Baptism of the Lord


 
 

 

Rev Tricia Dillon Thomas
January 13, 2013

 
Prayer of Illumination:

O Lord, we come this morning

Knee-bowed and body-bent

Before thy throne of grace.

O Lord, this morning

Bow our hearts beneath our knees

And our knees in some lonesome valley.

We come this morning

Like empty pitchers to a fountain full.[1]

Amen.

Today we have two readings. One from the Book of Isaiah and the other from the Gospel of Luke. Often we Christians overlook or forget that most of what is written in the New Testament was addressed to Jews who knew the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, intimately, and that the fulfillment of prophecies and promises from God to God’s people was happening in the form of the incarnate God, Jesus, the Messiah. 

 
So let’s hear from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 43 verses 1-7.

 
1 But now, says the LORD— the one who created you, Jacob, the one who formed you, Israel: Don't fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when through the rivers, they won't sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won't be scorched and flame won't burn you. 3 I am the LORD your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior. I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. 4 Because you are precious in my eyes, you are honored, and I love you. I give people in your place, and nations in exchange for your life. 5 Don't fear, I am with you. From the east I'll bring your children; from the west I'll gather you. 6 I'll say to the north, "Give them back!" and to the south, "Don't detain them." Bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7 everyone who is called by my name and whom I created for my glory, whom I have formed and made.

 
The author of Second Isaiah is addressing Israelite exiles who have experienced utter disaster. If you’ll recall, the Babylonians came and destroyed the Promised Land as the kings of Israel turned further and further away from God and the people stopped taking care of one another. The Israelites were thus forced out of Israel and into Babylonian captivity leaving behind everything they knew: their livelihood, their family, their community, and the land of milk and honey God promised them. Imagine a trail of tears but worse, because they also thought God had abandoned them or perhaps had been defeated by the Babylon gods. There was no hope, only despair, because the promise of land and many peoples was being wiped away.

 
But as Dr. Kathleen O’Connor writes, “[This] text speaks of passing through deadly waters, of being loved and ransomed by God, and of living as a people named by God for the sake of God’s glory. All of its promises seek to reverse the deep fear of a people on the precipice of extinction…. Isaiah reassures these abandoned ones by reasserting divine presence and power among them.”[2]

 
And so while this text is written to Jewish exiles in the 6th Century BCE, it carries “quintessential claims that Christian baptism will later make on believers…all of the divine promises articulated by Second Isaiah receive a new layer of meaning in Jesus’ baptism.”[3]

 
So let us now continue to hear how the Spirit is speaking to her church as we read about Jesus’ baptism from Luke Chapter 3.

15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 18 With many other words John appealed to them, proclaiming good news to the people.

19 But Herod the ruler had been criticized harshly by John because of Herodias, Herod’s brother’s wife, and because of all the evil he had done. 20 He added this to the list of his evil deeds: he locked John up in prison.

21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

This is the word of the Lord.

                                    Thanks be to God.

In the beginning of the passage we meet a crowd expectant. A crowd excited. A crowd who has long awaited a king to save them. A crowd like those from Isaiah who wait to be set free from their bondage. And after hearing John preach a message of radical love and radical living, they begin to wonder if he is in fact the promised one, the Christ.

But John is quick to reply, “I have baptized you with water. The one for whom you wait, the one for whom the prophets spoke, is coming, but he is so much more powerful than me, I’m not even worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And if there is any doubt in the minds of those standing on the shore about John’s identity as the Christ, the passage tells us his ministry ends there as Herod has him thrown in prison.

There are moments in the Bible when we are witness to a very clear Collision of the Trinity. The first is in the beginning. In the beginning as God began to create, the wind, The RUAH, the Spirit hovered over the water and the word was spoken. God the creator, the sustainer, and the redeemer. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There is a collision of the Holy Trinity right there in the beginning.

I see today’s passage as another moment, as another very clear witness to the collision of the Trinity. In Luke’s gospel, the baptism of Jesus is hardly mentioned at all…in fact, for all you grammar geeks, it’s a dependent clause: “when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying.” The sentence about the baptism of our Lord can’t even stand alone.

Here these words again from Luke,

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’*

For Luke, the collision of the Trinity happens not in the waters, but on the river’s edge. It is as Jesus prays, the Spirit descends on him and God speaks. A collision. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit meet. The Collision of the Trinity.

The hope for the long biblical narrative, just as we heard in Isaiah was for a powerful redeemer who could lead the people out of their bondage, out of their captivity. I find it interesting that before we meet Jesus in the waters, we hear John speaking about him as a powerful and wholly other person.

And it’s not that John was wrong, but the expectations of who Christ would be according to John and frankly, according to the Israelites is: someone whose shoe we weren’t even worthy to touch, someone who would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff, He whose sandals shouldn’t be touched, had his feet anointed by oil with hair falling from a woman’s head. He who would be the great judge, got in line and was baptized with sinners.[4] Jesus turned the expectations of who a king would be on its head from the very beginning of his ministry. Our God lived a very radical life of radical love.

