Needed by the Kingdom

A Sermon for 8 January 2017 – Baptism of the Lord

A reading from the prophet Isaiah 42:1-9. Listen for God’s word to us.

“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, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.   Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: ‘I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia; Eustace stands out. He’s the sniveling cousin of Lucy, Edward, Peter, and lil Susan too. In case you’re unfamiliar with Narnia, you need to know that the four siblings Lucy, Edward, Peter, and Susan live in parallel worlds. In the real world, they’re bored, commonplace kids. But in Narnia, they are royalty. They’re the queens and kings the kingdom frequently needs. Without their valor and courage, their trust and love; the kingdom is held captive by the evil forces of the snow witch; or in the case of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by a mysterious, demonic mist that takes captive those who encounter it. Cousin Eustace doesn’t believe. Not one bit. He hates having Lucy and Edward in his home in the real world and finds all their talk about this mystical Narnia place, in which they are something other than a total pain to him, absolutely rubbish!

It would happen, of course, that one day, Eustace falls into Narnia right behind Edward and Lucy. Despite the sights all around him – including a talking, sword-wielding mouse – he still doesn’t buy into the notion of a Narnia kingdom where their help desperately is needed. . . . Over the course of events, Eustace becomes a flying, fire-breathing dragon. And as the dragon, Eustace takes on the unique qualities needed to combat the devilish mist. Of course royal Lucy and Edward are needed too. But without fire-breathing, dive-bombing, scaly-skinned Eustace; the mist which holds its prisoners captive cannot be defeated.

Baptism of the Lord Sunday seems a good day to remember Narnia. For today we are confronted, not only with Jesus’ baptism, but also with our own. It’s been a while since we’ve had the joy, in Baptism, of pronouncing a new child as God’s very own. And when last have you experienced the excitement of watching an adult bow to embrace the reality of Christ’s royal mark? Every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism, we all are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong. The purpose of all our lives is re-affirmed again as we, the church, rise refreshed for life in the world. That’s why we do baptism the way we do as Christians of the Reformed Theological Tradition. Baptisms are public, with vows taken both by the individual (or as in the case of infant baptism, for an individual) AND by the congregation. We believe baptism is a sign and seal of what the Sovereign God already has done in Christ. Though we might live in the real world where too often we feel like boring, commonplace Lucy and Edward; the truth of it is for us that we too are royalty – children of the most high God who are needed in the kingdom.

It would be really helpful if we did a better job as the church in remembering and marking the passage of our baptism dates. Do you know yours? Do you light a candle on that day or get out a keepsake bulletin? I urge you to. And parents and grandparents: if you don’t yet, begin this tradition with your children. Because on the day when you were baptized – whether you were a baby so you can’t remember it now or maybe dunked as a teenager in this or another tradition – our baptisms are a very BIG deal! . . . So many want to focus on baptism as an assurance of God’s gift of salvation. But honestly that’s not the purpose of baptism in the Reformed Theological Tradition. For us, baptism is not a form of dispensing God’s grace to us – nor is our other sacrament, the Lord’s Supper. Rather each act is a reminder to us of what God already has done – the crucifixion and resurrection are over. We are set free for abundant life now! Let the ritual – let the act of feeling water on your head and tasting bread and juice in your mouth – let these rituals remind you of who you are, to whom you belong, and how you are to live each day in the world.

Consider Isaiah. It may seem a bit odd to read this Old Testament Servant Song as the focus of Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Because, who really is the servant? Historically some have said the prophet was writing while the Israelites were in exile. Cyrus was the exalted servant (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, Stephanie A. Paulsell, p. 220). After all, he was the great Persian king who would defeat Babylon and pave the way for the people to return to Jerusalem. Others think Isaiah is speaking of Israel itself. Thus the whole community is God’s servant, chosen to protect the weak and gently cup their hands around any dimly burning wick so even the littlest light will not be snuffed out (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1, Stephanie A. Paulsell, p. 218). Much like Matthew’s author does, many Christian commentators have read Jesus into the Old Testament to insist that Isaiah’s servant refers to our Christ. As the Messiah, he is considered the fulfillment of such prophecy. Indeed we know Jesus to be one upon whom the spirit of the LORD rests – the one whom God called Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased (Matt. 3:17). The one who would not faint nor be crushed until justice is established on the earth (Is. 42:4). . . . All options are viable in thinking about who this servant is in whom, according to Isaiah 42, God’s soul delights. . . . And so too are you. As the church upon whom God’s Spirit has been poured out, we can hear the first of Isaiah’s Servant Song as a gift to us. Blessed words spoken by God to us: “Here you are; my servants, whom I uphold, my covenant children, in whom my soul delights” (Is. 42:1). I love the way the version of the bible called The Message lays out these marching orders from God. Listen: ‘I’ve bathed you with my Spirit, my life. You are to set everything right among nations. No need to call attention to what you do with loud speeches or gaudy parades. You won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt; you shall not disregard the small and insignificant. But steadily – firmly – you shall set things right. . . . Open blind eyes – if not literally then figuratively – release prisoners from dungeons, empty the dark prisons in which too many are caught’ (Is. 42:7).

Can you see how the words of Isaiah are words that give form to our baptismal vows? We are the royal servants that the kingdom needs. Our valor and courage, our trust and love are the unique qualities needed to combat the forces that still seek to take captive whoever they can. . . . I know sometimes it’s hard to remember. I know sometimes life in the real world can push us down until with Narnia’s Eustace we don’t believe. But remember, children of the covenant, remember household of God: we are the royal servants the kingdom so desperately needs.

As we prepare to reaffirm our baptisms, remember who you are, to whom you belong, and how you are to live in the world each day.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All right reserved.)

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