Monday, January 14, 2013

Infinite Value

January 13th, 2013        “Infinite Value”       Rev. Heather Jepsen         

Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-22

          A new student arrives to her first day of school and looks out upon the crowded cafeteria.  Where should I sit she wonders.  Which group of tables will welcome me?  Where do I belong?

          A woman walks down the hall to her son’s empty bedroom.  He is away at college for his first year.  She surveys the space filled with memories but empty of life and she wonders what lies ahead.  How will her life move forward as her son moves farther away from her?  After 18 years together, how will she find meaning apart from her connection to him?

          After over 40 years of hard work a man retires from his career.  His days suddenly stretch before him, an abundance of free time and little to do.  He is happy for the rest, but he wonders where he will find meaning in his life.  Who am I now that I am no longer someone’s boss he asks himself.  Where will I find meaning in my life again?  He fears wasting away into old age.

          Who am I?  Where do I belong?  What makes me worthy?  These questions that we begin to ask ourselves in adolescence never really go away.  Often we attempt to find meaning in the wrong places, like our job, our relationships, or our accomplishments.  The prophet Isaiah presents us with a different way to find meaning; what makes us of value, he says, is that we are of value to God.*

          In our reading from this morning, Isaiah is speaking to the wounded people of Israel.  Theirs has been a hard road.  They were once the nation of God, but they wanted to be more like the other nations around them.  They asked the Lord to give them a king; but through the years of monarchy the nation of Israel became broken and corrupt.  They split into two kingdoms and eventually were broken down even further as neighboring countries began to invade and take over.  Finally, because of Israel’s sin the people’s hearts turned toward other gods.  The Babylonians invaded and the nation of Israel was no more.  At the time that the prophet Isaiah speaks these words, the Israelites are exiles in Babylon.  They are a bruised and broken people, wondering if God even remembers their name, and it is into this situation that Isaiah speaks his words of comfort and hope.

          Isaiah reminds the people of Israel who they are.  When they examine themselves they simply see a broken band of lost people.  Isaiah speaks words of hope to them instead.  Speaking with the voice of God he says, “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.”  Isaiah reminds the people of who they are, a people valued and honored by God.

          Isaiah reminds the people that it is to God that they belong.  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  Though they may be captive to the Babylonians, the truth is that the people of Israel belong to God alone.  God claims them and holds them; so they need not fear as they pass through the trials of fire and water. 

          The prophet reminds the people of Israel who they are and to whom they belong.  They are of value because they are God’s own people.  God promises to be with them, even in times of hardship and suffering.  And most importantly, God has named them and marked them as God’s very own.

          In Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus, the issue of identity is also at the forefront.  In all of the gospel writers’ varying accounts of Jesus’ baptism, the issue of Jesus’ identity is of great importance because of the troublesome questions surrounding the story.  If Jesus was the Son of God then why did he need to be baptized?  And if Jesus was the Messiah and not John then why did John baptize Jesus and not the other way around?

          In Luke’s telling of the event, he adjusts the timeline a bit, and tells us of John’s imprisonment before he tells us of Jesus’ baptism.  There is no way we could mistake which man is greater in this reading.  In Luke’s account, Jesus’ baptism is not a major event, set apart and separate.  Instead, Jesus comes with the crowds.  He lines up with the sinners and waits his turn to be baptized like the rest.  It is after his baptism while in prayer that the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him.  Jesus hears a voice from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It is at his baptism that Jesus is ordained as the Messiah by a God who loves him and tells him so.  “You are my dear Son and I’m proud of you” God seems to say.  It is these words and this moment that will give Jesus strength through his temptation in the wilderness and the joys and trials of his ministry. 

          It is of no coincidence that the church has kept the ministry and sacrament of baptism through the ages.  It is at the moment of baptism that we too are marked as God’s own.  We are reminded that we belong to God, that God loves us, and that God alone gives us our name.  It is no coincidence or mere chance that we occupy the spaces in our lives that we do.  Rather, we are exactly where God has ordained us to be.

          Presbyterian professor and theologian John Leith sees baptism as the marker that every human life is rooted in the will and intention of God.  He writes,

In baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was, that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name, and a dignity that no one should dare abuse.  Human existence has its origin not in the accidents of history and biology, but in the will and the intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth.

It is in our baptism that we are marked as God’s own, and we remember that it is God who has placed us here, called us by name, and gave our life purpose and meaning.  It is God who has ordained our path thus far, and it is God who will lead us on the roads to come.

          As we celebrate around the communion table we remember this as well.  This blessing of God is not just for us but for all people.  Isaiah writes “Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” 

          As we gather at the table we remember that God will call people from east and west, from north and south, and that it is with the multitude that we will sit in the kingdom of heaven.  All of us have been called by God, all of us have been named and chosen, and all of us are loved and are of great value to our Lord.  It is because of this great love that Christ came to our world as God’s own suffering servant.

          Who am I?  Where do I belong?  What makes me worthy?  When we ask these questions in our lives, we find the answer in God.  Like Jesus at his baptism, God says to each of us, “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  All of us need to hear these words.  Like the people of Israel, when we are in the wilderness of the world we need to be reminded of just who is in charge.  We may be a lost and broken people but we are not alone.  God is with us in suffering and hardship.  And God always holds us in God’s arms. 

          When Jesus heard the loving words of God at his baptism, his life was forever changed.  It was at that moment that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and his ministry began.  These words change our lives as well.  We don’t need to look for our worth in the world around us.  Rather, we are of infinite value to our Creator who lovingly made and named each one of us.

          Today not only are we going to gather at the communion table, we are going to gather at the baptismal font.  As we sing our hymn of response, “You are Mine” I invite those who feel so moved to come forward and touch the waters of Baptism.  Today I invite you to remember your baptism.  As God marked you once with water, so the mark of God remains in your life today.

And as you leave this place this morning I want you to carry these words out into the world with you; repeat them in your head, imprint them on your heart, and know them to be true to the very core of your soul.  God says to you this day and everyday, “You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Amen.
*The opening of this sermon borrows heavily from W. Carter Lester's comments in Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 1 page 218

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