Part 1 of 2 parts
Part 2 of 2 parts
“Built Up in the Spirit”
Sunday, January 8, 2017: The First Sunday after Epiphany,
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Isaiah 42: 1 – 9/Psalm 89: 20-29/Acts 10: 34 – 38/ Matthew 3: 13 - 17
Fr. Gary W. Thurman
We come to worship the Lord this morning at this Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, also known as the First Sunday after Epiphany. For more than twenty years, we have been saying that this is The First Sunday of Epiphany and the next Sundays will be the Sundays in the Season of Epiphany. This was what we were taught when we began our walk in the CEC back in 1993-94. This year, we have done something different because there are changes in the CEC international structure and our Patriarch has taken his time putting things in the way they ought to be. One of the things that every other denomination, every other communion, every other church in the world observes during the time between Christmas and Lent is that it is not a Season, but just a time into itself – a time after Epiphany.
I recently discovered that even CEC churches were not counting Epiphany as a Season, and so we were unique in this. Patriarch Craig is someone who believes that if want to draw people together, if we want to unite the Church, we will never do it by being unique. The best way to do it is to be like them in the non-debatable issues. This is what they have done for quite some time so for this year, for the first time, these Sundays between now and Lent will be the Sunday after Epiphany.
I want to ask you: Why are you here? Some of us would say, “Father, I grew up in this Church. I was baptized in this Church, and my parents have always brought me here; and I believe I will always be here because this is my place.” I would say, “This is not why you are here.” Some would say, “It is just a habit that I do. I have been doing it for many years and just every morning, I automatically get up and get dressed, get my family together, and we go to Church where it is meeting on this particular time.” I would say, “This is not why you are here. One would say, “Father, I have an assignment. I have a duty because I am in the choir and I have a schedule.” One would say, “I am a Deacon. They told me to serve in this Mass so this is why I am here.” I would say, “This is not why you are here, either.”
Why are you here? You are here because God loves you. He loves you so much He wanted you to come here today and bless you with a very special dimension of His love. It is only available in one place, the Sacraments. God loves you so much that He worked out all those circumstances of your life – whatever it may be, whether you were raised here or wherever else – just so you could be here. In His House, in His Sanctuary, at the Eucharist, He blesses you with His love with a greater dimension than in anywhere else. In the Sacraments, God’s love and grace is meted out in a greater way than anywhere else in our lives.
Yes, God loves us every day. He blesses us every day. He graces us every minute. Every day, He blesses us with air to breathe; with water to drink; with relationships. Every day, He blesses us with clothing. God leads us. As our Shepherd, He trains us. As His Father, He provides for us. God does these things daily. He is a good God, but in the Sacraments, He bestows a special measure of love and grace upon His children. Because God wanted to give you His love this morning, He brought you here. This is why you are here and He gives His love in the Sacraments.
Today, the gospel is about the Sacrament of Baptism. In this Sacrament, God brings us into His family. He adopts us as His children, and He bestows upon us the reconciliation which caused Him the blood of His Son. God gave His Son to die on the cross that we can be reconciled and receive this gift through the Sacrament of Baptism. It is a gift of reconciliation and love like no other; and we can receive it nowhere else, but in the baptismal font of the Church.
God chooses to use the seven Sacraments in a special way to bless His people with His love. Out of this love, He brought us here this morning so that He could bestow it upon us. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive Christ Himself and that measure of love.
I would like to compare God’s love for us, which He has for us and the relationship He has with us, and the love He gives us right here in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and in the liturgy with a relationship between a man and a woman; a young man and a young woman. The Bible does this. It compares the love of Christ to His Church with the love of a husband and a wife. The Bible compares the love of a young man and a young woman in the Song of Solomon also with the love of God for His Church. It is something that the Lord has done in the Scriptures and I want to do it also this morning to try to help us understand what a special, awesome thing we are blessed to participate in and that we are blessed to receive from God.
