A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 21/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     We are beginning a new season of Lent worship series called, “Wilderness Challenges” based on the forty days when Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness. While Jesus was in the wilderness, he faced several challenges related to his identity and his mission. 

      The forty day season of Lent is meant to remind us of those forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. If we want to grow in our faith and be faithful in following Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb of Easter, we need to be willing to face these challenges as well. By facing them, we will learn more about the areas of our spiritual lives that are in need of growth and renewal.

     Over these next several weeks of Lent, we will be looking at several different wilderness challenges. These include our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility and our belief. We will be using the appointed scripture readings for each of these Sundays in Lent to explore these themes.

     As we begin this season of Lent series, let’s think about why Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. What is the significance of the wilderness and why is it important for us to spend time there with Jesus as well?

    When we see that Jesus began his ministry by living in the wilderness for forty days, we immediately make the connection with the people of Israel, who centuries before were in the wilderness for forty years. 

    The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years and God called Moses to lead them from slavery and into the promised land. To do this, they needed to travel through the wilderness. It was while they were in the wilderness that God was forming and shaping them to be his people.

     By first going to the wilderness to begin his ministry, Jesus is mimicking what happened to the Israelites centuries before him. Here is the parallel with the wilderness story of the Israelites and the wilderness story of Jesus. 

     Both of these wilderness stories begin with water. For the Israelites, it was the Red Sea when Moses parted it allowing them to escape from Pharaoh. For Jesus, it was the Jordan River where he was baptized. 

     These wilderness stories also were a passage way to their ultimate destination. For the Israelites, the destination was the Promised Land where they would be able to live as free people under God’s gracious rule. For Jesus, the destination was the city of Jerusalem where he would die on a cross and rise again which would lead to the freedom of God’s people from sin and death. 

     But to go from slavery to the Promised Land, the Israelites and Jesus first needed to face the challenges of living in the wilderness. The church has designated this season of Lent as a time to live out this wilderness journey. It’s not an easy journey. It will test us along the way, but it can be a time of tremendous spiritual growth.

     For this first Sunday in the wilderness, the appointed scriptures for today offer us our very first challenge and it’s related to our identity.

     Knowing who we are is critical in living out our faith. 

     Our Gospel reading this morning begins with Jesus in the wilderness but just before he was driven into the wilderness, we have the story of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. And I think this connection is a very important one because Jesus’ baptism centers around his identity. 

     So even before Jesus entered the challenge of the wilderness, he knew his identity. What do we learn about Jesus’ identity from his baptism?

     Well, the first thing we learn is that as Jesus was coming out of the water from his baptism, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And then we get this voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

     These two aspects of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descending upon him and the voice from heaven calling him “beloved” are also important dimensions whenever we celebrate a baptism. Baptism reminds us that we have been claimed by God and that we are given the name, “beloved.” And so, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he already knew who he was and that the Spirit was with him. 

     Every week when we worship together, we collectively say our benediction which reminds us of our identity. We begin that benediction with these words, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     We started using this benediction almost two years ago. The motivation for creating our own special benediction came out of the anguish I was feeling after the disappointing decision by our denomination to retain the restrictive language found in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ issues. 

     The decision from that special General Conference had made national news and the spotlight was on our denomination. Since Athens First has always sought to be an inclusive and welcoming church, I was trying to think of what our congregation could do to emphasize God’s acceptance of all people, especially people in the LGBTQ community.

     And that’s when God reminded me of something that often goes unnoticed in a worship service. The benediction. The thought occurred to me that I put so much time into developing a sermon, that I don’t give nearly enough attention to what is spoken during the benediction. And so I prayed about it, and came up with that opening line, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     For the first few Sundays, I was the only one speaking this benediction because that is what typically happens. The pastor offers the benediction and the congregation listens. And then I went on vacation for a few Sundays and the person who was leading the service for those Sundays invited the entire congregation to say it with him.

     When I got back from vacation, somebody told me about it and they said how powerful it was that everybody was saying it together. So, I continued this new tradition where I invite all of you to speak those words with me.

     What I love about this benediction is that on any given Sunday when we worship together, every single person is invited to say these words and know that they truly are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.

     The other interesting thing about this is that my plan was to use this benediction for a month or two and now it’s been almost two years that we have been using it!

     One of the leading worship scholars of our denomination has been Laurence Hull Stookey who passed away in 2016. Stookey wrote a book about baptism in which he says, 

     “Each of us stuffers from spiritual amnesia. We forget what God has done for us and promised to us. We also conveniently forget what God wants from us as disciples. In short, we are oblivious to the identity we have been given by our creator. God, aware of our malady and of our inability to effect a cure, acts to reveal our true identity to us. One means by which God counteracts this amnesia is baptism.”

     Our first wilderness challenge is related to having spiritual amnesia and this is all rooted in our identity. To overcome this challenge, we need to find ways to remember who we are.

     Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation back in the 1500’s would remember his baptism and who he was by placing his hand on his head and repeating the words, “I am baptized. I am baptized.”

     He would do this especially whenever he was feeling anxiety or distress. “I am baptized.”

     What a great way to remember our baptism, to cure our spiritual amnesia and to remember our true identity, that we are loved by God.

     In one of the churches I served, a member of the congregation told me that she doesn’t know what she would have done without our church. I asked her what she meant.

     And she said how throughout her life, she had always struggled with self-worth and feeling accepted. She then told me that sometimes when she is really struggling and feeling down, she’ll simply pull her car into our church parking lot and sit there in her car looking at our church building. She said that it has a way of reminding her that she is somebody, that God loves her, and that this is a safe space for her.

     One of my favorite things to do is to look up at our church steeple especially when it’s a beautiful day and seeing that cross high above, 130 feet above our sidewalk. That steeple is here to remind us that God loves us.

     Friends, let’s remember to never underestimate how God can use a hymn, a benediction, a kind word or gesture, a steeple, or even a church parking lot as a way of reminding us of our true identity.

     So on this first Sunday in the wilderness, never forget who you are. You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God! That is who you are!

Wilderness Challenges - Our Identity

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 1:9-15
February 21, 2021

During these next seven weeks, we will be spending time with Jesus in the wilderness when he began his ministry. We will be focusing on seven challenges while we are in the wilderness. These are related to our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility, and our belief. When Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, it reminds us of when centuries earlier, the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. The wilderness is that place where we are shaped and formed as God’s people.

Which of the seven challenges above stand out the most for you? 

The first challenge from our scripture reading today is related to our identity. Notice that just before Jesus entered the wilderness he was baptized. The Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven called him, “my beloved.” Baptism is one of the significant ways for us to remember who we truly are, God’s beloved.

If you have been baptized, what memories of it come to mind? If you were baptized as a baby, were any stories told about the day you were baptized? 

Theologically speaking, baptism is an outward sign of God’s grace at work in our lives. Baptism has several spiritual meanings which include 1) We are born again 2) We are cleansed from our sins 3) We are initiated into God’s family 4) We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Which of these meanings of Holy Baptism stand out for you the most? How can this help us remember our true identity?

Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian who is credited for starting the Protestant Reformation was known to remember his true identity by placing his hand on his head and saying the words, “I am baptized.” 

What are some ways that you can remember who you are and that you belong to God?

Our worship benediction that we say together each week is a reminder of who we are. Say these words which remind us of our true identity. Instead of using the word, “you,” change it to “I” to help personalize it.

I am a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God. There are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes. As I leave from this place today, may I continue to bear witness fo the love of God in this world so that those who whom love is a stranger, will find in me a generous friend. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with me through this day. Amen.

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