Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
We’re into a new year now. Time for reflection and maybe new beginnings. Some folks make resolutions at this time of year and others entertain general hopes they’ll do better than they have in the past. Not a bad practice, because it shows we haven’t given up. We want to keep on with life and meet its challenges. Small improvements, one step at a time – that’s the way to avoid discouragement and reach your goal.
Still, lots of people pass through a slump after the holidays are over. Festivities have come to an end, and we look ahead to several weeks of winter. This morning’s texts, with Jesus’ baptism at the center, encourage us to trust, however, that life is really a lot better than it looks during the dark days of the January blues. A whole lot better. God’s word invites us to hope that we will cope well with the dullness of the time and also keep whatever resolutions we make, especially the ones about moving closer to the Lord and sticking with him. We’ll examine our text, then, in search of strength for our spirits at what can be a tricky time of year.
For one thing, we have the example of John the Baptist. Since he was human, he may at times have wanted to live like everyone else, easy-going, in touch with the world and its interesting bustle, but God gave him the work of preparing the people of Israel for Christ and along with it a highly disciplined, even narrow, way of life. John obeyed willingly. He wore simple but distinctive clothing; he followed a meager diet and ate what the poor people ate; he refrained from wine and other strong drink. He lived in the desert, away from the comforts of city and town.
We might think of John as a hermit who came out of the wilderness to bring us an important message about the frivolity of worldly living. Some folks listened, because there is always a minority who are offended by waste and extravagance and always some who wait patiently and fervently for the Lord. If John were with us today, he would tell us not to set our hearts on food or computers or clothes or the TV, but to focus on Jesus. He might tell us that one of the reasons for the January blues is that the tinsel and colored lights and merriment of Christmas have been taken away from us and we now confront the dark, bare, chilly side of life. He would advise us not to weaken or let sentiment get the best of us, but to be strong in the Lord. John would call us to repent of our dependency on fleeting things and cling to Christ.
Now, John is a special case. He lived a more restricted life even than the Lord, who went into the world and mingled freely with people, so that he could reach sinners of all kinds, but God created one special messenger to teach the urgent need for repentance, for taking time to examine the way we live and with God’s help to make improvements. It’s especially important that we keep away from the false gods of the age we live in.
John gives us, as well, an example of commitment to the Lord. He lived as he preached. His life shows us the power of faith to overcome obstacles and irritations whether they are big or little. Paul wrote that God’s people have the mind of Christ. He also said that we should not be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may prove what the will of God is. If we follow John’s example and fix our minds on Jesus, we have a good chance of beating the January downturn.
The passage from Mark also refers to the Holy Spirit. John said that Jesus would baptize with the Spirit and the Spirit appeared at Jesus’ baptism in the form of a dove. The Spirit works behind the scenes, so to speak. He doesn’t call attention to Himself. He convicts us of our sins and brings us to faith in the gospel and keeps us there. He enlightens us and forgives our sins every day. He will raise us up when Jesus’ returns and give us eternal life along with all Christians.
God’s Spirit is concerned about our lives right now. We don’t see Him, but he works to keep us strong. The Spirit comforted the disciples in stressful times and guided them to bring the Gospel to new believers by the hundreds and thousands. Some Christian leaders predict a burst of evangelism in the next few decades. The Lord uses Christians like ourselves to uphold his message. The Spirit will comfort us during the gray days of winter. He will draw us out of ourselves and keep us from exaggerating the importance of the January slump. He will restore our joy and our zest for life – all for a purpose. He wants us to be active in Jesus’ name, with lives that give him glory. The Spirit sustains a unique community in the midst of the sinful world and he works to keep us from getting down in the dumps. We ask him to use us and to guide us safely through the January blahs.
Now, we spoke about beginnings a few moments ago. The passage from Mark puts before us a significant beginning in the life of Christ. The Holy Spirit anointed him at the time of his baptism for the great and difficult work that lay ahead of him.
Some people enjoy their daily tasks very much. For most of us, our work involves a fair amount of drudgery. We sometimes approach our responsibilities with sinking hearts. This has been part of the human story since the fall, when God decreed that Adam would have to earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. The ground would produce thorns and thistles. Labor of one kind or another is part of life for everyone except those who can’t take care of themselves, and I suppose this situation makes January that much harder to bear – weeks of unrelieved work and for most people vacation time is months away.
Thinking about Jesus at the start of his public ministry, we might suppose that he looked ahead and saw all the troubles that would come to him, the numerous difficult people he would meet, misunderstanding and outright rejection from folks he loved and we wouldn’t blame him if he said, “What a life! You want me to serve these people and even die for them? And without any tangible reward? No thank you. I’ll open a grocery store instead.” He looked more deeply at his work, though, and understood that he had a high calling. He was prophet, priest, and king for all humanity. He knew what Isaiah said about him – that the HF would take hold of his hand as he brought justice to the nations and strengthened weak hearts with the gift of faith. He would heal the sick and free captives. He would open the eyes of the spiritually blind and free millions who were in bondage to sin. Nations would put their hope in the ways he came to establish. Difficult though his work would be, he had his Heavenly Father’s promise that he wouldn’t stumble or become discouraged. He would complete the various parts of his task perfectly, though at times he would struggle with his flesh to keep on. But he wouldn’t quit, and at the end he would receive the reward of an eternal community of millions of believers who would live with him in praise and thanksgiving.
It’s the privilege of Christians, you and I, to know that in God’s eyes we don’t live under the curse of Adam, but in the grace of Christ. No matter how humble our tasks may seem to ourselves, everything we do – apart from sin – fits in with God’s great plan. We share in Jesus’ mission. We serve; we heal; we spread the truth; we bring the light of Christ – and often without visible reward or recognition. But the blessed Lord takes note and he has a reward in store for all his people. He encourages us, then, to persist. He enables us to overcome the January blues. He says to us – find what is of me in your daily work: things will go well and you will be cheerful. January will pass quickly.
Now, we find one more note of encouragement in this morning’s gospel. You probably noticed that his Heavenly Father said to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son. I am well-pleased with you.”
It’s a great thing to be loved by God, the one who created the heavens and the earth and who gives life to everything that lives. It’s wonderful that God who knows everything and has all power in his hands and never fades or changes his mind loves the humanity that he created. He does not abandon us to our sins but offers us a way back to him through his Son. He uses our faith in Jesus to adopt us as his children, brothers and sisters of the Lord. He loves us with the same kind of love that he loves Jesus – not sentimental or indulgent, fading in and out, pretending not to see our sins, but with an unshakeable purpose. He brought us into his eternal kingdom, where we live now by faith. Rough patches come our way, but he promises that no everlasting harm will befall us.
As Jesus was baptized, so were we. Baptism is our proof that can never be wiped way that the HF claims us as his own – our personal sign of his love. During times of turbulence, we may sometimes wonder what has become of God. We remember during those moments that God has put his brand on us in our baptisms. He tests, he refines, he gives us a taste of our Lord’s suffering. He also gives us faith and he won’t let go. He has plans for us and a purpose for our lives. He encourages us to spread the light of Christ. He will not let us falter or become discouraged. What wonderful strength he gives to those who stick with him. We discover that our powers surprise even ourselves. So let winter do its worst. Our spirits are ready and mighty in the Lord. We will not only endure, we will carry on and prevail. In Jesus’ name. AMEN
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.