We receive blessings from Him all the time, and the Eucharist and the Sacramental stream is one part of what the Church is. The Church is also evangelical and charismatic. We minister to people outside of the Church. There are a lot of things that the Church is; but one of the things the Church is: it is a body of people who come to receive the grace of God at His Table.
If a young man is going to have a date with a young lady and he is going to pick her up, there is usually a little bit of time of getting ready. If a young man has a date at six o’clock, at four o’clock, he doesn’t say, “I think I will go out and shoot some hoops.” He goes out the playground; he finds some friends and plays for a while. He enjoys having a good, good ball, and he is on fire and having a great time. Five minutes before six o’clock, he doesn’t go and say, “Sorry, guys, I have to go,” and walks to his girlfriend’s house and knocks on the door in his sweaty sando, dirty basketball sneakers, and ripped and torn basketball shorts smelling bad and say, “Hey, are you ready to go?” This is not going to happen because if it does, it may be his last date for this particular person. There is a time for preparation.
If a young girl is waiting for her date to pick her up, she doesn’t say, “Oh, I have to clean the house today.” All the time before the guy comes to pick her up, she is doing all the household chores and when the guy knocks on the door, she is there in her house clothes with her hair up in curlers wearing flip flops. The guy says to her, “Excuse me, I am looking for my date.” The young girl was not recognizable with the way she looked. The young girl needs to prepare.
In the same way, we don’t just show up for an encounter with the Divine Creator of the universe just on the spur of the moment or just dashing to the door, two minutes before the time saying, “Okay, I am ready.” The main thing to do is to prepare our hearts and say, “I am about to meet my God at His Table. He is going to share with me and He is going to bestow His love upon me – His amazing awesome love.”
We need to get into this mode and understanding. If we dash in the door, we are not ready to meet with God. He will still love us and reach out to us, but the chances are we will be so flustered and we won’t get everything God has for us. I promise you that every time we come to the liturgy and to the Eucharist, God is there to bestow His love upon us. How much of this we receive depends on how much we are prepared. The measure of God’s giving is always the same; how much we receive is dependent on us and this is the difference.
Every time we come to the Sanctuary of God and begin the Eucharist, God is here for three things: to reach out His love to us; to receive His love; and to share His love. We are here for these. The first step is we get prepared. Then, we come to the time of confession. For most people, when they have a date, they spend the first part of their date apologizing what when wrong during the last date. In God’s relationship and courtship with the Church, He does the same thing. He doesn’t have anything to apologize for, but we have things that we have not done right and there are things we need to confess. The Church teaches us that before we get to be serious with the liturgy, we need to have a time to clear our hearts and our souls. We need to clear those things that are preventing us from being close to each other, and we confess so that we can more fully receive the things of God
If we come to confession, dashing to the door just thirty seconds before the start of the liturgy, most probably saying the words, “Most merciful God, we confess the things that we have done and the things we have left undone…” will be just rote because part of the things we do before the service and part of preparation is we are thinking, “What have I done this week that is not pleasing to God. Did I miss out on something that I should have done that I did not do?” This is one of the things that we do during the time of preparation. When we confess, it is not just words right off the screen, but words that we memorized in our heads that we spell out. We are really saying, “Lord, when I say things done and left undone,” it means in our minds, “Lord, I really had a chance to minister to somebody this week but I did not do it. I got distracted with something else.” This is when it is a valuable part of the liturgy, and it becomes real and powerful. It clears the way for better communion and your day.
During the Liturgy of the Word, we have the reading of the Word and the sharing of the homily. We must understand that this is our date – our Beloved talking to us. God Himself, the Creator of the universe, is talking to us. Are we going to listen or not? There are all sorts of things besides listening. We doodle with our pens and scribble a lot of things. I used to watch my father when I was a little kid. He would clip and file his fingernails during the sermon. I can imagine what the poor preacher thought of that when he saw that. We can always find a million things to do instead of God speaking. I remind you that God Himself is speaking. When we go out on a date with our beloved, we don’t totally ignore our date when we are doing something else. We listen to what they have to say too. If God Himself is here with us and He is actually speaking to us, we should listen.
