Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the Baptism of our Lord (January 10, 2016) on Genesis 15:1-21. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
Whenever we hear the phrase “after these things,” we know that there’s a backstory we need to fill out. And that’s what today’s first reading needs. Our year through the bible has raced us through Creation, Cain and Abel, and Noah’s flood. We’re now with Abram who was called by God to leave his homeland in Ur, what is now Iraq, and head west, to the land of Canaan - to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. Abram arrives in the land with his nephew, a few extended family members, and flocks of sheep and goats. He lives a semi-nomadic life, settling in one place for a little bit before packing up his animals, slaves, and family, and heading to a new place. His life has brought him all over Canaan, Egypt, and to the cities on the coast that are owned by the Philistines. And where Abram goes, God goes too. It feels like every time Abram moves, God visits him in a dream or through angels, making a promise that Abram will have children through his barren wife Sarai and that they’ll eventually own the land they live on. As Abram travels, meeting new people, visiting new places, and through some really odd episodes where he pretends that his wife is really his sister, Abram gets rich. He’s given animals, gold and silver, more slaves and servants. His household grows - his wealth grows - and he becomes so powerful that when his nephew Lot is captured in a war with five kings on one side and four on the other, Abram raises his own army, larger than the others, to free his nephew. Abram is a political and economic force in his corner of the world. But as the years go by, Sarai doesn’t get pregnant. He doesn’t get land. And so, it’s after he frees his nephew, after he’s defeated four kings and pushed aside the help from five - it’s then when our reading today begins. God visits Abram in a vision, starting with a promise, and Abram has the guts to question God.
Right there, in our reading today, we have someone who questions God. And it’s not just anyone. It’s Abram; it’s Abraham; it’s the guy who will entertain the Holy Trinity when they show up at his tent and who will be so devoted to God that, in just a few chapters, he’ll take his son Isaac up a mountain, tie him up, to sacrifice. Abram is a big deal. He’s important. He’s one of our faith-filled examples to live up to. He’s willing to leave his homeland just because God told him to. He also has this one-on-one relationship with God, full of angels, visions, and conversation, a relationship that we’re probably a little envious of. He’s rich. He’s powerful. He can put kings in their place. And it’s this guy who calls God out, wondering when God’s promise will be fulfilled.
So if Abram can question God - maybe we can too.
Now, I’m pretty sure that many of us here, myself included, have questioned God at one point or another. And I know it can feel awkward to do that. Questioning God doesn’t really feel like a very faithful thing to do. We usually believe that faith doesn’t include questions, that faith doesn’t include doubts. When we do question, it can feel dirty, feel like we’re showing that our own faith is somehow impure, imperfect, and not what it should be. We might keep our questions in the shadows, burying them deep inside ourselves. Or we might feel that speaking these questions out loud, we somehow, automatically, no longer belong in this kind of faith community. Our questions might show that being a disciple of Jesus, being a Christian, isn’t something for us at all.
But here’s Abram, while speaking to God and knowing that God will speak right back - here he is, questioning God. He actually doubts a promise that God has made to him over and over and over again. He doubts he’ll have a heir through his wife Sarai. Even a victory in war, even saving his nephew from the enemy, even all of his vast riches and political power - none of that can erase his doubt in this God who claims to be with him.
So God tells Abram to step outside. He tells Abram to look up, look into a night sky with no pollution or artificial lights or full moon hiding the stars and the galaxies that make up the universe. And I imagine that’s what Abram did. He stepped outside, looked up, and saw a vision of the sky that we cannot see here in our neighborhood. And then God does what God always does: God speaks the promise again.
And Abram’s believes.
There’s nothing in the text that says Abram changed his mind. Abram doesn’t ponder, or wonder, or reason out what God is saying. Abram believes. He trusts. The speaking of God’s promise builds that faith within him. That faith is one of God’s gifts to Abram.
And that’s why I believe, that on this Sunday when remember the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, we continue to speak and share God’s promise. Every time we gather, every time we talk, every time one of us prays for someone else, we speak God’s promise. We continue to share that God loves us, that God loves you, and that there is something bigger here than all of us. Our God is walking with us in our questions, in our doubts, and even in our fears about what’s coming next. God is still speaking because God hasn’t given up on us. God is saying that, like Jesus, we’re beloved. God’s well-pleased with us not because we are perfect or that we’ll never make a mistake or that, somehow, God’s gift of faith will stop us from still being human. We know that’s not true and we see that in Abram’s story because in the very next chapter of Genesis, Sarai and Abram still doubt God’s promise, so Abram impregnates one of Sarai’s slaves, trying to make an heir. Faith doesn’t end doubts or questions. Instead, faith embraces those questions because there’s something bigger than our doubts - and that’s God’s love for each and everyone one of us here in this church, in our communities, and in our world.
So, this week, I invite you to question. I invite you to doubt. I invite you to wonder just what God is doing in our lives and in our world. Be like Abram. Be like Sarai. Be like the countless members of God’s holy family who have wondered where God is and what God is doing. But make sure that you also share the promise. Questions and doubts need that promise and that promise needs those questions and doubts. So speak the promise. Tell yourself that God loves you. Tell someone else that God loves them. Look into the world, knowing that it’s loved, and figure out how you can love it too. Share God’s promise - share that each of us matters, that each of us is loved, and that Jesus walked into that dirty water of the Jordan - and up those dirty steps to the Cross because God gets into the dirt of our lives to to love us and even die for us. And not because we’re perfect - but because God is.
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