Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of Jesus
Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased.

I am a crafter. Imagine hearing me say that as if I am at some sort of support group, confessing my interest in crafting. Not that it is bad having hobbies and interests. It is just that my crafting can get a little out of control sometimes. I have already been working on designs for my Christmas ornaments for next year. An early start means being able to accomplish better quality ornaments and a larger number of finished product. I have a general idea of what I am going to do, but Iím working on the details. Iíve purchased several different types of materials and Iím testing each for ease of use and overall finished look.

Now, I had found a style I really liked and colors that were just right, but in my research I had seen another type of material that might do well. I didnít buy it right away because I was waiting for a coupon from the store to make it more affordable. Despite the fact that Iíd already started making ornaments in one style, I still went out and bought the new supplies to try. I could see the potential when I tried it, but I did not like it as much as my original idea. So, those supplies will get put away in the closet until I have time to figure out something better to make with it.

Thatís my problem. I like to try new ideas and test different products, but I donít always like what Iíve tried. So the materials end up in the closet with piles of other supplies that I am not currently using. Unfortunately, that closet has become something of a disaster area. Shopping bags and boxes of half used supplies are thrown on the floor. Shelves are unorganized with piles of materials that are falling over. It is impossible to find anything in that closet. Iím sure Iíve gone out to buy new things that are already buried somewhere in the mess, but it is easier to buy new than try to find where it is hidden. The closet is chaos, but it is not beyond redemption. I just have to start cleaning.

Iím a little afraid to tackle the closet because I know the only way to get it organized is to empty it. Iíll have to empty it into another room, creating more chaos for a moment. Once I have it laid out, Iíll be able to see what I have and put some order to the mess. I can purge the materials I will never use and give them away or sell them at my next yard sale. Iíve done this before, and the room becomes so messy that it is hard to tell that Iím really trying to clean. In the end I manage to organize everything so that the supplies are within reach and so that I know what I have available. It takes a lot of work and I will be exhausted in the end, but I will enjoy having everything in place.

My closet at this point is like a formless void, even though it is filled with stuff. It is definitely chaotic. As I read the Old Testament text, I donít see this formless void as being nothingness or empty. It is out of control, unusable; to the human mind it is perhaps even unredeemable. Is there any way that we might be able to describe or portray what God saw on that first day? People have tried. Through art, film and other medium, creative people have tried to share with others their understanding and vision of that first day and the rest of the creation story. Of all the days of creation, however, I think the first might be the hardest for us to wrap our minds around. What is a formless void? If there was an Ďearthí how could it be formless? How could it be void? And how can any human being recreate something so outside our limited earthly experience? Iíve tried to imagine what a painting would look like if I were to put my vision on canvas and Iím not sure I can even Ďseeí this with my creative eye. A black canvas would not do because it isnít formless and it isnít void.

Yet, as I think about this passage, it seems to me that the formless void is much like an empty canvas. The point of these words is not that God had nothing to work with but that God had a vision and when He spoke that vision came to life. It took only a word from the mouth of God for the formless void to become light and dark. By His word the light and the dark were divided and He gave them names. We should not be confused at this point by the use of these names. The celestial bodies have not yet been created. The light and dark, Day and Night, are not as we know them. This aspect of the first day is as difficult to put to canvas as the formless void. The light, the Day, is Christ: love, mercy, hope, grace, joy, generosity, justice and all things good. The dark, the Night, is the absence of those good things.

Perhaps thatís why I began to think about my chaotic closet as I looked at this text. Right now it is out of control and unusable. But I have a vision for it, just as God had a vision for the formless void that was earth. I want it to be clean and organized. I want the things inside to be easy to reach and I want to know what is available. I want to make it something that will help me continue to be creative. The same is true with God. He wanted to make the formless void into something that would become Ďa partnerí of sorts in His creative work.

