1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
3For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth —
7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."
Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-13
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
4:1 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
9Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ 11and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 12Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Today we’re starting a sermon series on personal discipleship. I haven’t really done a sermon series before, so this is a new kind of experiment for me. I felt like following Jesus in our own lives would be a good topic for our first series and to start the year. I’d love to hear if this series raises things you would like to explore more. In general too, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you’d like to hear sermons about. My job is equipping you for ministry in the world. I want our sermon time to be engaging and helpful for you in your spiritual journey, and that is more likely to happen if I preach on topics you want to hear about.
I felt like the right place to start a series on following Jesus is with our calling and identity in Christ. This story from Luke fit right in, not only because today in the church year is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, but also because Jesus’ calling is our calling.
I love the image of Jesus standing in the water praying after his baptism. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit flies down from heaven like a dove and rests on Jesus. God’s voice from heaven calls out that Jesus is God’s son and that God loves him very much.
I imagine most of us haven’t had that experience, but never the less, God knows each of our names and loves us. Our passage from Isaiah drives that point home. God says to Israel: “Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.”
God has a special relationship with Israel, that’s for sure, but God’s love doesn’t end at the border. The end of the same passage extends God’s loving care beyond Israel to the world. God repeats the earlier refrain and broadens the welcome: “Do not fear for I am with you…everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."
God created the whole universe including you and me. God calls us by name because we are each special to God. God’s knows and calls us before we have any idea who God is. That’s why we baptize infants in the Presbyterian Church, because God calls before we know how to answer. Our calling is at the very root of our being whether we can feel it or not. God loves you and wants you to hear your calling and follow.
God’s calling is loving, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Notice in the passage from Isaiah God talks about being with us in floodwaters and fire. Passing through the water reminds us of baptism, but it also reminds us of floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. We read this passage in worship as we began and ended a trip to New Orleans to help with rebuilding work there. Isaiah reminds us that even when we feel overwhelmed, God is with us. God is always with us, but that doesn’t mean we won’t face trouble in our lives.
The passage from Luke reinforces that lesson. Right after Jesus’ baptism, after this spiritual peak experience of hearing the voice of God and seeing the Holy Spirit fly down to him like a dove, the same Holy Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to face Satan on his own.
The passage doesn’t say why the Spirit drives Jesus out to face temptation. Maybe God knows facing temptation head on early in his ministry will strengthen Jesus for the more subtle temptations that will threaten him along the way. Maybe the solitude was to strengthen Jesus and Satan thought he had an opportunity to strike while Jesus was weak with hunger.
Whatever the case, Jesus’ calling as God’s beloved Son and our savior led immediately to temptation and finally to the cross. Being God’s beloved children isn’t a free pass from suffering; it’s not a get out of jail free card. Often following Jesus will lead to suffering we might have otherwise avoided; being a Christian is not an easy calling.
But it is a calling that’s full of joy. Following Jesus leads us into a community of wild diversity and daring love. Following Jesus frees us from falling into the temptation of power or greed or narcissism. It frees us from thinking that the world is about us or our family or our group. And it frees us from the terrible lies the world tells us about how we aren’t worthwhile if we don’t have the right clothes or hair or body.
It’s a calling that leads us into action, because we know that everyone else is a child of God too, so we are called to care for others. That’s a humbling reality because against the desperate poverty of many places our problems can seem shallow. Fortunately, even though we are called to serve our neighbors, when we remember that this is God’s world we know that we are not alone. We don’t have to save the world: that’s what Jesus did. We are free to play our part and follow our calling, trusting God to do the rest.
So this new year claim your calling; claim your baptism; claim your identity as a beloved child of God and a disciple of Jesus Christ. When the world tells you you’re not living up to some ridiculous standard of productivity or consumption remind yourself that you are not defined by your job or your things, but by your Lord. When you’re tempted to think too much of yourself and to look down on someone else, remind yourself that you are a servant of Christ Jesus and that in the waters of baptism and at the foot of the cross we are all equal.
Claim your identity as God’s child and Christ’s disciple, and nurture that calling like Jesus did. Make time in your busy life to listen for God’s voice in scripture. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus took forty days apart from family and friends, apart from everything, in the wilderness to prepare for his calling. We need to prepare for our calling too.
That wasn’t the only preparation Jesus had for his ministry. We can tell he had already spent a lot of time studying the Bible because when Satan tempts him Jesus easily comes up with the right scripture to defend against each temptation. We have to spend time in God’s word for it to guide and strengthen us in our faith.
This isn’t the last time Jesus takes time apart to refresh and nurture his spiritual life. During his ministry we often read that Jesus spent the night in prayer or went to a particular place to pray. Those times were often interrupted by the demands of ministry, but they still nurtured his connection with God.
In the same way we need regular, daily prayer time to nurture our connection with God, to remind ourselves that Jesus is the foundation of who we are and who we are called to be. We need regular time with scripture to teach us about who God is and to guide us in the faith. We can find a few minutes at the beginning of the day to read a few chapters and ask God for guidance on our day. We can pause before we drop off to sleep to give the worries of the day back to God.
I think we also need special and more intensive times of preparation like Jesus’ time in the wilderness to get back to our roots. We need periods of special focus like Advent and Lent to renew us. We need retreat times apart from our regular lives to break our routine and remind us that the everyday demands of our life are not the only things that matter.
We need special times and regular times to remind us that we are God’s children, baptized in water, redeemed from sin and called to ministry in Christ’s name. As we start a new year together that identity and calling is where we begin. God’s love is what matters most. God’s love set the universe in motion and gives us the foundation for our lives. God’s love calls humanity out of hatred and isolation, into community and healing. God’s love leads us out of selfishness and striving, into joyful ministry. God’s love makes us who we are.
We are God’s people, beloved, redeemed, called to ministry and sent out to serve. When we build our life on that identity everything else falls into place. We don’t have all the answers, but we know that everything begins with God’s love. In response we seek to love God and love our neighbors in everything we do. That is our mission for this year and for always. May we grow in faith and action every day.
Thanks be to God.