Sermon for The Baptism of Our Lord. Year C. January 10, 2016
Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Weather-related catastrophes have been consistently at the top of the national and world news broadcasts for the last several years. I don’t know if this began with the reports on Hurricane Katrina and then just continued with Hurricane Sandy, the rash of forest fires throughout the drought-stricken west, the severe winter storms in the northeast, the devastating tornados in the Midwest, and the torrential floods in Texas this past year. There’ve been enough weather-related catastrophes affecting millions of people to justify keeping weather reports at the top of the news broadcasts. Even in the recent days between Christmas and New Year’s the network TV news programs have often begun with reports of the huge tornados in the heartland, the brush fires in California, and the flooding rivers in Missouri and Illinois.
Water, wind, and fire have been at the top of the news and that’s what we hear about in today’s readings for this Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Water, wind, and fire cause deaths and destruction of property, the upending of lives and the massive disruption of travel. This should remind us that even the sacrament of Holy Baptism that deals with the sign of water and the symbols of wind and fire is not as safe as we might assume – although, admittedly, we have to stretch our imaginations to see our parish baptisms of infants being included in the death and resurrection rhetoric about Baptism in Scripture and tradition. (Note the depiction of the river also as the grave in the Orthodox icon of the Baptism of Christ above this article.)
Floods and fires are devastating. Yet the prophet Isaiah says that God’s people shall pass through rivers and not be swept away and walk through fire and not be burned as God gathers his people whom he created for his glory from the east and west and north and south. He’s talking about the return of the exiled people of Israel, dispersed among the nations, to Zion. But the journey home to the assembly of the people of God is fraught with dangers and hazards. It is no less so for those who are called to the waters of baptism around the world today, for we live in a time when the faith of Christians is sorely put to the test. We read about the killing of Christians by Islamist terrorist groups in sub-Sahara Africa and by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
The fact that we have survived the journey to the font in the Christian assembly should be cause for rejoicing and thanksgiving, but not for presuming that we will always come out unscathed in the catastrophes of life in this world, including the devastations of nature and the terrors of history.
Oh, yes, the prophet reminded Israel that the Lord gave “Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” God was willing to sacrifice nations in order to bring home his people Israel.
God’s elect people were rescued by God under the cover of Cyrus the Persian’s overthrow of the Babylonian Empire and the spread of the Persian Empire. The message of Cyrus’ advance was a comforting word to Israel since it offered the end of her time of captivity in Babylon and the hope of return to the land of Israel. Cyrus was even greeted as a messianic figure. But depending on geopolitics and the rise and fall of empires seems a rather fragile thing to pin one’s enduring hopes on, and not all returned. So too, even as we recognize the heroic work of first responders and National Guardsmen we must acknowledge that faithful Christians have been swept away in the floods, crushed in the tornadoes, and consumed in fire and smoke along with others. Who is saved and who isn’t is an imponderable mystery that has caused many people to lose their faith.
Isaiah says that Israel came through the water and was not swept away. The Jewish people were not a water-loving people. They always associated water with dangers, with storms and sea monsters and the threat of death. But salvation has always depended on going through the threatening flood. Look at the double edged symbolism of water in the stories of the Bible. Noah’s flood, a story evoked by the presence of the dove in the story of Jesus’ baptism, is both a story of the near annihilation of the world, and a story of the salvation of humanity and the animal kingdom through the ark. The Red Sea first stood for escaping Hebrew slaves being trapped between the threat of drowning and the threat of a hostile army, but it becomes the image of salvation as God opens a way of safety that goes right through the midst of the waters to dry land. The Jordan River too stood as a barrier between the people wandering in the wilderness and the milk and honey of the promised land. It wasn’t as big a body of water as the Red Sea, but it could bog down the Israelites if the Canaanites joined together to mount an assault to keep these migrants from crossing over. Yet it too becomes a place where God opens a way of salvation, and a safe journey to the new homeland. These are all types of baptism in Israel’s history that form the narrative of salvation history recounted in the thanksgiving over the water in the liturgy of Christian baptism.
In this river that served as a demarcation between the promised land and the land beyond the Jordan, John the Baptist appears and puts people into the water — including his cousin Jesus who insisted on identifying with the people of Israel in their confession and forgiveness of sins. The water is a sign of death, but also of life and cleansing.