In Genesis we hear, ďIn the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void.Ē In the beginning, the earth that God created was chaotic. I've heard this described as something like churning waters in the dark, a stormy sea in the dead of night. This image is frightening, mostly because there is no order and not light. Yet, the passage goes on to say, ďAnd God said, Let there be light: and there was light.Ē It took only a word and everything changed. The chaotic formless void now had light. Even with nothing else, there is a peace that comes with being able to see, of knowing the chaos and in seeing that something, or someone, has dominion over the chaos.

In this week's lectionary we are left hanging. We know the story so well that we can finish it. We know that God went on to create the sky and the sea, the land, the plants, the celestial bodies, the fish, birds, animals and finally man. We might be tempted to read the whole story because it is so comforting to see that God can, with only a word, make nothing into something so miraculous.

Yet, our text for this week leaves us hanging, ending before the chaos is really ordered, before anything exists, to ponder the light and the darkness. We are drawn to consider the darkness, particularly in our confused and difficult world. Why is there darkness? This is a question everyone ponders, some wrangle with it so long that they are left with nothing but doubt. They can't believe in a God that would create darkness. Yet, the story does not say that God created darkness. ďGod divided the light from the darkness.Ē The darkness is a lack of light.

God spoke all of creation into existence, beginning with the spiritual foundation of all that there is. We donít hear about Jesus until later, much later, in the history of mankind. Yet, Christ was there, at that moment, and it is through Him all things were created. On the first day God brought to life His imagination, everything He desired for that formless void was started with just a word, His Word.

One of my favorite passages of scripture is the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19, when he is running away from Jezebel. He makes it to a cave on a mountain and waits for a word from the Lord. He hears a great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks, but God was not in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but God was not in the fire. Finally, there was a gentle whisper. Then Elijah knew the Lord had come to speak with him.

So, we hear God in the still small voice, the gentle whisper. There are other ways that God speaks to us that are quiet and subtle like in the creation and in the love of other believers. How often do we miss that small voice because we are so busy listening to the chaos of our lives? So, we are reminded that God does not speak only with that still small voice. As we are imagining what it looked like on that first day, we can also try to imagine what it sounded like. The psalmist writes, ďThe voice of Jehovah is upon the waters,Ē and then describes Godís voice as powerful, full of majesty. It breaks the cedars and shakes the wilderness. It wasnít a still small voice that brought order out of chaos. It was thunderous, mighty, and authoritative. In the beginning God spoke order into the chaos and made something quite wonderful out of that formless void.

But God did not stop speaking. Even while darkness tried bringing chaos to Godís creation, God had a plan to bring order. The voice of God ripped through the fabric of creation and God incarnate was born. The Christ who was there at the beginning came to change things again.

We meet Jesus in todayís text by the river. John the Baptist was a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling Godís people to repentance. They flock to him: the young and old, rich and poor. What are they looking for? What do they expect? How would we judge the man described in the Gospels named John the Baptist? ? Iím sure he was unusual in the days of Jesus. The writers of the Gospels are so specific about his wardrobe and diet that we have to assume it was not typical. Camelís hair is not comfortable and locusts donít taste very good, but they were probably not unheard of in that day. The poor did not wear linen and eat steak. But even then, Iím sure John stood out in a crowd, but his odd taste in clothing and food did not keep the crowds from gathering around to hear him preach. He is always portrayed as a madman, with wild unkempt hair and fearful eyes. Would the crowds gather today? Would we believe his words like they did?

We might be fascinated with his character, like we are so fascinated by the characters on those reality television shows. Donít we just love the wacky, out of control contestant that is not afraid to say what he or she is thinking? But do we ever want them to win? Do we believe them or believe in them?

Human nature doesnít change. Perhaps we would rush out into the desert to hear him preach. Perhaps we might even get caught up in the excitement of the experience and step into the river to be baptized. But in the end, would we believe? Would we understand? Would we really see the Christ toward which John was pointing? It is easy to say ďYes,Ē but we donít know. If we were in the same position, we would not have the benefit of the Holy Spirit as we do now. They didnít, and I imagine many of those who listened to John ignored the Christ for whom he was sent to prepare the way. They didnít have the power of God, yet. That would come later.

