Pastor’s Sermon Notes: “Standing on the Promises: God’s Promise of Belonging”
Rev. James E. Lunde
Warrenton Presbyterian Church
Baptism of the Lord, 2017
Good morning and happy new year to you. I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I thank you for the opportunity to have a week off to visit with family. As we begin this new year as a congregation, we’re also beginning a sermon series. In this time of year, many of us make resolutions and promises to ourselves and loved ones on ways we want to improve our lives. While these can be wonderful opportunities for self-growth and improvement, at times, we can get lost in them. Our hope for things to change or get better sometimes do not quite happen as planned. Even with the best intentions, we are not always able to follow through on our resolutions and promises. Match that with the bleakness of winter and it’s no surprise that the first couple months of the year are well known in the counseling community as the time when people are especially gloomy.
In light of all this, I was inspired through a resource by Katherine Willis Pershey to begin a six-week sermon series on some of the unchanging, unbreakable promises of God. My hope is that exploring these promises will strengthen us on our own Christian journeys and reaffirm our identity as children of God. So it’s appropriate that our series begins on this day in which we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord as we remember that God too calls out to us—promising us that we belong, that we too are God’s beloved children.
Matthew 3: 13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
There’s something innate in us as human beings that in any given circumstance, we strive to figure out just where we belong…
Our lesson this morning is a story about belonging. Matthew’s gospel jumps from Jesus’ return from Egypt as a young child, to his baptism as an adult in the Jordan, thus beginning his ministry. Jesus comes to John the Baptist, who was well into his ministry of preparing the Lord’s way and offering a baptism of repentance. John is stunned to see the one for whom he is prophesying come to him to be baptized, but Jesus tells him that it must be so in order to fulfill righteousness. Jesus is baptized, and as he comes out of the water, we see the heavens open, the spirit descending on Jesus like a dove and the booming voice from above: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (v.17)
On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, but we also remember our own. When Jesus tells a perplexed John that he must be baptized, it’s as if he opens the door for each of our baptisms–for each of us to be cleansed and claimed by God through these waters. As Jesus is baptized, we hear God’s promise–the father’s bold commitment–this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. It is through Jesus’ baptism and through ours that God makes this promise to each of us and we are filled with God’s Spirit. Through these waters we God promises us: you are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased. No matter what, this is God’s promise to us–that we belong to God, our identity is first and foremost as a beloved child of God.
In this day and age, there are so many things vying to stake their claim on our identity. Each of these things muddle our sense of identity as beloved children of God, and as such, God’s promise that we belong is blurred. It’s blurred not because God’s promise has changed, but because our commitment to this identity has strayed. This is why each year on Baptism of the Lord Sunday we renew our commitment to the Baptismal Covenant, to remind us that no matter what we belong to the God who calls us beloved children.
Last month, I gathered with other Warrenton church leaders at the Warrenton Police station for our quarterly meeting with chief Battle and chaplain Smith. Each meeting has a focus, and our last focus was on the epidemic of opioid addiction in our community. We learned the statistics: that last year alone there were 22 lives claimed in our community by overdose. It was a shock to me just how many families were affected by issues of addiction and overdose in our community. We heard heartbreaking stories from parents who had lost children to overdose and addiction. In solidarity to this urgent concern, every church leader in town was asked to address the issue in worship today–to raise awareness in the community, but also remind those affected that they are not alone, that there is local help available through support groups and clinical resources.
This community concern has reminded me this week just how many things try to claim allegiance on our lives. Our scripture reminds us that we belong to God–that no matter what, we are God’s beloved children with whom God is well pleased. when God looks at us, God doesn’t see our brokenness, In Christ, God only sees a beloved child. In this image, God’s love for us is like that of a parent to a child–unconditional and all encompassing. A sentiment that is so beautifully expressed in our denomination’s Brief Statement of Faith claiming… “like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.”
Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle wrote about his mentor Bill Cain and how when Bill took a temporary break from ministry in order to care for his father who was dying of cancer. The awful disease had taken away many of his father’s faculties, and so Bill had to do many basic care-giving tasks, even putting his own father to bed. Boyle notes how each night Bill would read a few pages of a novel to his father as he fell asleep. Exhausted from the day, Bill recalled how after a few pages, his father would simply stare at him smiling. He would plead with his father to go to sleep and reluctantly, he’d close his eyes. But after just a moment, an eye would pop open and he’d smile again at his son. This would go on and on each night. After his father’s death, Bill thought back to this evening ritual–and how at it’s heart, it was a story about a father who simply couldn’t keep his eyes off his son and smile. Boyle wonders how much more this is so with the way God looks at each of us as beloved children recalling a quote from another Jesuit priest, Anthony DeMello who once said: “Behold the one beholding you, and smiling.”
Through the gift of baptism–both Christ’s and our own–we see most clearly this promise that we belong to God. Things like addiction, cancer, fear, guilt, loneliness will attempt to tug at this sense of belonging–but this day in the life of the church is our opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant and be reminded of this powerful promise of God. That no matter what happens, no matter how many things try to tug at our identity…we belong to God. No matter how down we feel about ourselves, God sees us as a beloved child who belongs to God in life and in death.
“Behold the one beholding you, and smiling.”
- Sermon series inspired by Katherine Willis Pershey in the book: A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.
- Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions, 11.3 lines 49-52.
- Illustration adapted from pages 19-20 of Gregory Boyle’s, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Free Press, 2010.
Works Consulted and Cited:
Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions, Louisville: Geneva Press, 2016.
Gregory Boyle S.J., Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, Free Press, 2010.
Multiple Authors, Feasting on the Word, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2010.
Multiple Authors, A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2016.