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Sermon ~ You are my own

Luke 3,15-17, 21-22
You are my own
13 January 2013
UCSA Glengowrie

Luke 3,15-17, 21-22

(15) Everyone became excited and wondered, “Could John be the Messiah?”

(16) John said,
“I am just baptizing with water.
But someone more powerful is going to come,
and I am not good enough even to untie his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

(17) His threshing fork is in his hand,
and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks.
He will store the wheat in his barn
and burn the husks with a fire that never goes out.”

(21) While everyone else was being baptized,
Jesus himself was baptized.

Then as he prayed, the sky opened up,
(22) and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove.
A voice from heaven said,

“You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.”

 

1.

Like many of you, we had quite a few family members and relatives, including some teenage boys, visiting us over Christmas and New Year: Being a good husband, who doesn’t like cooking, I did most of the dishes, but with some help every now and then from one of the rellies or the teenage boys. I felt old, and in their eyes I probably am, with my rather long grey beard that I hadn’t got around to trimming for some time.

I felt as old as my own father must have seemed to me when I was a teenager and a young man. Looking back, my father was a fascinating man, although at that time I was anything but impressed.

You may have heard — or perhaps you don’t know yet — that my mother was the only child of her Jewish father, a tailor, and her Christian mother. If it had been the other way around, I would not be preaching to you — I would probably be a member of the Jewish faith. There is one more miracle — that is how my mother survived Hitler’s Germany and World War II. That is another story which I may share with you another time.

The story of how my parents met and married is quite fascinating. I don’t know if they had ever met previously, but during the war my mother was one of the young women (or older girls) in Germany writing letters of encouragement to the soldiers in the field (unfortunately, I have never seen any of these letters). My father went to war right at the beginning, in September 1939, and he was injured very soon after, while still in Western Russia: A rocket missed its target and ended up in a barn where my father as a radio operator and his unit where hiding. He lost a leg, fingers, several ribs, half his lung, and for the rest of his life had to cope with shrapnel in his body. I truly believe that I would not be standing here today if my father had not been so seriously injured. Had he remained in the war, he would certainly have vanished in the battle of Stalingrad.

My mother must have heard about my father returning so badly injured. Like so many other war victims, even today, they never talked about it. In 1946, just after the war ended, my parents married and in 1947 my older brother was born. My father was a cripple, although you would never have guessed on first sight because of his artificial limb.

As the middle child in my family, I was always in trouble. For decades my mother had to live with the danger that my father would not survive for health reasons, and that she might be left alone with three little children. Amazingly, he did survive, and actually outlived my mother by seven years.

After I became interested in politics, in my late teenage years, my father and I had heated debates, which often ended with him suggesting I should cross over to socialist East Germany, or in later years, become a member of the Green Party. As a long-time city official, he was always well informed about politics, in fact, to some degree, much better than I. But he always voted conservative.

I’ll never forget the argument we had when I had to decide whether to accept compulsory draft or to become a conscientious objector of the use of arms. My father strongly advised me to go through the “school of life”, as he called it, the new Army of the Federal Republic of Germany. I must have hurt him badly in words, when I challenged his position by pointing at him being — a cripple, and then decided against his advice.

During my studies for the ministry as Deacon in the mid-1970s I got involved with migrant people from around the world in my home town, Frankfurt, and then began travelling myself to countries that had been affected by violence or war: Northern Ireland, Cameroon, South Korea, El Salvador, South Africa — meeting many people who had barely survived some kind of civil war.

While my mother was very supportive, my father never approved. But something strange was happening during my later theological studies, when I was closely working with the South Korean migrant community in Germany. My father knew that I was always short of money. Every now and then I would find a substantial amount of money deposited in my bank account, which would allow me to continue with my commitment. My father hardly ever acknowledged it, but deep down he must have admired my commitment.

However, I would have loved, though, to have heard from him, even if only once in my life,

You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.

 

2.

Our bible text today, as we have heard it, is remarkable. I have long wondered how to preach about it. Our short passage today is the centre of a chapter full of names. And it hints at a brutality experienced by many people, even generations of people, who were being uprooted, oppressed, and disoriented.

To understand the context of our passage, I read the whole of the chapter for you:

(1) For fifteen years
the Emperor Tiberius had ruled that part of the world.
Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was the ruler of Galilee.
Herod’s brother, Philip, was the ruler in the countries of Iturea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene.

(2) Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish high priests.

At that time God spoke to Zechariah’s son John, who was living in the desert.

(3) So John went along the Jordan Valley, telling the people,
“Turn back to God and be baptized! Then your sins will be forgiven.”

 

And here follows an inset:

(4) Isaiah the prophet wrote about John when he said,

“In the desert someone is shouting,
‘Get the road ready for the Lord! Make a straight path for him.

(5) Fill up every valley and level every mountain and hill.
Straighten the crooked paths and smooth out the rough roads.

(6) Then everyone will see the saving power of God.’ “

 

And our story continues:

(7) Crowds of people came out to be baptized,
but John said to them,
“You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgement?

(8) Do something to show that you really have given up your sins.
Don’t start saying that you belong to Abraham’s family.
God can turn these stones into children for Abraham.

(9) An axe is ready to cut the trees down at their roots.
Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire.”

(10) The crowds asked John, “What should we do?”

(11) John told them,
“If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any.
If you have food, share it with someone else.”

(12) When tax collectors came to be baptized, they asked John,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
(13) John told them, “Don’t make people pay more than they owe.”

