Have mercy, O God

Text: Psalm 51 (2 Samuel 12)

The psalm for today, Psalm 51, is a lament, a raw, intimate, honest petition for mercy and forgiveness. Many of us know it well and love it.—David’s lament is deeply personal. He agonizes over his sin, and we are exposed to his confession, reconciliation, and transformation in a way that gets to the heart of our own faith and relationship with God.

David’s lament is also very public, included as it is in “the book of common prayer” of the Hebrews. Even the transcription exposes David, for it describes a specific person and a specific sin, a very private thing made public and voiced by the congregation. We are invited to know David’s sin and to share in his sorrow and confession, to give voice to his words.

For many of us this is very familiar territory, perhaps too familiar. As much as we read and speak this psalm in public and private prayer, in worship, and as part of the annual entry into Lent we call Ash Wednesday, we may forget the depth of what this psalm and David’s struggle is all about.

And so I invite you to step back and look again at David in two very important ways, both critical to understanding the full scope of his sin and the confession.

1. The man, David, sinned as we do and must confess as we do.

We can identify with him, but perhaps we are uncomfortable. I have sinned as well, and I am invited to know my sin, and through David, all are privy to my prayer. His is a beautiful prayer, powerful and something with which we can identify when we slip up. His indiscretion is an interruption in his story that shows us that this great king was still a fallen human, and we can all recognize that same fallen in our own stories.

But if this is all—we’re missing quite a bit.

2. The king, David, sinned, as God’s chosen and anointed.

And this is how it was handled—in raw, intimate detail. David’s sin as king is a whole new ball game. What difference does it make?

To understand that difference, we must consider David as king in the context of Israel’s story. Israel, God’s own people, chosen, rescued, and given a promise, a covenant with God himself. And Israel, fraught with sin and rebellion, rescued again and again, given the promised land, and enslaved by more rebellion. God’s people fail the divine king they have, and they demand a king like those of other nations (1 Samuel 8.4-9).

God relents and gives them a king, promising that he will indeed be a king like the kings of other nations, a king who will rule them and tax them, taking their resources and their children to make war. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves,” Samuel warns them, “but the Lord will not answer you in that day” (1 Samuel 8.18, NRSV).

And so God gives them a king—Saul, a compromise, and eventually a problem. The king personifies the people before God and in many ways God before the people, and in both, Saul was not the kind of king Israel needed.

But then…David. He was king and the promise all in one. He was the covenant king God desired and the people needed. Where Saul became embittered, David was blessed, and through him all of Israel was shaped to be the people of God and the light to al nations they were meant to be. David was loved by God, obedient, passionate, and victorious, and the covenant promise to Israel was specifically embodied in David.

In 2 Samuel 7.8-16—the covenant is confirmed and extended through David.

Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not takes my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me: your throne shall be established forever. In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

In 2 Samuel 7.18-26, we see David’s response as the ideal king: Anointed—chosen and established by God; humble and obedient; and victorious—establishing peace in the promised land.

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you.

In 2 Samuel 8 we see evidence of God’s blessing through the victories God gave him as he fulfilled the conquest of the promised land. “The Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (6,14).

In 2 Samuel 9 we have evidence of David’s worthiness as David magnanimous to his enemies, Saul’s descendants and servants.

And in 2 Samuel 10, we have the extended story of David’s power and prowess as king in his defeat of the Ammonites, ancient antagonists of Israel and often allies of Egypt against God and his people.

And then we encounter David’s sin with Bathsheba—THE SIN that lay at the heart of David’s lament in Psalm 51 (2 Samuel 11).

1. David the man desires, fulfills that desire, and commits grievous sin (murder) in the process. David takes Bathsheba as his own, getting her pregnant in the process, and then has her husband killed (1 Samuel 11).

Like life as we know it, the beauty of love and of Bathsheba herself is marred by lust, selfishness, pride. “I am the king,” is David’s unspoken excuse. Feeling entitled, David does what any king would do, what any king has a right to do.

David does not even appear to be aware of what he’s doing wrong, for he is surprised when confronted by the prophet, Nathan (1 Samual 12.5-7). Much like the ways we’re not aware of how influenced we are by worldly ways of thinking and behaving, he doesn’t seem to see the inconsistency until it’s pointed out to him. In a way, this is a classic story of typical sin. In his world, it is okay to behave this way.

