January 9, 2022

Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from Sunday, January 9, 2022

Message from January 9, Baptism Our Lord
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.

The holidays are over and a new year begins. The other day a woman I know described the new year, as a time for a “new beginning.”

That phrase “a new beginning” caught my attention. I am not sure what to make of it. In reality the difference between December 31st and January 1st is not much. Time passes swiftly without differentiation. Why is one day propitious for a new beginning and the other not?

When I was growing up, many people I knew made new year’s resolutions. Here are the resolutions most often made: lose weight and get fit, quit smoking, learn something new, eat healthier and diet, get out of debt and save money, spend more time with family, travel to new places, be less stressed, volunteer and drink less. Maybe you have a resolution to add to the list.

Not too long ago a study was made of individuals who created new year’s resolutions. At the start of the study 52% of the participants were confident of success. One year later, however, only 12% actually achieved their goal. Not a very high success rate.

The study did additional analysis and found large differences existed between approaches best suited to men and women. Men most succeeded at their resolutions, when they engaged in a goal setting process. Women were more successful after they told family and friends about their resolution or were encouraged to be resilient and not give up. An extra 22% of men achieved success with their resolutions when they set goals for themselves. And 10% of women were more successful, when encouraged by friends and family.

The underlying point of the story is this; it’s not easy to change ourselves intentionally. The study offered this advice on making resolutions: make only one resolution, plan ahead, avoid previous resolutions, be specific, set smart goals, and focus on the positive.

I want to use this information about new year’s resolutions, as a way to speak about baptism. Our Gospel for this Sunday tells the story of John the Baptizer, who appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. The Biblical word for repentance is all about making changes in life. Repentance implies our life has gone one way and now needs to take a different direction. The person who repents is like an individual who makes new year’s resolutions. Both decide to make a major change in their lives. They want that new beginning. The question is, how will they do?

The focus for this Sunday is, therefore, less on the person of John the Baptist and more on those people from the whole Judean countryside and Jerusalem who go out to see John the Baptizer and confess their sin.

The Biblical text tells us John and the act of repentance are part of a process that leads up to and includes the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only does Jesus appear on the scene, but he is baptized and receives the Holy Spirit. We read: “Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heaven torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We learn baptism is much more than a religious ritual. Instead, baptism is tied to the coming of Christ, the reception of the Holy Spirit as part of the purpose and process of redemption initiated by God himself.

Our Epistle for this Sunday, from the Book of Acts, shines further light on the subject. We are told that, when the Apostle Paul came to Ephesus, he found a number of disciples of Jesus who claimed to have been baptized. Paul asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit, when you became believers. They replied, “No, we have not even heard of the Holy Spirit.” They said they were baptized in John’s baptism. Paul tells them they need to be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They agree and our baptized and the Holy Spirit comes upon them.

I am not sure the text from Acts receives the attention it deserves, especially when paired with our Gospel for this Sunday. But several points are made here all of which become relevant to our celebration of the Baptism of our Lord.

The first truth we learn is baptism marks a new beginning. It is a new beginning for Jesus and all believers. This new beginning commences with repentance. That is, the acknowledgment we have sinned and fallen short of becoming the person God intends us to be. A second point argues it is not enough to say we have failed, but we must also be ready to set a new direction for our life, that is, make that new beginning.

Now here is where we return to those new year’s resolutions. Christians make their own version of a new year’s resolution, every Sunday, at worship. Remember we pray.  “Gives us the power of your Holy Spirit that we may confess our sin, receive your forgiveness and grow into the fullness of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” We want God to forgive us, renew us and lead us that we may delight in God’s will and walk in his ways.”

Unfortunately, our prayers too often go the way of new year’s resolutions. What we pray and what we do don’t match up. In some ways, we are like the people who came down to be baptized by John the Baptist or those disciples who lived in Ephesus. We go through the motions of baptism without letting the Holy Spirit empower us to accomplish what God wants us to do.

Let me use this illustration. Presently, we are in the midst of the college basketball season. Sports fans know who their team is. They wear the team colors, attend or watch games and know what it means to be a fan. I wish Christians were as inspired by the Holy Spirit, as Buckeye’s support Ohio State or the Hawkeyes follow the University of Iowa.

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and reflect on our own baptism. Christian scripture again and again reminds us that baptism ought is the new beginning for us. At baptism, we repent our self-destructive ways and set our sight on a new us, a new beginning. Baptism alone doesn’t go far enough. Both lessons for this Sunday remind us baptism must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. We need the Holy Spirit to help us become who God intends us to be. Without the Holy Spirit, we will be like those folks who make new year’s resolutions, but never follow through. In your baptism God gives you the Holy Spirit to carry you through this new year and truly become the child of God we have discovered in Jesus Christ. Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep you minds and hearts in Christ Jesus.