Sunday, January 13, 2019

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

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned, and flame will not scorch you.

Have you ever heard the voice of God? I have, but I have told few people about the experience. Unfortunately, when I have admitted to having heard the voice of God, the response was less than charitable. The cynics asked why He would talk to me, the skeptics wondered if anyone else could hear the voice. They wanted details like how loud and what sort of voice. They wanted to know if it was a booming, thunderous male voice or the still, sweet voice of a woman. I can’t describe it in those terms. It was a very personal moment. Perhaps it was just in my head, but that does not make it any less real. I heard a voice as I would hear someone speaking right next to me, though it was very different.

So, how do we describe something that is beyond description? The scriptures tell us about the ways God speaks to His people. He spoke out of a burning bush to Moses, but to Elijah His voice was like a whisper. He came to Mary and Joseph in words from an angel. He even spoke to Balaam out of the mouth of a donkey. The psalm for this week describes God’s voice a thunderous, powerful. It is not God who breaks the cedars, but God’s voice. His voice strikes like flashes of lightning. It shakes the desert, twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. The response of God’s creation to this voice is awe. “In his temple everything says, ‘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, what 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 a softer 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.

So we have difficulty when the scriptures we read include both hope and wrath such as our Old Testament passage for today. Isaiah spoke 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. Persia conquered those places and it was the Persians who allowed the Jews to go home. The wrath was necessary for God’s grace to be complete.

What would then happen to the exiles? They had been away from home for so long. The text from Isaiah is a promise that they would return soon to Jerusalem. The Jews were in Babylon for seventy years, but life in exile was not nearly as bad as we might suppose. As a matter of fact, the Jews who were taken to Babylon were often the educated and gifted. They were well respected among the strangers, given decent jobs and wages. Many had accumulated wealth and property. They were in exile for so long that many of the Jews who had been taken captive were dead and it was their children receiving the promise. They were captives but they were not necessarily slaves. Would they really want to leave the only life they knew, the good life they had created to return to a desolate and barren place?

The promise from Isaiah is a reminder to those wondering if they should go: the Lord God Almighty, their Creator and Redeemer, loves them. They are His chosen ones, 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 live 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.

Oswald Chambers once said, “It is perilously possible to make our conceptions of God like molten lead poured into a specifically designed mould, and when it is cold and hard we fling it at the heads of the religious people who don’t agree with us.” God is far more than we can imagine. By His Word, the world exists. By His Word, we have life. His Word gives us all we need to live and to serve Him to His glory. Yet, with our words we still try to make Him fit into a box that suits our needs and desires. The psalmist in today’s passage knows that God is far bigger than human reason and understanding can imagine. We see only a part of the entirety of God.

In England, the tallest building in any village was the church. The church was the center of the community. All life passed 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 them 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 announced 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.

Church buildings rarely dominate the skyline today 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, email, and social media to share news. 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.

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 to Yahweh, you sons of the mighty, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength. Ascribe to Yahweh the glory due to his name. Worship Yahweh in holy array.” God is the divine King, the only one worthy to be praised.

Despite all that, we do not always recognize the presence of God. There are times when it seems like God is nowhere to be found. The Jews were in exile. Perhaps 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 you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned, and flame will not scorch you” He promised.

Water and fire. During 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 always promised to be with His people in the midst of it all.

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 deliverer. 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 answered their questions. “I indeed baptize you with water, but he comes who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to loosen. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and will gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Later, Jesus approached John for baptism. John was just a minor figure in Luke’s version of this story; 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, “You are my beloved Son. In you 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 water 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. We who are baptized followed our Lord Jesus into the water and fire. We are all beloved, named by God as one of His children. We have been given the Holy Spirit to make us part of the one body. Though we continue to be sinners, we are made saints by the grace and God will always be with us. He loves us and He will not allow us to be destroyed.

He is the Lord, the one who reigns over the water and the fire, who gives strength to his people; He blesses us with peace. He calls us to worship Him, the only one worthy to be praised. He is bigger than we can imagine; His majesty is sometimes frightening, but we need not fear. God’s voice can level a forest, but He uses His voice to call His people to hope and peace. We are called to a life that glorifies God. The journey might not be easy. We may have to walk through the waters of a flood or face the fire, but God is with us. He has called us by name. We can rest assured that God is with us through it all.

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