Baptism of Christ by Abraham Bloemaert, 1602. Is Jesus being presented to John the Baptist for baptism as an infant by his mother Mary?
But John also speaks of fire. The prophet of the exile had spoken of the people walking through fire and not being consumed. John uses this image of fire as the way God sorts out the good from the bad. John says that the messiah will be greater than himself because “I only baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with Holy Spirit and fire, the unquenchable fire that burns the chaff after the wheat is gathered safely into the barn.”
Later on John becomes uncertain about Jesus. “Are you the one we were to expect, or should we wait for another?” He didn’t see in Jesus the fire he had proclaimed. I wonder whether his questioning didn’t start right here at Jesus’ baptism. I mean here is John talking about baptism with Holy Spirit and fire, and burning the chaff and all that, and then Jesus is baptized and down comes the Holy Spirit in bodily form, as a … what? As a roaring wind and tongues of fire? As a fiery angel with a flashing sword and sparks shooting off in all directions? As one of the awesome fiery winged creatures from the visions of Isaiah or Daniel? No, the Spirit comes down as…a pigeon.
But Jesus’ baptism is not completed by John. He had another baptism to go through — a baptism in blood. He would eventually be linking his baptism with his impending death at the hands of the leaders of the people who thought their job was to purge Israel of God’s enemies. “Can you be baptized with the baptism into which I am soon to be baptized?” he asks his bewildered disciples.
And do you know what the gospel writer Luke goes on to do with the image of wind and fire in relation to baptism? The image returns, but not as an image of fiery judgment dividing the wheat from the chaff and destroying all of God’s enemies. It returns on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples are baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does indeed come as a roaring wind and tongues of fire. But far from being fires of judgment, these tongues of fires unleash the disciples’ tongues so that they can speak God’s message of salvation to those who had come from the east and the west, north and the south, out of all those nations Isaiah said God was ready to sacrifice to accomplish the return of his chosen people. And the violent wind that the psalmist identifies as God’s voice of thunder that can strip forests bare, becomes the energy of God that send the Apostles out into the streets to proclaim God’s message of salvation for all people.
So the baptism with fire becomes not a sign of division but of reconciliation, not of punishment but of love that spills across every boundary or border. The fellowship of the Christian Church is not restricted within national boundaries along which we build higher walls to keep out immigrants and refugees. We see that continuing in our reading from Acts (8:14-17) in which something had been incomplete with the baptism of some Samaritan believers so that the Apostles have to come down from Jerusalem to finish the job. They need the same Holy Spirit that the Apostles had received. But who are these Samaritans if not the sworn enemies of the Jews? So the great reconciliation continues in the Holy Spirit’s baptismal work of bringing these two peoples together into the one community of Jesus.
All of which, unfortunately, leaves us none the wiser about why we’ve been seeing these destructive weather patterns and what, if anything, they mean; or why some survive devastation and some don’t. Coming to faith is no insurance policy against the hazards of life in this world. But we have already entered into death and resurrection in the baptismal font and we aren’t afraid of what we face life. We plunge into life—like the Greek boys who dive into the cold waters to retrieve the cross on Epiphany Day blessing of the waters and discover what a profound renewal of baptism experience this is. They are to follow the cross even into the depths of the sea.
I can’t tell you that following the cross of Christ keeps you safe from all disasters. I can only tell you that if you are willing to follow Jesus into the danger zones, to follow him even when he walks through the flames of hostility and passes through the depths of death and burial, and if you are willing to allow him to teach you how even suffering and death can be a redemptive gift of healing and liberation, then the truth of faith will begin to emerge for you.
The word of the Lord through Isaiah said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” As we lay, exhausted but exhilarated on that far shore, and cough the water out in our lungs and rub the balm of Gilead onto our burns, we will say “Yes. God did not fail us in the things that matter, and the floods and the flames did not have the last word. Salvation is created in the waters of rebirth and in the winds and fires of God the Holy Spirit making space for the flourishing of new life. Alleluia! Praise the Lord!” Amen.
Pastor Frank Senn
Greek Orthodox Epiphany blessing of the waters in Melbourne, Australia. The bishop is tossing the cross into the water that the boys will dive into to recover.