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“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon
“Look Whom Jesus Is with at the Jordan!”
Matthew 3: 13-17
Baptism of Our Lord (January 8, 2017)
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan

Today, as water crashes over us and we are dripping from our baptismal remembrance, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In the spirit of celebration, let’s roll the film.

See John the Baptist out in the middle of the Jordan River, about three feet deep, in a white shirt, skinny black tie, and rubber hip waders amidst a motley crowd of riff-raff.  Watch him thrust them under the water and wash away their sins.

And, goodness gracious, there stands Jesus, right at water’s edge!  Can you believe your eyes?  He’s there with the double-crossing camel dealer, the flamboyant drag queen, the corporate executive convicted of bilking clients of millions, and that floozy neighbor constantly getting thrown into the county drunk tank—how dare he get so close to them!

Okay, let’s stop the film for a second and catch our breath…

Didn’t you always think Jesus is God’s son?  Why in the world is he hanging out with such a notorious crowd of lowlifes?

Let the film continue.

Do you notice there are also some modest and holy looking folks in line to be baptized?  They appear to be nervously quivering, churning with doubt and silently rotting away at the core; their sins are tucked far back in the furthest reaches of their bedroom closet, hidden under extra bedsheets and grandma’s old comforter, out of sight from devout company; they are fearful someone will find out.

Look closely at water-logged John.  Do you notice how he keeps glancing out of the corner of his eye?  He appears to have spotted his cousin Jesus standing in line for baptism—see how John trembles!  Listen carefully; can you hear him: “Why in God’s name is Jesus here?  Why does he want to be baptized?  He is God’s Son, the sinless one.  I need to be baptized by him!”

Now, we can get all misty-eyed about this, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Jesus’ baptism has not always been an occasion for celebration.  His presence with such a horde of sinners has embarrassed the church down through the ages, actually, to be more precise, it has horrified the church.

One of our finest Lutheran liturgical scholars, Gordon Lathrop, suggests that Jesus’ baptism was actually not about his becoming pure for our sake but rather becoming dirty for us.  How can God’s son become dirty? you ask.  He gets dirty the very same way this precious little thing born in Bethlehem ended up dying the filthiest death imaginable, in love for all his brothers and sisters, on the cross at Calvary.

While we celebrate Jesus’ baptism this morning, truth be told, if we are not also appalled and fuming, we likely have not quite grasped how deeply God’s grace runs for us.

When I mentioned a bit earlier who Jesus was in line with—drag queens, painted ladies, Ponzi schemers—my hunch is that most of you smiled and poked someone in the side.  There is, after all, a quaint delight in seeing Jesus with such company—it makes our open-minded Upper West Side hearts quiver in delight. But I want to up the ante to explore just how open we really are to God’s grace.

I must tell you in advance, what I am about to say comes with no small amount of fear and trembling; I really do fear that I may offend some of you and cause you deep anger.  If that occurs, I beg you in advance, please forgive me.

Let the film roll and let’s locate Jesus once again.  Now look carefully.  Do you notice that he has his arm around a gangly young white guy with a weird bowl hair cut?  That can’t be Dylann Roof, can it, the same Dylann Roof who attended a Bible study at historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a year and a half ago and brutally murdered nine parishioners?  Even after family members said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you,” Dylann Roof wrote, “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

Listen, listen…I think you can just make out the conversation Jesus is having with Dylann, “Dylann, dear brother, it is never too late to repent.”

While the film is stopped momentarily, let me remind us all, in case we have forgotten, that Dylann Roof’s family are members of one of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations and that two of the African American pastors murdered that evening, Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the Rev. Daniel Simmons, graduated from our Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina?

Jesus standing at Dylann Roof’s side…He can’t possibly be doing that, can he?

As you know, the penalty phase of Dylann Roof’s trial is now in session.  Should he be executed?  Are there ever any of God’s children in line with Jesus who should be executed, who are unloved by God?  Said another way, how dare we cut short the life of anyone whom Jesus loves?

As I think I mentioned, Jesus’ baptism inevitably scandalizes polite company.  Grace is messy; it can be numbing, sickening, and offensive.  That’s why we now start the film rolling again.  Watch as Jesus slips and slides up out of the muddy river, dripping wet from head to toe.  Listen carefully as God proudly proclaims from on high, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

There is something about Jesus’ willingness to stand in line at the Jordan and submit to this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that pleases God and horrifies us.

Look one final time as the film nears completion.  Are you surprised to catch sight of yourself standing there at the Jordan?  Sometimes, it is almost impossible to believe the words of that old hymn:

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea…
For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind.
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.”

What a thrill to hear the water crashing and to celebrate God’s amazing grace for this terribly mixed up world…and for us, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost-October 16, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon: “Yahweh Jumps Jacob at the Jabbok”

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This Week at Holy Trinity

This Week at Holy Trinity

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2016
Mass –
11 o’clock in the morning

Join the growing number of members, prospective members, and visitors worshiping together at Holy Trinity.

