Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sermon: Of Water and Spirit

Grace Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2016, Baptism of the Lord C
Luke 3:15-17, 20-21; Acts 8:14-17

Of Water and Spirit

Well, if it wasn’t clear before, it is now. Christmas is over.
The greenery is gone, no more poinsettias, and those wandering wise men have completed their journey from the narthex to the nativity, to their ultimate destination: the worship committee storage room. All of the visible symbols are gone.
The way the liturgical calendar falls this year is a bit unusual, in that the turnaround from Advent/Christmas to Lent is pretty brief: Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, is actually one month from today, on February 10. It’s an early-Easter year, with that pinnacle holiday of the Christian year falling on March 27.
As a result, this in-between season is pretty brief. It would be fairly easy to check out for a few Sundays as a pastor, to “just get by” until Ash Wednesday and gear up for the season of Lent.
That would be easy, but I think we would be missing something if I did that.
Let us look for a moment at how this in-between season begins and ends. The Advent-Christmas cycle ends with the observance of Epiphany, in which the church commemorates the visit of the wise men, or magi, to pay homage to the child Jesus. We observed that event Wednesday evening in a small service. Perhaps the main “takeaway” from Epiphany is that it represents a particular manifestation, a particular recognition of God, in this case in Jesus, the child, to whom those magi came by following what might best be labeled a divinely-appointed star. The Epiphany story, found in Matthew 2, stands out in the broader Advent-Christmas cycle as a revelation particularly directed to the Gentiles, not to others in the Jewish population into which Jesus was born. Despite the meager appearance of a child born in an out-of-the-way place, those sages knew enough and recognized enough to understand that they were in the presence of something divine.
On the other end of this mini-season, on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday, is that strange event known as the Transfiguration. In that event, told from Luke 9 this year, Jesus goes up a mountain with a small group of his disciples, and while there, Jesus is transfigured – his appearance altered, marked by dazzling brightness – and Moses and Elijah appear with him. Strange, to be sure, but again the kind of thing one might possibly expect when dealing with a divine figure.
Now, looking at today’s readings, maybe we can see something that might represent a theme we can develop. Perhaps the story of Jesus’s baptism, as told by Luke, might help us here. Coming down to the river where John preached and baptized, we see Jesus among the crowds there. We hear a bit of John’s sermonizing – this was a pretty consistent theme with John, talking about the one who was to come after him, with a bit of scary-sounding imagery thrown in about winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. And then we hear that Jesus is among them and also being baptized.
Even this acknowledgment is perhaps a bit theologically puzzling. Exactly what was Jesus being baptized for? What did a man who had no sin for which to repent need to be here for? It’s enough of a troublesome idea that the gospel of John actually does not portray Jesus actually being baptized by John. Jesus does go to John and John essentially points at him and says “he’s the guy!” but John never does baptize Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel John does baptize Jesus, but only under protest. Only in Mark’s gospel does the baptism of Jesus by John happen in a fairly straightforward and direct fashion, without resistance.
What Luke and Matthew and Mark point to in this scene is the degree to which Jesus fulfills the “fully human” part of the “fully human, fully divine” characteristic by which we know Jesus. Sinless as he was, he submitted himself to be baptized. The thing we do at the baptistry or the river or at our little font cannot be dismissed as an empty or meaningless gesture when the One whose name we claim, the one by whose name we are called, went down to the water to be baptized himself.
Now, most of us don’t get the extra-special heavenly shout-out that came after Jesus’s baptism, when he had found a place aside to pray. We aren’t accustomed to seeing the heavens open up and having a voice from above calling us “beloved.” But it matters nonetheless, and it’s not wrong to expect or to think that something special and important is happening.
But the reading from Acts points to something else we should learn to expect.
In this account, the deacon Philip has been journeying in regions outside Judea or Galilee, and has been proclaiming the gospel in Samaria since being run out of Jerusalem after the persecutions of Saul. In addition to Philip’s preaching, miracles were happening: demons were being cast out, the paralyzed were being raised up to walk, and many others were being cured. The word got back to those followers still in Jerusalem that “Samaria had accepted the word of God.”
You would think the first reaction would be rejoicing, but no. The first reaction of the Jerusalem group was an investigation. That’s a little bit of an ugly sign. We should remember that Samaritans were regarded as deeply inferior people with corrupt worship practices but the Jews of Judea, but that’s not a good enough reason to react with suspicion and something like fear at what should be good news.
So Peter and John arrive in Samaria and start asking questions. And indeed it does turn out that something is missing. In the post-Pentecost world in which the Jerusalem group found itself, they did recognize that the activity of the Holy Spirit that had first dramatically been shown on that day meant that they, no matter how they tried, couldn’t be the same people they had been before. But the Samaritans hadn’t heard about this Holy Spirit yet. Peter and John taught and prayed and laid hands upon them, and “they received the Holy Spirit,” although we aren’t in this passage given any specific indication of how this showed itself, whether it was some kind of Pentecost-like demonstration or something else. But something changed. In some way the presence of the Holy Spirit showed itself in the Samaritans that made it clear that the Holy Spirit was there.
Something changes.
If we are to claim our baptism, if we are to be called followers of Christ, if we claim to be marked as children of God, something changes. Living conventionally doesn’t do any more. If we claim to be the family of God, the body of Christ, worshiping and learning in God’s house, our time together should look different and leave us looking and sounding different.
So maybe that’s what this miniature season is for. What does it look like – what do we look like – when God shows up? What does it mean to be answering God’s call, whether to be an elder, as four of our number are answering today, or to be teaching in Sunday school or singing in choir or even simply being here as part of the church? How are we changed, if what we say about ourselves is true? If we dare apply the word “Christian” to ourselves, how do we look or sound or act different? What does it mean to take our baptism seriously? What does it mean to be under the influence of the Holy Spirit? What’s different about us?
This is a particularly crucial time to ask ourselves that question. We live in a time and a society in which a lot of people are very loudly and insistently calling themselves “Christians” and yet living and speaking and showing absolutely zero signs of their baptism or of having received the Holy Spirit. Whether at political rallies or sporting events, or in courtrooms or corporate offices or internet comment sections, or even holed up in wildlife refuges in Oregon, there are so many self-appointed Christians living zero evidence of the life and teaching of Christ, living in absolute rebellion against the moving of the Holy Spirit. As a result when we go out and claim to be Christians, to be followers of Christ, to be led by the Holy Spirit, we’re going to be viewed with suspicion.
So maybe it’s worth some time in this in-between season to look to scripture and ask ourselves what it looks like when God really is here. Maybe we should ask what it looks like then the Holy Spirit truly is received and welcomed among us. Maybe we should ask ourselves what it looks like to live up to our baptism, to answer God’s call, to live and act and talk like a follower of Christ.
And then maybe we have to ask ourselves how much we look and act and sound like that. So let’s spend a few weeks on that, shall we?
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Shall We Gather At the River” (GtG 375); “How Firm a Foundation” (PH 361); “Baptized in Water” (PH 492); “How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord” (PH 419)

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