There is no one in Cottam who enjoys playing baseball more than our Shad. Our church baseball season ended in September and I think it was about the first week in October that Shad began talking about next year’s season. Shad sure loves his baseball.
Baseball is a funny game. It’s one of those sports where you really have to play your position. If you’re the catcher, than you really should be behind home plate. The second baseman always sets up between first and second and the short stop between second and third. The left fielder is in left field, the right fielder in the right field. The same goes for all of the defensive players in the field. It’s even true of the offensive players who are up at bat. The batter stands in the batter’s box. The base coaches have boxes where they have to stand. The base runners need to stay at or at least near where they’re supposed to be. In baseball, everyone has a place. It’s a game of boxes.
true except for one player. You don’t see this position in the big leagues but
you do see it in slow pitch. It’s called the rover. The rover is just that.
He’s the person who can rove all over the field. He can move in or out. He can
adjust were he stands in the outfield depending on whose up to bat and whether
the batter is left handed or right handed. The rover is a very cool position.
How do you want to live your life in 2017? We’re at the beginning of a new year and this is the time of year when people typically think about what the coming year might mean for them. So here’s my question more specifically. Do you want to live your 2017 in a box or would you rather be the rover?
JESUS STEPS OUTSIDE THE BOX
As you think about that, I want to tell you something about Jesus. He was 100% rover. Jesus did not live his life in a box. He stepped outside of it every single day in many, many ways. One of the very first times was in the story that we read this morning about his baptism. John the Baptist, his cousin, was baptizing people in the Jordan River. In fact, he was baptizing hundreds, maybe thousands of them. The reason he’s doing it was because his purpose in life was to prepare the way for the Messiah. And guess who the Messiah was? It turned out to be Jesus, his cousin.
John knows this and when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, he says, “What are you asking of me Jesus? You’re the Messiah, I’m just the one who came to prepare the way for you. It’s not my job to baptize you. In fact, you are the one who should be baptizing me.” Do you see what John is doing? He’s putting everything in it’s place. “I’m the one preparing the way for you Jesus so you should be baptizing me.” In some ways, that was a little out of character for John because he was not one who was known for staying in the box. Do you remember what he ate? Locusts and wild honey; not normally in the lunch box for most people. Do you remember what he wore? Clothes made of camel hair, really really coarse and itchy; not normally in the clothes closet of your average person. He was very much the non-conformist. But when it came time to baptize Jesus, John was all about boxes. Jesus was the Messiah so he should be baptizing John, not the other way around. It’s only right.
But that’s not the way that Jesus saw it. What John wanted to do was what everyone would have expected. The greater person – Jesus – should baptize the lesser person – John. Jesus was, after all, the messiah while John was only the messenger. Jesus, however, was not one to do what everyone else expected. He wanted John to baptize him. In fact, that’s why he left Galilee. Matthew 3:13 (NIV) is very clear: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.” It was no mistake that Jesus showed up on the banks of the Jordan River. He went there specifically to be baptized.
But why? Why did Jesus want to be baptized by John? He gives us the answer in Matthew 3:15 (NIV). When John questioned him as to why he should baptize him, Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” What’s that all about? What did Jesus mean when he said that it was only proper to fulfill all righteousness?
To get a handle on that, we have to remember why John was baptizing people in the first place. Mark 1:4 (NIV) tells us. It says, “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John came to baptize for the forgiveness of sins which begs the question; why would Jesus need to be baptized since he was already free from sin? It’s true that Jesus was without sin but he was baptized anyway because as he said in Matthew 3:15, he wanted to fulfill all righteousness. What he meant by that was that while he was no a sinful person, he was part of a community of sinful people. They were being baptized to show their repentance and their desire to turn back to God. Jesus, though sinless, wanted to show that he was part of this community, part of this movement back to God. In being baptized by John, he was simply identifying with the rest of the people. Not only was he identifying with them, he was also identifying with us who because wee too are sinful people. In being baptized, Jesus was simply saying, I am one with you and I am a part of you. We are in this together.