Pastor Miller’s Sermon: “Married to Amazement”

(more…)

“Conduits of God”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
on the Sunday of Saint Michael and All Angels
“Conduits of God”
(Daniel 10: 10-14; 1: -3; Revelation 12: 7-12; Luke 10: 17-20)
at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-Manhattan
October 2, 2016

Today we celebrate Saint Michael and All Angels.  We also celebrate Dylan Joseph Chase’s baptism. We celebrate as we sing with the angels.

But what exactly is an angel?

Today’s readings provide some insight: an angel comforted Daniel, of lions’ den fame, as he faced a wicked Persian ruler; Saint Michael and his angelic battalion fought ferocious dragons and vicious Satan in a heavenly war in the book of Revelation.

The Bible is crammed with angels.  They tell wobbly old Abraham and rickety Sarah that they are about to become parents of a bouncing baby boy; they announce to skeptical Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth, also long in the tooth, is soon to be John the Baptist’s mommy; the angel Gabriel reports the staggering news to teenage Mary that she is going to be the mother of the Christ Child; and of course, angels serenade the shepherds with the heavenly song, announcing the dear Savior’s birth.

Angels fascinate us: archangels like Saint Michael; cherubs and cherubim, seraph, seraphim—those winged and sometimes bizarre creatures who sing before the throne of God.

The best definition I can come up with regarding angels is that they are messengers of God.  Biblical angels are not the cheesy kitsch type sold in knick-knack shops nor do they resemble Shirley Temple with puffy cheeks, mascaraed lashes, and curly locks.  Angels come to those who have lost every ounce of hope, telling frantic people, on God’s behalf, “Do not be afraid.”

Earlier this week, I told Diana Langer how much I enjoyed her reading at last Sunday’s Mass: I could hear every word.  Diana’s response, “When I read, I try to stay out of the way.  I simply want to serve as a conduit of God.”  Now there is a definition of an angel: a conduit of God.

We are all called to be angelic conduits, telling those we love, “Do not be afraid, God is watching over you.”  Admittedly, we do not look much like angels: our haloes are crooked, our feathers scruffy, our flying skills limited.  But we, the earthly angelic band, do our best.

The exact moment I was typing this very sentence on Thursday morning, a former parishioner called to tell me her husband was about to have life-threatening surgery.  What to say?  I assured them both that St. Michael and All the Angels were hovering over them and singing, “Do not be afraid.”

In a few moments, we will have our opportunity to see angels at work.  Keep your eyes open.  We will gather at the baptismal waters with Dylan Joseph Chase.  The church imagines baptism as a cataclysmic brawl between good and evil, between God and Satan.  The great Leviathan, a hideously ugly sea monster, hovers deep in the font, ferociously straining to grab Dylan’s tiny toes and to tug him under the raging waters.  Dylan might scream bloody murder and this, by the way, should never bother us. The screams signal that the battle has commenced and Saint Michael and his angels are standing guard at Dylan’s side as God crushes Satan.  Who wouldn’t scream when in the midst of such a battle royale?

All of you—parents (Danielle and Young), godparents, grandmas and grandpas, new brothers and sisters in Christ—you are about to be asked to be angels: “Do you promise to nurture Dylan in the Christian faith as you are empowered by God’s Spirit, and to help him live in the covenant of baptism and in communion with the church?”  With your “I do,” you vow to tell Dylan throughout his life, “Dear Dylan, remember your baptism and do not be afraid.”

As we bless the baptismal waters, we will face West.  The ancients thought that as the sun went down and darkness blanketed creation, the devil might triumph and the world would end forever.  I will invite you, as the church has done through the ages, to raise your hands in defiance of that pesky devil.  When I ask, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” you won’t weakly respond, “I renounce them,” but rather you will shout at the top of your lungs, “I renounce them.”  We are not playing!  We will then face East, where the waters of life welcome us to the perfect Eden.  With hands outstretched in a welcoming posture and using the church’s classic baptismal formula, we will confess that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, vanquishes death and promises us life everlasting.

Martin Luther urges parents to say this bedtime prayer from his Small Catechism as we tuck little ones like Dylan into bed: “I give thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have graciously protected me today.  I ask you to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously to protect me tonight.  Into your hands I commend myself: my body, my soul, and all that is mine.  Let your holy angel be with me, so that the wicked foe may have no power over me.  Amen.”

We must all go to bed.  That final dark evening will come for us all when we close our eyes one final time and pray as we have since angels taught us when we were babies, “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  That is exactly what is about to happen as we process to the baptismal font: Dylan will die to the old sinful self and rise to a new life in Christ.  As the water pours down his face and he is made a child of God, the evil one will be routed and those who love him will be his angels, announcing as clearly as we are able, “Do not be afraid, Dylan, for God is with you, now and forever.”