“Through the Sea”

This Morning’s Passage:

Exodus 14

“[Spiritual cleansing] does not happen by the physical water but by the sprinkling of the precious blood of the Son of God, who is our Red Sea, through which we must pass to escape the tyranny of Pharaoh, who is the devil, and to enter the spiritual land of Canaan.”

~ from Belgic Confession Article 34: “the Sacrament of Baptism”

God uses baptism to start us on a new life, washing away the past.

Last week, we saw in Israel’s exodus from Egypt that our journey into our new life in Christ typically begins with a crisis of decision that compels us to make a fresh start with urgency and confidence. That journey will prove challenging. We are being called to live a new kind of life that is so out of place in this world, and so against the ways of this world, that we will be frequently faced with the opposition and animosity of others. Jesus showed us this in his life, as he endured the hatred of the world against his radically new kind of life. And Jesus told us that that same hatred would be aimed at us when we left behind the ways of the world and lived instead Christ’s new kind of life. Jesus even went so far to say that we are blessed “when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely” on account of Jesus (Matthew 5:11).

We can only persevere under that kind of enmity for so long on our own. Our individual reservoirs of will and intention and resolve will be exhausted all the sooner, the greater the danger appears to us. Like Israel, our fear and anxiety will convince us that this fledgling new life is not worth the world’s hatred, and we will quickly come to think that it would be better for us to go back to living like the rest of the world.

Of course that is not true. We have been transplanted from the slavery of darkness and death into the marvelous light of eternal life. It would be the worst kind of foolishness to exchange life for death. Therefore, God has made a way to separate us from the death of our past life, while at the same time filling us with a reservoir of grace and power and will that will never run out, because it’s filled with His Spirit of life. That way is baptism.

The sacrament of baptism marks the end of our previous life of slavery and darkness. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s crucifixion, so that our sinful self “with its sinful practices” (Colossians 3:9) is no more. The sacrament of baptism then also marks the beginning of our new life of freedom and obedience. In baptism, the Spirit of God brings us to share in Christ’s resurrection, so that our “new self” is born, and we begin to be “renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10) Jesus Christ.

Just as it would be impossible for the people of Israel to go back to Egypt after miraculously crossing the Red Sea by God’s grace, in the same way it is impossible for us to return to a life ruled by sin after we have been baptized. There is no going back.

God uses baptism to make us a new people in the world, a family of faith.

And if that’s all baptism does, it would be enough. But something more happens in the waters of baptism, just as it happened at the Red Sea. Remember that when the Hebrews left Egypt by night, they were a “mixed multitude” (Exodus 12:38). That means that some Egyptians had come along. Maybe they had come to believe in the Lord God through the Israelites’ worship and witness. Maybe they had seen the Israelites painting their doorposts with the blood of the lamb, and fearful of the last plague, decided to do the same to save themselves and their family. Or maybe they had decided last minute to join the exodus with these strange and powerful people. Whatever the cause, God’s chosen people have set out on this journey home with strangers and aliens in their midst. But once they cross the Red Sea, they are no longer “a mixed multitude,” but “the people of Israel” (Exodus 14:29), God’s chosen people.

In the same way, the sacrament of baptism shows us that God’s covenant promises create a new people in the world. If it is true that each of us who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection leave behind the ways of the world and start a new life, then it is also true that all of us who have started a new life in Christ are bound up together into a new people, no longer of this world. Where the people of Israel were bound together as God’s covenant people by their ancestor Abraham’s blood, we are bound together by our forgiveness in Christ’s blood; where Israel was bound together by the sign of circumcision that showed them God’s favor, Christ has given us the fulfillment of that ancient sign, and we are bound together – male and female – by the sign of baptism, which shows us that God is our good Father in Christ.

When we celebrate Christian baptism together, we hear anew God’s covenant promises to us as our good Father, that He will continue to be faithful to us, to forgive our sins, and to renew us by His Holy Spirit. We also make strong promises of our own, promises to be faithful to each other as the family of faith. In baptism, we who are baptized become a kingdom-shaped community that bears witness to the truth of our living Lord Christ together. Our relationships of mutual encouragement and accountability become sacramental – empowered with the potential to bear and display the real presence of Christ to the world. Our authentic relationships of forgiveness and reconciliation become living testimonies to the forgiveness that has been given to us. Even immense personal differences are overcome in unity of baptism; because we have been brought through the sea, the truest thing about us now is Christ. In Christ alone we find our capacity to stand in fellowship with strangers, aliens, and even enemies.