In our worlds, in business, in politics, in romance, in the daily grind, what is wrong often seems right and normal. We find many excuses—we are only human, life’s hard, it feels right, and this is just the way it’s done.

For David, it takes Nathan (the voice of God) to shed light on the sin. And the way David responds is instructive. Much can be learned through the story of the man David alone.

– David’s sense of entitlement and his sinful action: Lust, greed, murder.

– Nathan’s courage as he confronts a king (does that make us squirm?).

– David’s repentance. (How would we react? How should we react? Would we make excuses and remain indignant?)

– The consequences of David’s sin: A child lost, rape, murder, and civil war (2 Sam 12.10-12).

We can easily see the parallels for us. We all have sin in our life—not murder, perhaps, but greed, selfish desire, hurting someone to benefit ourselves. How would we react to confrontation—by others or by God himself? How should we react?

2. But David is KING—and not just any king! David is God’s king, over God’s own people.

Nathan’s confrontation is not just God’s word to a man. Even the king—especially the king—is subject to YHWH, the true king of Israel. And the consequences are not just the penalties of sin for the man David and his famliy—they affect the fate of Israel, her future kings, and the entire world as the light to all nations is dimmed.

The pattern we see in David is identical to that of the people of God, Israel. David, God’s chosen and anointed king fails, and through him Israel, God’s chosen people, fails. Where God called him as king to submit to God in obedience and as leader by example and in ordering Israelite worship and life together to show the world what it means to live in right relationship with the one, true God, creator and Lord of all things, David behaves as any other king would, acting sovereignly for his own desire and purpose. And the consequences are disastrous, for Israel as well as David.

And yet…God remains true to his covenant, and David confesses and seeks restoration in the right place.

In the end, we’re invited into David’s story at both levels. This is our fate, our story he’s living. He shows Israel, and us, the new covenant people of God, the way. We see all of Israel in David, we see the entire church in David, and we see ourselves in David.

And we see God’s heart in David—the whole story: Love and promise, our failure and sin, the path to reconciliation, and God’s faithfulness—through consequence to covenant.

Into all of this, we are invited to know David’s sin and ours, and to pray his prayer and ours. God’s promise to David was God’s promise to Israel, and God’s promise to Israel is God’s promise to us all.

Notice what this says about God. Using flawed people, he works through our sin to bring redemption. Not that sin is okay because God uses it, but because his forgiveness is hope for the big picture—our redemption and that of the whole world, even all creation.

None of this is just about us. When we fail God and he forgives, acting redemptively through our failure and our restoration, it is all about GOD’s faithfulness, GOD’s plan, and GOD’s sovereignty. It is all about his steadfast love, through failure to new hope.

In the “really big picture,” our failure, our sin, hurts God and flies in the face of his plans. The consequences can be huge, as they were in David’s case, but the failure is never too big that God cannot prevail and bring something new out of our sin.

1. At a personal level, the man David’s story is our story

Sin requires confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We ruin our relationship with God. He doesn’t ask questions about responsibility—he assumes it. “All have sinned,” Paul tells us (Romans 3.23). Our sin leads us to Christ—to confess, to repent, to receive forgiveness and restoration, and to become the people of God he desires us to be.

2. In the cosmic, big picture level, David’s story as king is everyone’s promise.

God’s promise is life out of death, reconciliation out of sin, and new creation. David leads us to Christ, the king even David couldn’t be. Jesus Christ is the focus of God’s promise, his covenant, his plan. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. Jesus Christ is the way through the fullness of the world, through sin, through failure, through death to new life, to redemption.

And so we come to the psalm, this very personal and yet not very private prayer of David that we all should pray.

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop,
and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
then you will delight in right sacrifices,
then bulls will be offered on your altar. (51.1-19)

David gets right to the heart of the matter. “Have mercy,” he cries (51.1). David sinned—no matter the reasons or circumstances. He bears full responsibility for his sin. David’s sin hurt his relationship with God, which is one of the best on record. That relationship needs to be fixed, cleansed, and restored (2, 7-12). David’s sin must be confessed, and so he throws himself on God’s mercy.

