January 11, 2016 by jmar198013
My sermon for January 10, 2016. Baptism of Christ, year C.
Isaiah 43.1-7 (harmony text)
Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 (melody text)
The soundtrack to my sermon prep included: Mike Farris, River Jordan; Al Green, Take Me to the River; T Bone Burnett, River of Love; Ashley Cleveland’s cover of Gimme Shelter by the Rolling Stones; and Shawn Colvin, Diamond in the Rough.
For those who’d rather listen, an audio link is embedded below.
BAPTIZED IN SPIRIT AND FIRE
Our Gospel lesson today was about the baptism of Jesus. So that’s what I want to talk about: baptism. To think out loud about baptism, in conversation with the story Luke tells about the baptism of Jesus.
The reading picked up with John the Baptist. Preaching down fire by the banks of the River Jordan. He’d turn up the heat on the crowds who gathered to hear him. Then he’d baptize them in the water of that old river to cool them off.
I baptize you with water, John said. In the Greek it’s a bit more emphatic—I’m just baptizing you with water. But the one who is more powerful than me is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John paints an intense word-picture of this fiery baptism. He says: The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.
Let’s talk about that fire for a minute. The Greek word back of a fire that can’t be put out is asbestos. Ironic, huh? Yeah—obviously John wasn’t talking about the cancer-causing fire-retardant insulation. Asbestos means you can’t put it out, no matter how much water you pour on it.
And yet . . . we do see other places where the word asbestos is used about a fire that has gone out. For example, the church historian Eusebius wrote about martyrs who were burned with asbestos fire. He obviously didn’t mean they were still on fire somewhere.
My point is this: John was speaking about a fire that doesn’t go out until it has consumed its fuel. When the fire has finished burning whatever it was supposed to burn, then it goes out.
That’s the kind of fire John the Baptist said Jesus brought. A Holy Spirit fire. A purifying fire. A redemptive fire.
See, I don’t want us to misunderstand John, and then misapply what he’s saying. I suspect many of us have been trained to hear John say, Jesus has come to separate who goes to heaven from who gets burned up in hell. And that’s not really what John meant at all.
Look at it like this. Wheat and chaff—or as the Common English Bible has it, husks—are part of the same plant. The husks are part of the wheat. They’re not separate things. We are all wheat, and we all have husks. Furthermore no one is all wheat, and no one is all chaff.
And to get at the wheat—the good part, the useful part, the fruitful part—you have to get rid of the husk.
John is saying that Jesus is going to do this in our lives. In our relationships. Even in our church communities. There’s chaff that needs to be winnowed out so that only the wheat is left.
In Galatians 5.19-21, Paul names the stuff in our lives and in our relationships and in our communities that’s chaff: sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. That’s the hard stuff. The ugly stuff. The self-indulgent stuff. The stuff that keeps us from loving God and our neighbors and even ourselves well. John is saying that Jesus is coming to get rid of all that, so that only the fruitful stuff—the wheat—is left.
Now, the wheat—the stuff of our lives that is useful to God and our neighbors—is what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5.22-23).
So John’s fiery prophetic vision wasn’t that Jesus was going to show up and toss all the bad guys into hell. We need to take John’s word and apply it to ourselves. Our lives. Our relationships. Our church communities. Jesus has come to purify us. To purge us of the stuff that’s selfish and hateful and destructive. To take the stuff from our lives that gets in the way of our love for God and our neighbors. And to burn it up until there is nothing left of it anymore. And we are left with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In our lives. In our relationships. Among our churches.
Does it hurt? Oh, you bet it does. But we heard God’s promise through Isaiah today, too: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you . . . they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched.
The waters of baptism and the Spirit’s fire aren’t meant to destroy us, to drown us, to consume us. They are agents of God’s determination to perfect us.
BAPTIZED INTO GOD’S STORY
So John is preaching about repentance and baptism. And he’s baptizing people in water. But he’s also letting people know that someone will come after him—and we know that someone is Jesus—who won’t just be baptizing them in water. Jesus comes also to plunge us into a fiery baptism of the Holy Spirit.
And that’s when—right on cue—Jesus shows up. Luke is annoyingly skimpy with the details, though. When everyone was being baptized, he tells us, Jesus also was baptized. That’s it. No more explanation. As if this was the most obvious thing ever.
I don’t know about you, but for me there’s always been a huge sense of disconnect between Jesus’ baptism and everyone else’s. Including mine. I mean, Luke plainly states why people were coming to be baptized earlier in the chapter: to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins (Luke 3.3).
So then why did Jesus come to be baptized? Paul calls Jesus the one who didn’t know sin (2 Cor. 5.21). Hebrews 4.15 famously says that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin. What use would a sinless person have for baptism?
Now, I’ve been chewing on that question a lot this week, and here’s what makes sense to me. If Jesus came to show us how to live well and love well and even die well, then baptism is part of that. Baptism is a part of life, and Jesus lives it out for us. And when we see Jesus do it, we learn what it means. What God is doing for us through it.
Turns out, Jesus’ baptism has a lot to show us about our own baptism.
