Let’s imagine that we are opening a new business in Montclair/Verona. And let’s say we want to open a diner. What should we do first? I think we should find a space where we can open a diner. And it’s always better for us to have this space on a busy street with high foot traffic. Facility wise, we must have a well-equipped kitchen and a well-furnished interior to make and serve good food. Also, a catch name with a nice logo and great social media presence is not even an option these days. And absolutely, we shouldn’t forget having necessary permits and inspections. On top of all these, if we want to actually run this diner, we need people to work with. Yes, we need to hire employees. No doubt, the success of a diner truly depends on a good chef and kitchen staff, a friendly manager and well-trained servers. Right?
So, let’s say we advertised the positions and got many job applications. And now we are in the process of reviewing their resumes. What should we check first? Basically, we would like to see who is qualified for the position we offer. And the person’s carrier, experience, education, such information would tell us about the qualification. Perhaps, for better discernment, we may have to interview some of them… Let me stop right here and ask you, “Does this sound easy to you? To open and run a diner?” I don’t think so. True, running a business and making a success are not simple at all. There are lots of things involved. There are lots of things we need to consider.
In today’s Gospel reading, you see a person who tries to start his ambitious business. What he’s trying to do is not exactly a business but more like a movement. And by promoting this movement, he’s not just thinking of bringing some changes only to his town or community. This person is very serious about transforming the whole world. Who is this person with such a wild aspiration? As you know very well, this person is Jesus. And this Jesus is trying to begin a radical movement in history, which is called the kingdom of God. Indeed, what he is trying to do is not just run a local business but bring a new kingdom—a whole new world with a whole new way of life! Can you believe it?
We may assume that a person with such a big dream must have a great blue print of the new world and have the finest human power in the world. Even opening a new local business requires a great deal of effort and careful preparation, then, how is it when Jesus commences a revolutionary enterprise to make a new kingdom? However, against all our high expectations, Jesus’ way of doing his business looks too simple. He just shares a message called the good news. Today’s Gospel reading tells us, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-16). Really? Is this all?
Then, how about the people whom Jesus works with? There must be something very special about them. What kind of qualification does Jesus want from them? We would look for qualified employees even when we try to open a small business, then, how is it when Jesus begins a new kingdom—not anybody’s kingdom but God’s kingdom? His people must be very talented and godly ones, we assume. However, against all our high expectations, Jesus’ search for his co-worker looks even absurd. He doesn’t look for any qualification—no resumes, no interviews, nothing. The Gospel reading says, “As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:16-17). On his way to spread the good news, Jesus meets some fishermen and just calls them: “Follow me.” Really? Is this all?
I know it’s such a strange way to begin a movement. It seems that there is nothing ambitious or grandiose, nothing we should pay attention to from the business management point of view. If Jesus showed up in a reality TV show like The Apprentice, he would definitely hear, “You are fired,” on the first round. But… here, what we shouldn’t forget is that the way of Jesus is precisely the way that God transforms the world and saves human lives. Indeed, with this simple message and a bunch of untrained amateurs, the revolutionary movement for the kingdom of God started and has greatly transformed our world until now. To make America great again, someone says we need more investments and jobs in the US, and we need to stop people coming from something-hole countries. But, remember that to make a kingdom of God, no other resource is needed but the good news of God. And no other qualification is required for the followers but the calling of Jesus.
Today, the history of this revolutionary movement, the history of this strange kingdom of God, is still ongoing. And this history is not just a history from the past to be remembered, but it is our story to be continued here and now. It truly is our own story! Even though we are just a bunch of ordinary people, even though we are just same old sinners before God, even though we have nothing special to achieve great things in the world, it doesn’t really matter. When we firmly believe in the good news of Jesus Christ, we already have everything that is enough to change the whole world. And when Jesus calls us as his disciples, we are more than qualified to follow him on his way to build a great kingdom of God.
Today, on this Sunday of baptismal covenant renewal, Jesus is calling you again. Will you be able to follow him leaving behind everything you have, considering them as nothing, like Paul suggests in today’s Epistle lesson? Even though we cannot radically commit like the disciples, let us at least remind ourselves of the call, the life-giving invitation, the life-changing summon of Jesus our Lord. As we come to this baptismal font and as we come to renew our faith in the good news of God and the new life we received, let us remember the good news: Jesus is the Lord! Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life! And let us dedicate ourselves afresh to living out the precious call of Jesus Christ. Follow me! Jesus is calling each one of us. And let all God’s people answer, “Yes Lord, here I am.” Amen.