Likewise our sin, which is foremost an offense against God that requires reconciliation, is not little, not inconsequential, not trivial. None of us—not even king David—are above reproach. All of us—even king David—are in need of God’s mercy, with no excuses.

And here’s the twist: Confession itself is not enough to restore the relationship! We bring nothing that qualifies us for God’s mercy but a broken and contrite heart (51.5, 15-17). Not even blessed David, God’s chosen, was better qualified.

David’s prayer is our prayer.

– He is desperate—he understands his need and the truth of his sin.

– He is humble—he understands his place before God. He may have acted out of presumption as king, but confesses in humility.

– He is hungry—he desires restoration with whole being.

– And he is hopeful—he trusts in God and his steadfast love (hesed).

None of us escapes this prayer. None of us wants to escape this prayer—if we really understand who we are.

God fulfilled his promise and heard David’s prayer—as man and as king—through Jesus Christ! Through one man’s prayer for a very specific sin, Psalm 51 is every person’s prayer for right relationship with God in Christ, an orientation to life and a relationship for life with God, his kingdom, and with all he is doing to bring light and redemption to the world.

Are we ready to pray this prayer and to be restored to God’s people and his purpose for us? Are we

Desperate—do we fully understand our need? Are we broken?

Humble—do we really know before whom we stand? Are we aware of our creatureliness? Do we want the benefits of God’s forgiveness but not responsibility? Are we really shocked enough by who we are and awed enough by who he is to really desire reconciliation?

Contrite—do we approach God with remorse and penitence?­­ Are we honest about our sin,? Are we sorry we have grieved God?

Hungry—do we really want to be reconciled? Do we yearn for him and for his peace? Do we truly desire to serve him?

Hopeful—do we really trust God to be true to his promise? Do we ask but never trust? Do we keep on asking but continue to sin because we think nothing will change?

Part of what made David special—as man and king—was that he rested in God’s promise, even when he suffered consequences. Hear it in his petition,

Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.

Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering,
you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51.12-17)

Can we dare to be so honest about our sin, so hungry for God’s forgiveness, and so trusting in his promise?

Truth in Love

On the occasion of the rebuilding of the body of Christ in a community that suffered deep division.

Text: Ephesians 4.1-24

Normally the first thing I do to prepare a sermon is read through the scripture passages assigned in the lectionary for the week, several times. In most cases the message of one or more resonates with me and seems especially pertinent, and I have a clear sense of its content and application long before I begin the more serious task of studying the text and preparing the actual sermon.

This week was a bit different. I had an idea of something we needed to address, but the readings for the day went elsewhere. When I considered them in detail, I started down a path that fit well with a recent study of forgiveness, accountability, and reconciliation. The title “truth in Love” comes from that direction.

The more I worked with the passages, though, the more I realized I was imposing an idea and the selections were going elsewhere. As I struggled, a few calls came in, and I was unable to escape my earlier thoughts, and so I returned to the passage from which we get the phrase “truth in love,” Ephesians 4.

I tell you all of this for a reason. What I am about to say is the result of a long period of prayer and reflection—longer than usual. I firmly believe that what we will consider today must be understood if we are to continue to become the church Christ requires us to be. And so you should know, before we start, that “truth in love” refers more to how I am about to speak than to what I am about to say.

Today, we will not examine what it means to speak the truth in love, I plan to speak the truth to you in love, and I trust you will receive it as it is intended and as the Holy Spirit makes it known to you.

Have I piqued your curiosity? Good. Then let us hear from the apostle Paul.

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4.1-24, NRSV)

Most of us know that a good look in a well-lit mirror will tell us a great deal of truth about ourselves. We may choose to think of ourselves as the way we used to be, young and handsome or beautiful. We may imagine the head of hair we used to have, picture ourselves with trim body and rugged good looks or lovely curves. We may feel young at heart and retain an image of the way we were when we liked ourselves the best.

A quick look in the mirror will usually shatter many of these false images—the gleam from the light bulbs off the all-too-bare and growing forehead…the deep crevices between wrinkles, the furrows in the brow, the bags beneath the eyes…the sag in the shoulders, and the paunch in the belly…chicken legs and knobby knees, spider veins and droopy thighs.