If one is blessed with the privilege of being a Proclaimer in the service, he should remember that he is speaking for God. He is not just standing there because something assigned him. He is speaking for God, the love of his soul, and he is privileged to share the Word to everybody. It is part of a love relationship that is called communication. God loves us so much that He talks to us through His Word, through the Presider at the Eucharist.
We come to the part of the Eucharist that is communal. Everything else before has been us and God – us, speaking to God; and Him, speaking to us. In this part, we realize that it is a communal thing. We start with the Creed. The Creed reminds us that we are not the first guys to love Jesus. The early fathers who made this Creed did it two thousand years ago. For two thousand years, people have been loving Jesus, and Jesus has been loving people. We are not the only ones. It is a lot bigger that just us. During the Creed, we realize that many of those people who penned the Creed gave their lives so that they could live it and we could know who God is. This is so that we could have this love relationship with God and have a chance to come into His sanctuary and be loved by Him. They gave their lives so that we could do it and have an understanding of what God is about.
We have the Prayers of the Faithful where we spend some minutes praying for other people. This is God saying, “You are not the only one I am concerned about. I am concerned about your President. I love your President. I love those who are hurting; those who are sick. I love those who minister to others. Let us lift them up in prayer.” The Prayers of the Faithful, among other things, is God reminding all of us, “I love them all. Let us raise them up.” We are a part of this so we lift their names before God.
During the sharing of the Peace, we share the love that God has given us, and God says, “Now, share it with each other.” It is a part of the love relationship that God has with us. Most couples that isolate themselves and do not go out with other couples and don’t do group activities have relationships that don’t last very long. The strongest couples are those who are secure enough in their relationship to have outings with other couples and have group situations. There is something about communion of the whole group. This is what the Eucharist and the Liturgy is all about – God’s people coming together. One person cannot have Eucharist with God alone. There must be two or three in order to have a valid Eucharistic celebration. It is about communion. The “Peace” is there to share God’s love with all the people around.
After God has shared His love with us, made known His love to us, embraced us, and comforted us, now it is our turn to respond to His love with worship – with songs. It is not just entertainment or singing. Our worship to the Lord is not just for entertainment. We don’t just pick up the most entertaining songs. We pick up the songs that speak God’s heart, and that speak our heart towards God.
Our songs this morning reflect our heart of love towards the Lord. We sing, “Offering of our Praise.” “Lord, we are offering You our praise. The fruit of our lips giving thanks.” We sing, “I am trading my sorrows. I am trading my shame. I am trading it all for Your joy, O Lord.” We sing, “Lord, my life is in You. My strength is in You. My hope is in You.” We say, “Lord, You are more precious than silver and more costly than gold.” This is us expressing and gives us a chance to return the love that God gave us. Love always starts with God. John says, “This is love – not that we love Him, but He loved us.” After God reveals His love to us so strongly, we respond in love for Him in these things.
There is a Scripture that is repeated three times in the Bible – in three different parts and by three different authors. “The Lord is my strength and song.” God is our song; and if we make God as our song, this is our response to His love. If we have a lot of other things that gives us a song, if we have a lot of things that make us happy and sing about, this is a kind of idolatry. The Lord is our strength and our song and it is our chance to love God back within the framework of the Church’s celebration. As we do this, as we give to the Lord our offerings, this is us responding to His love with our own love towards Him.
We come to the Table of the Lord, which is pretty awesome, and we have to understand how awesome it is. As we begin this part, the Presider tells a little story in a form of prayer of the great love that God gave to us. “We thank You, O Lord, for the goodness and love that You made known, in creation, in the calling of Israel to be Your people, in Your words spoken to the prophets. We thank You for the love we see in the Word made flesh.” This is not just a prayer, but the Presider is awakening us, helping to make us understand, and helping us to be sensitive to see why we are here and to see the love God gave us and to see His great love for us.” The prayers are there not just to kill time and to warm us up, but to awaken us and to make us aware of God’s love that He has already bestowed upon us.
