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Hard Knocks: Sermon 1

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Sermon, Epiphany I  Baptism of Jesus                                        Jeffrey B. MacKnight
Jan 8, 2017  “Hard Knocks” series                                            St. Dunstan’s, Bethesda


I don’t like tunnels. 

We must first go down, down, down into the darkness, not knowing what we’ll find, what we’ll have to experience.  We have faith that we’ll emerge again into the light and air. My own phobia is getting stuck in a tunnel, in the dark depths.  I don’t like to think about that. 

Sometimes, when times are really tough, it feels like that old joke about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and then realizing it’s a roaring train headed right for us. 

Baptism of Jesus – Jesus is baptized into a fully human life: it starts with human birth, ends in a fully human death.  No way around that.  The liturgy even tells us that we are being baptized into Christ’s death – not a pleasant thought.  But we know it’s true: none of us is exempt from death.  It’s part of being fully human. 

This is the beginning of a new sermon series:  Hard Knocks.  It starts with baptism into human condition: the greatest joys, satisfactions, triumphs, and glories…and the deepest, darkest times that come with loss, hurt.  If we love deeply, we shall suffer deeply…they go together. 

Isaiah: “Here is my servant, my chosen – I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  This servant, whom Christians understand to be Jesus, is tender, gentle with us, because we are vulnerable human beings: “A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”  He is to be a “light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, bring prisoners from the dungeon.”  We are the ones this savior comes to help; we are the ones who are blind, who are locked in prisons of all sorts. 

We leap ahead 600 years to Matthew’s gospel – Jesus must be baptized to fulfill all righteousness – because he was fully human.  The Spirit comes upon him, yes, but not to protect or exclude him from human pain, loss, and final death.  He is vulnerable, he is like us.  He’s going to endure a lot of loss, hurt, and dejection in his life, hard knocks, like us.  He’s going to die, like us.  And yet, he’ll come back, he’ll live and love again, he’ll be restored to life…like us. That’s the journey, and that’s the promise.  Our own baptismal liturgy is clear about this – we are baptized into the death of Jesus. 

Like all of you, I know something of death – both the literal and the figurative kind.  The early deaths of two of my brothers have been hard; struggles with depression have been part of my own life, and have affected me deeply.  There are no quick fixes.  And each of us has our own stories. 

This is the stuff of real life.  Our human bodies and minds are far from perfect; they fail us.  The world can be unkind, even cruel.  Relationships are hard, and they often break down.  Loving people does mean we’ll get hurt.  And yet not to love…that would be the most impoverished way to live – empty, sterile, without much meaning. 

That’s when we find ourselves in the tunnel, in a dark place, searching for a point of light, a sign of hope, some signal that joy might be possible again in the future.  That’s when Christians look at the cross, and the suffering of Jesus upon it, and remind ourselves that God has more to say than death. 

Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.   (ps. 30)

So I want to explore some of life’s hard knocks in the next several weeks of sermons.  I’ll try to keep a sense of humor, even as we discuss difficult things.  I could list many of these, but I’d rather know: What are the events and experiences in your own life that come to mind?  Please, shout them out!   

Whatever you have faced, I believe two things can help:

1.     The love of God can comfort us when we are hurting.
2.     The Christian community can be a great support, when we know that a member is suffering.

Although I’m the priest, and you may think I’m the one that gives comfort, I have also received amazing gifts of support, prayer, and empathy from this community.  I know how powerful that is…I believe that is part of the power of resurrection, the power that brings us back up out of the depths, out of the darkness, into the light. 

It can begin with the prayers for healing we offer each Sunday after communion.  It could be a visit in the hospital, or a meal brought by your home.  Reading the psalms is a time-tested source of comfort for Christians.  Counseling can help immensely.  Singing hymns can be powerful.  Receiving the bread and wine of Eucharist strengthens us. We have many tools to help us get through the hard knocks. 

But I think the path of healing starts with our admission that we are baptized into the vulnerability of being human, and there is no escape for that.  How we deal with the hard knocks in life can make all the difference.  We’re much better off seeking help – from God, and from other people.  That’s what Christian community is for.  Thank God we are not in this life alone.  We have a God who loves us and wants the best for us, and we have a church community who care for us.  We don’t have to go through the dark tunnel – the shadow of death – by ourselves.  Thanks be to God.  


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