The image in the mirror is the truth about our physical bodies, the truth that shatters our false ideas about ourselves. It’s a truth that may affect the way we behave around other people. And it’s a truth that elicits one of two responses.

Some will view such truth as motivation for change, incentive to stick with the thigh-master or the bowflex. They’re determined to realize the ideal image they have of themselves and to make the truth in the mirror match the ideal. They work hard and grow in confidence. They may buy tailored clothes, the new bathing suit, the beautiful new dress and like to be seen.

Others resign themselves to the truth of what they see. For whatever reason, whether a lack of time, energy, or determination, they change the image in their minds to match the truth shown to them in the mirror. They become the middle-aged woman or the old man. They buy clothes to hide the imperfections, the blemishes, the sags. They live the image they see and do little to change it.

In our passage for today, Paul gives us an ideal image of the church and the mirror by which we see the truth of who we are. The church is a body, he writes, “…joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (4.16). Earlier in Ephesians, he writes, we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (2.19–22).

This household, this body, is the “…likeness of God, in true righteousness and holiness” (3.24). It’s the “…unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” which in maturity is “the full measure of the stature of Christ” (4.13). In this body, we are all to “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in live, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4.1–3).

There’s the image and the mirror all in one, for when we look into this mirror it’s very easy to see that we are not all that we should be.

We’ve looked in this mirror before, haven’t we. These passages are familiar and this language well-known. We’ve even been examining the church in some detail lately. We are becoming quite familiar with the concept of the church as Christ’s body. We’ve begun to realize that the church is Christ’s real presence in the world. We’ve begun, praise God, to understand the community of faith in new ways and to rethink our place in it.

We’re intimately familiar with our wrinkles and our sags, our bald spots and our blemishes, and we’re pulling out the bowflex and the treadmill. We’re determined, by golly, to whip this body into shape and realize the ideal we see in the mirror, and when we’re done, we’ll be clothed in righteousness and holiness and we can strut our stuff in the world and all will see the body of Christ—buff and beautiful. And so we know the great truth about the church, what it should be, what it is, and what it will be.

We’re quite comfortable with this idea so far, aren’t we? On the surface, at least. We all try to be gentle and loving. We agree with the concept of unity, and most of us are willing to do something to make it happen. We’re all for harmony and peace in the body. We look for the kind of place and the kind of people who make us feel welcome. And we’re doing a pretty good job of getting there.

But that’s the problem with mirrors, isn’t it. They show us the truth about ourselves on the surface, but they can’t see or show the truth of our inward selves. The appearance of our bodies may belie what’s inside. The wrinkled skin on the old woman’s face fails to address her gracious and joyful heart. The slouch in the shoulders and the paunch on the belly of the balding man does not convey his generous nature, nor his courageous determination. So also the youthful glow of the skin may mask a gnawing hunger for something better. The firm body and handsome exterior may not reveal the hardened soul and selfish heart. The beautiful curves may yet cover the disease within that may soon change the outward truth long before age. The appearance of age and decay fails to show the beauty of grace and maturity within, while the valued youthful exterior hides the childish self, the self of sin and decay.

If all we do is look in the mirror that reflects our outward appearance, we will not know the truth about ourselves. If all we do is look at the mirror of God’s word for a surface reflection, we will not own up to who we are before God. If all we do is look to our outward appearance for that which makes us feel comfortable, and if all we do is work casually to become that which looks good on the surface, we will not only fail to know the full truth about the church, we will fail to ever realize the image of Christ in ourselves and the church.

And so, the partial truth of the mirror that sees only the surface becomes the great lie. And partial truth, we know, is not truth at all. Partial truth, especially in matters of life and faith, is the same as death and faithlessness.

So what is the real truth about the church?

When we look deeper into the mirror of God’s word, what is it we discover? Paul writes, “Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart” (4.17–18). “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4.14). I beg you, he says in verse 1—“lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called!”


Because he is speaking to those who are not fully “renewed in the spirit of [their] minds,” not clothed “with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4.23-24). They are behaving like those who are futile and self-centered. They remain children who are blown to and fro by doctrine, fad, and personal desire. They are not functioning as the body he’s describing.

