Setting the Stage

Heritage Presbyterian Church

January 10, 2021
Baptism of the Lord
Scripture readings – Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, & Mark 1:4-11

His name was Vernon Johns, and he was a preacher.  He was not your ordinary preacher either.  He was blunt, brilliant, and suffered no fools.  He had pastored several churches in the Midwest and south before he was called to this particular church in Alabama.  While he was there, he frequently ran afoul of the church’s leadership because of his controversial opinions on race relations, which he frequently included in his riveting, unsettling sermons.  When forced by the church leadership to lead a funeral for a well-connected – but not well-behaved – local leader, Rev. Johns’ message was even more blunt than usual as he refused to say anything nice about the man at all!

Because he had been raised on a farm, Rev. Johns kept a garden wherever he lived.  When he discovered that many in his community were hungry, he began to sell fruit and vegetables right outside the doors of his prominent middle-class church…which rattled the comfortable seats of many more in his congregation.

Finally, after serving for five years, the leadership convinced Rev. Johns to leave.  Once he was gone, they quickly called a much younger man, a quieter man, a dignified man to be their pastor.  When this new man was in place, the entire church breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The leadership believed that with a much younger, less experienced pastor, they could mold him into someone who could lead without causing so much trouble and upsetting the membership so easily. 

Who was the man they called as their next pastor?  Who was that younger pastor who seemed so calm, so dignified, so unassuming? 

He was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I love that story because it demonstrates not only the quirky sense of humor that the Lord God displays on occasion, but it also serves as a reminder for all of us:

Sometimes the Lord uses us and our work to set the stage for someone else to come and do greater things.  

Sometimes the Lord also uses us and our work to set the stage for big changes in the lives of God’s people.

When God created light out of nothingness as described in the first chapter of Genesis, God was setting the stage for everything that was to follow.  Even the method that God followed did this: notice that God created evening followed by morning as Genesis tells us, “…and there was evening, and there was morning…the first day.”  When the new day dawns, the stage is set for everything that can possibly happen.  When things occur at night, they tend to follow the day’s work that made them possible.

The psalmist even tells us that “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  Even here, we see an end to weeping, even if it doesn’t necessarily end with joy.  Grief, pain, suffering, depression…all these will end eventually, if not in this life – then certainly in paradise with God.

God sets the stage for hope, and God does this every single day.

In the reading from the Book of Acts, Paul asked a group of believers about their baptism.  Paul discovers that these folks know nothing of the Holy Spirit.  Paul then relates the baptism done by John the Baptist to the salvation that came AFTER their baptism, namely that which was made possible by Jesus Christ.

Interestingly, note that Paul didn’t use water when he made his next move; instead, he laid his hands upon the men and the Holy Spirit came upon them.  They demonstrated this through their sudden ability to speak in tongues and to prophesy.

John the Baptist set the stage for the ministry of Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ set the stage for what he called “the helper” or “the advocate” which would comfort and empower the Apostles after Jesus was gone.  That same helper…advocate…the Holy Spirit was evident in Paul’s work, and it continues with believers to this day.

Finally, we have the brief reading in the Gospel of Mark that described the baptism of the Lord in the Jordan River.  Each of the four Gospels describes this same scene, but Mark uses it to set the stage for his entire Gospel.  There are two things that occur that also set the stage for Jesus’ future ministry:

  • First, the Spirit in the form of a dove descends on Jesus, signifying He was greater than John the Baptist, just in case no one believed the Baptist’s own words.
  • Second, the voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” clearly attests that this common-looking man was indeed the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, who would redeem the world.

Jesus didn’t need much of a stage set for himself to begin his work, but he certainly got it.

This leaves us with a question:  Why does this matter?

It matters because we are who God says we are, not who we think we are.  Sometimes we are destined for greatness… sometimes we are destined to merely set the stage for others.  In living to serve the Lord, we must accept this when we look back over our lives.  We may do great things, or we may do small things, but we must do good things if we expect to serve.

After all, our salvation is not up to us; it is by the grace of God that we are saved.  We cannot earn it, but we must always try to be worthy of our salvation.  God’s work is accomplished through us – whether we do it well or whether we mess it all up.  Others will follow us, no matter what we do.  We cannot always control what will happen when we move on.  We must trust the Lord to use others to also work His will.

It matters because we do not always know what the future will bring – or what our role in it will become.

When I first came to Heritage ten years ago, my Dad asked a question that bothered me greatly.  I had described all that was going on at the time, the situation of the church in 2011 and the difficult decisions we were forced to make.  But after listening to it all, Dad asked, “Are the pastor who will lead them through this, or are you the pastor who will stay with them and try to do more?”  I had not even considered this, and I was grudgingly grateful that he asked.  Since then, I have become more and more uncertain as to the eventual answer.  I know well the history of your various pastors, whether they were successful or not, whether they were beloved or not, whether they served the Lord or not.  This is a responsibility I have never taken lightly.  Yet, I know in my heart that I have made many mistakes that made the job more difficult.  I know I am lacking in areas that this church could really use.  I know that Covid has been a blow that could have easily destroyed all our good work.

But I also know that all of us will be gone at some point.  What we do now and what stages we set for the next set of folks is our responsibility and our call right now.

And if all this were not enough, did any of you have your own personal stage reset last week when the US Capitol building was overrun by protestors?  I certainly did.  I have voted and supported various candidates and various Presidents since I first voted way back in the fall of 1976.  However, I never – in my wildest dreams – imagined that I would see the scene that I watched on television.  I kept switching from channel to channel to see if there was something else I could learn.  It was a fruitless exercise; in the end, all Jeanne and I could was to sit and watch.  My wife’s father proudly served our country in the Air Force for 30 years and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant; after that, he was a civilian employee by the US Navy for another 20 years.  When I say I am married to a patriot, believe me that is absolutely true.  We have two children and now we also have two grandsons; we are afraid of the future they face –  especially if we do not begin to work differently from now on.  The other night, when I let a brief Zoom prayer service, through my own tears I begged God to remind us to listen to one another as we talk and as we listen.  I reminded us all – and perhaps myself most of all – that Christians have always been called to stand firm in the face of mayhem, war, disease, unrest, violence, arguments, and all the other ills that we know are out there.  If we do not do this, then the stage will be set for more of it until our country no longer resembles what we hope it actually should.  

If this happens, then we will be no better, no different whatsoever, than the ancient corrupt kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  We may, from time to time, get a leader who will tear down the wickedness, as the occasional king such as King Josiah did back in those olden days.  But God’s wrath will certainly and eventually come as God’s patience is not unlimited.  Claiming that we love God is not enough; serving God righteously, humbly, and unselfishly may be our only path right now.

But no matter what you believe, or how you vote, or if you even agree with me…you must admit the stage is certainly set for something to happen in our near future.  “Normal” may have left town and may not return any time soon.  Yet we can still set the stage for ourselves and those who follow us.

So, dear friends that I love dearly, please remember:

  • Abraham set the stage for Isaac and Jacob;
  • Moses set the stage for Joshua and the arrival at the Promised Land;
  • Elijah set the stage for Elisha;
  • Judas Iscariot set the stage for Matthias to replace him as the twelfth Apostle;
  • Saul set the stage for King David;
  • Andrew set the stage for his brother, Peter;
  • Even Elizabeth set the stage for Mary, the Mother of God.

What are we setting the stage for right now, with our lives and our work?  

Who will follow us and what stage will they set?