People thrive on affirmation. Why, then, is affirmation so hard to come by? Isn’t there enough goodness in the world to spread around? Enough blessing to share? Enough support for every journey? This Sunday at Calvary we experienced the power of affirmation.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 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.”
Introduction: Tween Spirit
Wait, wasn’t Jesus a baby just last week? How did he go from a baby “Away in a Manger” to a thirty-year-old man standing in line to get baptized? The gospels tell us only a few details between Baby Jesus and grown up Rabbi Jesus. Luke 2:40 says that “The child [named Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” Then — poof! — he’s twelve years old.
At the age of twelve, much to the consternation of his parents, he ran off during a trip to Jerusalem and participated in a three-day-long Passover-themed spiritual growth and education event in the temple. When Mary finally found him, Jesus gave her some lip (Luke 2:41-51), as tweens do, and she plopped him back in the mini-van and Joseph drove them home to Nazareth, in that silence that only parents can inflict on their guilty children. OK, I might’ve added some during that last part.
But then, the only growing-up detail we get is Luke 2:51: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” In other words, he got older, and everybody liked him. Then — poof! — he’s thirty-year-old.
Perhaps there are people in this room, parents especially, who resonate with what Joseph and Mary might warn us: how quickly the years slip away! In the words of the great philosopher, Dr. Seuss, “How did it get so late so soon?”
(Singing:) Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young girl, going out of my door.
Perhaps the overarching message of the gospel is this: carpe diem, live your life today, because tomorrow is too late to experience the wonder of right now. 400 years ago, English mystic George Herbert wrote, “Can there be any day but this…?”
Prayer for Illumination
The Prayer for Illumination is found on your bulletin cover, a paraphrase from a teenager, Joan of Arc. Please pray aloud with me: “If we are in your truth, God, keep us there. If we are not, God, put us there.” Amen.
The Baptism of the Lord
In today’s gospel, Luke 3, we read that Jesus is depicted plainly as a man of the people, a regular dude. In this gospel account of his adult baptism, the authors of Luke are clear in this detail, writing: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” — pointing out that Jesus was baptized en masse, grouped with others, by his Cousin John the Baptist whom some thought a bit looney, what with his crazy hair and strange diet, preaching what today we might call socialism. Is John the Baptist the Bernie Sanders of the New Testament?
Imagine Jesus standing in line with everybody else to be baptized into a new kind of Jewishness. John dunks him, and Luke says, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a bodily form like a dove. And out of nowhere came God’s outdoor voice, saying: “This is my dear son; I’m proud of him.”
I wonder, if I had been standing in the baptismal line, would I had thought the voice was speaking to me? I wonder, did any of the other people there think the voice was speaking to them? And would they had been wrong in thinking so? With every baptism, doesn’t God claim us as loved unconditionally and uniquely, body and soul?
I wonder, did Jesus and John exchange astonished glances, and,“Did you hear that?” “Dude, you got a bird on your head.” “Dude!” A day in the life, roll the credits.
God affirms publicly that Jesus is on the right track. Through affirmation, the power of the Spirit is activated. And everything changes. Forever.
Self-help guru Louise Hay explains affirmation this way:
“An affirmation is really anything [we] say or think. A lot of what we normally say and think is quite negative and doesn’t create good… We have to retrain our thinking and speaking into positive patterns if we want to change… An affirmation opens the door. It’s a beginning point on the path to change. When [we] talk about… affirmations, [we] mean consciously choosing words that will either help eliminate something… or help create something new…”
But how is it that God’s affirmation of Jesus is also responsible, albeit partially, for sending Jesus into an emotional tailspin, prompting him to retreat for 40 days into the wilderness? Affirmations are often difficult to accept. An affirmation can serve to remind us of how little we’ve been thinking of ourselves, even if the affirmation is directly from God. Perhaps just hearing me talk about affirmation triggers your defensive response—your past bad experiences rearing up to demand their power. Is affirmation just New Age mumbo-jumbo? Or is it true what we read in the Bible—that all God needed to create the cosmos was what? Words, spoken words. God spoke it the heavens and the earth into being. It’s right there in your pew Bible, Genesis 1. The power of words spoken.
Happening on sermon preview on Facebook this week, Rev. Gail Doering shared this story with me. These are Gail’s words:
Last year I did a memorial for a young man who allegedly committed suicide. He was deeply embedded in the ultimate frisbee culture in Portland. His ragtag, diverse group came together and after the service did a ritual they called “affirming the shit [sic] out of each other.” It involved taking a swig of whisky, then passing the bottle and some badass affirmation to the next person and going around the circle that way, repeatedly. It sounds somewhat crazy, but it was incredibly moving and one of my take aways was how as “church” we’ve really lost the art of affirming the shit [sic] out of one another.
