Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Part 2
Culturally, the show is over by now. By the time the twelve days of Christmas reach completion the remnants of the "holiday" season are packed away. Most feel more "flat footed" than "on tiptoe," as the old Revised Standard Version of the Bible translated verse 15. People are exhausted by the emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial cost involved in the celebration of the season. It is a time of rest and recovery. It is a time of conservation following what most experience as a time of extravagance.
The preacher's challenge is to again make a connection, linking what has come to pass with the present and future. Promise, anticipation, advent, nativity, baptism--all impinge upon us. The preacher declares, affirms, connects this sacred story with our secular stories. "How" are those who have come to hear Jesus asking, as did the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers, "what should we do?" The time has come for the preacher to quietly point toward the challenge and changes Christ brings to the person who comes to be baptized by the water and the Spirit.
The very condition of humanity illustrates the need for the messiah, and the pastor's task, as Carol Wise said, is to "communicate" the "inner meaning of the gospel" to the point or place of "need." Why are people filled with expectation? What is needed? What is anticipated?
Perhaps it helps to think of this as a quiet exercise. It is a time of knitting together a fabric of meaning and comfort, a latticework of connecting stories and images. The time of preparation and anticipation has ended, and now the time of action has come. Yet it is action found within the plainness of the time.
Mary Catherine Bateson says that boredom is produced by our attempts to make everything exciting--even the parts of life which are routine and need no novelty. She believes we have lost the ability to wait for "longitudinal epiphanies." She calls it the "acquired pathology of attention."1 It is a kind of consumerism of the spirit in which we have to make all of experience into entertainment.
A longitudinal epiphany seems like an oxymoron. We are losing the capacity for epiphanies played out through time, like those that allow a man and a woman to enjoy having breakfast together day after day for forty years or to enjoy the leaves falling exactly as they did last year and the year before (pp. 113-114). Bateson sees that our attempts to maintain liveliness in our existence actually destroys it because nothing is ever exciting enough. She sees ritual, "a sacrament which affects what it signifies," as a continual practice and rehearsal of what is necessary and essential. It is a kind of "metaphysical housework."
Rituals use repetition to create the experience of walking the same path again and again with the possibility of discovering new meaning that would otherwise be invisible (pp. 114-115).
The tasks that have provided the basic textures of human life, like farming and child care, can be experienced as menial and repetitive. But for some they are really gradual paths of learning, forms of practice that deepen from day to day with the piquancy of minute difference (pp. 115-116).
We repeat. We practice the Christian seasons in the hope of discovering a difference. We hope, with each passing year, that these subtle differences are finding their way into our lives, shaping and changing us.
The imagery of a winnowing fork, threshing floor, wheat and chaff, tells us there is something from God which separates realities. Perhaps we were going one way, and then were called in another direction. We were oblivious, but then became aware. God enters life and changes the way it is experienced. In baptism Jesus and the people are washed, marked, brought into a greater reality than before. The difference is noted.
The pastor, of course, is not the One, but points toward the One, inviting the hearer to become aware of a connection between his or her need in life and the emerging presence of good news--gospel truth. At that moment application is made and truth is appropriated, and what were once pieces of the puzzle, as it were, now reveal a pattern not previously seen or known.
So, the preacher is often providing subtle answers to unspoken questions. He or she paints a portrait of Christ, among us, in the arena of human relationships and in the everyday experience of life. It is the discovery of love alive, coming to see the sacred drama played out on the stage of the day-in-day-out. The sermon demonstrates the incarnational connection between people hungry for truth and God's generous grace which comes to all who can receive it.
A man came to me one day and asked, with the voice of one who felt he had no right to ask, "can I be baptized again?" We talked. His life had taken a turn this way and then that. He had accepted but then renounced. He was away for many years, but now he was back. "Can I be re-baptized? I want to come home again. I am ashamed of my past, some of which still is very much with me."
We got around to talking about theology. I said God's baptism is good for "always." "I know," he said, "but it's me. I need to do something to show I am making a change. A sign that things are different now."
We had a service in which his baptismal vows were renewed and re-affirmed. Water was on him and me and others. Water was everywhere. I flung it outward, like a net, hoping to catch as many as it would. People wept at the sincerity of someone willing to acknowledge, well into adulthood, that his journey had taken him afar and that God's journey had brought him home.
James L. Philpott
Mary Catherine Bateson, Peripheral Visions (New York: Harper-Collins, 1994), p.16.