Baptism of Our Lord
Jehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace.
I have been housecleaning. I'm not sure if it is an unspoken New Year's resolution or if I just reached the point when I just could not look at the mess any longer. I'm taking it a little at a time and encouraging others in my family to do so also. In cleaning, I'm also encouraging some purging. "Do I really need this?" I ask myself often. I've thrown garbage away and I'm collecting a pile of items to either send to Good Will or sell next spring at a yard sale.
The trouble with cleaning is that it often takes a little chaos to get to the bottom of the mess. Then it is possible to sort through everything, pick and choose what I want to keep and what needs to go. The house becomes so messy it is hard to tell I'm trying to clean. In the end I manage to organize everything so that the house looks orderly and clean. It takes a lot of work and I'm exhausted in the end, but I enjoy having everything in its place. Unfortunately, it is only temporary because I will have to do it all again in a few months or a year.
In Genesis we hear, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void." 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, "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." 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.
God went on to separate the light from the darkness. He called the light Day and the darkness Night. "And there was evening and there was morning, one day." Isn't it interesting that God formed the light even before there was anything to produce the light? The sun, moon and stars were not created until the fourth day. Yet, even in the beginning, while the earth was still formless and void, there was light. It only took a word from God and everything was different. Though perhaps still chaotic, at least now we know there is something. A voice spoke and there was light.
In this week's lectionary we are left hanging with this beloved story. It is a story with which we are so familiar that we can almost hear it without it being read. 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, we are left here 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? Even more difficult is the question, "Why is there evil?" 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. "God divided the light from the darkness." The darkness is a lack of light.
Throughout the scriptures, darkness is equated with evil and sin. Evil exists; we know this to be true. Besides our experience with evil, the Bible tells us that evil is in the world. We have suffered from the sins of others and we have suffered the consequences of our own sin. We die because of sin, even though that was not God's intent. So, we are left once again with that question. "Why?" Why is there sin? Why is there evil? Why would God create evil?
We reach to the same answer. Evil is not part of God's creation, but rather exists because some of God's creation rejected the light. Evil is the lack of Light, the lack of God. Some of God's creation rejected God, and thus we are left with evil. It did not take very long for the evil to draw others away from the light. Even in the Garden of Eden, Paradise, Adam and Eve were swayed to turn from God and to leave the Light. Since that moment, sin has been a part of our world. We can't fix it. We can't defeat it. We can't even overcome sin by our own power because it has overpowered us.
But God did not stop speaking. Even while evil and sin were bringing chaos to God's creation, God had a plan to bring order. The voice of God ripped through the fabric of creation and God incarnate was born.
The psalm gives us an image of how this may have sounded. The voice of the Lord thunders. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. The voice of the Lord causes the beasts to tremble. The voice of the Lord strikes like lightening. The voice of the Lord shakes the desert. The voice of the Lord twists the mighty oaks.
We return once again to that moment in the beginning when God spoke and there was light. There was still chaos. The earth was still formless. There was still nothing but a void. And yet we found comfort in His voice because His voice brought light. So, too, that powerful voice thunders, breaks, strikes, shakes and twists the creation and yet we find in that voice comfort and peace. The psalmist writes, "And in his temple everything saith, Glory. Jehovah sat as King at the Flood; Yea, Jehovah sitteth as King for ever. Jehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace." Even when everything seems like chaos, we are blessed with peace.
Then just as it seemed like God was no longer willing to speak to His people, when the time was right, He spoke and brought forth His Son. In today's Gospel lesson, we meet the Son as an adult and we once again hear the voice of God. In this story, John the Baptist is a voice crying out in the wilderness, calling God's people to repentance. They flock to him – young and old, rich and poor. Some people came for the wrong reasons and rejected the words he spoke, but many believed. They were baptized in the river Jordan at his hand, but even as he did this baptism he told them that another would come. The one to come would be greater than John, so great that John would not even be worthy to be His slave.
