Sunday, January 10, 2016

Baptism of Jesus
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Romans 6:1-11
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Fear not; for I am with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back; bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth; every one that is called by my name, and whom I have created for my glory, whom I have formed, yea, whom I have made.

The year 2015 was very wet for Texas, making up for nearly seven years with little measurable rain. Some places in the state were on the verge of exceptional drought, the worst possible situation. Nearly two thirds of Texas was at least abnormally dry a year ago, with nearly half in some state of drought and a quarter severe, but today's drought monitor shows less than five percent is abnormally dry. This is good news. It wasn't great news when it started raining, however, because the drought busting rains came down so hard and the water ran off the parched earth so fast that it caused flash flooding, extreme damage and even death. This year continues to be wet so far, but the rain is much different. It is coming in pleasant showers, dropping onto earth that is able to receive it. There has been no flooding and while some people are tired of the dark, damp weather, it is helping build our reserves of water so that we will be prepared for the next dry spell.

We have this phrase that is heard constantly when the rain threatens to be dangerous: turn around, don't drown. See, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of dry creek beds around the state of Texas. These are creeks that don't run with water constantly, but get filled with the runoff during times of rain. These creeks often cross roadways, but it isn't worthwhile to build a bridge because the water rarely causes problems. Sometimes those creeks look mild; people think that they can easily drive through the running water. They don't realize that it only takes a few inches of rushing water to carry away a car.

There are usually barriers that hinder a driver from going into the rushing creek, although there always seems to be someone who thinks they are smarter than those who try to protect them. They go around the barrier, get into the water and suddenly realize they have no control. It is almost impossible to save yourself at that point. Sadly, some people are found dead in their cars miles downstream. Those barriers are there for a reason: it might cause you to drive well out of your way and make you late for your appointment, but turn around, don't drown.

Unfortunately, these dry creek beds are not easy to predict. It might not even be raining in one place, but as the water gathers in the creek upstream, it comes racing down, catching people off guard. Those dry creek beds can go from dry to more than a foot of water in a second and you don't want to get hit with a foot of water rush at you. It is foolish to try to cross a raging creek, especially when there is a barrier place for your protection, but sometimes we can't avoid the danger because we simply don't know when it will come.

The same is true with other severe weather. We can't predict a lightning strike or a tornado. We might be able to give warning, but even a large storm like a hurricane can be unpredictable. Wildfires can seem to be under control until the wind turns and then they can suddenly burst to new life. We can be careful, we can prepare, we can even do whatever we can in expectation of the worst, but we can't know exactly what will happen.

It is interesting how many of the stories in the Bible revolve around water. In the beginning the earth is a formless void and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. A river watered the Garden of Eden. At God's command, Noah built an ark to survive the flood. Drought and famine sent the patriarchs on journeys to new places. Jacob sent his wives and all their possessions across the stream and was left alone to wrestle with God. Moses took the Israelites through the Red Sea and they later crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. During the Exodus they found water in the most unexpected places. Elijah covered the altar of Baal with water, and yet God still burned it all.

Fire is another subject of so many stories. The altar of Baal was destroyed by fire, as was Sodom and Gomorrah. The bush Moses encountered was on fire but did not burn. God led the people out of Egypt with a pillar of fire. These elements are so often identified with God, perhaps because they are so unpredictable. No human could have made the Red Sea part or burnt stone, but God can. He then uses those same elements to bring faith and hope to His people.

In Israel's history, some of the most important moments were when God led His people through water or fire. Noah was protected through the flood. Lot was saved from the fire at Sodom and Gomorrah. Moses was guided through the waters of the Red Sea. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego lived through the fiery furnace. Water and fire were elements that brought death, but also cleansing. Only by God's power could His people overcome the destruction of either water or fire. And He promised to be there in the midst of it with His people.

I always cringe a little when I read passages like today's Old Testament lesson. Isaiah speaks of hope in times of trouble, hope for a return to the homeland and restoration for the people of Israel. Yet, in the same text, Isaiah speaks about the destruction of others. He gives the people of Egypt, Cush and Seba as a ransom for the people of Israel. Historically, this may refer to the fact that Persia conquered those places. Perhaps God gave these victories to Persia because they treated Israel in exile with such kindness and then released them as God had promised.

