Isaiah 42:1-7, Acts 10:34-38, Mark 1:4-11
This morning I want to start at the end of the service and work forward from there. We are going to close the service this morning with the Wesleyan covenant prayer. It is printed at the bottom of the page on your Worship folder insert. It is, of course, part of the traditional service by which Wesley encouraged his people to renew their covenant with God annually. You will notice if you turn that insert over that the back side of the covenant prayer is blank. That is so that as part of this worship service this morning you can write your own covenant with God. You can then tear it off, put it in your billfold or purse and carry it with you for this year, covenant on one side, covenant prayer on the other.
Now, as I understand it a covenant is different from a New Year’s resolution. A New Year’s resolution is an individual resolve that depends on you alone. A covenant is an agreement between you and God, and in it both you and God make certain promises. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” was the substance of the covenant between God and Israel. You will have time to think about your covenant during the time for the distribution of the elements. (Communion) One other suggestion, don’t make some sort of covenant that you are going to feel guilty about. Don’t write that you are going to break some bad habit or stop doing something. In fact, my suggestion is that your covenant be something that you are going to do rather than something you are going to stop doing. As you consider your covenant, then, I want to make one point about Jesus and tell you a story.
The point about Jesus is this: The meaning of his life can be understood to be that God has experienced our experience so that we might experience God. This morning we read from the Mark story the baptism of Jesus told in its simplest form.
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
It is said that when he came up out of the water he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon him and a voice from heaven said to him, “Thou art my beloved son, with thee I am well pleased.” That announcement seems to be a paraphrase of the words that we also read from Isaiah “Behold my servant whom I uphold, my chose in whom my soul delights.”
1 “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; 4 he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth. In his teaching the islands will put their hope.”
5 This is what God the LORD says— the Creator of the heavens, who stretches them out, who spreads out the earth with all that springs from it, who gives breath to its people,and life to those who walk on it: 6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, 7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
The 42nd chapter of is the first part of the book of Isaiah that we call the “Servant of God passages”. There is reason to believe from this story and from other parts of the New Testament as well, that Jesus took the cue for his ministry from these chapters of Isaiah and understood his messiahship to be a servant messiahship. Now it is commonplace with us to think of Jesus as a suffering Messiah. It was not commonplace in his time. But there seems reason to believe that Jesus took the cue for his ministry from these suffering servant of God passages.
What do I mean suffering? I mean something more than just pain. The word in the New Testament means, among other things, to experience something. So that it means that in Jesus, God not only suffers for us, he enters into and experiences our experience. As we were talking about all this in the Bible study the other night someone said, “Suffering means not knowing all the answers.” Isn’t that what it means! Parents know about the problems their children are having. They want to help. They want to heal all the hurts, but when you are a parent you don’t have all the answers, and that’s suffering isn’t it? Or have you had a close friend whose husband or wife has died, or who has experienced some other kind of equally devastating loss, and you want to say something or you want to do something, but there is nothing to be said and all you can do is stand with your friend, not knowing all the answers. That’s suffering.
So that in Jesus, God was born as we are born. He experienced our experience. On the cross he knew our helplessness and our powerlessness. In the cross he came as one who did not know all the answers. There is reason to believe that’s the meaning of the incarnation. He entered into our experience, so that we might enter into his.
Now, that’s the point about Jesus I want to make, and that brings me to my story. On the third Sunday in Advent we had our neighborhood caroling program. It was our second year to do it. We met here at the church and divided into four groups of 25 or 30 people and went door to door in the streets that are our neighborhood right here on the south across Sycamore. Now, you don’t really know what a neighborhood is like by driving through it, but walking is another matter. I can never walk those streets without asking myself, “How can we be a neighbor, what does it mean,” the church I mean. Wherever we went from house to house we invited people to come back with us for punch and cookies in Flinn Hall and to sing Christmas carols. As last year, the children were the only ones that accepted our invitation. About a dozen of them came back with various groups. Three came with the group I was in. When we walked our three back home I decided to invite them to Sunday School, here, if they were not already attending somewhere else, knowing that they would probably not come. On the following Tuesday, I found this note on my desk, “Would like to talk to you today if possible. A miracle has happened.” It was a note from one of our members who had been in the caroling group that I had been in. As it turned out, another one of our members had stopped by that same house the week before, by accident, if you will, talked to the mother who expressed interest in the children coming to Sunday School. The miracle was that these two people had found each other and shared their stories, quite by accident, and it looked as if we had a way to be a neighbor. So we visited the family again, two or three times, trying to urge the children to come to Sunday School. One of our members stationed herself in the hall to meet them. But they did not come. I was personally disappointed. I came back to my office the next week and found that note. I asked myself, “Where is the miracle?” It was surely in that brief moment when it looked as if we had an opportunity to be a neighbor. But that is not enough. The real miracle is the incarnation. If we find some way to enter into the experience of these neighbors of ours, if we stand with them, not above them, if we know that we do not have all the answers, that our money and power are not the answer. If we humble ourselves and take on the form of a neighbor as Jesus did, then the miracle will have happened.
I wanted to use this story as a parable this morning. My covenant today is to stand with these people. You decide what your covenant is. My conclusion is that when we stand with someone, enter into their experience, do not know all the answers with them, then we have entered into God’s experience with him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in this poem written from the darkness of his prison.
Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succor, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
The Covenant Prayer of John Wesley
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
This sermon was preached at First United Methodist Church in Denton on January 7,1979.