Iíve often wondered who witnessed the baptism of Jesus. Did those who were gathered see what Jesus saw? Did they hear the voice? The stories do not make it clear if it was solely a personal experience or if others were able to witness the same things as Jesus. In Johnís Gospel, John the Baptist testifies to seeing the Holy Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. He knew because God told him how to recognize the Messiah. Who else believed? Some must have because Jesus did gain a following. Those who truly had faith, though, were few. Many people fell away when Jesus began preaching the hard lessons.

Johnís message is so much easier. It is easier to be repentant than to accept the grace God gives. But in faith we know that we canít fix our sinfulness. We canít defeat death on our own. We canít even overcome sin by our own power because sin has overpowered us. The power comes from the Son who was baptized that day in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, since Adam and Eve, the darkness has always had some power over us. In the Garden of Eden we fell and we have been unable to lift ourselves out of that pit. John came to offer a baptism of repentance and many people went to him for forgiveness. Yet, John said that his baptism was just a shadow of that which Jesus would bring, for baptism in Jesusí name does more than just offer forgiveness. It sets us free. It takes the burden from our shoulders. It makes us children of God. In that baptism we receive the power of the Holy Spirit and we are given new life out of the darkness and into the light.

With Jesus we receive a greater baptism. Just like Jesus in the River Jordan that day so long ago, the Holy Spirit comes out of Heaven and falls upon us while the voice of God speaks the assurance and encouragement of His love into our lives. At our own baptism, God says, ďYou are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.Ē This might seem very hard for us to believe. After all, we do not deserve such kindness. We aren't worthy of such amazing words. But that is Godís grace. At our baptism God speaks those words of assurance over our lives without any merit of our own. His Word brings order to our chaos, light to our darkness, even while we know we are not worthy to hear them.

In Ephesus, Paul met some people who knew about the new hope about which John the Baptist was preaching, but they had not yet received the whole story. Theyíd heard about the coming kingdom through the message of John the Baptist and were even baptized by him. However, they had not yet heard about Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Johnís baptism was a baptism of repentance. Paul told the twelve men, ďJohn told the people to believe in the one coming after Him.Ē Luke writes, ďAnd when they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.Ē God spoke yet again through the mouth of Paul. And His Word had power to save. Paul laid his hands on the disciples and they received the Holy Spirit and when they did they spoke in tongues and prophesied. It was the voice of God, spoken through a man, by which they heard the saving message of the Gospel. John's baptism did not save them. It was only when they heard about Jesus that they received the gift of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit.

They had a foundation for faith, but they did not have everything they needed. They were probably living decent lives, doing good things for their neighbors. But it wasnít enough. Paul gave them Ďthe rest of the storyí and they received the power of the Holy Spirit. At that point they became part of the ministry of God, part of the work of Christ, part of the Church that was started in the life and love of Jesus.

In the beginning God spoke and a formless void was changed. He said just a word and the light was separated from the darkness. He continued to speak into and through the lives of His people. Then He sent His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Despite Godís powerful word, we continued to fail, attracted by the darkness instead of the light. So, Jesus came to change us, to make us whole, to give us the final word and faith.

For two thousand years, men and women like Paul and the other disciples have been speaking Godís word into the lives of others. When the Gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered, people hear the words of assurance as if they are coming out of Godís own mouth. That Word, which is Jesus, brings light into our darkness and order to our chaos. But as in the passage from Genesis, there is still darkness in this world and there is still chaos to contend with. Yet, as we find peace in the light that shined on that first day, we find an even greater peace in our baptism. For in those words God gives us the strength to face the chaos and the trust to know that He will bring it to order.

Martin Luther said, ďRemember your baptism.Ē He was not calling us to remember the event or the day. He was reminding us to remember Godís Word that came to us at that day. In remembering those words, ďYou are my beloved child,Ē we are given the assurance we need to get through each day. We might have to face difficult times, Jesus did. The message He gave us to share is no more acceptable now than it was to His contemporaries. Yet we know, as we remember our baptism that we can live the words of the psalmist who said, ďJehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace.Ē

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