On the surface, they are the church. They see their blemishes and warts, and they’ve been on their treadmills a bit to tone up some, but they get winded easily, and they’re failing to fulfill their calling, and Paul calls them on it.

So Paul speaks the truth in love, sometimes quite sharply, for he loves them enough to see them both as they are and as they should be, and to motivate them to change. In another letter, to the Galatians, Paul screamed, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? …You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves” (3.1; 5.7, 12)! To the Corinthians, “I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient [emphasis added]” (2 Cor. 13.2). To Titus, “There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers…they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach” (1.10–11). Later, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. …After a first and a second admonition, have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned” (3.9–11). And to Timothy he admonishes: “Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6.2–5).

Make no mistake, we know much about these kinds of problems in the church. We have in many ways been moving beyond the most obvious and most destructive of this behavior over recent months. In many ways our endurance has improved, and our health returned. But our joy over what we’ve endured and how far we have come should not give way to complacency. Now more than ever, as we delve deeply into what it means to be the community of Christ, his body, we need to, as Paul said, examine ourselves, and make sure that we are leading lives as individuals and a life as a body worthy of our calling in Christ.

And remember!

As we examine ourselves, the enemy will do everything possible to feed us lies, to dissuade us from our path, to lull us into a false image of who we are and to mistake a surface reflection in our mirror for the truth of ourselves.

So now let’s look deeply into the mirror to see the full truth of who we are, and what we must become. Yes, this is where we will speak the truth in love.

The image Paul upholds for us is the image of the body—the new self (and the new community) created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. We’ve already read about the characteristics of this body and all of us who make up its parts:

Unity—in which we become one with Christ and each other

The fulfillment of our calling and vocation in Christ—in which we exercise our gifts, not for our own benefit or edification, but for building up the body of Christ

Maturity, the measure and stature of Christ—wherein we not wind-driven but Spirit-driven, joined and knit together and working properly

We’re reminded by Paul and others that the likeness of God means all this and more, for it means:

– Unity with Christ in his full abandonment to the will of God, full obedience to the Father in service and sacrifice, and full participation in his resurrection in renewal, re-creation, and restoration to his image

– Making all of our lives the vocation of Christ, fulfilling the calling to His purposes as his church in all the world—our jobs, our families, our leisure, and most certainly our worship, ministry, and fellowship

– The maturity of loving God will all of our hearts, minds, souls, and strength and loving others as we love ourselves—which means turning all of our priorities on end

– Living a life in which God is first and we give ourselves in service to all others

This means, and let’s be very clear about this, that everything we do, all that we spend time and money on, all that we give thought and attention to, must be shaped according to this image and the priorities it dictates. Every commitment, even those to our family, have lower priority than our commitment to Christ and his body. In fact, when we have conflicts between seemingly good priorities and the church, we should always reevaluate the other commitments.

We do not serve our families, our friends, our neighbors, our work mates well at all when we compromise our primary commitment to Christ and his body—even when it’s in the name of spending time with the family, opening doors of friendship with the lost, making sure our children find good opportunities in school, sports, or other pursuits, building our businesses or advancing professionally, or finding much needed rest or quiet time.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that our families are best served when we spend time with them in the context of the body of Christ, in worship, fellowship, and service to and with other Christians. This means that we teach our children by example and by helping them get involved in the body of Christ that any other priorities are secondary, joining them as they participate in the life and mission of the body of Christ for the sake of one another and the world we serve.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best way to reach the lost starts with being the church, the community of Christ we’re called to be, and the best way for them to encounter Christ is to encounter his church in its commitment as the body. The witness we have to the world of the reality of Christ and salvation is as much corporate as it is individual. The way we worship, live, love, and work together as his body is the most profound proclamation of the kingdom fo God to those who are not yet a part of it.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that the best opportunity we can cultivate for our children is to be a fully committed, obedient, and participating member of the body of Christ. They can be the best soccer or baseball players, get into the best colleges, and find the best internships and jobs, but it will matter not at all if they are lost themselves.

And yes, in the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that even our vocation—our businesses and our jobs, are subject to the rulership of God, and this does not merely mean being a good witness at work or conducting business ethically. It means being prepared to make sacrifices and changes in our careers to honor our commitment to Christ and to accommodate the needs of his kingdom and our obligations to his body. Certainly it starts with the recognition that all we have is God’s, and not our own, and so our financial commitments should reflect our commitment to Christ and his body. But it runs deeper with the recognition than nothing, not even our employment, should get in the way of our place in and responsibility to the body of Christ.

