AUDIO and TEXT of Sermon Preached 1/13/13-"Baptized to be Criticized"

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Sermon Preached by

The Rev. Fulton Porter, III

January 13, 2013

The First Sunday After the Epiphany

St. Thomas Church, Chicago

Luke 3:15-22, Luke 7:33-34


Baptized to be Criticized


In the name the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.


As I studied Luke’s Gospel this week in the context of our reading today which emphasizes John’s baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan, and as I considered the contexts in which my own life revolved this week (notwithstanding the fact that we will be welcoming little Gideon into the household of God this morning via the sacrament of Holy Baptism), I began to discover that baptism doesn’t exempt us from criticism.  We are baptized to be criticized.  I discovered this week as I examined the lives of Jesus and John that if we plan to survive and live triumphantly in this world, then we had better learn to live with criticism because we surely won't be able to live without it.


This fact of life ought to be clear when we read the text. The people who lived in Palestine during the first three decades of the first-century A.D. were indeed blessed. Living among them and preaching in their midst were two of the greatest religious personalities who have ever proclaimed and manifested the Word of God. Both John the Baptist and Jesus were answers to the prayers of generations of faithful believers who longed for the Messiah and the forerunner, who was conceived as a latter day Elijah and who would herald the arrival of God's anointed.


Both John the Baptist and Jesus had been consecrated to God's service from their mothers' wombs. Even their names had been divinely selected.  Both sets of parents had been told by angels of the significant roles that their offspring would play in the redemption of their people. Both of their births were in a sense miraculous. John was born of Elizabeth, who had long been barren and considered incapable of conceiving children. Jesus had been born of Mary, a virgin.

Both John and Jesus were raised in the traditions of their people as their parents sought to do their part in preparing their sons for the ministries to which they would one day give themselves.

And in time both of them responded to the Spirit of God as that Spirit began to move within their hearts and lay claim upon their lives.


History tells us that after a four-hundred-year period, during which no prophet had arisen in Israel, John the Baptist appeared like a streak of lightning and a clap of thunder in the Judaean wilderness and began to preach with such power that people throughout the land were drawn to him in droves. He closely resembled Elijah, whose role in messianic theology he fulfilled. Like Elijah, John was a somewhat eccentric, ascetic desert dweller, whose fiery words burned the consciences of those who seriously listened to him.  Like Elijah, he was impatient with unrighteousness, passionate about justice, and confrontational whenever he saw sin, even the sin in the king's household. Like Elijah, he was hated by the wife of the king whom he opposed.

No one was more suited for the role of Elijah than John the Baptist. No prophet was anymore dedicated, courageous, or morally upright than John the Baptist. No one was more worthy of baptizing our Lord than John, who had to have been genuine and upright.  Jesus would not have submitted himself to be baptized by an imposter. Jesus would not have allowed someone with dirty hands to pour the cleansing waters of baptism upon him. Listen to what our Lord said about John:  "What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings' courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, 'Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare the way before thee.'

I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John ..." (Luke 7:24-28).


Likewise, no life was more worthy of the approbation given to Jesus by John, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).  No personality was better suited for the role of suffering but conquering servant than Jesus, whose unity with God the Creator was perfect and whose will was in complete accord with the salvation offered by heaven to a wayward humanity.  No life manifested either God's power or love like his;  no mouth spoke with divine authority like his; no hands could do what his could. No wonder when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John said that he should not be baptizing Jesus, but that Jesus should be baptizing him.


The two of them perfectly complemented each other as much in their differences as in the similarities of their commitments to righteousness, truth, and the kingdom of God. John preached judgment; Jesus preached good news. John wore camel's hair; Jesus wore a seamless robe.  John baptized with water; Jesus baptized with fire. John's ministry was basically rural; much of Jesus' ministry was urban. John basically stayed in one place; Jesus went from place to place.  John performed no miracles; Jesus performed many mighty miracles. John ate berries and locusts; Jesus ate the traditional food of his culture. John's lifestyle was essentially that of a hermit; Jesus was more of a social creature who went to banquets, parties, and feasts when invited. Between John the Baptist and Jesus there were enough similarities and differences to satisfy the religious quest of any sincere searcher. No other generation was as privileged as those who lived during that time. What a choice they had—John the Baptist or Jesus. What a team to follow—John the Baptist and Jesus. Just imagine, being able to listen to the preaching of John the Baptist one day and on the next day being able find Jesus and observe his mighty works. There were some who were attracted to Jesus and others who preferred John. There were still others who didn't like either. There were those who were not satisfied with either John or Jesus.


