I Am With You

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | January 9, 2022

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

The prophet Isaiah said to the people held in captivity, speaking on behalf of God: Do not fear. You belong to me. I am with you. When you go through the waters or the fires, I will be by your side. I will gather you together from all the corners of the world. You are precious in my sight.

The challenge is that there are times when the message, “Don’t Be Afraid!” creates the opposite response. An easy way to create panic is to tell people, “Don’t panic!” because then you know there is cause for alarm. It was like when I was a kid and had to go get a shot for something and the nurse would say, “Don’t worry, it’s just like a little bee sting.” A bee sting?! You see, that’s the problem right there. I don’t want to get stung by a bee any more than I want that shot!

“Do not fear” is easier said than done. But when the prophet speaks for God saying, “Do not fear,” it is more than just words because God adds, “I am with you.” It doesn’t mean we don’t suffer; it means that we are not alone in our suffering.

In time the people went back to their homeland, but it was not a story that ended “happily ever after.” They were beset by new oppressors, ending up finally under the rule of the Roman Empire.

The storyteller known as Luke opens the story of the public life of Jesus on a simple but profound theme: The people were filled with expectation. Expectations often rise in tough times and times were tough in Palestine. The Romans had taken over and life as a vassal state was difficult.

What is it that makes for a time when people are filled with expectation? We can see it in our world right now. And it’s not necessarily about hopeful expectations. Probably a key factor is when people are dissatisfied with the way things are. More so than the general discontent that seems common to every age; a deep unrest, deeper than just voting the current scoundrels out of office. The sort of unrest that leads to rebellion and revolution.

The people were filled with expectation and they were looking for a Messiah. The Messiah who would do God’s work of justice for the oppressed; who would separate the wheat from the chaff; who would lead the nation back to the good old days when a great king sat on the throne.  Back in the good old days when Israel was a name to respect; when Israel’s God would make the nations tremble. That’s who the people were looking for. Someone who would take them back to the time when “God was on our side.”

The prophet called John the Baptist fueled the people’s sense of expectation. He made it clear he was not the one they were looking for. That one, the Messiah would be greater than he. And he is surely coming.

And along came Jesus. He did not fit the image of what people were looking for. He probably seemed like any other bystander listening to the prophet crying out in the wilderness. Like a working-class guy – a carpenter perhaps. When he was baptized just like anyone else, were there any clues as to what was happening?

We might ask, if Jesus was the Son of God, why did he need to be baptized? Back then wasn’t baptism a sign of repentance and a way for people to show that they were ready to receive the emerging realm of God?

How I get my head around it is to think about the meaning of the word “Baptize.” It means literally to “to go down under.” Jesus went into the water. He immersed himself in the water as a sign of his full immersion in humanity. He was fully human, and he embraced his humanity fully.

The way Luke tells it, it was sometime after he was baptized when Jesus was praying that he experienced an epiphany of sorts. How to describe something that is not easy to describe? Simply stated: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

I’ve come to believe that those words are the heart and soul of the story of Jesus. That was God telling him who he was.

You are my child. I love you. I take such delight in you.

What did he do with that message? If he had wanted to capture the expectations of the people, he could have gone forth and proclaimed: I am the Son of God! God loves me! God is pleased with me and therefore God is on my side!

He didn’t do that. When we follow the story, we see that he took the message to heart and he shared it as a heart and soul reality. He proclaimed in word and deed:

You are a child of God.

God loves you.

God takes such delight in you.

It was that knowing of himself that empowered Jesus to be Jesus; to go from there into the wilderness, through the pathways of life and to the cross at the end. Maybe that’s what we’re all hoping to find, that understanding of ourselves as God’s own child; someone in whom God is pleased, not for what we have done, but simply because we belong to God.

The message of Jesus is a simple message. Maybe it’s just human nature to want to make it more complicated than it needs to be; to ask, “Can it really be that simple?”

Over the years we have made doctrines out of the message. Doctrines make us doctrinaire so that we become inflexibly attached to a practice while losing its core meaning.

We have piled dogma on top of dogma. Dogmas make us dogmatic so that we begin to think our interpretations are infallible.

And at worst we have made the message of Jesus pedantic – as long as you get the facts right and followed the rules you have fulfilled your duty.

The more we complicate the message, turn it to doctrine and dogma, the more we build the barriers that exclude people.

Some years ago, I was asked to do a funeral for a family who did not live in my parish. The rules said we’re not supposed to do that sort of thing. When Linda from the Coop Funeral Service called me she said, “They will not go to their local parish church. You conducted a service for another family member and they specifically asked for you.”

I was curious. It’s one thing to say, “I prefer one thing over another.” But to say, “I won’t go there,” means something was going on. In telling this story I am not revealing any private family business. I would never do that. When I heard the story, I asked their permission to tell it, because I think it needs to be told over and over again.

This was a family with connections to their local Church of Scotland parish church. The boys were in the boys club, the brothers and sisters were in Sunday school. It was their church in every sense of the word.

The children grew up and one of the daughters in the family had given birth to twins. They were going to arrange to have the babies baptized. One of the twins became ill and the minister suggested that they wait for the baby to recover and then baptize them both at the same time. But before the baptism could take place, the baby died.

The minister was called on for his services. He came over to discuss the funeral arrangements. However, he told the family that since the baby had not been baptized, he could not conduct the service. He could offer some prayers, but he would not conduct the funeral. They showed him the door and from that moment on they never again went through the door of the church. Why would they?

The story in and of itself is disturbing, shocking even. But sadly, I have encountered it many times over the years. People get so wound up in the rules and regulations of church, that they somehow convince themselves that they own God; they convinced themselves that God has to be protected and preserved and kept apart from the sinners who couldn’t possibility truly appreciate God.

The God Jesus revealed was One who loved and welcomed everybody. What he tried to do was to show people that God’s love is not conditional on what a person does or doesn’t do. God’s love simply is. God loves each and every one of us because we are God’s children. Experiencing life as God intends is not a matter of measuring up to some ideal of religious perfection. It’s more a matter of seeing ourselves as God sees us.

If you want to be reminded of what your baptism means, think of this – as you are going about your life in days to come, keep an ear open for God’s voice in your own heart and soul, reminding you:

Don’t be afraid.

I am with you.

I call you by name.

You are my child.

I love you.

I take such delight in you.


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