As for our own rest, most of us are fatigued and burnt out from trying to meet obligations that compete with Christ and service in his kingdom. When we’re tired, we’re almost always willing to set aside commitments to the body, but we will rarely set aside ball games, school events, or overtime at work.

In the mirror of God’s word, we should realize that God’s model is that each of us pour ourselves out in service, to him and each other. When we are all doing our part, when, as Paul says, “each part is working properly,” the body grows as it should and no one is forced to bear more than they can handle in and with his grace. Only when members of the body don’t do their part, make commitments and back out, fail to find places of ministry, withhold time, money, prayer, and encouragement, the body grows weak as the few do the work of the church and bear burdens their brothers and sisters should be able to relieve.

When we look into the mirror with Paul’s image in mind, his ideal of who we should be, we see

– Weary faces

– Blemishes and imperfections

– Sagging skin, wrinkles, pimples, saddlebags, and crow’s feet

This is the truth of the mirror, we think. We’re not perfect, just saved. We’re doing our best, and God loves us for who we are. We need to be loving and forgiving and learn not to expect too much, from ourselves or others. Look at our nice new clothes, they hide quite a few imperfections, and they make us quite presentable—we’re more joyous than we used to be, we have more people dong something in the church now, we’re doing well enough—we’re becoming presentable!

It’s true—we have blemishes, and we will make mistakes. Not all of us are mature and fully toned, and God is infinitely patient with us. Not all of us are spring chickens any more—we can’t be expected to do everything. So what if this body has a few aches and pains—they’re not major, we’ll get along just fine.

Yes, it’s true. But when we look in the mirror and allow the truth of our imperfection to become the comfortable norm by which we live, we begin to live the great lie of the enemy. This is the lie of complacency. This is the accommodation of unhealthiness that let’s us feel comfortable with the status quo. This is the disease of the false self and the denial of the new self. This is not the image God want’s us to see when we look into his mirror.

Let me invite you to look just a little deeper with me now—for when we look into the mirror of God’s word in the full reflection of his grace, we can yet discover the truth about ourselves.

– “…lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul said (Ephesians 4.1)—don’t try, do it!

– “There is one body and one Spirit,” he says (4.4)

– We were “given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift”—not our own need or comfort—and those gifts were to build up the body of Christ until all of us “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure for the full stature of Christ”—not for us to fiddle around with at our convenience as we remain happy where we are (4.13).

– We “…must [emphasis added] grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”—it’s not a choice for us to eat our meat and vegetables, get our exercise, and tone our body (4.15).

– “I insist,” Paul says, “you must [emphasis added] no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds” (4.17). Don’t live that way and keep on insisting that it’s okay because you’re just human and forgiven—“This is not the way you learned in Christ” (4.20)!

And here’s the crux of the matter—this is the truth of our image in the mirror

For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by it’s lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (4.21-24)

Look deeply into the mirror!

We are a new creation, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness—we’re not fakes, the image of God is realized in us, in his church. Let’s live like it! Let’s live the truth, not the lie. Why stoop when we can stand up straight? Why live with a little pain when God has made us new?

No, he’s not asking us to achieve everything overnight, for us all to become fully mature in one stroke, but he is asking us to live and grow in his image—not to become comfortable with what we first see in the mirror. He’s asking for us to envision, become, and embody his likeness in the body, the church.

This is the truth of the church—this is what we see about ourselves when we look deeply into the mirror of God’s word. I pray you will receive this truth in love and live this truth in love. Let’s examine ourselves in the mirror of God’s word and live up to his image of us as the body of Christ in true righteousness and holiness.

Live your baptism!

Romans 6.1-11

From the days Christ himself commanded that his disciples “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…,” the church has been obediently baptizing new converts (Matt. 28.19–20, NRSV). From the day of Pentecost, when Peter spoke, full of the Spirit, and “…those who welcomed his message were baptized,” the apostles, and the apostolic church that followed, were true to Christ’s own example and command and brought all who would repent into the community of faith through baptism (Acts 2.41). In fact, virtually no account of conversion in the New Testament is relayed without reference to the immediate, even concurrent, baptism of the new believer.

