Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire . . . One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy. Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
People often ask me how I got into ministry. How did I know? The question usually comes from new encounters at dinner parties. When guests find out I’m a minister, they start trying to figure it out. It is a familiar but uncommon occupation, after all. You’d think I’d have a pat answer by now, but the question still makes me stumble. How did I know? Well . . . I just knew. I’ve known since I was 12 years old. Picture a serious, 12-year old boy who hears the voice of God and begins ordering the complete set of John Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible so that he can get an early start on his clerical studies; a boy staying up late and reading theology by flashlight long after his parents have told him to turn out the lights and go to sleep; a boy so caught up in the bliss of biblical studies, he cannot focus on world geography and mathematics. Got the picture? Well, that wasn’t me. I was a sassy, loud- mouthed 12-year-old who teased others relentlessly, watched Three’s Company and the Love Boat faithfully, listened to Toto sing Rosanna endlessly, and did not have much interest in reading anything. I was an average kid and an average student living in an average American household. That’s the kid God called into ministry. As I grew, I tried on different ideas for occupations. By my college years, I talked myself into training to be a High School English teacher. But I could not shake the call to be a pastor.
I was ordained to ministry in 1997. It was a big worship service, concluding with me kneeling in front of the sanctuary as 15 or so ministers gathered around me. They were liberal and conservative; Black, White and Asian; male and female; younger and older. The ministers touched me head and shoulders, and prayed, and conferred the time-honored tradition of ordained ministry through the laying on of hands.
Do you remember the time you got ordained? You are, you know . . . Ordained! I’m not just talking to the 10-or 12 ordained ministers and seminary-trained folk who worship here at CCC each Sunday. I’m talking to all of us. You are a minister of the gospel. YOU are! And it happened at your baptism.
Through the course of time, baptism has lost some of its significance as the making of "ministers" in the world. Today we think of it as an initiation rite into the covenant life of church. This has led many to the unfortunate conclusion that pastors, those who are ordained, are the real ministers of the church and the laity are there just to undergird and support the work of the clergy.
Generally the notion of call is understood as a calling to professional ministry, with a seminary education and a path that leads to ordination. This has never been the only way to think about ministry in our congregational tradition. Some people are called to special functions in the church and are trained to fulfill those functions as ordained pastors and teachers. But our tradition teaches that God gives talents and abilities to all people, and calls all people to serve in many ways. We call it “the priesthood of all believers.” We believe that all of us who are on this journey of faith are ministers. We, in the United Church of Christ, believe that God calls each and every one of us. The call of God may be to a specific occupation, but most often it is to a task, a work, a mission, a ministry to others, which may have little to do with a job. We have a name for the work of listening. We call it “discernment.” One of the jobs of the church member is to listen and reflect – to discern -- on life's journeys in ways that help us understand how God urges and prods us in a certain directions. There are moments when that process seems very clear and understandable, and there are times when it seems almost impossible to understand what God wants from us.
Today's gospel story recalls the baptism of Jesus. When Jesus is baptized, says Luke, a dove descends and a mysterious voice proclaims Jesus as a beloved child of God. Right after this event, Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing -- a sign that the Reign of God is coming. Jesus' baptism is the day of his "ordination," the beginning point of his ministry. But Luke's gospel lets us know that the Holy Spirit has been working long before the day that Jesus is grown and beginning his ministry. Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of the angel's annunciation to Mary. Remember what the angel told Mary on that occasion? "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God" (Luke 1:35). That day was the beginning of her work for God. It happens earlier in the Gospel to the parents of John the Baptist, too. In their old age, they will bring a child into the world who will be a prophet of hope.
In biblical times names had incredible importance. A name carried more than your identity. It said something about who you are, what your God is like, or how you were expected to live. As I read the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, I’m struck by the power of names. Maybe you remember these parts of the story: An angel appears to a priest named Zechariah and says, ““Do not be afraid, Zechariah . . . Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John . . . And he will . . . turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The name John means, “God is Gracious” – a reminder of God’s loving presence. He will become known as John the Baptist. In the same way, an angel appears to Mary says, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Luke even tells us about the naming ceremony in the Temple where Mary’s baby is named Jesus in fulfillment of the promise. The name Jesus means, “God saves.”
