Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year…through all those holiday seasons, I believe, many of you had a chance to have a family gathering, small or large. When our families get together, what do we usually do? First off, we eat. And what else? Yes, we talk. We share stories about recent events and things to catch up. Then, we also share some stories about the past. Good stories, bad stories, stories that make us laugh or cry… telling those stories, we get closer to one another weaving another common thread of family history.
A psychologist at Emory University did research on how healthy families counteract cultural forces that try to make families fall apart. He found that those families develop a shared family narrative. And while doing so, the family members, especially their children, grow a strong “intergenerational self” and a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves.True, our family stories have such power to bind us together.
Whenever I visit my mother, I know, at some point, she would bring out old photo albums full of my childhood pictures and tell me the stories that I’ve heard more than a hundred times. I’m not particularly happy to hear those stories again and don’t like to see me as a naked baby in the pictures, but what can I do? Anyway, my mom’s golden globe for the best story goes to…the story of washing me. This story begins with a picture of me sitting in a red plastic tub with a colorful shower cap on my head. When I was little, my family lived in a slum where my father served poor families as a pastor. We had no hot water and no bathtub. So, to bathe me, my mom had to boil some water, mix it with cold water in the red tub, and move the tub into the room. It sounds unbelievably inconvenient, but she always says, that was her great joy and she was happy to see me clean and fresh after bath. Finishing the story, she never forgets adding her classic line to the story, “Oh, I want my baby back. Who is this guy next to me! Won’t you go back to that time?” Well…what can I say?
I know, it’s a simple story, but now I realize that this story is deeply rooted in me. Whenever I think of the story, I feel my mom’s love in a concrete way and the bond between me and my mom shaping my life. I think, if I would have a child in the future and bathe him or her in the evening, I would understand more about my mom’s experience. And I am so sure that I would tell the same story I heard from my mom to my child… someday. Yes, just like this, our family stories bind us together, and moreover, they continue in our lives from generation to generation.
Today we are celebrating Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We will have our Amelia baptized, and after that, we will renew our baptismal covenant with grateful hearts. But here’s one question. What do we do in baptism? We know, by the baptism of water and the Spirit, we are incorporated into the church, the Body of Christ; we enter into Christian faith and the journey of discipleship. But definitely, there’s more than that. What’s that? Today, I hope we don’t forget: through baptism, we come to have a story… the great story that binds us together in God’s love. Through baptism, we are born anew by the free gift of God and placed within this family called church.And we inherit a family story, in this case, the history of salvation narrated in the Bible. Yes, through baptism, we become part of this unfolding story of God’s grace. And this story doesn’t just remain as an old tale from the past, but it becomes our own story, the living and life-giving story that continues in our own lives, here and now.
This story is something truly bigger than us. This story begins with the creation when God created humans in God’s image, but humans failed to follow God. The story goes on to tell us that no matter what, this Creator God faithfully loved God’s people even when they were yet sinners. The Prophet Isaiah delivers the voice of this God today, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). Then, the story reaches a milestone point when Jesus was baptized and revealed the way of new creation—the creation liberated from sin and death, the creation with the restored image of God. At the baptism of Jesus, there was a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). Then, where does the story go from there? The story crosses borders and extends its scope through the ministry of the disciples. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they shared the good news, baptized people in the name of Jesus, and included them in God’s family. And finally, the story reaches its highlights in our very lives. In our beginnings, God created our life. And through our baptism, God initiated our new life in Christ. This way, the great story of creation and new creation becomes our story and continues in our very lives.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, through baptism, we become part of the unfolding story of God’s grace that binds us together. This story of God’s family clearly tells us who we are. It teaches us that we are created in the sacred image of God and with many blessings. This story tells us how much we are loved. It gives us faith in the unconditional love of Jesus and the assurance of salvation. This story tells us our purpose of life. It calls us to carry on the mission of the disciples: proclaim the good news, live out justice, and above all, love God and love our neighbor.
Today, at the baptism of Amelia, let us, as a church family, witness the moment that this amazing story now continues in her life. And let us bless her and pray for her together so that she can write her own great story of faith in the love of Jesus Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And today, as we renew our baptism, let us refresh our sense of belonging to the family of God and reaffirm our call to share this good story of salvation with others. May God be with all of us and bind us together as we remember our baptism and be thankful today. Amen.
