Sermon December 16, 2012


“When You Know To Whom You Belong, You Know What To Do”

December 16, 2012

The Reverend Dr. Joanne M. Swenson


Luke 3:10-16

10And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,[a] 16John 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[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.

This morning’s carols sing of a little Babe, a Heavenly Boy, but now, these Christmas songs take on unexpected and mournful dimensions, two days after the killings in Newtown.  In this suddenly darker Advent, every carol about Baby Jesus becomes, inescapably, a song of mourning for these babes and their heart-broken families.

Several of these songs sing of belonging to God.  And now, more than ever, we need to belong to God.  This week we faced a harsh truth: we carefully choose towns and schools for our children to flourish; we give them the best homes and activities we can provide.  But the world that receives them is unpredictable, risky and even evil.  As our staff member, Anne Wilkinson said, through her tears on Friday, “Those were just kindergarteners, going to school!”  In the face of life’s dangers and evil, we – and our children – need to belong to God.

In the song Balulalow, which follows the sermon, there’s a line that calls Jesus to place his cradle within our spirits, so that this cradle rocks to the cadence of our hearts.

 O my dear heart, young Jesus sweet, Prepare thy cradle in my spirit,

And I shall rock thee to my heart, And never more from thee depart.[1]

The original poet of these lines is said to be Martin Luther, the father not only of the Reformation, but also the father of six children.  It is thought that Luther penned these lines as a lullaby for his children from his experience of holding and rocking them.

But, of his six children, he lost two: Elizabeth at seven months, and Magadalena at thirteen years.  And thus, Luther shows us that, when we belong to God, we can grieve and sing at the same time.

On Friday, as we gathered here in our chapel, we lived out Martin Luther’s truth, that we grieve and sing at the same time.  We wept, we prayed, we hugged and we sang, because we belong to God. The children who were with us wanted to make blankets for the Newtown families. Two of our teens lead the reading of the 23rd Psalm and the 46th – the great psalms of mourning.  And everyone wanted to cook – meals to console and care for the grieving.  When we belong to God, we know what to do.

In this morning’s scripture lesson, three times the crowd asks John the Baptist, “What should we do?” “What should we do?” The Messiah is coming, John proclaims, but the crowd doesn’t know what to do.  They don’t know this coming Messiah, they don’t yet belong to Him, so they don’t know what to do.

John knows what to do, because he knows the Messiah.  Scripture is silent as to whether Jesus and John knew each other as second cousins and playmates.  But Scripture is clear that John recognizes Jesus spiritually.  During their pregnancies, Mary and John’s mother, Elizabeth, meet.  And John, still a baby growing in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps – leaps at the voice of Mary! Because he recognizes Jesus.[2]  When John the Baptist first sees Jesus, in the Gospel of John,[3] he says “Behold the Lamb of God!” And in the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus goes to John to be baptized, John says, “I need to be baptized by you!” [4]

John knows to whom he belongs.  And he knows what to do.

Belonging to Jesus may not solve questions of career path or college major, or whether to run for mayor.  But it will guide your conduct as you weigh these choices and respond to the people around you. It shaped our actions, words and hopes as we worshipped Friday evening. It shaped our conversations, as we talked about how to help.

In all these decisions and all situations, John teaches, “Act as one who belongs to the Messiah!”

The Apostle Paul had to sort through an avalanche of questions about appropriate behavior among the early Christians – should they be circumcised, should they keep Sabbath, should they eat meat (never!).  And he says, “You know, what is most important is to make these decisions as one who belongs to Christ!”  So Paul writes:

Whoever regards one day as special, does so for the Lord. Whoever eats meat, does so to the Lord; and whoever abstains, does so to the Lord.  For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. . . So, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.[5]

When we belong to Christ, we know what to do – in every part of our lives:

Are we anxious?  Be not anxious about anything, but in everything with prayer and praise, put your requests before God.[6]

Overinvested at work?  What do you benefit if you gain the whole world, but lose your very soul?[7]

Suffering?  Take up your cross, and follow me[8].

Facing evil? Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[9]

Grieving?  Jesus wept.[10]

When we belong, we know what to do.

Skip likes to say that in YG, our youth group, first kids belong, then behave.  First kids experience the pleasure of belonging and then new behavior emerges – we parents hope!  This YG Way is echoed by church scholar Diana Butler Bass, who observes that this sequence of “first belong, then behave” was the order of the ancient church, as it disciple’ed new members.

Yet, I cannot emphasize enough that this reverses the typical order of life.  Usually in life we’re straining to change our ourselves, in order to belong:  trying to be good enough, smart enough, attractive enough in order to be accepted.  And this process of behaving in order to belong seeps right down to the youngest of years.

It can create a destructive divide, between those who “fit in,” and those who cannot and live on the edges of belonging.

But not so here, not with Christ.  First we belong, then we change. First we belong, then we act as Christ’s people.  That is God’s Grace, in a nutshell.

John Calvin repeatedly uses the word, “pleasure” to characterize our belonging to God.   Pleasure!  In stern, old John Calvin!  Calvin says, when we belong to God, we learn that God sees us with pleasure. That spurs our change, that gives us desire to improve, do better, repent![11]


God’s pleasure in us is put to song on Christmas Eve by the angels!  Do you remember?

“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom God is well pleased.”  

Well-pleased!  God is well-pleased with us, and yearns that we would belong to Him.  So God brings us now to Christmas Eve, and conspires to make us love Him, as “this little Babe,” this “Heavenly Boy.”  To place His cradle by our hearts, and rock Him to its beat.

Today these images of Baby Jesus fill us both with joy and mourning.  But above all, let them inspire our desire to love Christ and claim Him as ours.  Because when we belong to Christ, as Luther showed, we can grieve and sing at the same time.

This Christmas, we belong.  And we know what to do.  Amen.

[a] Or the Christ

[b] Or in

[1] O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit, Prepare thy creddil in my spreit,

And I sall rock thee to my hert, And never mair from thee depart.

[2] Luke 1: 41-44

[3] John 1: 29-30

[4] Matthew 3: 13-14

[5] Romans 14: 6 – 8

[6] Philippians 4: 6

[7] Matthew 12: 26

[8] Matthew 16: 21 – 24

[9] Romans 12: 21

[10] John 11: 35

[11] “No man will ever reverence God who does not trust that God (favors) him, no man will ever willingly set himself to observe the Law who is not persuaded that his services are pleasing to God. The indulgence of God in tolerating and pardoning our iniquities is a sign of paternal (pleasure).”   John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter 3, section 2

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