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Worship and Sermons
Jan. 8, 2017


“That Baptismal Spirit” by the Rev. Don Wahlig

Year A / Baptism of the Lord - Isaiah 42:1-9  •  Psalm 29  •  Acts 10:34-43  •  Matthew 3:13-17

THEME:  Be open to the Holy Spirit so God can work through you, changing your life and those he would have you serve.


        I recently read a startling confession by a popular and very successful Baptist pastor.


        His name is J. D. Greear and he pastors a large church in North Carolina.  He’s written a book with the provocative title of “Jesus, Continued . . . Why the Spirit Inside You is Better than Jesus Beside You.”


        In a recent interview he explained what prompted him to write this book. He said, “I had always been a little frustrated, because it just seemed like people in the Bible had a fundamentally different relationship with God than my own.  There was a hollowness in my spiritual life.  God was more a doctrine than a person.”  


        This is not what you’d expect from someone like J.D. who has a PhD in Systematic Theology.  He spent seven years studying, writing and talking about God, but he didn’t feel like he actually knew God.


        That took me by surprise, but the more I reflect on it, the more I think he’s on to something – something big.  I suspect that what he’s feeling is something many of us have felt at one time or another. 


        The question he’s asking gets to the very heart of the modern crisis of faith.  It’s a crisis that confronts both older Christians who’ve grown disenchanted with organized religion and younger adults who were raised in the church, but question the need for it.  


        What causes this spiritual distance from God, I wondered? 

        The answer according to a growing number of Christian thinkers is that we in the church have spent years focusing our efforts on preaching and teaching about God, but we’ve not done anywhere near as much to help people nurture a personal, living relationship with God.


        As a result, many of the folks who sit in the pews on Sunday mornings are left with the mistaken impression that what matters most is that they know and believe the right things about God.


        They never move past this intellectualized faith to a deeper, emotional connection with God. Is it any wonder they feel disconnected from him?

        That’s certainly not how our relationship with God is supposed to be.  What God wants is a much deeper, more vibrant and relationship with us.  The prototype for that relationship is described in this morning’s our Gospel passage about the baptism of Jesus.

        Picture yourself standing with all those folks on the banks of the Jordan River watching intently as Jesus permits John to baptize him.  As Jesus emerges from the chilly waters, wouldn’t we all be awe-struck when the Holy Spirit descends upon him and God proclaims him to be his beloved Son?

        This is not the only miraculous baptism in scripture. There are others.

        In all of them, the pattern is the same:  the Spirit inhabits women, men and whole families when they commit their lives to God’s mission. The Spirit empowers them for that mission and draws them into a life-transforming relationship with God.

        This is what the apostle Paul describes in Romans as “the newness of life” that comes through baptism.  That promise is the same for you and me as it was for Paul and his congregations.

        But if that’s so, then why is that many baptized Christians today are asking themselves “Why don’t I know God like these people I read about in the Bible?” 

        What they’re really asking is “Shouldn’t being a Christian be more than living a certain way, knowing a set of theological principles and believing a series of Biblical promises?”

        In other words, if our faith life is a journey, then how do we get from the head to the heart, where the Spirit lives?


        That’s the question I’ve been asking myself this week.  The more I think about it, the more convinced I am the answer is in the story of Jesus’ baptism in our passage from Matthew.


        First of all, we may wonder why Jesus gets baptized at all. His cousin John’s been proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but Jesus has no sins.


        John knows this, of course, and so he protests.  But Jesus says it’s necessary to fulfill all righteousness.


        He’s right, of course.  It is righteous – in two ways.  First, in allowing himself to be baptized, Jesus publicly declares his intention to live a righteous life by doing God’s will in every respect.

        Second, his baptism is also righteous because it makes available the gift of the Spirit through baptism for all those who would follow him committing to doing God’s will.   


        That’s true for you and me. The Spirit, given to us in our own baptism, has the power to lead us into a new life, a life that’s directed by God, pleasing to God and constantly accompanied by God.  When we commit to living for his Kingdom, no matter where we go or what we do, we walk with God because his Spirit is alive inside us.


        That’s what Jesus models for us. In accepting John’s baptism, he accepts his divine commission to seek and save the lost.  In response, God gives him the Holy Spirit to carry out that mission, fully assured that God is with him, guiding him every step of the way. 


        He begins his ministry down in the water with sinners.  Then, with the power of the Holy Spirit, he recruits a team of disciples to help him bring new and abundant life to those same sinners.


        Jesus ends his ministry by commanding his disciples to go out and do the same. And on it goes, down through each and every generation of Christians to you and me.


        Here’s the catch: in order to tap into the divine inspiration, guidance and power of the Holy Spirit, we have to become comfortable spending time where it lives – in our hearts – and speaking its language – in prayer.  


        Prayer is the key:  It’s what connects us with God and keeps us connected with God.  That’s why Jesus is constantly going off to be alone and pray.


        The problem is that, for many in our age, even life-long Christians, this is uncharted territory.  I daresay many of us are more comfortable reciting the Nicene Creed or John 3:16 than we are exploring what may be lurking in our deepest, innermost spiritual centers. It’s a jungle of feelings and emotions. Things get confusing down there, even a little dangerous. 


        Yet, that’s where we need to go.  So, if we’re going to go bushwhacking through the wilderness, we’d better have a reliable guide.  When it comes to that complex spiritual organ which is the human heart, there is no better guide than Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, psychologist, professor and priest.

        Henri, as everyone called him, was arguably the 20th century’s greatest expert when it comes to understanding the spiritual contours of the human heart.

        In one of his 40-odd books, Henri wrote “From the heart arise unknowable impulses as well as conscious feelings, moods, and wishes. The heart, too, has its reasons and is the center of perception and understanding . . . the seat of the will: it makes plans and comes to good decisions.”


        The way to get there is through prayer, but not just any old prayer.


        True prayer,” Henri went on to write, “is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where God's Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place.”


        That kind of prayer takes time – we have to slow down and make ourselves be still and quiet. 


        And now we’ve arrived at the real issue.  


        One spiritual director I know says the number one reason people don’t pray is they’re too busy.  We’re all running around at warp speed, multi-tasking and trying to do too much.  We just can’t bring ourselves to slow down, can we?


        The remedy is to remember this is a relationship.  Yes, we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, it wants to transform our wills into God’s will, and connect us more intimately with God.  But, it’s up to us to make that relationship a priority.


        Let’s ask ourselves this question: if we have a close relationship with a good friend, wouldn’t we make time for it?  What about a spouse – we all know it takes time and effort to nurture that relationship.


        Most of us would say our relationship with God is even more important than that.  In fact, it’s the most important thing in our lives.  If that’s so, then we ought to make time to nurture it through prayer, shouldn’t we?


        Real prayer, like good communication in a marriage, is two-way conversation.  It’s not just talking to God; It’s talking with God.  That means doing something we don’t ordinarily like to do:  we have to turn off our cell phones, our laptops and our TVs, and sit quietly and listen. 


        I wonder what would happen if we followed Jesus’ example and committed to spending, say, 15 minutes / day in silence, letting God speak to us.


        How might the Spirit change our relationship with God?


        Whatever the Spirit does in your heart, I promise you two things:  

        - God will be more to you than a doctrine. 

        - And life will never be the same.

Last Published: July 3, 2017 11:38 AM
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