Good Lord, Show me the Way!

The Rev. Robert P. Travis
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
1st Sunday of Epiphany
January 9, 2011 - 8:00 and 10:30am
RCL Year A Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Sermon Text:
Some of you may remember
that last year a few of us gathered to perform the song
“Down in the River to Pray”
for our Sunday Worship.

That was a powerful moment for me here,
because it united my calling to be here as a priest,
to my calling to be a father.
You see, the last time I had performed that song in church,
was for the baptism of my first child,
my daughter Evangeline loved that song as an infant,
and so Jackie and I and two of our friends
sang it in four parts for her baptism service.
In case you don't remember,
it goes...
“As I went down in the River to Pray,
studyin' about that good old way,
and who shall wear the robe and crown,
good Lord show me the way.”

I was talking to Mary Lee this week about this gospel passage,
and she started right into that song,
and I knew I had to mention it in this sermon.
This week, in fact,
I heard the Spirit move in a number of different ways,
all gentle, which lead into this message as well.
Father Brett was telling me how wonderful it was,
to take part in the women's Bible Study on Wednesday,
because of the way they discussed this passage,
and how that helped him see what the Spirit was saying
in our church.
And then our Thursday Centering Prayer group,
focussed on the gentleness of the Holy Spirit
in our meditation on this gospel passage.
It seems that God wants us to consider
His gentleness this week,
and that's what I'm here to help you do.

The interesting thing to me,
that stands out in my memory of Eva Jane's baptism,
six years ago, besides singing that song,
was that my advisor, who announced his retirement
this week from Sewanee,
came up to me shortly after the baptism
and asked me if it took.
I said “what did you say?”
and He said, “I asked you did it take,
the baptism, did it take?”
I had never thought about a baptism like that before,
and so I said I guess it did.
Now that I know her and have seen her grow for 6 years,
I can say surely it did take.
Eva Jane has the Lord in her heart, that's clear.

But we often don't think of a baptism
as having any real effect, beyond a ritual
we observe.
But if we pay attention, it does have
dramatic impact on our lives.

That reminds me of what Fr. Brett said
at the beginning of Advent.
He challenged each of us to get up each morning,
and ask God to show us something of Himself
in each day.
I find that God is faithful to us,
but as Brett said, we can miss his evidence in our lives,
if we're not paying attention.

And I think that has something to do
with the Gentleness of the Holy Spirit.
The list of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians
includes Gentleness right at the end.
We often miss it, because we focus on
Love, Joy, Peace, kindness.
All good things,
but Gentleness is in there too, and for a reason.

The passage we had this morning from Isaiah
prophecies about Jesus...
“a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

When we know that description is for Jesus,
who is the Word of God,
it can stand in stark contrast to the psalm we read.
“The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice...
the voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees...
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness...
the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe,
and strips the forest bare.”

We don't want to be in the presence of the voice of the Lord,
when God speaks.
That is what the Israelites experienced with Moses
at the mountain of God,
and they were so afraid, they asked God
to stop, and to let Moses listen to God for them.

But the Word of the Lord is different.
And it seems that as God got to know us,
his beloved creation, made in his image,
he came to see what we can handle,
and began to express himself with gentleness.
He sent his Word among us,
“the Word became flesh and lived with us,
full of grace and truth.”
He gave us his word, without his voice speaking it.
His voice spoke the universe into begin,
caused the big bang,
but his Word is what was contained in that voice.
“The message he sent to the people,”
as Peter says in Acts,
was “preaching peace by Jesus Christ.”

And Jesus Christ,
the Word made flesh,
went to John the baptizer at the Jordan
to be baptized by Him.
Can you imagine how shocked John must have been,
to see the sinless one coming to Him?
For baptism was then,
and is still, about washing away sins,
repenting of sins and vowing a changed life.
But Jesus showed up,
and showed us that there is more to it than that.

Good Lord Show me the way!

John would have prevented him,
it says in the passage from Matthew,
by asking, “do you come to me?”
That's not a strong rebuke.
That's a very gentle question, by which John,
would have prevented Jesus.
But Jesus told him,
“let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way
to fulfill all righteousness.”
That is one of the most baffling statements I have ever read
in scripture.
And I confess to you now, that I still don't have
a complete understanding of what Jesus meant by it.
I only know, that he said,
no John, we need to do this, because by doing it
we will complete what is right with God.

Perhaps He could not explain to John,
“do this so that people will know that my Father is with me,
do this so that the Holy Spirit will anoint me.”
Maybe he was just gently turning
John's preventing hand aside,
so John could do what he was created to do.

And in fact, that was all that was necessary,
for John consented to baptize Jesus,
and when “Jesus came up from the water,
the heavens were opened to him,
and he saw the Spirit of God
descending like a dove and alighting on him.”
The Spirit descended “like a Dove,”
not like a lightning bolt,
or a tornado,
or a tsunami,
or any of those other ways that we call Acts of God,
the Spirit descended full of gentleness, “like a dove.”

You can see it in our church even,
well, you all can over here,
and you can if you turn your heads.
The smallest window in our church,
is given a place of particular importance,
it's the Holy Spirit window,
and if you weren't paying attention to it,
you may miss the way the Holy Spirit,
is depicted like a dove.
There's power displayed there,
but it's power expressed in gentleness.
And that is part of God's revelation of himself,
in a new way to all of us.
Even today, people are afraid of
the outpouring of the Holy Spirit,
they're afraid that the Holy Spirit will make them
do something they would be embarrassed to do.
But the Holy Spirit does not possess people,
that's another spirit,
the Holy Spirit, as a friend of mine put it,
is a Gentleman.

But do not confuse this gentleness with weakness,
or ineffectiveness.
later on in Isaiah we hear that
the word of God will not return to him empty
but will accomplish that which he purposes.
This Jesus, the word revealed in gentleness,
annointed by the gentle alighting of the Holy Spirit,
is still the creative word,
and still has the power to accomplish what God will.
He has the power to fulfill all righteousness.
Even if we don't understand what that means.
And he will accomplish it in our midst,
through our lives, or someone else's.
That's why we have to pay attention,
That's why we need to be singing,
Good Lord, show me the way!

He showed us the importance of baptism,
for Jesus, not much for rituals of his time,
showed up and participated in this one,
even though it wasn't clear that he needed to do so.
And we have adopted baptism as
the crucial part of our calling,
it is what marks us as Christ's own forever.
But will it accomplish what it purposes to do?
That requires our participation.

Are we fulfilling our baptismal covenant?
Are we allowing Christ who dwells within us now,
to fulfill all righteousness through us?
If we don't someone else will.
For God's purposes will be accomplished.
I heard a great preacher once say,
that the question is not whether God's Will will be done,
for that is certain,
the question is will we be a part of that will being done.
God in his gentleness, is not going to force us
to do anything.
He invites, and invites and invites,
and if we accept that invitation to work with him,
if we make space in our busy lives for Him,
He will do things through us that will fill us with awe.

One such opportunity is coming up
in just three and a half weeks.
We will be introducing our Alpha Course,
to a new group of people.
Like his revelation to us in Jesus,
and his Holy Spirit,
we believe in sharing the message gently
and not pressurizing anyone,
and that is what makes this different from other
kinds of evangelism we see around us.
See David Johnson downstairs after church
if you have any questions, or want to sign up.

In the meantime, listen to what Fr. Howard has written,
and what Fr. Brett has said,
and what I'm reiterating now,
in this new year,
make space in your busy life for God,
and listen for his gentle Spirit.
We want to follow you Jesus,
as you went down in the river to pray,
Good Lord show us the way!

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