There were those who said that John was too stiff and too strange, but who also felt that Jesus was too relaxed and too ordinary. When John the Baptist appeared, living a Spartan lifestyle in the desert and eating strange food and preaching like hell was right around the corner, people said he was crazy. When Jesus appeared, living a more urbane lifestyle and eating and drinking traditional staples of his culture, people said he was a glutton and a drunkard. If John and Jesus with all of their sincerity, commitment, and perfection, could not live without criticism, neither will we. If John and Jesus were not liked by everyone, neither will we.  If John and Jesus could not satisfy everyone, neither will we.


I repeat—if we are to survive and be triumphant in this life, then we had better learn to live with criticism because we surely won't be able to live without it. When some of us are criticized, we seem to think that we are being accorded special treatment. We think that people are picking on us. However, we are not necessarily receiving any special treatment when we are being criticized—everyone receives his or her share of criticism. Special treatment would be receiving no criticism. Then we would have another problem. For receiving no criticism would mean that people did not take us seriously or think enough of us to be critical. Only those who are taken seriously or who are regarded as threats or who are the victims of jealously are criticized. Better to be taken seriously enough and regarded as important enough to be talked about than to be looked upon as so unimportant, and as such a nonentity, that people don't take the time to talk about us.


Some of the same people who didn't like John the Baptist didn't like Jesus either. In other words, like many other people, all they knew how to do was criticize. A man once remarked to a friend that he had one talent. When asked what it was, he said it was the talent to criticize. His friend replied, "I suggest that you do with that talent what the man with the one talent did in the parable told by Jesus—bury it. Criticism may be useful when mixed with other talents, but those whose only ability is to criticize might as well be buried, talent and all."


Some of us might learn the lesson once taught by a father to his overly pious son. This son had developed the habit of rising earlier than his brothers and sisters to read his Bible and pray. One morning he remarked to his father, who was also an early riser, "Look at the rest of your children lost in irreligious slumber while I alone woke to praise God." The father looked at him and said, "My son, it is better to remain asleep than to waken to criticize others."


John the Baptist and Jesus were both criticized, but they both also criticized others. Not only is everyone criticized, but everyone does some criticizing. Let's not forget that point because we are inclined to remember the criticism we've received while forgetting that which we've given out. We've all done our share of dishing it out, but we shouldn't forget that there is a time and a way to criticize. If criticism were wrong, per se, then both Jesus and John would have been at fault. John was critical of Herod's sin; Jesus was critical of the Sadducees' hypocrisy. John was critical of the unjust dealings of tax collectors and soldiers; Jesus was critical of the hardheartedness of the Pharisees. Criticism is legitimate when it condemns wrong.  Criticism is also legitimate when it proposes to be helpful as a corrective and stems from a desire to build up rather than tear down.

There is such a thing as "speaking the truth in love."


Thus, criticism can be constructive and a weapon in the battle against sin; it only becomes ugly when it turns into faultfinding. When neither John nor Jesus satisfies us, we're not critics; we're faultfinders. When we can never find much of anything good to say about anyone or anything, we're not critics; we're faultfinders. When no one looks right to us but us, when no one has any sense but us, we're not critics; we're faultfinders. When we can clearly identify the sawdust that's in our brothers' and sisters' eyes, but can't see the plank in our own, we're not critics, we're faultfinders and hypocrites. When we magnify every little mistake, we're not critics; we're faultfinders and liars. A boy was once watching an artist paint a picture of a muddy river. He criticized the picture because there was so much mud. The artist told him, "You see mud in the picture, and admittedly there is lots of it. But I see beautiful colors and contrasts, beautiful harmonies, and the light around the dark."  When we look at life and all we can see is mud; when John is baptizing in the River Jordan and all we can see is muddy water; when Jesus is making clay to be put on blinded eyes as a means of healing and all we can see is mud—we're not critics; we're faultfinders. The question that a number of sanctimonious Christians need to ask is not whether or not we ever criticize, but what kind of critics are we? Are we the helpful or hindering kind, the constructive or the destructive kind? Are we critics with love or critics with venom? Are we truthful critics or petty faultfinders?


