The Power At Work In Us

Sermon for Sunday, January 9, 2010|| First Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A|| Matthew 3: 13-17
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

Perhaps like me, the reality of what happened yesterday in Tucson is still sinking in for you…the overwhelming horror and outrage is giving way to a more quiet reflection laced with confusion, sorrow, and perhaps even despair that this is what the world has come to: Another hate-filled rampage that has left innocent people dead or injured, and a country once again traumatized by the horror of it all.

This is humanity at our worst. This is what happens when a human-being fueled on willful self-righteousness listens to the voice of his own broken being instead of the voice of his creator. The shooter in yesterday’s rampage knew just exactly what he wanted, but I wonder if he thought—much less prayed–about what God wanted. Or did he think that God was irrelevant—to be worshipped in church on Sunday but in no way a part of the discernment and decision-making of our daily lives?

Imagine if you will, that this hate-filled young man had been a man of prayer. Imagine if you will, that he were a man of scripture. And imagine, if you will,  that when he found himself disturbed by thoughts of violence and feelings of hatred that he had shared them honestly with his God, remembered that he was God’s beloved son, sought guidance in scripture, and called upon God’s Spirit—rather than his own diminished resources–to guide him.  How different his world and the world of his victims might look today.

A personal story: When I was in college I fell in love with Hebrew scripture, tradition and culture. I thought very seriously about converting to Judaism. For many years I couldn’t find the words to explain why I didn’t convert to Judaism, other than to say that I couldn’t “un-do Christ.” I had no idea until almost twenty years later what a profound truth lay behind the clumsy explanation I had offered.  Then at a baptismal service, for the first time in my memory I heard the words “…you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  It was one those “ah-ha” moments of total epiphany:  Of course I couldn’t “un-do” Christ, I suddenly realized–because I had been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—and marked as Christ’s own forever.

So by way of explanation, you are looking at someone who believes that something extremely powerful and mysterious happens when we’re baptized—just as it did when Jesus was baptized.  Something that is far more than a symbolic ritual.  Something that cannot be undone, no matter how much we sin or how far we stray. Because when we are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, we’re God’s whether we know it or not.  We may turn away and reject him altogether, but we’re sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.

That means that no matter what, we belong to Christ. No matter what, he lives in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.  So no matter what, we have access to the same spiritual power as Jesus.  You and me, right here and now, have access to the same spiritual power as Jesus.  That shooter yesterday had access to the same spiritual power as Jesus.  And what a crime it is when don’t rely on it! How it must break God’s heart!

You see, Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity—with you, and with me, and with virtually all of humankind.  Jesus chose to stand in the mucky, muddy water of life with the sinners and the sorrowful, the outsiders and the outcasts …with the bereaved and the broken, the poor and the powerless. And when he did–when Jesus submitted himself to this baptism that he had discerned was God’s will for him, something very dramatic happened: a way was opened between God’s Kingdom and ours, and through it the Holy Spirit entered our world and alighted on Jesus.  Then as if this weren’t enough, a voice was heard saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those are the kinds of words that every child from 7 to seventy longs to hear from his or her parents:  “I love you, and I am absolutely delighted with you!” What a gift that just as Jesus was about to begin his public ministry, God blessed him with recognition of the Holy Spirit and with this amazing affirmation of His Divine love.

What happens next to Jesus isn’t in this morning’s reading:  Immediately after receiving the Holy Spirit, Jesus is led by that very same Spirit into the wilderness of life to do spiritual battle. Curious, isn’t it, that God would so affirm His love for Jesus, send His Holy Spirit to light on him like a dove, then send him to do battle with the devil!

Yet it’s by testing his chops in this spiritual battle at the very beginning of his ministry– armed with the knowledge of God’s love and the power of the Holy Spirit– that Jesus really learns what he’s made of and what he can do when he relies on God’s power. The Spirit that leads him into the wilderness doesn’t abandon him there anymore than it abandons us. It’s a part of him, it’s been with him all along, it’s the source of his spiritual power, and Jesus knows it.  He uses it.

The same Spirit that alighted on Jesus at his Baptism alights on us at ours. When we’re baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—and marked as Christ’s own forever—God gives us the gift of his Holy Spirit.  He adopts us as His beloved children. And Christ lives in us, and we in Him. Forever.

The astonishing truth is that through our baptism, we’ve already been given the spiritual power to discern right from wrong just, as Jesus did.  Through our baptism, we’ve already been given the spiritual power to do battle with temptation, fear, ego and pride, just as Jesus did. And through our baptism, we’ve already been given the spiritual power to submit our wills to God’s will, just as Jesus did.

Is it as easy as I’m making it sound?  Of course not.  And certainly there is no way we can do any of this on our own. But what if our post-baptismal lives are our own opportunity to test our spiritual chops– to learn to rely not on ourselves, but on Christ working through us, in the power of the Holy Spirit? What if by hearing and believing that we are indeed God’s beloved, we could get our poor frightened egos out of the way and really trust in the One who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine”?  What if we were to rely a little less on ourselves and a lot more on the vast, under-utilized source of spiritual power that already dwells in us through our baptism?  How different might the world look then?

Theologian Bruce Epperly writes that, “Epiphany is the time of the Christian year when we focus on God’s surprising revelations – in the magi from another land and faith tradition, in Gentile converts, in strangers and enemies, and most unexpectedly, in our own lives. The message of Epiphany is that you are God’s beloved child and that God is moving in and through your life to bless the world…”

Our post-baptismal epiphanies may not be nearly as immediate or dramatic as the one Jesus had at his baptism in the River Jordan.  In fact, they may be an entire lifetime of doing spiritual battle in the making.  What happened in Tucson is a very extreme but very real example of what can happen when we rely entirely on our own power—rather than God’s power– to guide our behavior.

Brothers and sisters, remember the vast reservoir of spiritual power to which you have access! Open a way for it in your life through prayer, worship, and scripture.  Rely on it for strength and courage.  Listen to it for guidance and wisdom.  Draw on it for inspiration and decision-making.  Let it move in and through your life, then go out and use it, in solidarity with Christ, to bless the world with the unfailing Light of His Divine love.  Amen.


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