“The Next Chapter”Dr. Stephen Clyborne Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. Year C - First Sunday after the Epiphany – Baptism of the Lord
One of the most memorable experiences I had in seminary took place in a Christian Education class. The professor asked us to imagine that we were writing a book about our lives. What title would you give to the book? It’s a good question.
What title would you give to the story of your life and why? The professor gave us a few minutes to come up with a book title and then asked us to turn to the person beside us, share our book titles with each other, and give a brief explanation as to why we chose that title.
Then she asked us, “What would the chapter titles be?” As you look back on your life, what are the milestones, the landmarks, the experiences that mark the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next? Subdivide the story of your life into chapters.
Then the professor asked us to think about our hopes, dreams, and plans for the future and project a title for the next chapter of our lives. Where is your life going? Where do you see yourself in the next chapter of your life? Where will you be? What will you be doing? What title would you give to the next chapter of your life?
That day, as I shared the story of my life with my classmates and listened to them share their stories, that classroom became a sacred place. There is something about the power of a story. It is an exercise that I recommend to you. Spend some time reflecting on the meaning and experiences of your life.
Give the story of your life a title. Divide the story into chapters and give each one of those chapters a title. Then project into the future and give a title to the next chapter of your life. Then share your book with somebody who is important to you.
On this second Sunday of 2019, many of us are thinking about the next chapter of our lives. As one year passes away all too quickly and another year has dawned, many of us wonder where the time has gone and what it all means. And so, before this year gets too cluttered and littered with too much random activity, maybe we would do well to stop and reflect upon the chapters of our lives so far and what the next chapter needs to be. So, imagine that you are writing a book about your life. How would you get started?
Ask any good author and he or she will tell you that the best way to learn to write a good story is to read good stories. There is something about the power of a good story that draws you into it. Such was my experience as I read the lectionary passage from Isaiah for this Sunday. I had read that passage many times before; but this time the words came alive for me in a different way. The words I was reading were so hopeful and inviting, so powerful and gripping, that I wanted to believe they could be for me. And I believe they were.
I realized that the words I was reading were actually in the middle of a much larger story, a true story that began a long time ago in a faraway place, and yet it has everything to do with my story and yours. In recent days, I have come to understand this larger story as the prequel to our stories.
If you look up the word “prequel” in an older dictionary, you will not find the word. It is a relatively new word coined to identify the opposite of a sequel. If a sequel is the story after the story, the prequel is the story before the story. My older daughter, Rachel, is really into the Broadway musical, Wicked, and she stayed after me until I agreed to see it. She knew that, since childhood, I have always loved The Wizard of Oz.
But Rachel kept trying to tell me that I can’t really understand The Wizard of Oz unless or until I see its prequel, Wicked. All these years, I thought I understood The Wizard of Oz. But apparently, I didn’t. As it turned out, things were not as they seemed in the wonderful Land of Oz. Now that I have seen the prequel, I will never look at The Wizard of Oz in the same way again.
That is the way it is with your story and mine. Every Sunday, this Bible is open before us to symbolize our belief that there is a prequel that gives new and deeper meaning to our stories. And if we ever accept the fact that this sacred book is the prequel to our stories, we can never look at our own lives without making reference to it. This story is the story that gives meaning to our stories. And today, since we do not have time to read the whole prequel, we are breaking into the prequel at two strategic points.
The story is such a rich story that we could have chosen any number of points in the story; but this morning, I invite you to hear just two excerpts. The first excerpt we have read is a good summary of what the story is all about. These words are from the Author of the story spoken by a prophet, and these words, alone, were enough to make me want to read the whole book. See if these words draw you into the story. These words may just be for you.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be consumed, For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. You are precious in my sight . . . and I love you . . . Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
As I look back on my life so far and anticipate the year to come, these words were just what I needed to hear, and they may just be what you need to hear. But these words were not first addressed to me or to you. Before we can claim them as our own, we need to know how they fit into the larger story.
They were first addressed to the people of God who had been displaced from their homeland and carried away captive to Babylon. This hopeful string of promises was clearly, plainly, and particularly given to the people of God whose story began over a thousand years before these words were ever written when an old man named Abram and an old woman named Sarai, with nothing but a promise from God, dared to set out on a journey of faith toward a land of promise.
In subsequent generations, their descendants continued the journey they had begun, claimed God’s promise as their own and kept God’s promise alive. Eventually they journeyed to Egypt where they became slaves, and then left Egypt with Moses and wandered in the wilderness until at last; they reached the Promised Land where they lived until the Babylonians came and carried many of them away by force and kept them as exiles. But in their despair, God sent a prophet with words of hope and assurance that the dark chapter of exile was coming to an end and a new chapter filled with endless possibilities was about to begin. And the God who got this whole story started would be with them from one chapter to the next.
Well, the people of God in the sixth century B.C. claimed those promises and they did come home. They came back from Babylon, and they settled in the part of the Promised Land called Judah, where they re-built their faith around the Torah, the laws and words of God.
Centuries passed and eventually one of their priests named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had a baby named John about the same time that Elizabeth’s cousin Mary had a Baby named Jesus. John, later known as John the Baptist, became a rough and rugged character who went around saying that the kingdom of God was coming near, and people better be prepared. He said one way to show that they were prepared was to be baptized. Lots of people came to be baptized; but one day Jesus, who by this time was about thirty years of age, came down to the river Himself.