As a matter of fact, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they took the best and the most intelligent Israelites to Babylonia. These captives were given positions of authority and they were able to gain wealth. Life in exile was not so horrible. Eventually the generation who were taken from Jerusalem died, leaving behind a people who had never known life in the Holy Land. They had certainly heard stories, but those stories included the reality that their beloved homeland was little more than a heap of rubble. They had a good life in Babylon. They were educated and gifted. They were respected. They had adapted to their new life. Perhaps the promise did not have such a lure for them. Would they really want to leave the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?

The promise of Isaiah is a reminder to those wondering if they should go: the Lord God Almighty, the Creator and Redeemer loves His people. They are His chosen people, called by His name and created for His glory. He dwells amongst them and they are His. It might seem foolish to leave the good life to go back to the unknown, but that unknown is the life to which they have been called and for which they have been created. We do not know or fully understand the ways of God and we might be even be offended by the method by which He guarantees salvation to His people. But we are offended because we put God into a tiny box, making Him to fit only our desires and our perceptions.

The whole story of Jesus can be offensive to those who do not believe. We begin with the offense that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Perhaps this is even truer today than ever before. We live in a pluralistic world where there is no truth and righteousness is relative. We don't talk about sin anymore because the world rejects the notion. We don't talk about it because we don't want to offend anyone. We don't want to seem judgmental. We don't want to seem as though we are being haughty. We are all sinners; we all sin. We all need God to save us and we need to talk about it even if the whole idea seems offensive to the world. They need to hear that they need forgiveness and that Jesus is the only One who can save them.

The story of Jesus doesn't fit our modern, scientific and technological understanding of the world. We try to explain away the Christmas story as being myth, Mary is not a virgin but a young girl, the vision of the shepherds was nothing but a mass delusion and the wise men didn't follow a supernatural sign. The miracles of Jesus can be explained in medical terms. There are no demons, just mental illness. Jesus didn't really die on the cross. These are all ridiculous fairy tales which offends the intellectuals.

In a world where we are to love one another for who we are, we are offended by the idea that God calls us to become something new, transformed, and different. See, God doesn't demand that we change so that He can love us, He loves us so much that He takes us through the water and the fire to transform us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. The world suggests that we are to love one another no matter what; God calls us to love one another into being the best we can be. See, if we accept people exactly as they are, then we can't help them become what they are meant to be. I know that's offensive to say, but should we really stay silent and let people die in their comfort, or encourage them to be transformed by the water and fire of God?

Someone suggested today that the difference between crying out against gun violence and abortion is that abortion is legal. Does that make it right? It was once not only legal, but expected, for babies to be sacrificed on altars. The laws of Germany under Adolph Hitler made some of the most monstrous actions legal. It is legal to bribe the traffic police in South Korea as long as the officer reports the bribe. It is legal for a man in Saudi Arabia to kill his daughter if she has a relationship with a non-believer. Just because something is legal according to the world, does that make it right in God's eyes? Should we stay silent because the law is acceptable to the culture or should we stand firmly on God's Word?

God as He wholly is in the scriptures is offensive. He is both Law and Gospel. He is both love and wrath. He is both Father and Judge. We need Him to be all those things, and we need to be reminded by His Word that God IS. He is more than our expectation. He is more than we can imagine. He is more than we want. But it is in that more that we find what we really need to be the people He has created and redeemed us to be.

The psalm for this week describes God's voice a thunderous, powerful. It is not God who breaks the cedars, but Godís voice. His voice strikes like flashes of lightning. It shakes the desert, twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. The response of Godís creation to this voice is awe. "And in his temple everything saith, Glory."

This is not an image of God with which we can easily identify. We tend to prefer the idea of God's still, sweet voice, the quiet calling of a Father to a child. Thunder and lightning bring fear to our hearts. We tremble at the thought of God's voice shaking the desert, twisting the oaks and stripping the forests bare. If He can do that to His creation, which will that voice do to us? Instead of expressing awe, we are offended by an image of God that might denote an iron fist over His creation. We are willing to ascribe to Him the glory we know He deserves, but we'd much rather keep Him confined to one specific image. We like the idea of the shepherd king or the mother hen protecting her chicks. We like the image of a loving father or a brotherly friend. There is little room for wrath in that perception of God.

