are the beloved children of God. Baptism announces the justice of God, that whenever the world says division and destruction, the Word of God says we are all one in Jesus Christ building up and encouraging each other. . Amen