God uses baptism throughout our whole life, to renew us by His Holy Spirit.

The sacrament of baptism marks us as Christ’s own as individuals, and incorporates us into the faith family of Christ’s Church in all space and time, and unites us to this particular expression of the faith family in this place, at this time. But the water of baptism does not carry the power of salvation in itself; the font is filled with ordinary water. The water of baptism is a temporary, visible sign that signifies the eternal, invisible grace of God at work in our souls by the Holy Spirit to renew us and purify us. Even though the water dries from our skin, the spiritual mark of baptism endures on our soul throughout our whole life.

Our public Profession of Faith is a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life, where we acknowledge publicly the promises of God made to us in our baptism, and we choose to answer those promises with our own promises of faithfulness and obedience, committing ourselves to this particular Christian faith family for mutual encouragement and accountability, so that we all might continue to grow in grace and truth.

Christian weddings can be seen as a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life: a husband and wife recognize publicly that God’s covenant faithfulness goes before them as they make their covenant promises to each other, to be faithful and loving to each other the same way that Christ is faithful and loving to His bride, the Church.

Christian funerals are a continuation of the baptismal covenant in our life. Because in baptism we have already died to sin and death, we have all comfort, for ours is the promise of the full victory Christ has won for us. Even in our grief, we can stand on the words of Scripture:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:54-55, cf. Isaiah 25:8, Hosea 13:14

Because the covenant promises of God made to us in baptism are sure, a Christian’s death is not fearful or futile; for, like Paul:

“I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

~ Romans 8:38-39

And in and through and among the baptisms, and Professions of Faith, and weddings, and funerals, we have a second sacrament that ties directly to the sacrament of baptism. The sacrament of communion is the continuation of the baptismal covenant! Where in baptism we have been adopted into the family of faith, so that we are now called children of God, in communion we are fed at God’s table the visible sign of His invisible grace. The Lord is the host of this holy feast, and all who are baptized into Christ Jesus are welcome at His table, if we are fully living into our new lives in Christ, made ours through the grace-filled waters of baptism. All who are truly sorry for their sins, and are eagerly striving to live the new life of righteousness, will find at Christ’s table grace upon grace, and will be strengthened by His body, the bread, and His blood, the cup, to continue more and more to live the holy and blameless lives Christ has won for us in His death and resurrection, and made ours in the gift of baptism.

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“Receive the Kingdom as a Child”

This sermon series through Mark, we’ve been considering the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the start of his reign as God’s anointed King. As we begin Lent, we listen for our King’s call to deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him. This morning Jesus offers us a particularly appropriate image for what denying ourselves looks like. Lent’s invitation to self-denial sounds inconvenient and intimidating and maladjusted; Jesus makes sure we begin to understand precisely what he means, and what we can expect when we accept his invitation.

Mark 9:30-36, 42; 10:13-16

They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

If we have eyes open to see it and hearts ready to accept it, Jesus invites us to become like children in order to receive his kingdom of life. This may seem a simple, harmless request from our King, but this should give us some surprise. How are children better suited to receive the kingdom than we able, responsible adults? Our King’s request, which is really more of a command, should also give us some concern. Even if it does make sense, that children will inherit the kingdom, how is it possible for us able, responsible adults to become like children again? These are the questions we must answer if we are to faithfully follow Jesus Christ as our King, and as our Savior, on his way to the cross for us, and for the whole world

Children and the Kingdom

Our passage this morning begins with another journey through Galilee. These are not quick bus rides, or even car trips, but wearying walks, under the overbearing sun and in the clinging dust, over rugged mountains and through treacherous riverbeds. It is on one of these rigorous walks that Jesus is trying again to warn his disciples about what is to come. Jesus is trying to prepare these young men for what will happen to him in Jerusalem at the hands of those who should know better, the religious leaders who should be welcoming and worshiping Jesus, not rejecting and executing him. This is too much for the disciples to grasp, even though Jesus speaks plainly to them.

Somehow, the disciples skip over this lesson. All they catch of this is that the kingdom they were promised is getting closer. They miss the importance of how Jesus will bring in his kingdom: that the kingdom of God comes by a cross instead of a crown. The disciples ignore Jesus’ warning and instead bicker about who will be greatest in this new kingdom. Jesus catches them vying for prestige and status, which is the greatest possible irony of this story. Jesus is teaching them that this kingdom will come by being killed, instead of by killing, by being humiliated instead of by being elevated, and his disciples are playing “rock, paper, scissors” about who gets to be Jesus’ right-hand man. The scene is almost comedic, until Jesus tells them, “Whoever would be first must become dead last, and the servant of all.” This doesn’t make any sense. This is the exact opposite of how the world works. What kind of kingdom is run by servants and underdogs?

