Sermon January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Isaiah 43:1-7
There are some stories that appear in all four gospels. Jesus’ baptism is one of those and this week in text study, we read each one noting the common threads and the differences. Luke tells the story in his own way. He makes it sound as if Jesus simply took his place in line with the others. It’s very anticlimactic. You can almost hear John barely lifting his head to say, “Next!” The climax almost sounds as if it happens after the baptism. According to Luke, Jesus is praying when the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends on him in “bodily form like a dove.” I’m not sure what that means exactly, but this is the only time we hear of the Holy Spirit descending in bodily form. God calls Jesus “my beloved son.” Each of the gospels has a unique flavor. Luke emphasizes the poor and he often refers to Jesus praying. Luke, also the author of Acts, depicts the church at prayer throughout the book of Acts. We witness the depth of relationship as Jesus takes his place in line. He takes seriously his place among the people. He also maintains a connection to God throughout his life.
When I picture Jesus’ baptism, I imagine it to be special as if he is the only person in the water and all eyes are on him, but when I see it through the eyes of Luke, I see him waiting with the others. Perhaps they are wondering about the temperature of the water or planning a celebration afterward. There are many places where we wait in line in our lives and many of us resent it. If you want to hear me complain, catch me after I have been to the bank. I will tell you how many people were in line and how long I had to wait. There is a store in town that always has a line. They never seem to have enough cashiers and I will do anything to avoid going to that store. I HATE waiting in line!
Several years ago, I went to a fundraising dinner for St. Martin’s Hospitality Center. You may know St. Martin’s as one of the services for the homeless community. This was a fancy gathering. We were dressed in nice clothes in a beautifully decorated warehouse. Chefs from some very nice restaurants provided dinner. There were several stations around the room where we could go to get some of the most delicious soups you have ever tasted. This is where they surprised me. When it was time to eat, we went to our table to pick up our Styrofoam bowl and we were told to choose a soup. Then we were told to wait in line with our bowl to get it filled with the soup of our choice. I wasn’t sure how to react to this. At most fundraising dinners, they serve you. They said, “homeless people wait in line for everything they get – their mail, food, and any services we provide.” I was humbled by that and grateful that I was waiting in line in a warm place with music and tasty soup.
That’s who Jesus is. He waits in line with us. He isn’t complaining about how long he has to wait. He isn’t saying he should go to the front or get special treatment. He’s very clear that his place is with us…all of us. When it is his turn, he is baptized and he responds to his baptism by praying. We can have all kinds of debates about whether he needed to be baptized or not, but those seem irrelevant to me. What is relevant is that he WAS baptized, that he walks with us every step of the way. He is part of us and he asks us to be part of one another. He doesn’t want us to think that some of us deserve to be in line and some of us don’t. He wants us to understand that we belong to each other. Fred Craddock illustrates this in a beautiful way.
Fred served a little church on Watts Bar Lake between Chattanooga and Knoxville. This church did baptisms in the lake on Easter evening at sundown. Fred and the candidates for baptism would come out of the water and change their clothes at a little booth that had been constructed for them. They would join the congregation as they sang and cooked supper around a fire. The newly baptized would move to the center of the circle. Once they were all around the fire, Glenn Hickey would introduce the new people. Everyone else formed a circle around them. Each person in the circle would say his or her name and this, “My name is…., and if you ever need somebody to do washing and ironing…” “My name is…, if you ever need anybody to chop wood…” “My name is…, if you ever need anybody to babysit…” “My name is…, if you ever need anybody to repair your house…” “My name is…, if you ever need anybody to sit with the sick…” “My name is…, and if you ever need a car to go to town…” and around the circle.
After they had eaten and had a square dance, Percy Miller would stand up and say, “Time to go,” and everyone would leave. The first time Fred experienced this, he stood while Percy put out the fire. Percy said, “Craddock, folks don’t ever get any closer than this.” Craddock says there is a name for that. They call it, “church”. (Craddock Stories by Fred B. Craddock pp. 151-2)
We are church when we accept God’s love for us and embrace God’s love for all. We are church when we spread that love around the campfire and out into the world. I have told some of you that the reading from Isaiah today is my favorite scripture. It is rich in imagery – God will not allow the water to overwhelm us or the fire to burn us. Note that we are told there will be water and fire. Life is not smooth sailing. Isaiah was writing to the people in exile. He was not denying their suffering nor was he saying they would never suffer again, but he was sharing God’s promise that suffering would not be the last word. God is the last word and in this passage we hear who God is. God is love. That’s it. It is that simple and that complicated. Listen again to the words that come to us as a love letter from God “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
God loves us and if we ever decide to claim that love, we will spend our whole lives trying to live up to that love. We will blow it and God will keep loving us. We will do beautiful things and God will keep loving us. We will have brilliant ideas and God will keep loving us. We will hurt someone and God will keep loving us. We will wake up and God will keep loving us. We will eat too much and God will keep loving us. We will share our money and God will keep loving us. We will come to the end of our day and God will keep loving us. That is what God does and because of that, we are free to love one another in ways that can change the world.
Baptism is being marked as God’s beloved. It doesn’t matter what we have done and it is true that we will mess up again. In baptism, we are saying yes to God who has already said yes to us and who says yes to us over and over. We are asked to embrace this massive love that follows us through rivers and fire. We are saying yes to this love that stands in line with us. We are standing around the campfire together and offering our lives to one another because God continues to offer life to us.
This morning after the prayer time, you are invited to remember your baptism. Before you start arguing that you don’t remember your baptism, let me tell you that isn’t what it means. Some of us do remember baptism, some of us don’t. What we are doing is claiming again, the love of God that was claimed in our baptism – whether we did it or someone did it on our behalf. We are saying yes to God and yes to living God’s love in the world. You get to stand in line to do it and know that Jesus stands with us in line. As you come to the font, I hope you will hear the words from Luke and Isaiah again: “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” “You are precious, and honored, and I love you.” That is who we are – God’s beloved. We just need to share that love around the campfire and into the world.