This past week I was watching one of my favorite television shows of all time called ‘Northern Exposure.’ Some of you may remember this show that was televised during the early 1990s about small town life in Alaska, and the characters, lives, and experiences that make such places on earth so magical. In this particular episode, a traveling circus surprisingly comes to town after their bus breaks down while traveling across Alaska. As everyone is waiting for the bus to be fixed, the townsfolk of Cicely have the opportunity to meet some of the unique individuals that make up this circus of clowns, jugglers, and contortionists. One particular person is called the Flying Man. Upon meeting him, he seems normal enough. He is tall, handsome, and well groomed. But there are two things that make the Flying Man unique. One I’m sure you can guess…he can fly. The other: he doesn’t speak. Not because he can’t, or he is ill; he simply chooses not to speak…much to the chagrin of a Dr. Joel Fleischman. And at the same time, there is a wonderful dialogue between the Flying Man and some of the townspeople as he does not say a word, yet is able to communicate with everyone around him in ways that simply and beautifully go beyond words.
People love their words. We are raised as children to memorize, recite, and write words that describe all areas of life, from the amusing ‘Madlibs’ that entertain us on family car rides, to reverent words of Scripture. We memorize quotes of our favorite Bible verses, authors, or political figures. We recite lines from songs, movies, and plays. We love our words because words can be beautiful.
We also know that while words can be extremely uplifting and point to the eternal, words can also be used to destroy and tear down. We have witnessed words that unite entire nations like that of Abraham Lincoln, and we have witnessed words that can divide the world like the words of Adolf Hitler. Words can be powerful.
Christians, and Presbyterians for that matter, really love words. Ever sit down for a meal with a group of pastors? Let me tell you, get comfortable, because you are going to be there for a while. One game that my friends and I like to play is to try and use as many loaded Christian terms in sentences as possible. Let’s try it out: ‘The Lord, Almighty, Most Powerful, Son of God, Emmanuel, Messiah, Jesus the Christ, will pour out God’s blessings, power, majesty, and grace, on all sinful, trespassing, totally depraved, children who live with such transgressions in the already not yet kingdom that has been fore-ordained since Creation according to the revelation and prophesy within the PCUSA by the reverent articulation, administration, and celebration of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper within the bounds of the BOO, the BOC, and the BOCW, with eschatological hope…you get the idea?
While we love our words, we can also get lost in our words. And worse yet, we can lose and offend others with our words. Our words can become hallow and empty.
When I ask others, especially young people, about why they don’t attend church or consider themselves Christians, this is what I hear more often than not: “The Church is a bunch of hypocrites. They say all of these things, and live in a totally different way. Why would I want to be associated with a group that says one thing, and does another?”
So here are a few questions for us to wrestle with this morning: what are we as Christians and as the Church saying? What do we mean when we are saying these things? What is being heard? And what should we be saying…and doing to back those words up?
When reading our Scripture passages in preparation for this morning, the first thing that came to mind for me was just how many words we use to communicate experiences of the Divine…and understandably so, right? After all, we are celebrating ‘Baptism of the Lord’ Sunday, and that is a hard thing to explain in a few sentences. What is Baptism? Why is Jesus getting baptized so important? What does it mean that Jesus is Lord?
When reading the book of Acts, we see how the Apostle Paul is notorious for his wordy responses; after all, a huge part of the New Testament is attributed as his own letters! He is not only sharing the Good News of Christ with the world, he is also shaping the very foundations of Christian thought and the Church itself.
We pick up today in chapter 19, verses 1 thru 7. Paul is traveling around visiting some of these new Christian communities, and is checking in with each of them. For Paul, an essential part of the Christian faith is experiencing the Holy Spirit, and much to his astonishment, these new Christians have never even heard of the Holy Spirit! The new believers did understand John the Baptist’s message of repentance, and were baptized in that message. But again, Paul is not only visiting, but he is clarifying the uniqueness of following Jesus as the Christ within this fledgling faith identity. When we become Christians, we live in the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is important for Paul that we both get the words right, and more importantly that we truly understand the source of our beliefs; it’s when we are able to harness the very Sprit that we then see how God is moving in the world.
We need to know our beliefs, our words. But I also want us to get back to our children’s message this morning, when we heard the story from Mark. If you notice, there is something unique about Mark as compared to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke; there is no story of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Mark, the first and oldest Gospel of Jesus as the Christ, begins here at the baptism of Jesus. The very opening verses actually recount the words of the prophet Isaiah, writing about the coming of the Messiah. The next few verses describe John the Baptist and his ministry and baptism of repentance, and how he foretold the people about the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. And as simply as the Gospel begins, Jesus is introduced in verse 9: 9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
Jesus was not recorded as coming with great fanfare, or an army, or a great resume, he simply came to the water. Now what happens next, with the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him…that’s pretty awesome. That’s more of the Hollywood we all expect these days. Maybe this will be Russell Crowe’s next biblically based Hollywood blockbuster. But what I want us to pay attention to today are the words that follow: 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
That’s all God needed to say: You are mine. I love you. I am so happy with you. I wonder if my young skeptical friends heard those words about Christianity, if they would still call the Church a bunch of hypocrites.
The truth is, we really are a bunch of hypocrites. Every day we try to live really good lives. And a lot of times we accomplish this goal. And most days we don’t. We use all of these words like the Fall, and Sin, and brokenness because we want to give voice to how we mess up in life. And we also talk about unconditional love, and grace, and forgiveness…and we fall short of exemplifying these ideas when we don’t love all of God’s people the same way, when we fail to show graciousness in our dealings with others, and when we fail to forgive others who hurt us.
A common saying about such matters is attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times, and use words when necessary.’ The idea is that our life should be a clear message of the Good News of Christ. Perhaps we can live our lives as the Flying Man from Northern Exposure, and not say a word, but portray all that Christ has done for us through our actions. But the reality is that we do fall short at times. Sometimes we crash when we try to fly. Sometimes words are helpful. Sometimes words are needed.
I believe that it’s good to use words to share our faith. I think young people want to hear about Jesus. But how we talk about Jesus is really important. Are we talking with loud, lofty terms and irrelevant phrases that only scholars and life-long church members know? Or are we talking in a way that people will understand; speaking plainly about our lives, our faith, our hopes and dreams? That’s what people want to hear these days. People want to hear words of hope.
Yes, when we explain our faith, it’s helpful to talk about the presence of the Holy Spirit, as Paul does, or talk about sin and Christ’s saving grace. But maybe the Gospel, the Good News, is a little more simple. Maybe the Good News is simply this: God says ‘you are mine; I love you; I am so happy with you.’ What if this was our message for the world? What if this is what people heard when they asked about Christianity? This is not a message only for Bapstism Sundays; this is a message for every day of our lives.
We all love our words, and for good reason. Today I would like for us to think outside the box a little, and instead of using more words to describe our faith, perhaps we can try using less. Perhaps we should work on speaking more directly; more plainly. What would you say? Speaking plainly, how would we share the Good News of Christ with the rest of the world, especially those who say that they have heard it all before?
The Good News for us this morning as we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism, and as we contemplate our own baptism: God says ‘you are mine; I love you; I am so happy with you.’
May we share such Good News today and every day with the world around us.