Sunday, January 7, 2007

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

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

Have you ever heard the voice of God? I would like to admit to you that I have and describe the event to share what an awesome and inspiring moment it was in my life. Unfortunately, in times past 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 canít 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 the words of an angel. He even spoke to Balaam out of the mouth of a donkey. The psalm for this week describes Godís 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. ďAnd in his temple everything saith, Glory.Ē

This is not an image of God with which we can easily identify. We tend to prefer the idea of Godís 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 Godís 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 weíd 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.

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. 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 would include knowledge that the 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 Ė 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.

Oswald Chambers once said, ďIt 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 donít agree with us.Ē 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 todayís passage knows that God is far bigger than human reason and understanding can imagine. We see only a part of the entirety of God.

Perhaps that is why Phillipís evangelism was incomplete in the towns of Samaria. It was a chaotic time. The Church was in its earliest days. Even the Apostles were trying to figure out what it all meant. Though they had learned at the feet of the Master, our Lord Jesus, they still had to learn how to be disciples without Jesus in their presence. If we still have questions two thousand years later, they certainly had questions. It was also chaotic because there were so many who sought to end the growth of the movement that was known as ďThe Way.Ē The believers were being persecuted Ė by both Jews and pagans.

All fled Jerusalem except for the apostles and they were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. They were scared, but they were also passionate. Phillip was a believer chosen to be part of the leadership in the church in Jerusalem. He was one of the seven deacons chosen to be administrators of the gifts of the church. He, like all the others, preached the word of God wherever they went as they fled the persecution in Jerusalem. Phillip ended up in Samaria, preaching with miraculous signs. The people saw what he did and believed what he said and were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.

It was not enough for the people to receive the full blessing of faith. The Holy Spirit had not yet come upon them even though they had accepted the word of God. Peter and John went to Samaria when they heard that the Samaritans believed to ensure that all was well in this new and growing church. When they arrived, they laid hands on the believers who then received the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that Phillip was not good enough to baptize the people of Samaria. We see that Phillip did not yet fully understand the work to which he had been called.

In this passage we learn that the words do matter. Phillip was baptizing into the name of the Lord Jesus, but He is just one part of the wholeness of God. The Apostles were just beginning to fully understand the concept of the Trinity, the tri-part Godhead which has become a foundational understanding of Christian theology. Phillip learned and grew and went on to continue sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others.

Our Gospel passage for this week shows us the fullness of God. On that day as Jesus received the baptism given by John, the voice of God called from heaven and the Spirit of God descended on Jesus. There, in that place, we experience fully the God of our faith Ė His presence, His voice and His power.

The people who had come to the wilderness were expecting to see something special in John. As a matter of fact, they were beginning to wonder if John might be the promised Messiah. He spoke with authority Ė enough to cause the people to be baptized. They were hoping for a cleansing that would make them new and prepare them for the coming of Godís kingdom. They thought that the baptism would make a difference in their lives. It was a chance for a new beginning. John insisted that he was not the Messiah, but that One would come who would baptize with more than water. He would baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit.

Here we have another troubling image. A water baptism seems like such a good and pleasant way of preparation. As a matter of fact, I always feel better after I have had a shower or a bath. It is refreshing and Iím ready to go about my work. There is some evidence that for some groups in Jesusí day baptism was not a once and done event. It was a ritualistic bath, a cleansing that would prepare them for something new. John knew, even while he was baptizing the people in the River Jordan, that his baptism would not be enough. The process was not complete for those who had come to hear Him preach. They would have to wait for the One who was to come, the One who would baptize with fire.

Jesus came to John to be baptized. This was for Jesus a beginning. It was the beginning of His ministry. From this moment, He was walking toward the cross. Did anything change the moment Jesus went under the water? Was anything new when the heavens were opened before Him and the voice of God called Him Son? No. Nothing changed at that moment, and yet everything changed. It was a beginning, but not a new beginning. From His birth Jesus was set for a difficult journey. Though we do not hear much of Jesusí life before His baptism, we do know that even at twelve He knew that God was His Father.

Was Jesus somehow better? Was He more pure? Did He need baptism to cleanse from His life the sins of His youth? Again the answer is no. Jesus did not need the baptism of John; He had no need for repentance. But it was rightly done to consecrate Him to God and so that He could receive Godís approval as He began the work for which He had been sent. His baptism also served as an example for those who would follow Him.

Jesus went on from that moment to do miraculous things and to preach with authority. Was anything changed on that day? Did Jesusí baptism make anything new? No, Jesus was, is and will be the Holy One of God. It was a beginning, but not a new beginning. It was the start of the purpose for His coming. He still had things to do, but this was the first step to the cross. He did not become the Son of God at this moment, but God reached out to touch Him with the encouragement to go do all that He was sent into the world to do.

On this day when we remember the baptism of our Lord, we are reminded of our own baptisms. We were cleansed Ė made clean and new as children of God. Yet, we still fail. We still make mistakes. We still sin. We still seem so far from God. This difference is that when we are baptized we begin a new thing. We begin a new journey and it is a journey that lasts a lifetime. We are changed, but we are also being changed every day. Sometimes we manage to overcome our failings. Sometimes we are able to keep our resolutions. Sometimes we are able to stop doing the sins that hurt our neighbor and dishonor our Father in heaven. Most of the time we are very human and we canít do what we want to do. We know, however, that we are forgiven and that we can make a new start again and again and again because Jesus went to the cross for our sake. His baptism was the first step of a journey, just as our baptism is the first step of a journey. In Him we are made new and we continue to be made new every day.

At His baptism Jesus heard the voice of God. We might not hear God in the same way that Jesus heard Him on that day, but He calls our name at our baptisms, too. At our baptism God is present in word and in power and the Holy Spirit comes to us. We are sealed by the cross of Christ forever. Though nothing might change, everything is changed. We are forgiven, we are consecrated and we are approved by God for the sake of Jesus Christ. And we are sent on a journey. It might not be easy. It might be filled with chaos. We might face cynicism and skeptics. We might even see a side of God that does not fit into our mould or our box in which we would like to keep Him. However, we are called to go forth into the world Ė even if we arenít so sure we want to go Ė living as He has called us to live, dwelling in His presence and sharing Christ.

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