When the church baptizes someone, we promise to do our utmost to love them as God loves. An audacious promise! When’s the last time you affirmed someone else, within the walls of this church, on the sidewalk, on MUNI, online? When’s the last time you affirmed yourself, in the secret places of your heart?
The Rocky Ascent
Last summer, Lou and I went camping out in the wilderness of New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Park, where the Anasazi — “ancestral” — American Natives once thrived in brick villages, some of which still tower four-stories tall. From the year 500 until about1150 this pre-Columbian culture flourished. Chaco Canyon seems like an impossible place, and it makes me wonder about my role in the scheme of time.
One day we decided to climb the face of the mesa and go looking for the ruins of Pueblo Alto. The map said those ruins were only a few miles, but we didn’t account for the climb up the face of the cliff. (Did I mention that I was climbing with a blind man in the remote desert, and I’m not exactly the world’s best cliff climber?) Up we went, and we pressed on regardless. After the first hour, we were only halfway up the face of the mesa. Sure, there were signs along marking the trail, but the thing that encouraged us the most were the affirmations left by others who’d gone before. They’re actually called “cairns.” There’s a cairn pictured on your bulletin cover. Hikers leave them to say to others: “You’re on the right path.”
Along one craggy turn up the side of this butte, just as I was truly scared. I thought, “They’ll find us here tomorrow with buzzards covering us, Lou’s cane hacked in half from trying to protect us” — but then I saw a cairn, something left by one who’d gone before, left to say “I made it, and you will, too.” We made it up the cliff face, only to realize that there would be no shade for the next three miles, but we made it Pueblo Alto and found shade in the shadow of the ancient brick ruins. We encountered only one other hiker during this trek, a woman who said, “Wait, isn’t he blind? How’d you…? The climb up…?”
“Carefully,” we replied.
Little affirmations all along the way—that’s what it takes— from regular people who struggle along the rocky climb, just like you and me.
You Are So Beautiful
In a moment the choir will sing a affirmation made popular several decades ago, written in part by Billy Preston, a man who, as a child, suffered sexual abuse from the adults around him. He wrestled his entire life with his identity, his sexual orientation, racial discrimination—but he never gave up on God. Raised as a gospel musician, some say Preston wrote the words “You are so beautiful to me” about God. An affirmation for God.
The Isaiah reading for today makes me wonder whether Preston was writing this to God, or was he transcribing what he heard God say to him: “You are my dear son, and I’m proud of you”? My prayer for you is this: let the Spirit move in your life, and take these words personally—Eugene Peterson’s translation of Isaiah 43. Close you eyes, and listen for God’s affirmation:
“But now, [this is] God’s Message,
the God who made you in the first place…
the One who got you started:
’Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
it won’t be a dead end—
Because I am God, your personal God…your Savior.
I paid a huge price for you…A
That’s how much you mean to me!
That’s how much I love you!
I’d sell off the whole world to get you back,
trade the creation just for you.
So don’t be afraid: I’m with you.’”
Choir sings “You Are So Beautiful to Me” by Billy Preston & Bruce Fisher.
You are so beautiful to me.
You are so beautiful to me, can’t you see?
You’re everything I hope for.
You’re everything I need;
You are so beautiful to me
 Tween (definition): a youngster between 9 and 12 years of age, considered too old to be a child and too young to be a teenager.
 Luke 2:41-52
 “Turn Around” by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reynolds and Alan Greene, altered. Accessed online at <http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/MALVINA/mr175.htm> (January 7, 2016)
 John 10:10b Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
 Discovering Poetry: George Herbert… accessed online at <http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2012/03/discovering-poetry-george-herbert-and-the-meaning-of-easter/< (January 6, 2016)
 True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary (Fortress Press, 2007), Luke.
 Yoli Ramazzina, “Is Bernie Sanders a Modern Day John the Baptist?” accessed online <http://www.elephantjournal.com/2015/09/is-bernie-sanders-a-modern-day-john-the-baptist-evangelical-christian-man-thinks-so/> (January 10, 2016)
 As paraphrased by many, including Rev. Clarence Jordan in The Cotton Patch Gospel <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxnPvTmn4nE> and Jennifer Harris Dault at <https://jenniferharrisdault.wordpress.com/tag/baptism-of-the-lord/> (January 8, 2016)
 See Galatians 3:23–29
 Galatians 4:4–7: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”
 The Power of Affirmation accessed online at <http://www.louisehay.com/the-power-of-affirmations/> (January 6, 2016)
 Luke 4
 Luke 10:27 Jesus said, ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
 For those of you reading this sermon, I said “bleep.” My apologies if you find Gail’s vivid language offensive.
 “Bleep” again.
 The rock pile pictured on the front of this sermon.
 Unconfirmed story but told widely, accessed online at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Are_So_Beautiful> (January 6, 2016)
 The Message translation by PC(USA) minister Eugene Peterson, 2002, altered, accessed online at <https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah%2043:1-7> (January 7, 2016)