Of the people in Samaria to whom Philip was proclaiming the gospel, we read in Acts 8, “they were baptized, both men and women” (8.12). Even Simon the magician, “believed, and after being baptized, he stayed with Philip…” (8.13). Shortly after Philip opened up the scriptures to the Ethiopian Eunuch, who with urgency was baptized along the road, the blinded Saul obediently sought out Ananias, had his sight restored, and was told, “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name” (8.26-39; 22.16). Cornelius and his entire household, and the jailor from whom Paul and Silas were delivered, and his entire family were all baptized into the great and wonderful journey of life in Christ and his church (10.22-48;16.25-34).

Throughout the New Testament, no other ritual or practice is mentioned or alluded to more than baptism. It’s as important to the new covenant as circumcision was to the old. Its imagery hearkens back to the waters of creation, the water for the thirsty in the desert, and the prophesied outpouring of the Spirit. It’s the act which Peter says was prefigured by the flood through which Noah and his family was saved and which “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” and that Anglican John Wesley called “…the initiatory sacrament, which enters us into covenant with God…perpetually obligatory on all Christians…” (1 Peter 3.20-22; Wesley, Treatise on Baptism, I.1).

Baptism is one of only two sacraments enjoined by the entire church from its earliest days to its latest years. And it’s the one event in the life of the believer that happens but once and yet is to be remembered for a lifetime. “Remember your baptism,” is the cry of the ancient ritual, accompanied in some traditions by the splash of water across the faces and shoulders of the congregation from a soaked branch of hyssop.

What is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? And why have so many Christians in recent years then treated it so lightly, as so much empty words and actions, that they have ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary?

The answer to both questions, as you might expect, can be found in scripture, especially in the person to whom it gives witness. “In the beginning,” John tells us, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1.1). “…the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and John the Baptist, he who baptized for repentance and foretold the coming of the Word, baptized Jesus, the Word himself (1.14).

The first quiet and miraculous act by Jesus, the incarnate Word, was to change the water in the jars of purification, water set aside for washing away uncleanness, symbols of the cleansing of sin and defilement, into wine—new, pure wine from Jesus, the incarnate word, a foreshadow of the wine of his own blood that would be shed for our purification (John 2.1-11).

Shortly after, in the still of the night, Jesus reveals to a confused and seeking pharisee the mystery of rebirth by water and the spirit, a strange notion made even more mysterious as he connects it with eternal life found in belief in himself, the incarnate Word of God (John 3.1-21). What follows is a dispute over the new baptism of Jesus and his disciples and the continuing baptism of John the Baptist in which John helps his perplexed disciples understand his own secondary importance to the incarnate Word, through whom the Spirit is given and eternal life found (3.25-30). And then in chapter 4, the incarnate Word, whose disciples have been baptizing in his name, superseding John and annoying the pharisees, sits at the ancient well of Jacob in Samaria, the favored source of water for the thirsty, and offers himself to an outcast and sinful women as “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4.14).

As the Word incarnate and the living water returns to Cana, where, we are reminded, “he had changed the water into wine,” Jesus heals the son of a desperate government official who is near death (4.46-54). Then in chapter 5, by the pool of Bethsaida, Jesus the living water heals the man who cannot make it to the waters that heal (5.2-15).

Do you see it? Do you grasp it?

Only a short time later, after he feeds thousands with abundance out of scarcity, and after he stills the chaotic waters of a raging sea, Jesus utters the words we use so often in that other great sacrament—eucharist:

Very truly I tell you, unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink of his blood, you will have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (6.53–55)

The bread of life and the living water!

Jesus, the Word incarnate, God among us in the flesh, the very agent and substance of creation, has made everything new—even the water of birth, of satisfaction of thirst, of healing. Jesus even masters the waters of chaos in the storm (John 6.16-21).

So what is so important about this ritual of getting wet that is worth such urgency and remembrance? Jesus Christ himself!

