Epiphany 1A Sermon (2014)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Matthew 3:13-17;
Acts 10:34-43; Isaiah 42:1-9

BIRTHDAY PARTIES FOR PROSTITUTES

Have you ever thought about what we do here at this time of the year as throwing a birthday party? Christmas Eve worship celebrates Jesus’ birth. Even today we celebrate Jesus’ rebirth into his ministry through baptism. And we celebrate little Zachary’s re-birthday today, too.

There’s several strange elements to these birthday celebrations, of course. One is that the person’s whose birthday we celebrate is also the host for the Meal. There’s typically plenty of candles at these celebrations, but they don’t top a cake. The menu is much simpler: bread, wine, and grape juice. And the central gift given is also given by the one whose birthday it is. He gives us his body broken and blood poured out for us.

But perhaps the strangest part of this birthday party is the guest list. In recent years, we have come to emphasize what was originally the case: all are welcome. No one is to be turned away. Our host, Jesus, who was criticized for eating with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners, continues to keep strange company — the likes of all of us gathered here today, and millions more around the world on this Sunday. For many, many generations the Church was not fully faithful to this party by turning away guests for various reasons. I grew up the first thirteen years of my life not invited to the table — supposedly because I needed to understand something more before being invited. We have sought to be more fully faithful again by emphasizing that all are welcome to this weekly party. But I know we continue to be unfaithful in other things. The point is that our host wants us here no matter how we may continue to be unfaithful. He is here to lead us into the best that we can do this week.

And the so the other important point is that we need to here regularly to increase in our faithfulness. We need to be here to listen to his voice and see where he wants to lead us. That’s the other dominant image this week in addition to the birthday party — namely, that we listen to God’s voice as Jesus did. It all begins with those words of unconditional love, “You are my daughter, my son, in whom I’m well pleased.” Jesus teaches us that God is a parent who never gives up on us, who will always encourage us and lovingly coax us into being the best we can be.

In fact, Jesus helps us to understand where we went wrong from the very beginning. He helps us to understand that story of Adam and Eve in the garden. It all began back then, too, with learning to listen to God’s voice. They lost their home, their paradise, when Satan the Accuser convinced them to hear God’s voice as a Judge instead of a parent. Human judges operate in a world of competition where some are good and some not, some better and some worse. In the world of the judge, it’s all about being judged better or best over someone else. In the home of an unconditionally loving parent, it is about everyone being encouraged and enabled to be the best that they can be. It’s about everyone helping each other to do that.

What voices of authority do we hear in our world today? Aren’t they voices of hyper-competition, where everyone is to be judged as right or wrong, better or worse, successful or unsuccessful? Aren’t the constant voices of consumerism trying to convince us that being successful, being happy, means owning their product?

Jesus came to invite us back home by hearing the voice of the true God as one of an unconditionally loving parent who wants each of us to be the best that we can be. In a family, it’s not a competition. In fact, in God’s loving home, Jesus came to teach us that none of us can be the best we can be until we all are the best we can be. We can’t each of flourish until all are flourishing. That means a life of helping and encouraging each other to tackle life’s obstacles. It’s learning to hear God’ voice as very different than the voice of authority we currently hear among our leaders, in our media and advertising.

Is it a voice that sometimes needs to speak a hard word of challenge? To confront us on settling for something less than we were made to be? Yes, absolutely. But we’ve told the story this morning as all about hearing the right voice as God’s. Since the first man and woman got us off on the wrong foot, Jesus came to challenge us first and foremost to hear the right voice as God’s. Since the beginning of time, we human beings have tended to hear the wrong voice as the voice of authority. We listen to a voice that says being the best is about being judged better than someone else. Jesus comes to help us hear the voice of God as that of the loving parent of a loving parent where the object is to help each other be the best we can be. Here’s the amazing thing: Jesus came to help us hear this voice by himself taking his place among those who we usually judge as unrighteous. How hard is this? I think that’s what we see when John the Baptist wants Jesus to baptize him. He still hears the voice of God as one who judges some as more worthy than others. Jesus comes to show God’s righteousness by fully taking his place with us. He is God’s beloved precisely by taking his place, as Isaiah prophesies, with the poor …

That’s why this party we throw each week is so important. We are bombarded with the voices of the false gods all week, the gods of competition who drive us to be better than the rest. We need to take time each day to hear the voice of the true God in prayer. We need to be here for the weekly party where it’s always a celebration of our re-birthdays in baptism by having a meal hosted by our big brother Jesus who forgives us for listening to the wrong voices.

I conclude then with a parable about a birthday party of unconditional love and acceptance:

Author and teacher Tony Campolo tells a true story about a time when he was traveling. He was in another time zone and couldn’t sleep, so well after midnight he wandered down to a doughnut shop where, it turned out, local hookers also came at the end of a night of turning tricks. There, he overheard a conversation between two of them. One, named Agnes, said, “You know what? Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m gonna be thirty-nine.” Her friend snapped back, “So what d’ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake and sing happy birthday to you?” The first woman replied, “Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I’m just sayin’ it’s my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When they left, Tony got an idea. He asked the shop owner if Agnes came in every night, and when he replied in the affirmative, Tony invited him into a surprise party conspiracy. The shop owner’s wife even got involved. Together they arranged for a cake, candles, and typical party decorations for Agnes, who was, to Tony, a complete stranger. The next night when she came in, they shouted, “Surprise — and Agnes couldn’t believe her eyes. The doughnut shop patrons sang, and she began to cry so hard she could barely blow out the candles. When the time came to cut the cake, she asked if they’d mind if she didn’t cut it, if she could bring it home — just to keep it for a while and savor the moment. So she left, carrying her cake like a treasure.

Tony led the guests in a prayer for Agnes, after which the shop owner told Tony he didn’t realize Tony was a preacher. He asked what kind of church Tony came from, and Tony replied, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.” The shop owner couldn’t believe him.. “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. Yep, I’d join a church like that.”1

Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, January 12, 2014

1. This version of Tony Campolo‘s story is as told by Brian McLaren in The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything (Thomas Nelson, 2006), pages 145-46.

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