Date: Jan. 9, 2022
Scripture Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-3a, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Sermon: Fire and Water
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
At one time the church hosted a day training program for mentally and physically disabled people. The people came to the church each day and worked with staff and went out and did things in the community. And what were these people who came to the program called? Guests? Clients? Community members? No. They were called ‘consumers.’ I asked about this. Why that term? It is because they consume state resources designated for their care. Consumers. Because they eat up tax dollars. Doing something taxes should do, I might add.
But we are so imbued in a market economy and a capitalist culture that our reality is defined by economics. Things are judged and labeled according to how they fit into the economic context. Economic impact influences everything. It’s all about gain and loss. Inputs and outputs. Commodities and profit. This reality is in the air we breathe. What are people? Workers. Consumers. Economic entities. We are what we do for a living. We are what we make – either a product or an income. Work hard and you are financially rewarded is a basic assumption. We expect a direct correlation between work and wealth. And the greater the wealth, the greater the value, not only of someone’s financial portfolio, but of their person. The more money you have, the more you are worth, literally. That is the bubble we are in.
So today we listened to the story of the baptism of Jesus. As the gospel of Luke opens, we have the stories that lead up to the birth of Jesus and his birth. There is one brief story about his childhood. And then, there’s John the Baptizer, in the wilderness, away from the centers of power, calling people to get ready, to repent, to prepare the way, to clean up their lives. And Jesus comes to be baptized. We haven’t heard anything about what Jesus has been doing. His ministry, his deeds of witness to the power of God, his preaching and teaching and healing and feeding, none of this has gone on yet that we are told. Jesus comes to be baptized. One of many who come to John. Then we are told of the heavens opening, and the Spirit descending, in a way that brings to mind a dove, and a voice heard by Jesus, You are my child. My beloved. On you my favor rests. With you I am well-pleased.
Jesus receives this amazing blessing at this baptism before he has started his work as messiah. Not even one day on the job and he gets a fantastic review. Complete approval. What’s that about?
Well, that’s all about God. The story is told to convey a God that loves us. Period. Not because of what we have or haven’t done. Not because we got it right. Not because we have done a great job. Not because we have worked hard. We are God’s. We are beloved. God’s favor rests on us. Because that is what God has chosen. Because God is satisfied with God’s handiwork – Jesus. You. Me. Our neighbor. Our enemy. Our annoying co-worker. A stranger. Whoever. God is pleased with God’s work. God’s imprint on every soul. We are all holy. Beloved. Blessed. Not because of anything we have done. Or haven’t done. But because of the nature of God. This is totally in conflict with the meritocracy, the consumer economy, the money mindset that surrounds us.
This past week, we have lost a cultural icon, Sydney Poitier, who used his voice in public life to convey the message that each and every person should be treated with dignity. Every person is of inestimable worth. Each and every soul has the imprint of God. His voice will be missed.
After the baptism of Jesus, we are told that Jesus undergoes a time of discernment and testing in the wilderness. Then, he gets to his preaching and teaching — because he has got to let people know what he has seen of God. He’s got to be a witness to God’s reality. Where each and every person is beloved and sacred. He’s on fire with desire to share this Divine reality with others.
So, we usually think of baptism as having to do with the forgiveness of sins. Or, with children, it’s about committing to bring them up in the Christian faith so that they join the church on their own when they are of age. But the story of Jesus’ baptism shows us that baptism is so much more. The power in baptism is not a sprinkling, it’s a torrent, a flood! We see that baptism conveys who we are in the eyes of God. Holy and beloved. God’s creative handiwork. Beautiful. Precious.
The power of Divine Love as we see it in baptism completely disentangles us from the society around us that values life according to productivity and wealth. It washes us away from being enmeshed in the market mindset that determines worth. It wipes away the punishment and reward system that dominates our culture. It frees us from being bound by social roles and cultural labels. This Divine Love manifest in baptism purifies us from judging the worth of people based on their behavior and then casting some as less than, unworthy, expendables. The image of baptism involves going under the water and dying to, washing away, all those cultural constructs that limit us. It involves being liberated by the flood of grace informing us that we are holy and beloved, we are favored and blessed because that is who God is and how God feels about what God has created.
And in the story of Jesus’ baptism we are told that baptism is not just about water but it is also about fire. Purifying. Burning away, destroying all that is holding us back and tying us down and diminishing us. All the shame and guilt. Up in ash. All the regrets. Not good enough. Haven’t made it. Didn’t get there. Messed up. Blew it. It’s all fuel for the fire of passion for life, for good news, for service, for wonder, for delight, for joy, for forgiveness and mercy and compassion. Fired up!
Baptism is about being reborn from the water into new life and recognizing the new reality of the realm of God. It doesn’t matter what we have done. Who we have been. How our patterns of behavior thwart us. Because we are holy and beloved. We have been stamped with the imprint of divinity. And so has each and every person. We are God’s handiwork and God is pleased. It doesn’t depend on us. God has done it. The reality of God is within each of us and among us. And there is a place for each of us in that reality.
