OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 43: 1-7
This is another of Second Isaiah’s oracles of hope. It is essentially written with the idea that the divine calling of the prophet is to comfort all people. It is a clear pronouncement of God’s presence in Israel and with the people. This passage uses some clear language—created, formed, named—in both its opening and at the end. And in between this inclusio, of sorts, is a depiction of God’s redemption and salvation. It reminds us that God never leaves God’s people, that God is always and forever present with the ones that God created, offering them continued renewal, recreation, and redemption.
The central verses of today’s passage elaborate the nature of Israel’s redemption. Israel is named by God and belongs to God. Israel is redeemed not as a tool in God’s hand but as the beloved in a close relationship. References to the wealthiest nations of Africa at that time (Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba) emphasize how precious Israel is to God. Israel’s redemption is not manipulated from afar by a distant deity but is experienced through the presence of God among them. Israel is not promised escape from the dangers of water and fire but that God will be with them in the midst of earthly trials. In this we hear echoes of the flood and the wilderness wanderings. But these verbs are in the present tense, reminding us of the past but also of God’s continued presence and continuing offering of redemption. God seeks to comfort the ones that God loves. Rather than judgment, the people are offered grace.
Remember that this part of Isaiah was probably written to exiled people as the time of exile was ending. It was an invitation to return home. So, from that standpoint, it echoes our own invitation to baptism and for us baptized, a reminder to remember the journey that we travel.
This is a wonderful passage to read in conjunction with the whole idea of Baptism. Through Jesus’ baptism, of which we will read in a moment, that same love is affirmed on an individual basis and is offered to all. For us, it is a reminder for us to envision that redemption as a part of our incarnation, a part of our formation. In essence we are living already redeemed, already loved and beloved, and already beyond what we think is possible. Ukranian / Russian philosopher Lev Shestov said that “It is only when [one] wishes the impossible that [he or she] remembers God. To obtain that which is possible, [one] turns to those like [him or herself].” Baptism is a reminder that we are more than what we imagine and that we connect with a God who is more than what we know and that, no matter what, God walks us through those waters toward redemption.
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does that mean to live “already redeemed”?
- Do you think we really grasp God’s love for us? What stands in the way of our truly understanding that?
- What does it mean to live “beyond the possible”?
NEW TESTAMENT: Acts 8: 14-17
After the stoning of Stephen, the Greek-speaking believers fled Jerusalem to avoid arrest. Philip went to Samaria and through his preaching, a number of Samaritans became believers in Christ. Essentially, the spread of the Gospel was in full swing. The problem was that they had apparently gotten a little excited and perhaps ahead of themselves. So these people had been “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” but, supposedly had not received the Holy Spirit. (Although, I’m not sure how they were able to measure that! Perhaps they were just making sure they had said the words right.) So when the apostles arrive, they prayed that the Samaritan believers would be given the Holy Spirit (assuming, of course, that that had not happened before). Here, Baptism is essentially a technical term for “immersion” into the full person of God—the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit. But now, these believers have also received the Spirit (Whew!).
As odd as this Scripture is, it is reminding us that Baptism cannot be separated from formation. Even when we baptize infants, there is an understanding that formation has begun, that the Holy Spirit has begun to be a part of their lives. It is more than just saying that one believes in God. At all stages of formation, Baptism, the Spirit, and formation cannot be separated. Baptism alone does not make a relationship with God; it is rather an ongoing and continual growth toward oneness with God.
Keep in mind that all through the Book of Acts, these new believers are sort of in “transition”. They knew they had something but they didn’t know what it was or what to do with it. (Perhaps they are not that different from us!) But once it was clarified that this baptism was in the name of Jesus, they understood. This understanding prompts the Holy Spirit. This, though, does not presume a formal relationship between Baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The liturgy is not a magical potion but, rather, a proclamation of what God has done and what God is doing. Baptism is more than about individual experiences. It is, rather, an extension of what God is doing in the world.
Interestingly, a large part of our understanding of baptism is formulaic—“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. They cannot be separated. (The main part of the reason the United Methodists do not “accept” the baptism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has to do with this formula. The LDS baptism is done in the name of Jesus and at that point membership is confirmed. The Holy Spirit is a gift to the baptized that comes AFTER baptism.)
But maybe the conversation needs to include less about what we do and more about what God does. Ultimately, God does the work of conversion rather than us. We can proclaim, we can pray, and we can cultivate spiritual practices. I suppose, sadly, we can even scare people into coming to the altar, holding out some sort of God-forsakenness in an unbaptized existence. But when it’s all said and done, it is God and God alone who converts us. We are invited into what God has already done and what God continues to do. We are invited into transformation.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What happens if we lose the “formation” part of our Baptismal language?
- In what ways do you think we typically “misunderstand” baptism?
- What affect does that understanding of baptism have on the church itself?
- How do we typically understand the presence of the Holy Spirit in baptism?
- How do you think we typically understand God’s work in baptism?
GOSPEL: Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
The early part of the Gospel According to Luke is filled with “expectation-building”. The writer relates the story of Jesus’ birth, his early trip to Jerusalem, and the arrival of John the Baptizer. I think on some level, the writer of Luke is building to this moment—birth, formation, and life in its fullest, creation, redemption, and eternal life. John replies to the expectations of the people by telling them that someone greater than he is coming. This message is shared by all three synoptic Gospels, but the reply concerning the threshing floor occurs only in Matthew and Luke. The Baptist mentions the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire.
The seriousness of baptism is made clear by the metaphor of the threshing floor. This is not an act to undergo lightly. We do not believe that it just something that we have to do; it is instead linked to salvation. It is inclusive. We are judged, we are redeemed, and we are given the gift of life. It is not merely a rite of the church. It is the active work of God. And, notice, that even this very human Jesus, Son of God though he was, could not baptize himself. It is a communal act. We are all part of something bigger than ourselves.