A couple of years ago, I had a chance to watch a movie called The Tree of Life. It’s a quite abstract movie that touches upon some heavily philosophical questions on human existence, life and death. For sure, this movie is not just for fun. The most unique feature of this movie is that the director continuously counterpoints the events in frail human life against the dramatic splendor of nature. So, in the movie, the story of a middle-class family living in Texas in the 50s unfolds along with the creation story of the universe.
I know it’s hard to imagine. Let me give you an example. At one point, the movie shows the creation narrative that begins with the Big Bang and moves on to display swirling vortexes of exploding gas in the universe, the birth of stars, the newly formed Earth, the first stirrings of life, the development of living organisms, the age of the dinosaurs. And this goes all the way to the birth of a child in a hospital in Waco, Texas. Through this way of storytelling, the stories of the family—their inner struggles, complicated relational dynamics and conflicts—gain a new array of meanings from the weirdly wide and wild cosmic perspective.
The director’s message was very clear to me; which I believe is that although humans seem so fragile and insignificant compared to the magnitude of nature, our lives are still vivid parts of the greater creation narrative of the universe. And this cosmic narrative is indeed our own. So we better see the universe, life and, of course, humanity as a manifestation of something beyond it, something mysterious. Whether this something is just a massive force of nature or divine grace, it carefully interweaves and interrelates all things in the universe in a single thread of destiny.
Reading through the lectionary readings for today, the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, this movie just came to my mind, because I wondered why today’s readings include the creation narrative in the Book of Genesis. This Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the traditional Christian feast day commemorating Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. So today’s Gospel reading is about how Jesus was baptized, and the reading from the Acts of Apostles is about how Paul baptized people in the name of Jesus. How appropriate! But what does the creation story in Genesis have to do with baptism? I didn’t get it at first. Then, I got some clue from the movie.
Like the movie, today’s Hebrew Bible reading, Genesis chapter one, pulls our lens back and leads us to overview the grand narrative of God’s creation. It widens our perspectives so we can see our life and its meanings on a cosmic level. Yes, we better understand, the creation narrative is not something irrelevant to our lives. But rather, it truly is our story. This story begins with the creation of the universe when God created the heavens and the earth, and separated light from darkness. Then, it reaches a milestone point when Jesus was baptized and revealed the way of new creation, the creation liberated from the bondage to sin and death, the creation with the restored image of God. Then, where does the story go from there? The story finally reaches its highlights in our very lives. It is in our very lives that this cosmic narrative of creation and new creation is intimately manifested. In our beginnings, God created our life. And through our baptism, God initiates our new life in Christ.
Like the movie, here, the Bible tells us that the cosmic creation narrative is interlaced with our own creation stories. And yes, the Bible also affirms… behind the whole story, there is something beyond us, something mysterious that undergirds all things in the universe in a single history of salvation. Unlike the movie, however, the Bible doesn’t hesitate to give us an explicit answer about this something. And the Bible doesn’t finish the story with an open-ended question. Rather, today’s Bible readings tell us directly about the Spirit of God who brooded over the formless water and brought forth life, the Spirit who descended upon Jesus like a dove, the Spirit who makes new life in the practice of baptism and incorporates our lives in God’s story of salvation.
And now we know… the same Spirit, the Creator and the giver of life, is present among us. From the beginning of the universe until now, this Holy Spirit enfolds all things in the universe in God’s grace. Our story within the power of the Holy Spirit is not the story of creation and destruction but the story of creation and new creation. It is the story of new life, the story of the divine grace poured out for us through the Spirit from the beginning of the universe until its end.
Today, we are baptizing Avery . What a great day to welcome a new son in Christ! Through this baptism, he will be embraced into God’s great story of grace and new creation. And at his baptism, we, as a church, will witness that God’s creation narrative continues and that the life-giving Spirit vividly works among us through the life of Avery. And we will bless and pray for him together so that he can make his own story in the love of Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
To conclude my sermon, I’d like to read a part from the service of baptism with you. This is from the Thanksgiving over the Water part where I consecrate the water right before the baptismal act. When we witness the baptism of Avery today, I hope you remember in your heart, this beautiful summary of God’s story of creation and new creation, connected by the water of baptism and through the Holy Spirit.
When nothing existed but chaos,
you swept across the dark waters
and brought forth light.
In the days of Noah
you saved those on the ark through water.
After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow.
When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt,
you led them to freedom through the sea.
Their children you brought through the Jordan
to the land which you promised.
In the fullness of time you sent Jesus,
nurtured in the water of a womb.
He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit.
He called his disciples
to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection
and to make disciples of all nations.
And now at this moment Jesus is calling you and me to be the disciples who continue this story of grace within our stories. Let us give thanks to our God. Amen.