This image, this reality, is powerful. So much of the hurt and harm in this life comes from people not feeling wanted, valued, or accepted. It comes from people clawing for a place. For recognition. For a sense of worth. And we go to all kinds of extreme ends to try to find this – even using violence, killing others, depriving others of basic life necessities, degrading the lives of others to elevate our own. All these awful things we do, when we have already been given what we need to thrive and flourish: the blessing of Divine Love pronouncing us beloved and good.
In Psalm 29 we heard those larger than life depictions of the power of God: the voice of God like thunder, God breaking the cedars, flashing in flames of fire, shaking the wilderness, whirling the oaks, stripping the forests bare. All of that power. That force. That impact. Associated with God. Let all in God’s temple say,“ Glory!”
Then in the verses from Isaiah, we heard about all of that incredible power being channeled into the redemption of God’s beloved. All that might and imagination applied for the good of God’s people.
And then we see all of that power and grace funneled into the baptism scene. Drifting down, ever so gently, like a dove. And a voice. All of that force and power for transformation and reconfiguration and salvation. For a new reality of love and goodness and justice and community. Gently infusing Jesus. Who hasn’t even done anything yet. But now that he experiences the power of this Divine grace and blessing, he’s freed. He’s on fire. He’s got to share this reality. He’s got to turn people on to this grace. He’s passionate about this love he has got to share. A love that frees us from worry, and guilt, and insecurity, and self-loathing, and condemnation of ourselves and others. Jesus is fired up about the love that liberates us from societal constructs, and greed, and fear.
He’s on fire. Burning it down. Turning it loose. And we’re here because we’ve been caught in the tides, drawn into the flood, gathered in by the flames.
The reading from Isaiah is to people who are dispossessed from their land, scattered, living under occupation, in a foreign culture. They are in a mess. They see no future. No hope. And what does the prophet say: Do not fear. Do not fear. God’s got this. The God of fire and wind and water, the God of the heavens and the earth, the God of the ancestors, has got this. Do not be afraid.
When you pass through the waters, do not be afraid. Don’t be afraid of the cleansing, the purifying, the new birth. When you pass through fire, burning, destroying, purifying, fertilizing, do not be afraid. When the job is gone. When mom dies. When the loneliness and grief wash over you. Do not be afraid. When another innocent black life is taken. When children go hungry. When drugs steal a loved one away from you. Do not be afraid. When you use your voice to defend justice, to shine the light on truth, to extend compassionate care. Do not be afraid. When a pandemic shuts down society, and exacerbates division, and leaves in its wake isolation, separation and loss. Do not be afraid. When death is near. When separation and loneliness break our hearts. When we long for normal. Do not be afraid. The powerful God manifest to Israel promising deliverance and descending upon Jesus at his baptism has got us covered.
At the end of the novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, a main character from 17th century London, who, incidentally, lived through a plague, ventures into the river to swim for the very first time. Ester, an adult woman, is finally ready to brave the water, something she has wanted to do for a long time. She is accompanied by her husband, a gay man who has a lover, and has seen more than his share of peril and threat in life.
“A high, clear birdcall sounded from a nearby tree. . . .
“The river flowed thickly before her, and she shielded her eyes to watch it. . .
“The more Ester looked, the less tame the river appeared; calling birds unperturbed by the receding skiff; the high, ragged grasses along the banks, bristling with hidden life. The wildness of things came back to her.
“Turning to Alvaro, [her husband] she let him see she was afraid. . .
“Standing on the shore, she stared. Something was lodged in her throat, aching to come loose.
“She stepped in, ginger, the muddy rocks shifting under her tender feet. One step; a second; she stood and dipped her hand into the edge of the current. This, cold water streamed between her fingers, gently at first — then more strongly as she stepped deeper, the water now forcing her palm open and her fingers wide as the current found its way between them. . .
“Water forcing her palm open, the current kissing her fingers. And swimming to the place where she stood waist – deep, her husband: master of the great house commanding the hill. She couldn’t keep from laughing in his face. He laughed with her — then, with a soft tug, pulled her off balance. The current ripped her forward and her husband led her, and the surface of the water was velvet and foam, and her legs and feet were absurd and she had no notion what to do with them — until the water lifted her limbs and made them glad and foolish. She settled her eyes on his, brown and sun-flecked as the water.
“‘Here,’ he said, guiding her wrists to his slim, sturdy shoulders, “Rest your arms here.’” Rachel Kadish, The Weight of Ink, pp. 556-557, 560.]
Ester is in the water, in the wet and wildness, her fear washing away; she is safe. And it is wonderful.
Let the water flow. Let it stir and spin and roil. There is safety even in the midst of the current. Baptism reminds us that we are anchored. That we are held. That we are secure in the embrace of Divine Love. No matter what life holds. And there is gladness and joy in it.
Jesus was born into perilous times. God’s holy and beloved child. A joy and delight to God. God is well pleased with God’s self disclosure in Jesus before Jesus has even opened his mouth to preach. Oh, what a God! All that love manifest in Jesus to show us, each of us, who we are. God’s children. Holy and beloved. Resting in God’s blessing. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.