He ate with people on the opposing team.

He touched untouchables.

He embraced the morally decrepit.

He blessed his enemies.

And at the Collision of the Trinity on the shore’s edge when the heavens open and the dove alighted on Jesus, the words of the Father to his son are words of love. “You are my son, whom I dearly love. And in you I find great joy.” The message Jesus receives, the message that initiates his ministry, is one of love.

 There are two theological words that I haven’t thought about since I studied for my ordination exams. Intrinsic and extrinsic. And they have to do with the character of God. Who God is within Godself, and who God is in the world.

When the heavens open and the dove alights on Jesus the words of the Father to his son are words of love. Whether it came as a thundering proclamation to the body gathered at the shore, or a soft assertion whispered in Jesus’ ear, like a mother holding on to the child she has just birthed, God says to her son: I love you. You are my beloved. You bring me great joy. With you I am well pleased.

 The intrinsic character of the trinity is that of love. There is deep love between the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Redeemer. The father, the Son, the Holy spirit.

“The text claims that the very divine presence that came upon Jesus that day in the Jordan comes upon Jesus’ followers” one scholar writes, “Baptism is also an acknowledgement of one’s belonging to God. The voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism declares him to be God’s own Son. It is the similar claim made about Israel in the oracle of Isaiah, when the Lord says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1).[5]

And my brothers and sisters, it is the same claim that is made to us in our baptism.

Do not fear.

God is with you.

God called you by name.

You are God’s alone.

“I love you. You are my son, you are my daughter, whom I dearly love. And in you I find great joy. With you I am well pleased.”

The extrinsic character of the trinity is also love. God’s love for us. God’s call for us to love one another. God’s call for us to love ourselves. God’s call for us to love our creation. When we read through the Bible, the overarching narrative is one of love. It’s a call to us in the waters of baptism and a call for us in this world.

I have a preaching professor who once said most folks come to the scriptures and see one prominent message. For some it might be we are full of sin. For others the overarching theme is grace. I remember his was “God is for the oppressed.”

Mine has always been “God is in the midst of.” Like the words uttered to the exiles in Babylon, in my life, it has been important to know and to trust that God loves us so much, God has been in the midst of the great joys and many sufferings within my own life and those of whom I love. Like the Israelites who were promised they wouldn’t be alone when they passed thru the waters, went thru the rivers and walked in the fires, it gives me hope to know I am loved and redeemed, to know you are loved and redeemed, to know those that I hold dear and do everything they can to not be loved and redeemed, are in fact, named by God as beloved.

So “God is in the midst of” has been important to me for that reason, but it has also been important to me for another: it gives me the courage to stand at the cross, and then to pick it up, to bear witness to it and to carry it.

Last week I was with a few of our college students for the Collegiate Conference, and our conference theme was “Fleshed Out”: Jesus as the fleshed out form of God on earth; Jesus as the distinctly fleshed out person of the trinity.  And us as the fleshed out body of Christ on this earth.

When the church is at its best, it is literally the body of Christ on this earth.       PAUSE          We become Christ’s body.[6] The fleshed out God amidst God’s people.

When we answer God’s prayer to be radical lovers, we not only witness to the collision of the triune, (where formed in God’s hands and in God’s image, we are moved by the breath of the Holy Spirit to love God’s people, and become the living body of Christ here on this earth), but we are promised we never walk alone.

There are times as the body of Christ we are called to stand at the foot of the cross and proclaim a radical love. A radical love that threw John in prison and had Jesus crucified. And it can be truly scary work. But as the hands and feet of Christ and in grateful response for the love of a God who gave his fleshed out body for us, it is our call, it is our duty to the Lord, to proclaim a gospel of love: to speak of love against hate, to spread open our arms instead of shutting our doors, to stand with the oppressed instead of walking by with eyes cast down.

We are a witness to the Collision of the Trinity when the body of Christ  participates in the Triune’s work of loving reconciliation in the world.

So may we remember we are God’s and God’s alone, deeply loved and never alone. May we go out with the love of God in our hearts, with the love of God in our words, with the love of God in our bodies. And may we as the church, as the body of Christ, bear witness to the collision of the trinity here on this earth as we  love and serve one another. May it be so.

Amen.

Closing Prayer

God of all righteousness,
we need the life and grace
that you alone can give.
Open the heavens to us
and pour out your Holy Spirit
so that we may live as your beloved children;

through Jesus Christ our Savior. [7]



[1] James Weldon Johnson, “Listen, Lord—A Prayer,” in God’s Trombones (New York: Viking Press, 1927), 13.
[2] David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 219.
[3] Ibid. 219, 223.
[4] Ibid, 239.
[5] Couser, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome, eds., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 93.
 
[6] Richard Deibert in a conversation a few years ago.
[7] http://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/prayers_for_baptism_of_the_lord.pdf