In today’s reading, with John and Jesus together, a voice from heaven speaks, directed at Jesus. “This is my son, my beloved.” I hear these words not as a description, but as a name. It’s as if the voice says, “Everyone look at this man. His name is God’s Beloved. I know him by name.” By the way, the word “beloved” in Hebrew might be related to the same word from which we get the name David. And we remember King David, the famous warlord of ancient Israel, is Jesus’ ancestor. Just as ancient kings like David were anointed with oil as a sign of their authority, Jesus, God’s Beloved and the new leader of God’s Reign, is anointed with the Spirit at his baptism. There is power in a name. And God knows it.
These traditions still carry over into today. We anoint with water. Some traditions use oil, too. Often we ask parents, “By what name will your child be known?” It’s our recognition that this little person will take on a special identity linked to a name. It’s also our way of remembering that God knows us. God forms us. God has meaning for our lives. God knows us by name.
And not just that, God CALLS us, God calls you, by name.
Maybe God is calling you to do something risky with your faith, but you ask “What’s going to happen to my future? Will this lead to grief, disappointment, or disaster? Will somebody bring violence or harm to me or my family? Will I suffer some disaster?”
Maybe you are being called to reconcile a bad relationship. We face the demands of relationships every day; loving those who are hard to love, forgiving the offender; making up with those whom we’ve wronged, living up to our vows, keeping our self‑promises, trying to be effective parents and partners.
Maybe you are being called out of our comfort zone, to stretch yourself, to travel new pathways and gain new experiences. As MLK Weekend approaches, think of the calling and struggles of Martin Luther King, Jr. In April of 1963, Martin was arrested and placed in jail in Birmingham, Alabama for his non-violent resistance to segregation. After King’s incarceration, eight leading Christian and Jewish religious leaders in that city released a statement criticizing Martin’s work and ideas, saying that his activities to end segregation in the South were, “unwise and untimely.” In response to that statement, Martin wrote these eight men, what has come to be known as his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Martin wrote: “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.. . Just as the prophets carried ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond their villages, and just like the apostle Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom. . . we must see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”
Martin struggled to rise above that deadening culture where people did only what was right in their own eyes. He chose not give in. He chose not to serve the immoral culture and to become separated from God in the process. He chose to follow God’s ways of justice, freedom and love. He chose to move out of the dead zone of racial hatred where God’s call could not be heard, to the life giving zone of justice and love
Today, we must hear and heed our own call, as individuals and as a community of faith.
Listen because God calls us by name. It might be through a still, small voice. You may hear it in the turmoil of daily events. To hear it is always a moment of grace. You have gifts that God has given you. God wants you to use them. There are needs in this Church where God may be inviting you to use your gifts and abilities to make a difference. God calls us to evaluate our commitment to justice, freedom and love. God knows you, and God knows us. God has a calling for you whether you realize it or not. And God is calling for us.
To be honest, I have already seen you in ministry, CCC. I have evidence that you are ordained -- gifted with the Divine Spirit for ministry. I have seen you at ministry in the choir room, or a Sunday school room, or the sick room, or the meeting room. I've seen you ministering to the homeless and to the hungry. I have seen you minister to one another in times of sickness and tragedy. Many have expressed their desire to help. You want to minister.
So in a way, I said it wrong. The day I got ordained was not that afternoon back in 1997 when a group of ministers laid hands on my head. The day I got ordained as a minister was a Sunday morning all the way back in 1978 when a UCC pastor dipped his hand in a baptismal bowl, poured water on my 8-year-old head, reminded by family and me that I had been given the Holy Spirit, and made me a minister.
One reason why we are here in church on Sunday is to be fed, to be nourished, for ministry. As one of your pastors, I preach and I teach and in order that you might preach and teach wherever you go in the coming week. I help serve the sacraments so that you might be the sacramental presence of God wherever you go.
So go and be a minister! Let us use the gifts God has given us as a sign of the outbreak of the presence of God. Let us be the ministers that God has called us, ordained us, to be.