“Belonging”


Baptism of the Lord

January 10, 2016

 

Text: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

         

          (Hold up cell phone) This is my cell phone. It belongs to me. Because it belongs to me, there are certain things I expect it to do for me. I expect it to make and receive calls, access the Internet, and access certain applications I use. Lately at times it has not always been doing what I expect of it. In particular, on occasion it will randomly shut itself off without warning. I find this frustrating and irritating, because it is letting me down. I am left with the choice of a) putting up with it, b) limiting what I use it for, c) trying to get it fixed, or d) replacing it.

          I belong to several organizations. For instance, I am a member of the Lions Club. Since I belong to Lions, there are things expected of me. I am expected to attend its meetings, participate in its community service projects and fundraising activities, take a leadership position in the club when called on to do so, live up to its Code of Ethics, and pay the required membership dues. Failure to do these things lets down the organization, and if they choose not to put up with it, this can lead to limitations on how I can participate, a request to do a better job of living up to the expectations, or dismissal from the group.

          Most of us belong to some kind of group, whether it be a sports team, a musical group, a youth serving organization such as Scouts or 4H, a governmental body, a labor union, a fraternal group, a community service organization, or a social club. Each of these organizations has expectations of its members. When members fail to live up to those expectations, they let the organization down. That organization can either choose to put up with it, limit participation, ask that the expectations be met, or seek to remove those who don’t comply from the group.

          Most of us who are here today are members of the church. We belong to the church. The church has expectations of us. These are spelled out in our baptismal and membership vows. Here are some of the things that are expected of us:

  • Turn away from sin and evil
  • Accept God’s power to resist evil
  • Trust in Christ for our salvation
  • Serve Christ as our Lord as part of the church which he has opened to all ages, nations, and races
  • Remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church
  • Represent Christ in the world
  • Nurture each other in the Christian faith and life
  • Pray for each other
  • Do all in our power to strengthen the ministries of the church
  • Faithfully participate in the congregation with our prayers, our presence (as in being present), our gifts (including our time, our abilities, and our financial resources), our service, and our witness

          Now I realize that the vast majority of us who are here this morning, as well as a number of people who don’t happen to be here this morning for various reasons, are people who make a genuine effort to live up to these expectations. We also know there are people who are listed as members of the church who show less evidence of doing these things. It has been my experience over many years of being a pastor in many places that figuring out how to hold people accountable to these expectations is a challenge. I have seen instances where the method of seeking accountability was experienced as too harsh, and caused hard feelings. I have also seen instances where there was no attempt made whatsoever to hold people accountable, and there were some individuals still listed as members of that congregation even though the people in question had either re-churched elsewhere or de-churched altogether. My experience has been that the church chooses most often to put up with members who don’t live up to expectations. We don’t usually limit participation, although such a person often will not be seriously considered for any church office. We may gently and passively encourage greater involvement, but we generally don’t get pushy about it. We do have a process for removing inactive members who do not respond to letters asking what they want to do with their membership, but we use that process primarily on people who have moved away from the community. Local inactives are supposed to be visited by people from the church to encourage them to become active again, but this seldom happens, and I have yet to see anyone who was willing to make those visits, let alone enthusiastic about doing so. And my experience is that when I as pastor make such visits, the person being visited will tell me what they think I want to hear, but nothing changes.

          It is my humble opinion that the downfall of the church will not be the result of active opposition. Isaiah told the exiled Israelites that God would accompany and deliver them through fire and flood, through all sorts of difficulty, trial, and opposition. Jesus promised that even the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. No, the downfall of the church, if it comes about, will be through benign neglect on the part of its members. When the people of the church do not make a good faith effort to live up to the promises made to God and to the church, the church will find it difficult to do what God has called it to do.

          Of course, the real reason we are doing all this talking about what it means to belong is because we belong to God. Isaiah told the exiles that the reason God was delivering them from their exile and restoring them to their own land was that they belonged to God, and were precious in God’s eyes, honored and beloved. And Isaiah’s message also reminded the Israelites of their reason for being. They were created and formed into a people to glorify God, to fulfill the purpose for which God brought them into being.

          Likewise, when Jesus was baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. A voice from heaven said to him: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; I am happy with you.” God claimed Jesus as his own. Jesus belongs to God, even to the point of being a member of God by virtue of being the Son, the second Person of the Trinity. As a member of God, Jesus had expectations to fulfill, and he fulfilled them through his ministry of teaching and healing and through his death and resurrection to save humankind from sin, death, and evil, forgiving us and making us right with God.

          Through baptism, we also belong to God. We are members of God’s people, God’s family. The baptismal promises I mentioned earlier spell out what God expects of us. Although God is merciful and forgiving, God’s expectations are real, and God does hold us accountable for how well we live according to God’s expectations.

          In a few moments we will be renewing our baptismal promises. As we do so, I invite you to remember that you and I belong to God, and therefore God expects us to live in ways that fulfill God’s purpose for us, for the church, and for the world. I further invite you to examine your life, to ask yourself how you are doing in living out God’s expectations, and to commit yourself to choices that will help you be more faithful in this regard. God will help you. Place your trust in him.

                                                                             Amen.

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