Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Matthew 3:16,17
As soon as Jesus was baptized … a voice said from heaven, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased."

Isaiah 49:15,16
I will never forget you. … I have written your name on the palms of my hands.

"I will never forget you"

The author Ron Lee Dunn tells the story of two altar boys.
One was born in 1892 in Eastern Europe. The other was born just three years later in a small town in the USA. Though they lived very separate lives in very different parts of the world, these two altar boys had almost identical experiences. Each boy was given the opportunity to assist his parish priest in the service of communion. Ironically, while handling the communion cup, they both accidentally spilled some of the wine on the carpet by the altar. There the similarity in their story ends.

The priest in the Eastern European church, seeing the wine stain, slapped the altar boy across the face and shouted, "Clumsy oaf! Leave the altar." The little boy grew up to become an atheist. His name was Josip Tito – the communist dictator of Yugoslavia for 37 years.

The priest in the church in the USA upon seeing the stain near the altar, knelt down beside the boy and looked him tenderly in the eyes and said, "It's alright son. You'll do better next time. You'll be a fine priest for God someday." That little boy grew up to become the much loved Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.

I don’t believe we can ever underestimate the power that affirmation and encouragement have in our lives. When we are feeling particularly disheartened and depressed about what is happening in our lives, positive and encouraging words begin to lift us out of the doldrums and lead us to see things a little differently. I know I am very appreciative of the people in this congregation who at various times have gone out of their way to say encouraging words to me. You may never know the impact of your words but they are very much appreciated.

Someone once said,
Flatter me, and I may not believe you.
Criticize me, and I may not like you.
Ignore me, and I may not forgive you.
Encourage me, and I will not forget you.

Christmas seems such a long time ago now but it was just 3 weeks ago that we celebrated the birth at Bethlehem; the beginning of the earthly life of our Saviour.

Today we celebrate another beginning in the life of Jesus - it is the beginning marked by baptism. Jesus now is a grown man and approaches the banks of the River Jordan one hot and dusty day. There he comes face to face with John the Baptist and is baptised. This action in the waters of the Jordan marked a new beginning for Jesus that would end at the cross of Calvary. As Jesus left the Jordan River we are told ‘heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, "This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased."

The other gospel writers record this same event but the words Jesus hears is even more personal. The voice from heaven speaks directly to Jesus, saying, "You are my own dear son. I am pleased with you".

Jesus is about to embark on the most difficult journey anyone could undertake over the next few years. It would involve every kind of hurt - verbal, physical, mental and spiritual - from his enemies and even from those who were the closest to him. And as he begins this part of his life he hears these powerful words of affirmation, "You are my own dear Son".

What a way to begin a new stage of one's life!
What a way to feel before setting out on a new course!
What a thing to hear and reflect on later when the challenges that life would throw at him would be almost too much to bear.

When we encourage a person with affirmation we tell that person something positive about his/her nature and the relationship that we have with that person. We affirm their skills telling them truthfully and with love and care that we value what has been done or the kind of person they are.

We all long to hear the words, "Well done!" It’s easy to be critical and negative. All of us have felt at some time the pain of a negative and critical comment. We have had a fair dose of this in the media with the cricket fiasco of the past week. As we have seen it is easy to forget about the great cricket that was played by both teams and be so focussed on criticising and accusing.

Praise the Lord that we have a God who is an affirming God, an encouraging God.
Usually we express our appreciation after a person has done something that pleases us but with God, it’s different.

Before Jesus had told a single story or had healed a single person,
before Jesus remains faithful to his task as Saviour,
before he speaks about God's love and forgiveness,
in fact, before he does anything there is affirmation. God speaks those longed for words, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you".

God affirmed Jesus at the beginning of his ministry and he affirms his relationship with us even before we are able to do anything that we might think would earn God's favour. In grace he says to us, "You are my dear child and that pleases me".

God said that to each of us on the day of our baptism and he said it to Gemma today. For most of us he said it when we were too small to even know what was going on. Through the water and his word of promise, God made a deal with us. It’s pretty much a one-sided deal in that he promises to be our Father and Saviour who will love us and care for us throughout our journey through life. He is ready to do that even when we have done nothing to win such approval. He did that for Jesus as he stepped out of the River Jordan and he does that for us as the water of baptism runs over our heads.

