New Year, Old Promise

This following sermon was preached at Silver Creek Presbyterian Church on Sunday, January 13th, 2013.

Luke 3:21-22

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and 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.’ Or ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love, in you I find happiness” (CEB).

Recently I have been organizing documents such as sermons, sermon illustrations, bulletins, liturgy, prayers and such in a digital filing program. As I “file away” documents for future use I have been “tagging” them with labels to reflect the various themes of each. Therefore, in years to come, I can search a word such as “prophetic” and the program will present me with previous documents that I have labeled with that word or phrase. If I were to “tag” today’s lectionary readings from Isaiah and Luke, I might add the following labels to describe these scriptures for future reference: Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13th 2013, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, baptized, Isaiah, Luke, God’s Son, beloved, redeemed, held, adored, precious, my sons, my daughters, intimate, warm, comforting, claimed, belong, intimate, embraced, the list could go on and on.

All of these words, descriptive and diverse though they are, inevitably fall short of describing the outpouring of affection that, quite literally, explodes from the heavens in this moment. Perhaps, this is why I have long been frustrated with the translation of “with you I am well pleased.” It just doesn’t seem to cut it. Being “well pleased” with something, at least in my ear, does not inspire such as list as those words we might use to “tag” the intimacy of this moment. I was “well pleased” with the cup of coffee on the rainy day that I was working on this sermon. I was “well pleased” that the Kansas Jayhawks won last week. I am “well pleased” with the fact that my seven year old laptop is still running with God’s grace. But God being “well pleased” with Jesus just doesn’t reflect, at least in our vernacular, the beauty of this moment.

Thankfully, you and I live in an age where we have access to multiple translations, each with their own biases, nuances, and voices. A few years ago, I happened upon a fairly new translation, the Common English Bible, whose language, I am convinced, better embodies the intimacy of this baptismal moment. Listen again to the Word of the Lord: “When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.’”

Ah, now that’s better! Baptism, when viewed through the lens of this translation, is the moment when God looks upon Jesus, and says: “Yes! You are the one I have created! I claim you as my own! You are the one that brings me joy and warmth and hope and laughter! Yes, you are my beloved and I couldn’t be happier!”

When I hear those words, when the skies are broken apart and the Spirit comes to seal Jesus’ baptism, I am reminded that those words, that love, that unconditional claim is directed at you and me. For as we are baptized with Christ, we are affirming the perhaps unexpected news that God finds happiness in you and me, sinners though we are. For if such were not the case, God incarnate would not have descended upon us and waded in the river, waiting in line to be baptized in solidarity with us. It is an intimate grace, isn’t it?

A congregation that I have visited recently embodies this intimate grace in a unique way. Having recently renovated their sanctuary, they made the decision to place the baptismal font not up front or off to the side but literally within the congregation. About 6 or 7 pews back, right dab smack in the middle of the people, their font is placed in a clear glass bowl, where all can see the clean water from every angle. As I left the pew to move forward to receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, I exited the pew and had no choice but to pass by the font. I followed the lead of many of the members of the church and placed my right hand deep within its basin and felt the refreshing coolness of the water on my palm, I could hear the dripping of the water as I brought my hand out of the font and made the imprint of a cross on my forehead with my thumb. Because of the water now on my forehead, I could feel the breeze on my wet forehead as I approached the Table to taste the most delicious bread dipped in sweet grape juice. As I returned to my pew, I sat in that holy space, a space that was enlivened, in part, because I was reminded of how intimate our baptisms are; they are intimate because God baptizes us, claims us publicly as the ones in whom he finds happiness.

But if I am to truly receive this good news, to embody the happiness that, for some reason, God finds in me, then I have rejoice at the baptismal promises that I see fulfilled all around me.

Whether you have realized it or not, you, the people who are Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, have claimed me, a young seminary student, as one of your own. You have accepted me, nurtured me, challenged me, and loved me in a ministry that is nothing short of reciprocating the happiness of which God finds in you! Because of your ministry to me, I have witnessed this community’s celebration of Lara Grace and Olivia Kate’s baptism. I saw the warm smiles on your faces as you shared with them and their families the love that God has first shown to you. Even amidst the chaos of the past year, you have remained firm in your commitment to proclaim the love that God gives us, the very love that stood in line and was baptized with us. I cannot tell you how much strength it gives me to be among you, to witness the faithfulness with which you are fulfilling your baptismal covenants! Such a blessing it is to be among you as you reciprocate the happiness that God finds in you and in me.

It is quite remarkable when you think about it: that a sovereign God whose majesty and magnificence is limited by neither time or space would find happiness in us! In you and me who are such broken people, who stray and wander and stumble and grumble. It should, then, be a relief that you and I are not called to explain why or how this could be (for that would be a most impossible task!). You and I are called not to explain but to proclaim!

Friends, I announce to you that you are claimed by God. You are claimed by a God who finds happiness in you. As we move forward into a new year with new challenges and new possibilities, we will go forth strengthened by a very old promise: a promise which must not stay in this place. How will you respond to this old promise in this new year? And as you ponder the ways that God is calling you to respond to this old promise, remember that Christ responded to this old promise in some very new and improvisational ways. Strengthened through his baptism, going forth with the assurance that God found happiness in him, Christ went into the wilderness and ministered to and with the most unlikely of characters, those people in whom God finds perhaps the most happiness!

So as we journey into a new year, into unchartered territory, take heart! For Christ too goes with us into the wilderness, accompanying and leading us on the road traveled by the ones in whom God finds happiness! Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.


Stephen Fearing

Stephen was born in 1988 in Cookeville, TN, where his parents met whilst attending Tennessee Tech. Shortly after, they moved to Dalton, Georgia where they put down roots and joined First Presbyterian Church, the faith family that taught Stephen that he was first and foremost a beloved child of God. It was this community that taught Stephen that it was OK to have questions and doubts and that nothing he could do could every possibly separate him from the love of God. In 1995, his sister, Sarah Kate, joined the family and Stephen began his journey as a life-long musician. Since then, he has found a love of music and has found this gift particularly fitting for his call to ministry. Among the instruments that he enjoys are piano, trumpet, guitar, and handbells. Stephen has always had a love of singing and congregation song. An avid member of the marching band, Stephen was the drum major of his high school's marching band. In 2006, Stephen began his tenure at Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he majored in Religion and minored in History. While attending PC, Stephen continued to explore his love of music by participating in the Wind Ensemble, Jazz Band, Jazz Combo, Jazz Trio, as well as playing in the PC Handbell ensemble and playing mandolin and banjo PC's very own bluegrass/rock group, Hosegrass, of which Stephen was a founding member (Hosegrass even released their own CD!). In 2010, Stephen moved from Clinton to Atlanta to attend Columbia Theological Seminary to pursue God's call on his life to be a pastor in the PC(USA). During this time, Stephen worked at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Silver Creek Presbyterian Church, Central Presbyterian Church, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. For three years, Stephen served as the Choir Director of Columbia Theological Seminary's choir and also served as the Interim Music Director at Westminster Presbyterian Church. In 2014, Stephen graduated from Columbia with a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Arts in Practical Theology with an emphasis in liturgy, music, and worship. In July of 2014, Stephen was installed an ordained as Teaching Elder at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church in Shelter Island, NY. Later that year, Stephen married the love of his life, Tricia, and they share their home on Shelter Island with their Golden Doodle, Elsie, and their calico cat, Audrey. In addition to his work with the people who are Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, Stephen currently serves as a commission from Long Island Presbytery to the Synod of the Northeast and, beginning in January of 2016, will moderate the Synod's missions team.