And to drive the point home, Jesus brings forward a child, to show them exactly what he means: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” Jesus shows his disciples a child: someone least able to appreciate status or power, someone who appreciates competition only in the context of play and never for personal gain, someone still filled with the wonder of innocence. It is this kind of person, this child-like character that Jesus offers the disciples as a lesson for what we are to become if we are to be able to fully receive and welcome the King and his kingdom in our lives.

But what do children have that makes them able in a unique way to receive the King? Aren’t we called to grow up into spiritual maturity? Aren’t we as adults more valuable contributors to the kingdom’s mission in the world? I don’t think we should be too quick to accept children as a perfect metaphor for Jesus’ lesson. Children are not perfect – none of us are – but they offer us an image of the kind of life that is able to truly welcome the kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t explain further. He only says we must become like children. But our best guess is that the childlikeness Jesus is asking of us is trust. Children cannot provide for themselves or defend themselves, but they usually don’t feel any need to do so. We all come into this world with the sense that we are to be taken care of, that we are someone else’s responsibility. Gradually, as we grow older, we are given increasingly higher amounts of responsibility, larger and larger obligations, which slowly remove from us that sense of being held, of being cared for, of belonging to someone else. Sadly, more and more children do not grow up with this care; and even if they do, we are asking them to grow up younger and younger, placing the weight of responsibility, and work, and college, and “real life” on their shoulders. How are our children to hold on to their child-like trust if we take it from them?

Our Lord and Savior places children among us as a reminder that we do in fact belong to someone else. For those in our Heidelberg Catechism class, this is review, but what does the first question and answer of our Reformed Catechism tell us is our only comfort in life and in death? That we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This attitude of child-like trust makes us uniquely and particularly able to accept Jesus as he is, as the King of the Cosmos and Lord of Eternity. Without a sense that we already belong to him, we cannot welcome him as Lord and King because we are still trying to be our own lords, the kings and queens of our own castles, and that only leads to anxiety, and misery, and exhaustion. We are created beings, and pretending to be creators in our own right is sin: that’s why Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise in the first place. Ruling over our own kingdoms, like the world expects us to as adults, is what the Apostle Paul calls “living after the flesh,” and it only leads to death. Jesus invites us to become like children: to trust, aware that we belong to a gracious King who offered his whole life for us.

Children of the King

There is still one question remaining: how? If we are able to believe that all this is true, that Jesus asks us to become like children if we are to welcome the coming new kingdom and our King with joy and gratitude, then how is such a thing possible? The world trains us well that adults are to be responsible managers of their appearance and reputation and job, their belongings, their children and families, etc.. In essence, our American world demands of us to assume a throne we assume is empty. The opposite is also true: if you do not have a job, or a good reputation, or a house, or a houseful of belongings, or children, etc., it is because you are not a good enough king or queen to deserve such a kingdom. We make judgments on “Have Nots,” even ourselves when we don’t match up, because we feel we must earn our way in this world, and whoever has not made their way did not earn it.

But children don’t earn their way. The comfort and stability and safety and love that children enjoy is given to them without any discussion of earning or deserving; or, at least, it should be. Jesus’ invitation to become like children flies in the face of all our attempts to earn our way in this world, and it is an offence to our American way of doing things. Nevertheless, Jesus invites us to become like children, and what is more, he himself makes it possible for us to become children of God.

In Romans 8, Paul reflects on how it is we can become like children:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Did you hear that? Jesus Christ, in his act of love on the cross for us, so embraced and identified with us, with all of humanity, that when God sees us, he sees his Son Jesus Christ, and claims us as his child. To confirm this adoption, God sends the Holy Spirit to live within us, as a guarantee of our adoption. That is what the sacrament of baptism is all about: baptism is the outward sign and seal of what is already true inside us. That is why we baptize children and infants in the Reformed Tradition, because the spiritual reality of baptism is that we are adopted as children of God in Christ! Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the cross have opened the way for us not just to become like children, but to actually become true children of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working inside us.

