SERMON FOR SUNDAY 10 JANUARY 2021
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
|Tomb of Jesus, Thursday 7 January 2021|
Sermon for Sunday 10 January 2021
Baptism of Jesus
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
1Ascribe to the | Lord, you gods,
ascribe to the Lord glo- | ry and strength.
2Ascribe to the Lord the glory | due God’s name;
worship the Lord in the beau- | ty of holiness.
3The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of | glory thunders;
the Lord is upon the | mighty waters.
4The voice of the Lord is a pow- | erful voice;
the voice of the Lord is a | voice of splendor. R
5The voice of the Lord breaks the | cedar trees;
the Lord breaks the ce- | dars of Lebanon;
6the Lord makes Lebanon skip | like a calf,
and Mount Hermon like a | young wild ox.
7The voice | of the Lord
bursts forth in | lightning flashes.
8The voice of the Lord| shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilder- | ness of Kadesh. R
9The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the | forests bare.
And in the temple of the Lord all are | crying, “Glory!”
10The Lord sits enthroned a- | bove the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for- | evermore.
11O Lord, give strength | to your people;
give them, O Lord, the bless- | ings of peace. R
4John the baptizer appeared in the
wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of
sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and
all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in
the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s
hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild
honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I
is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his
sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize
you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Prayer of the Day
Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable unto you O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
For the last few days, I’ve been awake far too early in the morning, and the first thing I want to do is check news from my home country. What’s happening now? Who is the president today? Who is in charge? Is anyone in charge??
Then I check Israeli news. Are we still in lockdown? Can I go to the store, to work, to school? Are the trains running? How many COVID-19 cases did we have yesterday? Where can I get a vaccine as a foreigner?
Sadly, I could watch or read the news all day and still feel I don’t have any better grasp on the situation in the world. This is a very confusing time. Although I knew better, somewhere deep inside I thought 2021 would magically be better, easier, cleaner, clearer. Maybe you did, too. If last year didn’t provide us with 20/20 vision, maybe this 2021 would be the proper prescription, I thought! But here we are, one week into the New Year—or December 41st, 2020, it seems—and as a friend recently wrote: Thanks for the free 7-day trial of 2021, but I’ll cancel my subscription.
One of the things that makes these times so confusing is that there are so many voices claiming authority over our lives and futures. There are so many opinions to consider, and sadly, so many lies and so much false information being spouted by people in power. It’s hard to know who to listen to, who to trust—and we’ve seen in the last year (and especially in the last few days) how dangerous lies and misinformation can be.
But still, in the midst of all this confusion, we are gathered today from across the city, from across walls and checkpoints, and even across oceans and time zones, to hear, to contemplate, and to celebrate, the voice of truth and love. Thanks be to God!
Sometimes it may seem God is silent—when our prayers for peace or healing or clarity are not answered, for example. Sometimes it seems the voices of kings and tyrants overpower God’s messages of truth and love, peace and justice!
But today the psalmist reminds us:
The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
On Christmas Eve just a few weeks ago, we heard how God spoke to the world through the Incarnation, speaking not through words but in flesh and blood and bone.
On the Day of Epiphany just a few days ago, we remembered how God spoke through a star, and through the courage of the Wise Ones who followed it, and especially through the angel who spoke to the Wise Ones in a dream, encouraging them to defy the plans of a lying and scheming political leader.
And on this day, the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, the Apostle Mark tells of the day when the heavens over the river Jordan parted, the Spirit rained down in the form of a dove, and God’s voice came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Amen.
Dear friends in Christ, hear this Good News for our troubled times: God speaks.
God is still speaking! God speaks to us today, through creation. Through the life of Jesus. Through water and the Word. Through the Spirit of God, on the loose in the world!
God speaks through people: Priests. Prophets. Family. Friends.
And sometimes, God even speaks through strangers.
On Thursday morning, just before Israel imposed another, stricter Coronavirus lockdown, I went to the Old City to wrap things up at church. At Redeemer I chatted with colleagues, checked the mail, locked my office, and then decided to visit the Holy Sepulcher for a few moments of prayer and contemplation.
When I walked around the corner to the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection I noticed it was, as usual for the last 8 months, nearly empty. Even Mr. Nusseibeh, keeper of the church keys, was missing that day.
