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Today is a special day and it is an appropriate day for us to remember our roots from Scotland and to ordain and install elders for leadership in the Kirk. The idea of elders came from Holy Scripture… Calvin then brought the idea to Geneva…. John Knox learned it from Calvin… who then made elders the central leaders forming a representative form of government… for the reformed church in Scotland. So while we may not have a Pope or bishop going back to Peter… we do have elders who can trace their line through Knox… then Calvin… and back to the early church. It’s a good day…
It’s also a good day because this is the Baptism of Jesus Sunday. I have come to think of this baptism Sunday as the closest thing we have to an ordination and installation service for Jesus. By most estimates he is about 30 years old now. We know little about his life from birth until 30. What we do know is this… he was raised in a home of a righteous and faithful father and a pious mother. We know they brought him to the temple for dedication… they were involved in the church of their faith.
We know he studied the scriptures at an early age… so that in the one story we have of Jesus as a boy… we find his family in Jerusalem for the Passover and at age 12, Jesus is in the temple among the teachers… listening to them… asking questions… seeking to understand his faith and grow in his faith… and the questions he asked and the answers he gave them… well, let’s say, they were impressed. Again, what we know about Jesus at this point is little – but the little we know about him is HUGE (to quote Nancy) – we know he had immersed himself in the faith.
Well, 18 years later we find him in the wilderness ready to be baptized by John… ready to be set apart for his ministry. He has been through years of preparation-through faith and life experience and the time has come for his ministry to begin.
I think if we look at the beginning of his ministry, we might get some hints or direction for the shape of the ministry we are to have as individual Christians… as elders who lead the church and as the church itself. I think we will even discover within his sense of call, our sense of where God seeks to lead us.
In the story of his baptism, John is confused when Jesus comes to be baptized. Baptism is for sinners after all… and here is the messiah coming for baptism. Why? It should be the other way around. Jesus’ answer though reveals much about the faith into which he was called and the direction he would lead disciples in his ministry. "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness" which is a fancy way of saying:
"This is how it should be because we must do all that God wants us to do."
Which I think is the core belief that will guide Jesus throughout his ministry. Jesus’ vision and goal for his ministry is to do what God wants him to do. His goal is to teach apostles to do what God wants them to do… Their goal would be to teach elders in the early church to do what God wants us to do as they understood God’s will in Jesus Christ. This would even shape the direction of the Reformed Church which we celebrate today…
John Leith, one of my theology professors who was an expert on the Reformed tradition, pointed this out as he spoke of the significance of the Reformation.
"The Reformation was not, first of all, a protest against corruption in the church; it was not preoccupied with the organization of the church or with the relevance of its message to the political, social and economic concerns of the day. The emphasis of Reformation was not on what people do, but on what God has done. It was supremely a message about God’s intentions for his creation and what God has done for the salvation of human beings."
We get this from Jesus of course. Jesus, it seemed to me was first of all concerned with what God has done and what God desired to do in him and through his ministry. It’s not about us. It’s about God and God’s desires.
Sometimes elders and congregations get confused about this. We think or act as if the role of the elder is to keep the congregation happy. Imagine Jesus saying, "God sent me here to keep the Pharisees happy… or the Sadducees happy… or the crowds happy. That’s why I was chosen."
More often than I care to admit in my ministry, I’ve been in a Session meeting or committee meeting and do you know what stops a dialogue or a brave idea more often than not. It is this simple statement: "Someone might get upset." I’ve never heard anyone in 25 years say, "But God might be upset." It’s very revealing.
Over 25 years of ministry I’ve heard far more often someone say, as we try to make a decision for the church… I’ve heard them say… "Well, is this what the congregation wants?" Less often do I hear us ask, "Well, is this what God wants-even if some people get upset? Is this what we need to do in order to be faithful to God?"
I think as we celebrate our Scottish Heritage… this is the attitude we need to recover for our life today. John Knox… well many things can be said of him…I’ve heard him called mean… ornery… I’ve seen his statue in St. Giles Cathedral and this is not a warm and fuzzy guy. He is serious. He, along with Calvin and the great reformers were serious about this… that the Church ought to be reformed and reforming itself around the word of God… seeking to do what God would want us to do… to be what God would want us to be…
This became clear to me when I visited the Cathedral in Edinburgh. I was surprised to learn that Knox took that beautiful cathedral… removed the stained glass windows… divided the sanctuary into four or so rooms so that smaller congregations could be accommodated. He removed altars and other important symbols of the church of his day. Why? Because the people demanded it? I doubt it. Because as he and the other reformers reflected on their faith and the needs of the day in which they lived… they were trying to reform or change the church in a way that would please God.
Which makes today sort of a day of irony, don’t you think? Here we are remembering our past as we should because we have a lot to be grateful for.
But I have this feeling that if Knox or others from his day were to visit us from heaven this morning they might have something to say to us… something like…Thank you for remembering us, we enjoyed the service… but… if you really want to honor us… get to work on developing your faith… get to work on putting your faith into practice… try to understand what God wants you to be and do… today in 2008. Had we held onto the past in the 16th century… we would have never reformed the church. Use the past use, use our passion for education, use our passion for mission, use our passion to transform society– sure… but, this is your day… this is your time to sort out how you can continue to reform the church according to the Word of God in a way that pleases God. Do that, and you will remember us well, but more important, you will bring honor and glory to our God. Amen.