Baptism is the wonderful, physical symbol, that points beyond itself to the to the great mystery and spiritual reality of the new life of the incarnate Christ! Christ, who is the spiritual reality of God given to the world in and through the physical reality of creation—which is what we call “incarnation”—is at the very center of the action we call baptism that is given all meaning and substance by the work of Christ. Jesus Christ himself, the living water, is the person who is the very substance and center of our baptism!

And so Paul not only assumes that we have been baptized in full obedience, he recalls our baptism again and again in order to make sure we live our baptism.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6.1-11)

Amen and amen!

Then why have so many of us in recent years ignored the command of Christ, the witness of scripture, and the example of the early church and treated baptism as incidental or even unnecessary? And why have those of us who have been baptized and who would never question the reality of the grace of God and the regenerative activity of his Spirit in the sacrament, trivialized it by the way we live our lives?

I think the answer also lies in what we read in John, and Paul’s letters, and even the Old Testament. When so many have emptied our lives and the church of a living faith in the living Christ and have separated the ritual from the living, saving work of Christ Paul described in Romans, we have reduced baptism to a meaningless external form and have sought the internal work everywhere but the place God intends to offer it. As we have sought the newness of Christ as shown through the witness of the New Testament, and as we’ve looked for the spiritual promise of the new covenant, we have forgotten the power and meaning of the incarnation and the fact that Christ’s redemption touches all of life—body and spirit.

In other words, anyone who insists that the performance of baptism is enough to save without a real and personal participation in and knowledge of the one to whom it points, is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve. And anyone who treats baptism lightly and insists on being able to enjoy a saving and growing relationship with the incarnate and living Word while ignoring his command, the witness of the apostles, and the example of the early church is not obedient to the Lord they claim to serve.

Baptism is nothing without Christ, but without baptism, we risk living without Christ. Baptism directs us to Christ and marks us as his own. Through the powerful physical symbol of submersion under the water and the activity of Christ himself, baptism embodies the truth of our death to sin and life in Christ and the reality of life giving and cleansing presence of the living water in our lives. Baptism embodies

…the power of Christ over the waters of chaos that would otherwise overwhelm us.

…the wellspring of the Spirit of Christ and the new creation he makes of us.

…the unity of all who are baptized into Christ Jesus, who bear his name and his cross.

Wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnation, the water and the Spirit, is the great sacrament of our new birth that marks the real change in our lives and participation as new creatures in the community and Kingdom of our victorious Lord. Through baptism into the death and resurrection of our Lord, we partake in his victory over sin and death, over the powers of this world. And beginning with our baptism, we live the fullness of new life even as we rejoice in the promise of eternal life in the world to come.

And so again we hear from Paul, this time in his letter to the Colossians.

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

If with Christ [in baptism] you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?

So if you have been raised with Christ [in baptism], seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal [of baptism] there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (2.8–15, 20; 3.1–17)

Remember your baptism, Paul is saying. Remember that you were buried with Christ and raised with Christ. Why? So you can live your baptism!

To those who are about to be baptized, I wish you the joy of knowing the living water even as you are surrounded by the water of the pool as you feel its coolness on your face as it rushes over your body when you come up clean and refreshed from its depths.

And I admonish you, from this point forward—live your baptism!

To those who have not yet been baptized but who have begun to walk with Christ, although you have not yet been obedient in baptism, I pray that you will soon let go of all that holds you back and let Christ and his church welcome you fully into the community of faith and unreserved participation in his death and resurrection.

Very soon—come and be baptized!

To you who do not know Christ, I invite you this day, as you witness the great mystery and power of baptism, to also witness the realty of Jesus in the lives of these who proclaim it through their obedience. See their repentance as they enter the cleansing water. Witness the wonder of their new creation as they emerge from the depths. Hear and know of the life-giving victory Jesus Christ as you see before you those who have accepted his love and committed themselves to his service. And even this day, come as we pray in a few minutes to confess your need before the only one who can give you eternal life, repent and be baptized!

And finally, to all here who have been baptized, remember your baptism! Remember the change Christ has made in you. Put off the old earthly and sinful ways. Refuse to be ensnared by the charms of selfishness, the temptations to sin, the priorities of the world. Accept with joy and obedience the newness of life. Allow the work of Christ begun when you accepted his Lordship and obeyed in baptism to be perfected in you as you grow in grace and holiness.

Live your baptism!