In baptism, God promises support and nurture.
He gives us a new life, a new beginning, the hope of eternal life.
He gives us the Holy Spirit to guide us and plant in us the seed of faith that grows in maturity as we journey through life. All of this is God's action that marks us forever as God's children.

Baptism is an act of God which celebrates how special and precious we are in God's eyes. In our baptism, as in the baptism of Jesus, we celebrate God's welcoming love, a love that comes prior to anything we may have done and prior to anything we may yet do.

And the wonder of it all is that each day God renews his love for us and each day he speaks to us tender words about who we are, how much we are loved, and encourages us to be who we are – God's children who share the love of God in words and acts of kindness in a world that badly needs all the positive input that it can get. That’s part of the covenant that God has established with us – to give to others the same kind of love and forgiveness that he has given to us.

And even though we fail to keep up our end of the deal
God's love always remains unconditional -
it always affirms us
it always nurtures us
and calls us again to live as one of God's dearly loved children.

When Gemma was baptised a while ago and when the water of baptism was poured over us, however long ago that might have been, the pure grace of God was at work at that moment and ever since. He created a new relationship with us and made a promise that he will always be close by as our Saviour and Helper. As the water poured on Gemma’s head he made a personal promise to her just as he promised each of us,
"Gemma, (and you can add your name here) I promise that I will be with you always.
It doesn’t matter where life’s journey will take you, I will walk beside you.
Even if you aren’t always loyal to me, I will always be loyal to you.
When life takes a turn for the worse, I will be there to comfort and help you.
When you need superhuman strength to overcome trouble, I will be there to give you the strength you need.
When you call to me in prayer, I will always be listening and will use my power to answer your prayer.
When it comes to your dying moment, I will take you to the place I have prepared for you in heaven".

God has made a promise like this to all those he calls his dear children. In the Old Testament he promised the people who were experiencing very troublesome times, "Even though it is possible for a mother or father to forget their child, I will never forget you. … I have written your name on the palms of my hands".

None of us knows what the future will hold. You can be sure there will be days of joy as well as days of trouble. It is just in those days of trouble that God's promise to never forget us and to always be there with his loving help and support that we realise what a wonderful God we have. It does us good to be reminded of God's promises and baptismal covenant with us often, especially when everything and everyone tells us that there is no hope and no one understands what is happening. In spite of this there is One who always understands and always stands by our side. He promised that to Gemma and each of us through his Word and the water of baptism, "You are my own dear child and my love for you will never stop. Be certain you are loved right here and now. Your name is written on the palm of my hand."

How’s that for affirmation and encouragement.
The almighty and all-powerful God of the universe makes a commitment to one of his creation to affirm us as his dearly loved children even when we don’t feel as though we deserve that kind of favour. He tells us he will hold our hand to comfort and encourage us even when the situation appears to be hopeless.

One hundred and fifty-five passengers were on a plane on Friday, February 24, 1989. A cargo door failed, and a huge hole was ripped open in the side of the plane. Nine people perished when the pressurized air inside blew them into the thin, rarefied air at 24,000 feet (7,315m).

One lady who sat near the hole described what happened. "The whole plane was falling to pieces," she said, "and I thought, ‘This is it!’" There was a man she didn’t know sitting near her. In her own words, "He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He held my hand and he comforted me. It was so loving and so comforting to have someone's hand to hold."

This is an example of a stranger assuring and comforting another stranger. If a stranger can do that, how much more will our heavenly Father, who calls us his dearly loved children, who holds our hand and promises never to forget us, give us the help we need.

Today, the day we recall the way Jesus was affirmed and encouraged by the voice from the heavens and the descending dove, is a great day to remember with thanks the way God has assured us that we are his "dearly loved children" and affirms that regardless of what may happen he will not forget us and hold our hand, even carry us if necessary, through dark valleys and troublesome times.

This promise is certain.  He says this to each of us just as he said it to Gemma, "You are my own dear child". "I will never forget you. … I have written your name on the palms of my hands".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th January 2008

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