(14) Some soldiers asked him, “And what about us? What do we have to do?”
John told them, “Don’t force people to pay money to make you leave them alone.
Be satisfied with your pay.”

(15) Everyone became excited and wondered, “Could John be the Messiah?”

(16) John said,
“I am just baptizing with water.
But someone more powerful is going to come,
and I am not good enough even to untie his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

(17) His threshing fork is in his hand,
and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks.
He will store the wheat in his barn
and burn the husks with a fire that never goes out.”

(18) In many different ways John preached the good news to the people.

 

And there is another inset:

(19) But to Herod the ruler, he said,
“It was wrong for you to take Herodias, your brother’s wife.”
John also said that Herod had done many other bad things.

(20) Finally, Herod put John in jail,
and this was the worst thing he had done.

 

The story continues:

(21) While everyone else was being baptized,
Jesus himself was baptized.

Then as he prayed, the sky opened up,
(22) and the Holy Spirit came down upon him in the form of a dove.
A voice from heaven said,
“You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.”

 

And a final inset:

(23) When Jesus began to preach, he was about thirty years old.
Everyone thought he was the son of Joseph.

But his family went back through Heli,
(24) Matthat, Levi, Melchi, Jannai, Joseph,
(25) Mattathias, Amos, Nahum, Esli, Naggai,
(26) Maath, Mattathias, Semein, Josech, Joda;
(27) Joanan, Rhesa, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel, Neri,
(28) Melchi, Addi, Cosam, Elmadam, Er,
(29) Joshua, Eliezer, Jorim, Matthat, Levi;
(30) Simeon, Judah, Joseph, Jonam, Eliakim,
(31) Melea, Menna, Mattatha, Nathan, David,
(32) Jesse, Obed, Boaz, Salmon, Nahshon;
(33) Amminadab, Admin, Arni, Hezron, Perez, Judah,
(34) Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Terah, Nahor,
(35) Serug, Reu, Peleg, Eber, Shelah;
(36) Cainan, Arphaxad, Shem, Noah, Lamech,
(37) Methuselah, Enoch, Jared, Mahalaleel, Kenan,
(38) Enosh, and Seth.

The family of Jesus went all the way back to Adam and then to God.

 

3.

Names, and names, and names.

Rather than beginning with an abstract number of a year, Luke reminds his readers of the gruelling times of occupation, of military rule, of hatred and fear. Unlike today, where the really powerful murderers are hardly ever identified by their names, and their deeds rarely linked to them, Luke points his finger at them: Tiberus, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas … he probably could have mentioned more. In the middle of our text, omitted from the regular Sunday reading, Luke even accuses Herod of his worst crime —the murder of John the Baptist!

In my commitment with Aboriginal people here in Adelaide, I am sure they could list a similar number of impressive names.

Luke places even John himself into the tradition of his family — as Zechariah’s son. And as if this was not enough, his preaching is being linked with the prophet of old — Isaiah.

Then there is this weird summary of people repenting for their sins — the crowds (those at the margins of society!), the soldiers, tax collectors … all being despised by the “good” Israelites.

These people around John the Baptist foreshadow what Jesus was to experience during his own ministry. And here he is being placed in the midst of them all — no, even more than that, as one of us all!

 

The event itself, most likely, would have been pretty messy. Not as well organised and solemn as our “normal” baptismal services in a church like this. People shouting, arguing, and being led into the waters of the Jordan River; coming out of the river, joyful, considerate, or even praying, as Luke says of Jesus.

And then there is God’s voice. Given all the raucousness that I can hear in this description of a mass baptism, Luke remains strangely vague about the voice of God: Was it a whisper or a thunder; was it in the sounds of the wind or the clapping of the waves? The sky opened, says Luke, and the people saw a dove, the Spirit of God, the sign of peace.

Whatever the voice of God was, it WAS his affirmation to Jesus, in the midst of this crowd of people, during a chaotic event:

You are my own dear Son, and I am pleased with you.

I would have loved to hear my father say this to me. I love the fact that God has said it to me. He has said it to Jesus, the one who is in the midst of all the crowds, their suffering, and their celebrations. He is the one who kept my mother and father alive, and so many other people I have met, and so many more I have never seen or heard of, who have gone through horrendous suffering. God has spoken to his son Jesus who was not one of those removed — at palaces, banquets, or in temples. He was amongst his people, and he is amongst us.

 

In our earlier OT reading we heard from Isaiah chapter 43:

(1) … Israel, don’t be afraid. I have rescued you.
I have called you by name; now you belong to me.

(2) When you cross deep rivers, I will be with you, and you won’t drown.
When you walk through fire, you won’t be burned or scorched by the flames.

(3) I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, the God who saves you.

In Jesus, the one who is in our midst, I believe we can accept this affirmation for us as well!

 

4.

Our bible text for this Sunday has a post script:

In the same way as John the Baptist, Luke seems to think that he has to prove the ancestry of Jesus, with a long list of names, all over again. I don’t know why, and I did not research it for this sermon.[1] But I would like to think that Luke has placed Jesus at the end of the known genealogy of his time — and by going back to Adam through all the generations, this included everybody.

 

This comforts me — it makes me called to be part of the Mission of God:

I have called you by name; now you belong to me.

Amen.

 

Footnote

[1] 77 names or generations, symbolizing the forgiveness of all sins according to Mt 18,21-22 and the church father Augustine.

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