That was definitely out of the box thinking. Compare that, for a moment, to the Pharisee in the parable that Jesus told in Luke 18:9-14. In that story, two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like those other people – the robbers, the evil-doers, adulterers and even the tax collector beside him. He was a righteous person. He fasted twice a week and tithed all of his income. Wasn’t he just the cat’s pajamas. About as self-righteous as he could be.
We can be critical of people like him but should we be? Are we so different? How many times do we see someone whose a bit down on their luck and think, “Whew, sure an glad I’m not like that person. Sure am glad I still have a job. Sure am glad my family and I are all healthy, not like that person over there. Sure am glad that I don’t have to deal with anxiety or depression or addictions like the people down the street.” Have you ever thought about stuff like that? Aren’t you glad you aren’t like that other person and don’t have to deal with what’s on their plate?
If you ever think that, be careful because there’s an old expression that says, “But for the grace of God there go I.” How true that can be. Life for you might be a bowl of cherries right now but that bowl can be turned over and strewn all over the floor with one phone call or one knock on the door or one visit to the doctor’s office or one pink slip. But for the grace of God, there go I.
The Pharisee thanked God that he was not like those other sinners, evil doers and tax collectors. But did you hear what the tax collector was saying as he knelt to pray? He said, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Which one of those people do you think more exemplified the character of Jesus? Which one was more willing to step outside the box? Clearly, it was the tax collector.
PETER STEPS OUTSIDE THE BOX
Jesus was all about stepping outside box. Peter picked up on that in the story that Christine read for us this morning from Acts 10:34-43. What Christine read is part of a much longer story in which Peter is called by God to step out of the box. In that story, Peter had a vision in which he was told to eat food that Jewish people are not supposed to eat. Remember that Peter was Jewish and there are very strict dietary laws in the Jewish religion. Peter’s response is found in Acts 10:14 (NIV) where he said, “Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” Maybe he thought that God was testing him, testing his faithfulness maybe. But God assured him that he wanted him to consider eating things that he normally wasn’t supposed to eat.
Actually, it wasn’t a test. It was, rather, a teaching point to get Peter to think outside the box because what he didn’t know was that someone was about to knock on the door of the house where he was staying who was going to really see how willing he was to think outside the box. This person was a messenger from a man named Cornelius. Cornelius was Roman centurion, a very important man in the town who wanted to hear about Jesus and knew that Peter, a disciple of Jesus, was in town.
This might not sound like an odd request to you and me but to Peter it would have been very unusual indeed. That’s because up until this time, he and the rest of the disciples had been sharing the message of Jesus with only their fellow Jews. After all, they were God’s chosen people. They were the ones for whom Jesus the Messiah had come, were they not? No one had ever even considered preaching the good news to people like Cornelius who wasn’t even Jewish. Why would they?
But now there is someone at Peter’s door asking him to do just that. Do you see how this fits in with the vision that Peter had just had that told him that it was okay to eat different foods if God commanded him to do it? In both of these incidents, in the vision of the food and in the reality of sharing the good news with people who were not Jewish, Peter was being asked to step outside the box.
Peter’s faith is shown in that, reluctant though he may have been, he went to the house of Cornelius the very next day and shared with him and his family the story of Jesus and the salvation that he came to offer. The result was the Cornelius and many of this family and friends who were in he house that day received Jesus Christ as their saviour and put their faith in him. And so the non-Jewish part of the Church began. But it would not have happened had Peter not been willing to step outside the box.
WE NEED TO STEP OUTSIDE THE BOX
And now comes my favourite question. So what? So what if there’s a rover on a baseball team? So what if Jesus insisted the John baptize him and not the other way around? So what if Peter shared the good news with people who weren’t Jewish? Why do I care?
You care because there’s a challenge for us in these stories. The challenge is to find the courage for us to step outside the box too. One of the biggest problems that I see with churches these days and one of the reasons why so many of them are not doing very well is because they very happy to stand in their little boxes. Church people can put boxes around anything.