Then Jesus came to the River Jordan and was baptized by John. We could spend hours discussing the necessity of this act. As a matter of fact theologians have done so for generations. After all, John's baptism was one of repentance and Jesus was without sin – He had nothing to confess or repent. Did He do it to identify with us? Did He do it to be an example? Did He do it so that He would take on the sin of humanity that was being washed into the Jordan River with every other baptism? The answer could be all of these.
What matters to us today is not that Jesus was baptized, but rather what happened according to Mark when He was. Mark writes, "And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens rent asunder, and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him: And a voice came out of the heavens, Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased." Once again God spoke and there was peace.
Perhaps in these few words, God was offering Jesus the assurance that He needed to begin His ministry. Jesus was after all human as well as divine. Though the old Christmas song says He did not cry, I'm sure that Mary would tell us differently. He was beginning a journey that would lead to the cross. Along the way He would be persecuted, rejected, hated. Just as the darkness drew people away from the light at the beginning, the darkness drew people away from Jesus. He was the Light and many who lived in that time and in that place rejected the Light. Though He was human and did not know everything that was to happen, He must have known that it would not be an easy task saving the world.
So, in the words spoken out of heaven at His baptism, Jesus heard the assurance of a Father's love. "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." Those words of encouragement were enough to go into the wilderness for forty days. There He was tempted, but He never fell. The darkness tried to draw Him away from His course, but Jesus was the Light and in Him there was no darkness. The darkness had no power against Him.
Unfortunately, since Adam and Eve, the darkness has always had some power over us. In the Garden of Eden we fell and we've 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 Jesus' name does more than just offer forgiveness.
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, "You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased." 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. We know and we may even understand that God loves us, but these words say so much more. As a beloved child, God also likes us.
Perhaps that sounds unimportant. We spend way too much time trying to get people to like us – some of us do so more than others. The temptation to do things to please people is a hard one to overcome. That temptation causes us to do things we know we should not do. As youth we try things to appear cool to our contemporaries, like drugs or cigarettes. It doesn't stop as we grow up, but the temptations are different. As adults we try to impress our boss or our neighbors. We even fall into the trap in our church relationships. We may not use the word "like" but we all are pulled into the deception that comes with the need for assurance and approval.
At our baptism, however, God speaks those words of assurance over our lives without any merit of our own. In the water and in His Word, God says, "You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased" even while we know we are not worthy to hear them. God's Word brings light to our darkness, order to our chaos. At our baptism, God says, "I like you and I want to be with you forever."
John's baptism was a baptism of repentance. In the early days of the church, there was some confusion about the difference between John's work and the work done in Jesus' name. In today's second lesson from Acts, Paul came across some disciples in Ephesus who'd heard of Jesus but had not heard the whole story. They had not heard and did not yet understand about the work of the Holy Spirit. The baptism they had received was from John, a baptism of repentance. He said, "John told the people to believe in the one coming after Him."
Luke writes, "And when they heard this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus." 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.
For two thousand years, men and women like Paul and the other disciples have been speaking God's 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 God's own mouth. That Word, which is Jesus, brings light into our darkness and order to our chaos. But as in the story we heard in the beginning of this message, there is more to the story. There is still darkness in this world, and there is still evil to contend with. Yet, even as the light shined on the formless void that brought a sense of peace, our baptism offers us the same peace as we live in the chaos of this world.
I still have a great many corners of my house that need to be cleaned. There are still things that need to be purged and set aside for either the garbage man or a yard sale. When it happens, I'll have some moments of chaos, confusion. I may even doubt that I'll ever get this house clean, but somehow I will bring about order. While I might be able to do it in my house, my spiritual life is another story. I can't do it myself. I need God's Word to bring peace.
Martin Luther said, "Remember your baptism." He was not calling us to remember the event or remember the day. He was telling us to remember God's Word that came to us at that day. In remembering those words, "You are my beloved child. I like you and I want to spend eternity with you" we are given the assurance we need to get us through each day. We might have to face difficult times, Jesus did. The message He gave us to share is no more acceptable in this time than it was to His contemporaries. Yet we know, as we remember our baptism, we can live the words of the psalmist, "Jehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace." Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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