Bruce Feiler, “The Stories That Bind Us” from New York Times, March 15, 2013 (accessed January 10th2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html).
Mark W. Stamm, The Meaning of Baptism in The United Methodist Church(Discipleship Ministries, The United Methodist Church), p 4.
Emmanuel, God with us. The Prophet Isaiah foretold: the coming Messiah, the Savior, will be called by this name. And this name is very special because it reveals one important nature of God. What kind of nature is this? The name tells us, God is the one who wants to be with us; God is the one who seeks a reconciled relationship and a fellowship with us. Why? It’s because this God’s nature is love. We habitually hear and say, “God is love.” And I know, such phrase is too worn-out to our ears. But think about it. Before we found God, before we even knew God, God loved us first and wanted to be with us and walk beside us in our lives. This surely is good news for us. And this surely can be a meaning and reason for living. This might be why, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said, “Best of it all is, God is with us.”
The Bible in many places testifies to this God who always comes to people first, when they are yet sinners and when they have no idea about God. The Bible tells us, God came to Abraham to make a covenant with him. God revealed Godself to Moses in the burning bush to save the Hebrews from slavery. God spoke to the prophets to turn the people of God back from their wrong ways. And finally, God came down to earth and was incarnated in Jesus. Why? It’s because God is love and the best expression of this love is to be with the beloved. So, the God of true love doesn’t only stay in a higher or lofty position to be adored. But this God doesn’t mind coming down to lowly places in our midst to be with us. This surely is good news for us.
Today, we are celebrating the very first Sunday of 2019, as Epiphany Sunday. The word “epiphany” means a revelation or manifestation of something divine. And 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, the heart abundant in love. 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.”
And the love manifested in Jesus Christ is not an idealistic or philosophical love. 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. 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, right in this stable, which looks farthermost away from divine glory, Jesus manifested the humble love of God. Here, 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. This surely is good news for us.
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 immediately set in a vulnerable and precarious situation. However, right in this situation, which looks farthermost away from divine blessing, Jesus manifested the audacious love of God. Here, we see, 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. This surely is good news for us.
Finally, the true love of God doesn’t mind taking up the cross on our behalf. 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. Most of the time, he was a friend of the marginalized and the oppressed of the society. Although he healed numerous people and taught the gospel to many, at the moment when he was dying on the cross, there were only a handful of people beside him. Even his disciples betrayed him. However, right in the life, which seems farthermost away from divine favor, Jesus manifested the life-giving love of God. Jesus on the cross indeed perfected God’s love for us. Here, we find, 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. This surely is good news for us.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, on this first Sunday of 2019, I hope we all keep this Epiphany faith and all the good news brought by Epiphany to us. God doesn’t want to be without us. No matter what, we are loved with the love that is humble, audacious, and life-giving. We surely know this truth because of Jesus. Whenever you feel weary, tired, or lonely through this year, I hope you remember Jesus again and remind yourself of this core Christian faith.
Today as we continue our worship service, we will have two meaningful rituals that will remind us of divine love. One is the anointing and the other is Holy Communion. Anointing may be not familiar to you. But in the Bible, anointing is a sign of blessing and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Prophets were anointed to proclaim God’s word; priests were anointed to carry out their ministry; kings were anointed so they could rule; many people were anointed for healing and wholeness. So this anointing simply tells us, God is with us and God’s blessing rests on us. Holy Communion is much more familiar to us. Holy Communion is a sacrament that visibly manifests invisible grace of God. By sharing bread and wine, we remember the love of Jesus Christ who gives us all, even his body and blood on the cross for our salvation. Today, in anointing and in Holy Communion, I hope and pray that we may deeply feel the enduring presence of God’s love in our lives, and we may renew our faith in Jesus, so that we all can live out the call to ministry this new year and share his love that overcomes any suffering and injustice the world. Beloved, no matter what, God is with us. Hear this good news! And go, and tell to others in all the way you can, by all the means you can, and as long as ever you can. Amen.