Maybe what’s so intimidating or offensive about the call to deny ourselves and take up our cross is that we don’t really understand what kind of God would ask us to lose ourselves, to say “no” to ourselves. If God was a loving Father, wouldn’t he want us to be happy? This is the gospel that America has by-and-large bought into: God only wants us to be happy, and as long as we’re all basically good people, then we’ll all get to heaven where we’ll be even happier. But in the American gospel, there’s no real need for Jesus. Sure he’s an inspiring teacher who shows us how to be good people, and he’s our always-available best friend who helps us feel better when we’re sad, but in the American gospel, that’s it: Jesus does not need to die, to rise again, to suffer, to conquer sin. In the American version of Christianity, sin does not exist. If this is the gospel you have found yourself believing, you have missed some very important details. We are not basically good people, as our call to confession reminded us this morning. We are totally unable to live good lives, even with Jesus’ example. We are not called to be happy, but to be holy. And Jesus doesn’t tell us to sit back, relax, and let him handle it; he tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. And if we do, if we go all in on this backwards kingdom – where children and underdogs are on top, and able, responsible adults in charge of their own kingdoms are left outside – then we are adopted into the family of God, without doing anything to deserve it, without anything good in us to reward. Adoption into God’s family cannot be earned or won, but it is also a whole lot more than about being happy while we live the way we want.

What if I were to tell you that this is the good new of Jesus Christ? What if the gospel is about more than just a reserved spot in heaven and permission to live whatever way you wanted in the meantime? What if the gospel of Jesus Christ is that you have been adopted by a loving Father who claims you entirely as his own, and now you belong not only to him, but to his family as well? What if the gospel of Christ, and the kingdom of God, can only be welcomed by people who know how to receive it as children, instead of trying to win it or take it or earn it or deserve it? How would you live today differently if that’s true? If you are not the king of your castle, but really just the steward of the true King’s resources, how will you spend your money this week? If you belong not just to a nice church, but to a world-wide family of God, what does that mean for our disagreements, our conversations, our needs? If all that is asked of you is that you become like the child you truly are in Christ, how will practice your devotion to our Father in heaven? This might be a complete reversal of how you’ve heard the gospel before, and this might mess up some of the categories and rules you have in place. But this is the word of Christ for us this morning, if we have ears to hear and hearts to receive.

Maybe this is the first time you’ve heard the gospel. Or maybe you’ve heard it, but it hadn’t taken hold of you like this before. Maybe you’ve noticed that something inside you is looking for this, looking for a loving Father who has a plan and a purpose and a calling on your life, looking to belong. Know that the work is already done: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ is seated at God’s right hand, advocating for you and praying for you now. And if something inside you is urging you to accept this gift of salvation, to claim this for yourself, then the Holy Spirit of adoption has already been given to you, and is working on you. What is asked of us, is to deny ourselves in order to receive Christ, to claim his sacrifice as a payment for our sin, to welcome the adoption that is offered to us. It’s that easy, and it’s that hard. We do not earn this; we only receive it.

Dear Family,

EPISTLE | 1 John 2:12-17

12  I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
13  I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.
14  I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.

15Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16for all that is in the world — the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches — comes not from the Father but from the world. 17And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.

“I write to you…”

“…little children…”

“…fathers…”

“…young people…” 

“Epistle” is just a fancy, antiquated word for “letter,” and verses 12-14 are this letter’s elaborate address. John the Pastor is writing to his family.

How profound, that John sees the power of the resurrection at work uniting all God’s people (those who do the will of God, obey the commands of God, and demonstrate the inner workings of the love of God) into a spiritual family. John sees the people of his churches in three basic spiritual categories or stages of maturity in Christ:

  • young children: those who are new to the faith, having freshly experienced the goodness of God (v.14) in the forgiveness of their sins (v.12)
  • young people: those engaged in the spiritual conflict against “the world, the flesh, and the devil” (vv.13-14) and who do so through listening to and obeying the Holy Spirit’s internal illumination of the Word of God (v.14)
  • fathers: those (I think the Greek has room for both men and women here) who have a position of spiritual authority and wisdom from their deep, personal experience of God (vv.13-14)

What I find so compelling this evening is that my own identity and activity as pastor does not permit or entitle me to think of myself as the father over a flock of spiritual children or youth. John writes humbly, acknowledging that there are people within his churches who he considers his spiritual parents, men and women who have given energy and shape to his own relationship with God. Now, in light of the powerful connection John the Apostle feels to his spiritual family, he gives them a passionate plea to persevere, and to not lose focus on the empty tomb for all the glory it gives to the world.

As a future pastor, I am free to participate in the life of the churches I serve; even more, to find close, deep friendships — even family bonds — with the people I serve. Perhaps most of all, even as a pastor, I am able (required?) to value and develop relationships with my spiritual “parents.” I have quite a few honored “parents,” and I am grateful that God has given me these influences, as well as a complex, diverse spiritual family to nurture me.