We are reminded, however, that this God whose voice can level a forest also calls out to His people in hope and peace. Isaiah writes, "But now thus saith Jehovah that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed thee; I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine." In this passage, we are reminded that God created and formed us, and He named us. Yes, we are named by our parents who are given as our physical caretakers, but in God's book, we have a special name: God's child. We are His. Though we continue to be sinners, we are made saints by the grace and God and He will always be with us. He loves us and He will not allow us to be destroyed. He will be with us through the water and fire. We have been redeemed from the consequences of our own failures because we are precious and loved by our Creator.

It began with Jesus, this grace filled life. The story that offends the world so much is the only story that can guarantee our eternal life in the presence of God. He had to be born, to live, to minister, to heal and cast out demons and He had to take God's wrath upon His own shoulders. Jesus had to die so that we could be saved.

I can't see everything. I can't know everything. But God can. He sees hearts, knows all, and has control over even the chaos of this world. The waters and fires might come unexpectedly to us, but God knows and He has promised to be with us through them.

In the Gospel lesson, the people were amazed by what they heard from John the Baptist. They thought perhaps he might be the one for whom they were waiting. They thought He might be the Messiah. He fulfilled their expectations, but he knew he was not the One. He knew he was just there to announce the coming of the One. "I indeed baptize you with water; but there cometh he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire." See, we expect the waters of baptism to cleanse us, but we need the fire of the Holy Spirit, too.

Luke's version of the baptism of Jesus is much shorter than the others and it is only in Luke that we see Jesus praying. Prayer is an important part of Luke's telling of Jesus' story. We'll see that focus through the coming year. It is in prayer that we see the extraordinary relationship between God and His Son Jesus. They talked often. Jesus listened. He sought His Father's Will in all that He did. And in prayer God spoke back to His Son; in this passage, His voice proclaims the name of Jesus: God's beloved Son. While He prayed, the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him.

While our baptism may not have appeared to be so dramatic, the same thing happened to us at the font: God called us His beloved child and the Holy Spirit descended upon us joining us to His body forever. On this Sunday as we recall the Baptism of Jesus, we are reminded of our own baptisms. When we came out from the water, the heavens opened up and God spoke our name. He anointed us with the same Spirit that gave Jesus His strength and sense of purpose in this world. We are called as Christians to live in our baptism. When we are faced by temptation, we usually claim our own strength, "I can avoid this" or "I can make it go away." Despite our salvation, we are still sinners and we have no power over sin by our own will. We can answer every temptation with the reminder, "I am baptized." The devil has no power over us when we are covered by the grace of God. God was with us through the water and the fire and He will stay with us as we continue to face the world.

We are sinners, there is no doubt about that, and unfortunately we all continue to make foolish mistakes. Like those who think they can get through the raging waters of a rising creek, we go around the barriers meant to stop us and get caught up in the consequences of our sinfulness. We justify our actions by the mantra that God loves us anyway, and while that is true, we need to know that God is disappointed when we reject the transforming power of His grace. And yes, there are those who sin because they know how much greater God's grace is than our failure.

Paul writes, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?" No, God has cleansed us with the water and fire of baptism to be something better, to be like Christ. Like those cars that get caught in the sudden, unexpected flood, we will fail, but we should never go about our life purposely acting against the Word of God. We died to sin. We were made new. The old desires no longer have the power to keep us enslaved. We are freed from those sinful desires and made part of the body of Christ, raised to new life in Him.

It is interesting that we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus so close to the New Year. How many of you made resolutions? How many have you already failed? Did you forget to say that daily prayer or read that devotion? Did you skip the gym this morning or eat that extra cookie? Did you turn on that television show even though you promised yourself you would spend more time with the kids? It is only January 6th, so there is plenty of time to work on our resolutions. There is plenty of time to be transformed from what we were into what we can be. By our baptism and the faith we received by grace, we have died to sin so that we will be made alive unto God in Christ Jesus.

The key is to remember that we don't have to go about it alone. We don't have to try to avoid our temptations with our own strength or make things go away by our own willpower. We can say, "I am baptized" and trust that God will be with us through the cleansing that we need to undergo. Whether it comes by water or fire does not matter; we simply rest in the knowledge that God is doing good things in and through us. Let us pay heed to the barriers that block our way to sin because they might just be God's way of stopping us from falling to the temptations that can destroy us. He is there with us, even when we get overwhelmed by the rushing floods, but He will continue to work in our lives so that we will be forgiven, healed, cleansed, made whole and transformed into the people He has created and redeemed us to be. By His promises and in His faithfulness He will bring us through the waters and fires of life and into His presence for eternity.

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