Since criticism will be with us always, we had better learn how to handle it, or it will handle us. We will constantly lose our tempers, give up, or leave meetings with tears in our eyes if we can't handle criticism. We will continually be discouraged if we can't handle criticism. We first handle criticism by listening. Whether we like it or not, it pays to listen to criticism, even the malicious and petty type that comes from those who don't like us. It pays to listen because they just may say something to help us. If what's said is untrue, consider the source and disregard it. If what is said is true, then take heed. Even the biggest liar in the world will tell the truth sometimes. More than one child of God has been helped by enemies who sought to destroy them. Heaven is still able to take faultfinding criticism from those who have set themselves up as our enemies and use it for our good.


Second, let us not forget that when we are criticized, we're in good company. We're in the company of Noah, who was criticized for building a boat in the desert. We're in the company of Hagar, the slave woman who was criticized for being proud. We're in the company of Moses, who was criticized for leading God's children into the wilderness. We're in the company of Elijah, who was criticized for withholding rain from the land according to the Word of God. We're in the company of Micaiah, who was criticized for not prophesying good concerning Ahab. We're in the company of Job, who was criticized because of his trouble, or Daniel, who was criticized for praying too much, or Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were criticized for refusing to bow to false images. We're in the company of John the Baptist, who was criticized for not eating and drinking. We're in the company of Jesus, who was criticized for eating and drinking too much.

We're in the company of Galileo, who was criticized for stating that the earth revolved around the sun, or Columbus, who believed that the earth was round rather than flat, or Orville and Wilbur Wright, who were criticized because they believed that man could fly.  We're in the company of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who was criticized for building a church where black people could worship without hindrance. We're in the company of Booker T. Washington, who was criticized for teaching vocational education to blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama, or George Washington Carver, who was criticized for wasting so much time on a peanut. We're in the company of Mahalia Jackson, who was criticized for singing only religious music, or Martin Luther King, Jr., who was criticized for condemning the Vietnam war. We're in the company of Barack Obama, who is criticized for his policies which favor the have-nots in this country.  So remember, when we're criticized, we're in good company. Jesus said: "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you "(Matthew 5:11-12).


Third, if we know that we are right, we don't let criticism stop us—we keep on going. Criticism followed Jesus all of his life, but he kept on doing what he knew was right. He was criticized for picking grain to feed himself on the Sabbath, but he knew that as Son of man he was Lord of the Sabbath. He was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, but he kept on lifting the lame and making withered hands whole. He was criticized for being a friend to sinners, but he received the confession of Zacchaeus as well as an act of kindness from a fallen woman. He was criticized for going to Jerusalem, but he steadfastly set his face toward Jerusalem. He was criticized for talking about a cross, but he continued to declare, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32).  He was accused of blasphemy, but he continued to forgive sins and call God his Father. Even on the cross his enemies talked about him. They said, "He saved others; he cannot save himself ... He trusts in God; let God deliver him now . . . "(Matthew 27:42-43). But he kept on dying until a thief found paradise. He kept on dying until he could pronounce his work finished.  He kept on dying until the sun went down, the earth shook, and the Holy of Holies in the temple was uncovered.  He kept on dying until your sins and my sins were washed away. Because he kept dying, despite criticism, God gave him the victory and raised his name higher than any other names, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord over critics and faultfinders.


Your name may be cast out as evil, but keep going. You may be criticized when you give your all and do your best, but keep going. You may be falsely accused, but keep going. God will give you the victory.



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