Inside the church, the ornate aedicule situated above the tomb of Jesus was blocked by a metal gate. There was just one black-clad sister standing to pray there. No lines of tourists, no priests guarding the door, no photographers or journalists, no candles being lit. Just the sister, and me.
In the Chapel of the Flagellation, one of my favorite spots in the church, I sat to pray. This is an elegant chapel, with a stunning, blue-tiled wall behind the altar and strikingly simple figures of Jesus journey to the cross dancing across a high shelf to the left of the pews.
I love this serene and sacred place. But on this day, I noticed someone had arranged a Christmas nativity scene at the front of the church that could best be described (in my opinion, at least) as….tacky. Here we are in Palestine, but Jesus, Joseph and Mary were white as snow. It’s a tiny chapel, but there was more fluffy white tulle, artificial greenery, and fake snow than would be necessary in a massive cathedral. And to top it off, situated above Jesus, Mary, and Joseph was a bright, blinking, neon star, complete with a neon blazing trail behind it.
It was truly…something to behold.
Still, I sat there for a while, thinking about the voice of God. What is God saying today, for these times? What is God saying in this chapel? To my left was the Way of the Cross and the neon star of Bethlehem. To my right was a stone pillar, thought to be the remnants of the place where Jesus was flogged before his crucifixion. And of course it, too, was decked out for Christmas – with fake greenery, real poinsettias, and lights.
Speak Lord, your servant is listening, I prayed. (1 Samuel 3)
The Lord didn’t say much.
I thought maybe the problem was not that the Lord was not speaking, but was saying far too much in that space, so I decided to leave and head towards home. I was only a few steps away from the church when I heard “Hello Sister!”
I recognized the woman calling to me as the only other person who had been praying with me in the Chapel of the Unfortunate Nativity. “Marhaba” I said. “Merry Christmas!”
My companion, who seemed at least 30 years older than me, walked a bit slower, so I slowed my pace too. She wasted no time on pleasantries. She bemoaned how empty the churches and the streets of Jerusalem are. She talked about Coronavirus, and how alone she feels these days—no kids, no family anymore. She’s lived in Jerusalem for more than 60 years, and before that in a tiny Christian village nearby. She’s never seen the city so empty, she said. “This is a very hard time” she sighed, patting my arm.
Just as we parted—her to her home in the Christian Quarter, me on to Damascus Gate and the train—she grabbed my arm, looked me in the eyes, and said “God bless you, Sister. Merry Christmas! And remember: God is with you.”
And then she turned and walked away.
Did I mention that this woman, this companion on my walk, told me her name was Noel? No, really, I can’t make this stuff up! This stranger, who came alongside me in a moment when I felt quite alone, when I was struggling to hear the voice of God—her name is Noel, which means “Born of God.”
As I walked away, I thought of the words of our Lutheran Morning Prayer service, in which are reminded each week on Tuesdays when we gather: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by the Son.” (ELW Morning Prayer)
I thought of Matthew 28, verse 20: “Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And I thought of the psalm for today, Psalm 29, which I had been so diligently praying there in the chapel. And I smiled.
Dear friends, the voice of God is mighty.
The voice of God is powerful.
The voice of God drowns out lies!
The voice of God is also a still, small voice.
The voice of God is Scripture and song.
The voice of God is bread and wine.
The voice of God is Jesus, crucified and risen.
And the voice of God is the stranger who walks alongside us when we need it the most, speaking words of comfort, truth, and hope.
Hear again this Good News: God speaks: in this Holy City and in every city. God speaks in times of isolation, infection, insurrection and resurrection.
God is still speaking! Amen.
On this day of Jesus baptism, we remember how God opened the heavens and spoke words of love and truth: “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” In the days to come—in this year to come—let us be opened to follow more closely in the footsteps of God’s Beloved Son, Jesus of Nazareth. Let our minds be opened to pursue a revolution: a revolution of love and justice. Let our ears be opened to the call to be extremists: extremists for love and mercy.
But above all, let our hearts be opened to receive the message of comfort and healing, light and life, which God is always speaking, in ways we sometimes least expect.
O Lord, give strength to your people. Give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace. (Psalm 29:11)
God the creator strengthen you;
Jesus the beloved fill you;
and the Holy Spirit the comforter ☩ keep you in peace.
Go in peace. Be the light of Christ.
Thanks be to God.