When we hear the story, there is only one response that we can give, “Holy, Holy!” We have to respond with more love back to Him. Then, the Presider prays some more telling us the story of God’s love and He tells us the greatest story ever told, the greatest words ever uttered by man. “On the night He was betrayed, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread. When He blessed it, He broke it…” We can’t just listen to it because it is so awesome. If we are sensitive to the greatest words ever told, we can’t listen standing up. We have to kneel; and as we kneel and hear, “He took the bread; bless it and broke it…” and the Presider quotes the words of Jesus, it is not even enough to just kneel. We have to bow as well. “Take, eat, this is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” These are awesome words that have ever been spoken. We can’t listen to them and receive them as they really are in humility bound. In a perfect world, we can lay flat on our faces, prostrate.
When the Presider finishes with this, we raise our heads, and the Presider raises the bread and genuflects. As he genuflects, we bow our heads again in reverence and awe for the words of the Lord and the love that He is reminding us of. Then he says, “After supper, He took the cup of wine.” Again, the Presider tells a story. “After supper, He took the cup of wine, blessed it.” We bow and he says, “This is My blood of the New Covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin whenever you drink it.” We can’t just stare at the Presider and listen. As he is holding up the bread, as he is holding the chalice, we look at him because he is holding it up for us to see. When he quotes the words of Christ, it is too much so we bow our heads. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Again, we look at the chalice as he holds it up. When he genuflects, we bow again in awe and reverence.
When we come to the Table, God doesn’t just give us a pat on the back, “Good job!” God doesn’t just give us consolation, “Sorry, you messed up, but you will do better next time.” God doesn’t just give us fifty bucks saying, “Go and get yourself something nice.” God gives us Himself! We feed on Christ. This is why it is so awesome that we can’t just pop in here. We are doing the most awesome act in the history of man. We are feeding on Christ as God gives us Himself. When we go back after receiving His body and blood, we don’t just kneel and play around and think what is going to happen. We really contemplate on what we have just done. We have just partaken of God Himself and we don’t take this lightly.
As we are singing the Communion songs, we realize that we are doing something and it is only done in the Sanctuary of the Lord. Only in the Sanctuary can you partake of Christ, and this is an awesome thing. God didn’t just give us stuff, but Himself.
Coming to the Prayer after Communion, we are reminded of the great thing God has done – feeding us the precious body and blood of Christ. Then, we are reminded that we are not just here to receive God’s love, but to share it. “Send us now into the world in peace to walk in strength and courage to love and serve the Lord.” All these things are so awesome if we just take the time to prepare and to understand what is going on.
Be in the moment. Don’t let our minds be scattered because what we are partaking of, what we are receiving is the love of God. This is not available anywhere else. This is why we come. This is why we are here. This is why God brought us here this morning so that He could pour upon us His love. This is what the Holy Spirit does. The Holy Spirit is important in the Eucharist. When the Presider prays, “May this bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ,” he always asks the Holy Spirit to do this work. He says, “Send Your Holy Spirit upon these gifts.” It is also the Holy Spirit that pours the love of God into our hearts. The Holy Spirit is very active in the Eucharist. He does it for us here. He blesses us in many places and in many ways. The Church has many other roles and many other facets, but something special happens in the Sanctuary. We must be alive to it and aware of it. Receive it! Remember that God is here to pour out that blessing in great measure. How much we receive is according to how ready we are to receive.
It is kind of strange to preach this on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord except that I know that God put it in my heart to share it. I was fighting it all night long saying, “Lord, there is going to be something else.” The Lord told me that this is what I have to share. I hope that this stirs up in us a little more reverence for what goes on and stirs us up more to be a little more prepared when we walked up those stairs coming here. Be prepared every time we come here because we are here to receive the love of God and God Himself.