Sunday, January 11, 2004

The Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.

In England, the tallest building in any village is the church. The church is the center of the community. All life passes through at one point or another, if only to be baptized, married or buried. The church was used as place for village meetings. In times of danger the church was the strongest building and often became fortress to protect the people. Once clocks became readily available, the village standard was kept on a clock that was installed in the tower. The church bells were used to call people together and to inform the people of important announcements. Different tunes were used for different purposes.

Joyous ringing might mean the village was celebrating a wedding or a birth. A mourning piece would announce a death. Certain tunes would call the people for a meeting and others would bring believers together for worship. Everyone understood the meaning of the bells and acted appropriately.

In this day with skyscraper buildings and all sorts of noise, church buildings rarely dominate the skyline and church bells are barely heard. Many churches are not even built with a tower anymore, and few even consider the cost of bells worthwhile. We have radio, television, telephone and email to announce things. There are public buildings separate from the churches where we gather to do the business of living together in community. Church is only for church these days.

I suppose there are some positive reasons for such a change. We live in a multicultural society where the church is not the center of most people's lives. In those days when the church played a more prominent role, the lines between church and state got confused and even lost. People were Christian because everyone was Christian. Yet many were not quite Christian. They went to church because it was expected, but did not understand much about what they believed. Martin Luther discovered this problem in the early 1500's when he was visiting some village churches. The parishioners had no idea what it meant to be a Christian. Luther wrote the Small Catechism to teach and inform the people about the faith. There are still many who suffer the same trouble. There's something missing from their lives.

It is almost as if they can hear the church bells but they have no idea what the ringing means. The call to worship draws them in but they don't understand what it is they have gathered to do. In faith it is easy to look out at all of creation and see the hand of God in all that there is, but without faith the world just looks like it is revolving on its own. God is not visible to those who do not see with the eyes of their heart.

The psalmist understood this problem. This song of praise calls us together with words that give honor and glory to the One who created. Yet, in the call to worship the psalmist found it necessary to tell us to whom we should attribute the praise. "Ascribe unto Jehovah, O ye sons of the mighty, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name; Worship Jehovah in holy array." Only God is the divine King, the One worthy to be praised. Even His voice is filled with power, by His Word the desert shakes and the trees break in pieces at His word. His voice thunders over the water and strips the forests bare.

Despite all that, we do not always recognize the presence of God. But then there are times when it seems like God is nowhere to be found. The passage from Isaiah comes to us at a time when the Jews were in exile. They believed that God had abandoned them, why else would they be in such a terrible state? Near the end of their exile, God spoke to His people and promised that they would be saved. God created them, not just their bodies but also their nation. They are His, called by His name. "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee."

It is interesting that this passage talks about water and fire. In Israel's history, some of the most important moments were when God led His people through one or the other. 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.

Just as God was quiet during the exile, He was also silent in the days before the coming of the Messiah. The people knew the prophecies, they knew that God would fulfill His promises to His people, but they did not know what to expect. They thought they understood and they were watching and waiting for the One who would bring deliverance. Their expectation was of a powerful man, one who would become king and save them from the Romans. When John the Baptist began preaching about the Kingdom of God, it was easy to assume that he was the one for whom they were waiting.

In today's Gospel lesson, John answers their questions. "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: whose fan is in his hand, thoroughly to cleanse his threshing-floor, and to gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire." Later, Jesus approached John for baptism. In Luke's version of this event, John is a minor figure; he does not even talk to the Lord Jesus. But the voice of God does.

Luke tells us that Jesus was praying as He was baptized, and that while He did so the heavens opened and a voice spoke, "Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased." I wonder what this sounded like to those who were watching. Did they hear the words of God or did they hear something like thunder? The voice of the Lord is powerful indeed. At this moment in time, Jesus identified Himself completely with the human race, taking upon His shoulder the burdens of life, of sin and of death. He truly became one of us. Yet, at that moment God embraced the One whom He had sent, anointing Him with power and glory as the beloved Son. There are few places in scripture where we can so clearly see Jesus as He is - fully human and fully divine.

This moment was the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He would spend three years preparing the world, and His disciples, for His true purpose. At that moment, Jesus not only passed through the waters of baptism, but also the fire of baptism as the Holy Spirit descended upon Him to give Him the power to minister in this world. John told the people that Jesus would come and do something more. The water was not enough. They had to go through the fire as well. At His baptism, Jesus was the first to be baptized with fire as the Holy Spirit came upon Him. John's baptism only prepared them for the greater gift that was to come.

That gift came to the Jews at Pentecost, when the tongues of fire came upon those who believed. The disciples went out into the world preaching the good news of Christ and baptizing in His name. Those in Samaria, however, did not receive the Holy Spirit when they heard the Word of God. When the disciples learned that the people of Samaria believed; Peter and John were sent to check out the evangelistic efforts in that place. It was then that the Samaritans went through their own Pentecost experience, when the Gentiles also received baptism by fire and the Holy Spirit was given also to them. In this way, God made the nations His own, calling them by His name and marking them for His glory.

God's Word is powerful. His voice brings us through the waters and the fire and makes us one of His own. In baptism, we take on His name and become children of God. There are times when it is difficult to notice God's presence in this world, particularly in times of pain and confusion. Yet, in faith we can hear God's voice calling to us, reminding us that He is always near. His voice is heard in the thunder, it rattles the deserts and changes us into new creation.

The churches may not be the center of life in many towns in our world today, but God is no less available to those who believe. He calls us to worship Him, the only One worthy to be praised. For He is the Lord, the One who reigns over the water and the fire, who gives strength to his people; and blesses them with peace. Thanks be to God.

Back to Midweek Oasis Index Page