Those of you who are newer to the congregation won’t remember this because we’ve changed the sanctuary significantly in the past twelve years but this big open area up here used to be all broken up into little boxes. There were different levels and railings and other barriers to keep things and people in their places. The organ had to be in the organ loft. And the choir had to fit the best they could into that little space too. And then there was a railing separating the choir loft from the pulpit area that was on the next level with the deacon’s bench. It was pretty cramped up here and there was really no where for the minister to move so I had to stay pretty much behind the pulpit – which I’m not really good at. And then there was the communion rail and I have no idea what happened to it. Then the communion table was down there on the floor and it had to stay there because there was really no other place to put it. The point is that everything had it’s place and everything had to be in it’s place because that’s the way they designed things one hundred years ago. Everything had its box and it was not considered wise to step out of those boxes. We changed all of that about ten years ago and the space we have now is much more usable but if you want a reminder of what things used to look like, there are before and after pictures in the entrance hanging on the wall. We stepped out of the box.
Not only do churches like things to be where they are in the sanctuary. Lots of them like to put people in boxes too. These people are the ones who read the Bible in worship on Sunday morning. These people should teach Sunday School. Only these people sing good enough to be the choir and only these people are worthy to serve communion. These people who have been around the church forever and ever and have a vested interest in not changing anything are the ones who control the church board and the decision making processes. And those new people who started coming last year, they need to learn to tow the line and stay within the boxes and then maybe we’ll let them into positions of leadership too.
I hope that doesn’t sound familiar to anyone here because I don’t think we operate that way but trust me when I say that many other churches do. They are filled with boxes and everything should be in its box and to step outside the boxes is not seen as a positive thing. And then we wonder why so many churches are dying.
One of the things I like about Cottam United Church and one of the things that keeps me here is your willingness and your ability to step outside the box. You know that I am not a boxy person. You know that if there is something to be challenged than I’m likely going to challenge it. My philosophy of ministry is really quite simple. Once we understand that we are here to glorify God and to do the ministry of Jesus Christ, then my principles of practice go something like this. If something works, keep doing it. If something doesn’t work than stop doing it and start looking for something that will work. Or in other words, don’t be afraid to try something new. Be willing to step outside the box for Jesus.
Jesus has told us what he wants us to do. He’s given us the strategic vision. We read that in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV) when he said, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Do you know what is? That’s Jesus strategic vision for the Church. It’s the purpose for which he put us on this earth. What he didn’t give us was a tactical plan. What I mean by that is that he didn’t tell us how to fulfill that mission. He just told us what he wanted us to do. We have to figure out how succeed. That makes sense because the way we make disciples in 2017 is not the same as it was in 1960 or 1600 or 385 AD. The world is different and people respond to different things. And while the message doesn’t change and the good news of Jesus Christ remains consistent, the way that we communicate that message does change. It has to. That’s why we have to be willing to step out of the box when it comes to ministry.
Last week, I mentioned an author named Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who died a few years ago but whose wisdom is still precious. This is something that he said about the Church in his book The Wounded Healer: “Christian leadership is a dead-end street when nothing new is expected, when everything sounds familiar and when ministry has regressed to the level of routine.” I read that and I thought, “Yes, that’s exactly right.” When everything just sounds the same, and everything is familiar and nothing ever changes and we keep doing things just because we’ve always done them that way, then we have a problem. It’s called palliative care. When the church gets to that point and the people in the church don’t do something to turn it around, then it’s time to start planning for a funeral. It’s time to prepare to step out of one box and into another that looks ominously like a casket.
I’m glad that we’re not in that position here in Cottam. That’s because we’ve been able to think outside the box. But do you want to know something. Boxes are really easy to build and we have to constantly resist the temptation to build them. Growing in ministry requires that we constantly think about what we do, how we do it and could we do it better. We cannot allow ourselves to be stuck in boxes that prevent us from being all that God created us to be.
I know that you know that because this isn’t the first time you heard me say it. But I’m reminding you of this today because we have an annual congregational meeting coming up in a few weeks and at that meeting we have some important things to consider. This year, the Official Board will be asking the congregation to do two important things. One is that we want to have a celebration. Cottam United Church took root in 1867, the same year that this great nation was formed. Our anniversary committee has been busy planning anniversary events that will become clear to you as the year goes by. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is that we need to follow through on something that we approved at our last Annual Meeting. We approved a new constitution for this congregation. After a significant amount of discussion, it was finally approved by Essex Presbytery. The only reason why it took so long was because they had never seen a constitution quite like it before. In other words, it did not fit into their constitution box. But to their credit they were finally able to see outside the box and they said yes. I remember one of the questions when presbytery was reviewing it. One man said that there was a glaring error. There was no treasurer on the proposed Church Board. How could we have overlooked that? I responded that we did not overlook it at all. In fact, it was quite intentional because the main purpose of the Church Board is to discern the mission of our congregation which means that it had to be able to have visions and dreams and that the best way to kill a good dream is to start talking about money. And that’s why there is no treasurer on the Church Board. That’s what it means to step outside the box.