For example, Luke tells us: When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. Jesus was baptized as a person among the people. This shows us that while baptism is personal, it is never private. Jesus was baptized in public. With other baptized people watching him. So baptism is a community event. It’s not just between us and God. Baptism makes us part of a people. It’s about a shared relationship with God.
Next, Luke tells us that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” It’s when Jesus is baptized that God names him his child. I am reminded again of our reading from Isaiah today: I have called you by name; you are mine.
I suspect that this is where we really feel the disconnect between Jesus’ baptism and ours. I mean, Jesus is God’s Child. And we’re God’s children, too. But it’s different, right? Isn’t Jesus more God’s Child than we are? But I want to suggest that what is true for Jesus at his baptism is also true for us. God says to each of us at our baptism: You are my child, whom I dearly love. In baptism, God gives us a new identity—God names us and claims us. I have called you by name, God says. You are mine.
That’s another point of connection we can make between Jesus’ baptism and ours. The only voice we hear at Jesus’ baptism is God’s voice. So baptism is God’s movement. God’s initiative. God’s reaching out to embrace us. Baptism is the work of God through the Holy Spirit. That means that we can totally trust the relationship God is initiating with us through baptism. We can have confidence that no matter how big of a mess we make; or how many temper tantrums we throw; or how many times we freak out and run away; still, God is always for us. Baptism isn’t about us finding God. It’s about finding ourselves in God’s strong embrace. About the joy of finding ourselves at home among God’s children. Baptism is God’s promise to us—again, I’m hearing our reading from Isaiah today—that you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you.
The story being told through Jesus’ baptism is an old, old story. As old as creation itself. How God initiates a creative work through water and the Spirit. How God calls forth and gives names and shapes identities. That’s the story baptism tells. And once you see it in Jesus, you see it everywhere. In the creation story. In Noah and the ark and the Flood. In the Exodus. That old story is told again in Jesus’ life, and we are drawn into that story—like Jesus—through baptism.
SAVED BY WATER AND FIRE
John had said that Jesus would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit and fire.
When Jesus was baptized, Luke says: heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove.
It was also Luke who wrote Acts 2—telling the story of the church’s first Pentecost. The apostles were gathered with the family of believers—for Jesus had made them a family. And the Holy Spirit invaded the house where they were gathered. Luke tells it like this: They saw what seemed to be individual flames of fire alighting on each one of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them to speak (Acts 2.3-4).
The Holy Spirit had come down on Jesus as a dove. Now the Holy Spirit has come upon his apostles as tongues of fire.
Baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire.
Again, the old, old story.
In the chaos of the earth before God formed it and filled it, we have been told that the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Gen. 1.2).
After the flood, when the earth was plunged back into chaos—uncreated—we are told that God sent a wind over the earth so that the waters receded (Gen. 8.1). Spirit and wind are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek.
And of course, we know that the Exodus generation experienced God’s presence over them as a cloud by day and a fire by night.
I said all that to say this: creation through water and the Spirit, being baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire—that’s been how God has operated from the beginning. Water and Spirit and fire always mark new beginnings in the scriptures.
And that was true for Jesus. And it’s true for the church. And it’s true for all of us.
The final connection I want to draw between Jesus’ baptism and ours is the presence of the Spirit. The Spirit came upon Jesus when he was baptized. And Peter concludes his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 by saying: Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away (Acts 2.38-39).
In the Bible, whenever you see some combination of water and fire and the Spirit, it’s always a beginning. Not an end.
Baptism is about preparation. Look at what Luke says happened right after Jesus’ baptism: Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil (Luke 4.1-2).
The Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness to confront the evil one face-to-face. That’s what happened to Jesus just after his baptism.
The devil did everything he could to nudge Jesus off the Way. To convince Jesus he could save the world without having to suffer.
Give the people what they want, Son of God. You can turn these stones into bread. End world hunger. Everyone will love you, then.
Look, Son of God. See the world? See all those kingdoms of people who don’t know their left hand from their right? I’ll give you global dominance if you just give the devil his due.
Here you go, Son of God. Dazzle the people with magic tricks. Jump off the top of the temple. Right where everyone can see you! God will make sure you have a safe landing.
I tell you what, church. Old Scratch is still in the business of tempting God’s children with those old tricks. Telling us we can conquer the world by gimmicks and wonders and if those fail, then by force.
The devil still wants to convince us that we can save the world, and we don’t have to sacrifice or suffer for it.
Jesus tells a different story. He went into the wilderness to face the devil, prepared by baptism and sustained by the Spirit. Baptism and the Spirit prepared and nurtured him all the way to the cross. And the Spirit raised him from the dead.
That’s the story we live by, church. Created anew through water and the Spirit. Baptized in the Spirit and fire. Prepared by baptism and the Holy Spirit to confront evil face-to-face in the wilderness of our time.
Church, we are empowered by the same baptism and Spirit as Jesus. Our stories have been gathered into his story by baptism. And no matter what the devil throws at us on the Way, the Spirit whispers God’s promise to us still: Don’t fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you.
Baptism promises us that we will go through water and fire. We may even be overwhelmed. But God’s purpose is always to redeem us. Not to destroy us.