There were all kinds of questions as to why Jesus needed to be baptized; but all these questions seemed inconsequential immediately after His baptism, as Jesus was praying. Luke tells us that the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very pleased with you.” And this is the second excerpt we have read this morning. When we hear that voice from heaven, we get the feeling that we are near the heart of the story.
In this dramatic scene, it is as if the Author of the story breaks into the narrative, and with His own voice, introduces us to the lead character. The whole story has been leading up to this moment when the main character is introduced. Oh, we had been introduced to Him earlier; but when He first appeared, His identity was only revealed to a lowly maiden, a group of unlikely shepherds, an old man named Simeon, and a preacher named Anna.
He showed up again at the age of twelve, but again, His identity was obscured by His humble surroundings. Why Jesus came around the age of thirty to be baptized, we cannot be sure. Why not earlier, why not later?
Clearly the baptism of Jesus marked the closing of a more private chapter of His life and the opening of a more public chapter in His life. What was it about this moment of His life that prompted Him to close one chapter and begin a new chapter of public service?
We can only speculate, but all we really know is that one day, as Fred Craddock described it, “Jesus folded His carpenter’s apron, having shaken the shavings from it, put it on the bench, left the shop, went to the house to tell his mother and brothers and sisters goodbye. He made His way through the grain fields of Ezdralon, down through the dark valley of the gap of Jezreel and presented Himself to John for baptism. (Fred B. Craddock. The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Someone has said that Jesus went into the waters of baptism a carpenter and came out a Messiah. Although He was the same person, He had a new sense of direction as He entered the next chapter of His life – – a more public chapter. When He was baptized, Jesus publicly accepted His role in the larger story of God’s redemptive love. And when He did, God was pleased. That is why some two thousand years later, we have set aside this Sunday to focus on the baptism of our Lord, to ponder how that event fits into the larger story, to reflect on what it meant for Him then and what it means for us now.
Still wet from His baptism, Jesus entered the wilderness where He was tempted to take shortcuts. But He remained true to His calling; and when He emerged from the wilderness of temptation, He began calling people to follow Him. And those who followed Him called others to follow Him. And that, of course, is how we came in to this story.
One of the reasons why the Bible is so important for us is that it helps us see that our story did not start with us. It started with a God who was determined to have a family, and culminated with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, who ascended to heaven and will come again to unite God’s family forever.
We are caught up in that story, the story of God’s redemptive love, a story that is far greater than our own story. God’s story is our story. We came late into this story. It’s a miracle that we got in the story at all. But by the grace of God, we did. And so, we claim the words of the Bible as God’s word not just to the people then, but to us now as we close one chapter of our lives and move to the next.
Some people write the story of their lives as if there were no prequel, no story that preceded it. In fact, some people live their whole lives and face a new year believing that the story is all about them. Some people live and die believing that they are the lead characters, that their story began when they were born and will end when they die. But we believe we know better.
We believe that the story begins and ends with a God who is determined to have a family. And when we find our place in that story, no matter what the next chapter has in store for us, we can claim God’s promises to the people of the exile as our very own: that God loves us, God is with us, God calls us by name, we matter to God, and we belong to Him.
And who knows? As we enter the next chapter of our lives, if we will keep God’s promise alive, take our place behind the lead Character, say “yes” to His calling upon our lives, we too, by God’s grace, may see the heavens open and hear the voice of God saying, “You, too, are my beloved child. And I am very pleased with you.” Amen.
About the writer:
Dr. Stephen Clyborne was born in Greenville, South Carolina, and has served churches in the Greenville area for thirty-five years. After having served on staff in six churches, he is now in
his tenth year as senior pastor of Earle Street Baptist Church in Greenville, after first serving Earle Street as associate pastor for seven years. Upon graduation from Furman University, Stephen earned the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees at Erskine Theological Seminary, where he served as an adjunct professor for seventeen years.
He is married to the former Sylvia Davis, who is recently retired after having served two churches as a ministry assistant for twenty-seven years (combined). They have two daughters: Rachel (a supervisor in adoptions with the Department of Social Services) and Rebekah (a third-grade teacher at Robert Cashion Elementary School). Also, Stephen and Sylvia have two stepsons: Patrick Swift and his wife, Jennifer, who have two daughters and two sons (Hannah, Sarah Grace, Sam and Ben); Micah Swift and his wife, Suzanne, who have three daughters (Emma Kate, Addie and Ella).
Scripture and Music:
As with Gladness Men of Old
We Three Kings of Orient Are
O Sing a Song of Bethlehem
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Christ Is the World’s True Light
O Splendor of God s Glory Bright
Arise Your Light Has Come
Angels from the Realms of Glory
On This Day Earth Shall Ring (Personet Hodie)
He Comes to Us (Jane Marshall)
The Three Kings (Healy Willan)
Arise, Shine, Your Light Has Come (Mary McDonald)
A Wondrous Mystery (Lloyd Pfautsch)
Light Everlasting (Gordon Young)
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (Claude Bass)
The Birthday of the King (Neildlinger)
What Will You Do with Jesus?