And then the heaven is opened and the Holy Spirit descends. All of heaven spills into the earth. (What a mess THAT probably makes!) The two can no longer be separated. Like the passage from Isaiah depicts, God is with us. This is the inauguration of Jesus’ kingship. Finally, there is room. Eternity dawns in this moment. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the work begins.
This story of Jesus’ Baptism calls us to remember our own. It, too, is our beginning as the gift of God’s grace washes away those things that impede our relationship with God and gives us new birth, new life. And it calls us to do something with our life. But I actually don’t remember the day of my baptism. It happened when I was a little over seven months old, on Palm Sunday, April 15, 1962. It was at First United Methodist Church, Brookshire, TX and Rev. Bert Condrey was the officiant. I had a special dress and lots of family present. That would be all I really know.
And yet we are reminded to “remember our baptism”. What does that mean for those of us who don’t? I think “remembering” is something bigger than a chronological recount of our own memories. It is bigger than remembering what we wore or where we stood or who the actual person was that touched our head with or even immersed us in water. It means remembering our very identity, our creation, what it is that made us, that collective memory that is part of our tradition, our liturgy, our family.
That is what “remembering” our baptism is. It’s not just remembering the moment that we felt that baptismal stream; it is remembering the story into which we entered. It is at that point that the Christian family became our own as we began to become who God intends us to be. And for each of us, whether or not we noticed it, the heavens spilled into the earth and the Holy Spirit emerged. And we, too, were conferred with a title. “This is my child, my daughter or son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And in that moment, whether we are infants or older, we are ordained for ministry in the name of Jesus Christ. We are ordained to the work of Christ and the work of Christ’s church. Caroline Westerhoff says that “at baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s body, infused with Christ’s character, and empowered to be Christ’s presence in the world. [So then], ministry is not something in particular that we do; it is what we are about in everything we do.” (in Calling: A Song for the Baptized, by Caroline Westerhoff, p. xi) In other words, our own Baptism sweeps us into that dawn that Jesus began. And, like Jesus, our own Baptism calls us and empowers us to empty ourselves before God. As we begin to find ourselves standing in those waters with Christ, we also find ourselves ready to be followers of Christ.
You are part of something beyond yourself, beyond what you know, and beyond what you can remember. Rainer Maria Rilke once said that “the future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” Your past now reaches far back before you were here and your future is being transformed and redeemed in you even as we speak.
I’ve heard that Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformation leader, passionately reminded people to “Remember your baptism!” I can’t remember my own baptism. It happened in Canton, Ohio, at St. Joseph’s Church, when I was only two weeks old. But I think Luther meant something bigger than our historical memory of one day. And I have a feeling he wasn’t just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party and, if we’re a baby, everyone saying how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote, “A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued.” I think Martin Luther wanted us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about “self esteem,” don’t we still long to hear that we are beloved? (From a reflection on this week’s lectionary by Kate Huey, available at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-10-2010.html, accessed 6 January, 2010.)
After he was baptized, Jesus stood, dripping wet, to enter his ministry. The heavens opened up and poured into the earth. All of humanity was there in that moment—those gone, those to come. We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ. Then…it is up to you to finish the story. This day and every day, remember your baptism, remember that you are a daughter or son of God with whom God is well pleased and be thankful. You are now part of the story, part of this ordering of chaos, part of light emerging from darkness, part of life born from death. You are part of God’s re-creation. And it is very, very good. Go and do likewise.
- What meaning does this hold for you?
- What meaning does this shed on your own baptism?
- What meaning does this hold for your own spiritual journey?
- What does it mean to be “beloved”, to see yourself as a daughter or son of God?
- What does it mean to imagine that God is indeed “well pleased” with you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The soul must long for God in order to be set aflame by God’s love; but if the soul cannot yet feel this longing, then it must long for the longing. To long for the longing is also from God. (Meister Eckhart)
What we are looking for on earth and in earth and in our lives is the process that can unlock for us the mystery of meaningfulness in our daily lives. It has been the best-kept secret down through the ages because it is so simple. Truly, the last place it would ever occur to most of us to find the sacred would be in the commonplace of our everyday lives and all about us in nature and in simple things. (Alice O. Howell, The Dove in the Stone)
You are destined to fly, but that cocoon has got to go! (Nelle Morton)
Invite people to renew their Baptism by saying to each other. “Remember who and whose you are, God’s beloved daughter with whom God is well pleased.”
Think about it…Jesus was still wet with water after John had baptized him when he stood to enter his ministry in full submission to God. As he stood in the Jordan and the heavens spilled into the earth, all of humanity stood with him. We now stand, wet with those same waters, as we, too, are called into ministry in the name of Christ. As we emerge, we feel a cool refreshing breeze of new life. Breathe in. It will be with you always. Then…it is up to you to finish the story. Then…the journey begins. So remember who and whose you are. Remember your baptism and be thankful for it is who you are.
Wash, O God, our sons and daughters, where your cleansing waters flow. Number them among your people bless as Christ blessed long ago. Weave them garments bright and sparkling; compass them with love and light. Fill, anoint them; send your Spirit, holy dove, and heart’s delight.
We who bring them long for nurture; by your milk may we be fed. Let us join your feast, partaking cup of blessing, living bread. God, renew us, guide our footsteps, free from sin and all its snares, one with Christ in living, dying, by your Spirit, children, heirs.
O how deep your holy wisdom! Unimagined, all your ways! To your name be glory, honor! With our lives we worship, praise! We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spiritborn. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform!
(Ruth Duck, “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters”, The United Methodist Hymnal, #605)