 Marcelo Gleiser, “‘The Tree Of Life’: Need We Choose Between Grace And Nature?” (NPR, August 17, 2011: https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2011/08/17/139680194/the-tree-of-life-need-we-choose-between-grace-and-nature)
When we love somebody, we want to be with that person. We want to spend time and share life with that person. Or at least, we want to stay in touch with the person we love. It’s very natural. My parents-in-law visit Jee Hei and me all the way from South Korea. Even though the flight takes more than fourteen hours and the flight ticket is quite expensive, they come to see us because they love us and want to be with us. Love has such a strong gravity, the force that pulls those in love to one another. Aristotle, one of the greatest western philosophers of all time, found this character of love and thought that god might move the world with this kind of force.
He said that god moves the world as the beloved draws a lover, and as the lover gravitates toward the beloved. It is such a beautiful idea that has inspired many theologians in history. But there is an issue with Aristotle’s worldview, that is, god never moves. For Aristotle, god is so perfect and unchanging that god never changes god’s position. God has to take the ideal and static position as the beloved so that the world only gets motivated and moved as the lover.
Yes, I have a certain issue with this unmoving god of Aristotle. Why? It’s because the God whom we know is very different from this philosophical god. If we reflect on the God testified in the Bible for a while, we can immediately see that God is always on the move. God always comes to God’s people first, when they don’t know who God is, when they are yet sinners, and even when they deny God. And in the Bible, we find more often that God is the lover and we are God’s beloveds. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God revealed Godself to Moses to save the Hebrews from the slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn the people of God back from their wrong ways. Truly, God so loved the world that God came down to earth and incarnated Godself in Jesus to save the world. Indeed, our God is love. This true love doesn’t only stay in a higher or lofty position to be adored, but this love doesn’t mind coming down to lowly places in our midst because God wants to be with us.
Today, we are celebrating the very first Sunday of 2018, as Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means a manifestation of something divine. And it particularly means an event wherein the divine unveils itself to us. For Christians, this epiphany is about Jesus and the day of his humble birth. On this day, the Magi, the three wise men, followed the starlight, traveled a long way to visit the baby Jesus, and finally, they witnessed the shimmering revelation of something divine in him. What would be that something these three wise men witnessed? It’s still a great mystery with full of wonder. But we do know one thing for sure. The baby Jesus in a manger manifested the heart of God for the world. God loves us and wants to be with us, so God comes and dwells among us. As the Angel Gabriel announced, the name of Jesus is indeed, “Emmanuel, God with us.”
The love manifested in Jesus Christ is not an idealistic or philosophical love like Aristotle said. It is a down-to-earth love, the love incarnate. To be with us, this God of love doesn’t mind taking a human form, having flesh and blood. The true love of God doesn’t mind coming to dwell in humble places among us. Jesus was born in a shabby and smelly stable. There was no crowd and no visit from any family or friends. However, in this shabby and smelly stable that looks farthermost away from divine glory, God’s concrete love is manifested in Jesus. From this we know… even in the lowliest and loneliest places of our lives, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter where we are.
The true love of God also doesn’t mind enduring any suffering and danger with us. In the story of the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus’ birth was immediately followed by a great threat and danger. All of them in the stable were overjoyed. But they needed to hide that joy because Herod, the king of Judea, looked for Jesus to kill him. His life was set in a vulnerable and precarious situation. However, in this situation that seems farthermost away from divine blessing, God’s empowering love is manifested in Jesus. From this we recognize, even when our circumstances are unstable and unfavorable, God is with us. And God wants to be with us no matter what we are going through.
Finally, the true love of God doesn’t mind taking up the cross on behalf of us. As we all know, Jesus’ life was not just a happy one. He was not the majority’s favorite at all. He was constantly accused by the Jewish authorities and excluded by his hometown people. He was only a friend of the unfavorable people of the society. Although he healed numerous people and taught the good news to many, at the moment he was dying on the cross, there were few people beside him. Even his disciples betrayed him. However, in the life that seems farthermost away from divine favor, God’s life-giving love for us is ultimately manifested. Jesus on the cross indeed perfected God’s love for us. From this we realize, even when our lives are tough, God is always with us and suffers with us. And God wants to be with us no matter who we are.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this first Sunday of 2018, I hope we all keep this Epiphany faith that through Jesus we have this love manifested. Whenever you feel weary, tired, or lonely through this year, I hope you remind yourself of this core Christian faith in God. Our God is love, the true love that is concrete, that is incarnated, that is enduring, and that is life-giving. God, because God loves us so much, comes into our humble lives and stays with us. Upon this divine love, on this foundation, let us confidently build our life and our church in 2018. And in Christ’s love, let us be joyful always no matter what. As John Wesley teaches us, indeed, “Best of it all, God is with us.” Amen.