In 2017, we have to put that constitution into practice. We will be reorganizing some committees and setting up some new ones. The Church Board will look very different and we will be looking for some different people to serve on it. One of the prerequisites for serving on the new Church Board is that you have to be able and willing to think outside the box. That’s not to say that our existing Board has not done that because the only reason we are where we are today is that they were able to do that. But we’re going to do more of it. It’s going to challenging. It’s going to interesting and it’s going to be fun. But it usually is when you find the courage to step outside the box.
the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing more details of what all of this will
mean for us. In the meantime, seek God in prayer and ask him to show you your
boxes and help you to find your way out of them.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
As Jesus began his ministry when he was baptized in the Jordan, so we ask that you, O God, would grant us a vision of your mission for us. The world needs to hear your Good News. It needs to sense your peace and your presence. We need that too. We need you in our lives more than ever.
Thank you for the transforming power of Jesus. Wash over us with his gentle strength. You offer healing for the hurtful things of life. You give peace in the midst of strife and courage when we are afraid. You give companionship when we are lonely and compassion when we are angry. Transform us even now, O God, into people who love justice, seek mercy and walk humbly with you.
We thank you for the birth of Fredrik Michael, a son for Naomi and Mike Strong. We give thanks for this birth and pray your blessing on the family as they grow together in Christ.
We pray now for the sick. We remember as they recover from various ailments. We pray for your healing touch to be with all of us in the midst of illness or concerns. Give peace and understanding not only to those who are sick but also to those who love and nurture them.
We also lift up those who mourn, especially the family and friends of Marg McCloskey. Thank you for her life and faithful witness.
We lift up in prayer those who suffer from the affect of unnecessary violence in this world. Once again, there was a mass shooting in the United States, this time at an airport in Florida. Help us, O God, not to become used to such events. Help us not to become jaded and inattentive. We do pray for leaders who will enact reasonable gun laws and empower law enforcement officers to uphold them.
May all of us be encouraged to do our part. Enable us to see beyond our
own wants to the needs of our community and Church. May we particularly be
aware of the needs of the less fortunate – not only aware but willing to do
something about it. Transform us during this week that we may walk closer to
the path that you would set before us. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
January 7, 2017 / Baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
CALL TO WORSHIP
We come to the God of Justice who rules over all Creation.
Come, let us draw near to the One who gives us life.
Blessed be the God of Righteousness.
Blessed be the One how lives and reigns on high;
who dwells in the hearts of believers.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
God of Heaven and Earth, flow down to us with the cooling stream of your peace. Quench our thirst at your pools of clear, refreshing love. Come to us now and nourish our hungry spirits. As we have entered this sanctuary, we ask you to enter our beings so that we will be transformed by your Holy Power. Come to us, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
We seek your presence, O God, and you are with us. But sometimes we forget how to live out our faith in Jesus. Forgive us when we fail to honour his mission and ministry. He told us to set the prisoners free but we put them behind bars. He cared for the lonely but we put them in institutions. He brought justice to people’s lives but we turn away from sin rather than confront it. Forgive us and mould us into clearer images of your grace. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
We are tempted to hide our sinfulness because we fear what it says about who and what we are. Be assured, however, that sin has not hold over those who are in Christ Jesus. He is able to cleanse and heal our wounds. When we confess, God forgives.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
You, O God, have given us many good gifts. The summer sun, the winter snow, the spring rains and the colours of autumn. You give your Spirit to all who believe and now we give back to you a portion of your blessings for the work of Christ in the Church. Amen.
Go with gladness. Go with joy. Go with the assurance of God’s redeeming grace to share the Good News with those whom you may meet.