A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 13, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 and Acts 8:14-17
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Have you ever noticed that people tend to get into the water one of two ways?  Whether it’s the swimming pool or the swimming hole, people either plunge right in or they dip in a toe, then a foot, then the leg, and slowly lower themselves into the water.  I have an memory from my childhood of my father diving into the lake, rolling onto his back as he surfaced so he could look at us on shore, and saying, “Brisk!” before anyone could ask, “How’s the water?”

One of the things I noticed as I studied our scriptures this week is that in Luke’s version of the baptism of Jesus, we don’t see him in the water.  In Luke’s version, John is preaching and answering questions, and then we cut to Jesus praying:  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying …”  Apparently, at some point, Jesus got baptized, we assume by John, but we don’t get to hear about it.  We don’t get a chance to ask Jesus, “How’s the water?”

It’s as if Luke assumes we’d assume that Jesus was there in the Jordan with everyone else, there in the wilderness, there in the margins of society, removed from the centers of power.  He gets wet like everyone else, but then he starts praying.  And as he prays, heaven opens and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove flying down from heaven.  And he hears a voice coming from heaven.

Earlier in Luke’s gospel, angels come from heaven to deliver messages.  Zachariah gets a visit.  Mary gets a visit.  The shepherds get a visit.  But this is a voice directly from heaven.  We assume it’s God’s voice and this assumption is confirmed when we’re told what the voice says:  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s gospel isn’t about the water; it’s about what happens out of the water.

There is other stuff going on here.  Right after we hear that God has called Jesus “Son,” claiming Jesus as part of divinity, Luke goes into the very human genealogy of Jesus.  I assume Luke is making a point about how you can’t put Jesus in a box.  Yes, he’s the son of God, but he’s also the son of Mary and Joseph.  Yes, he’s the son of Mary, but he’s also the son of God.

There’s other stuff going on here, but central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is not the ritual of the water.  Central to Luke’s understanding of baptism is the action of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is praying, absorbed in the ancient spiritual practice, when heaven opens, he looks up Jacob’s ladder, a cosmic wormhole opens.  It’s a pillar of fire.  It’s the eye of the storm.  It’s a holy moment of divine activity.  And the Holy Spirit slams into him.

“In this event Jesus accepts a role with reference to God and to humankind.”[i]  We will get into what he understood this role to mean in a couple weeks.  Today, let’s stay in this moment.  Let’s stay with Luke, looking at what God is doing here.

We hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus in our reading about an early baptism of the life of the church.  In our reading from Acts – also authored by Luke – the candidates were convinced of the news of God in Christ, so they are baptized in his name.  The apostles apparently think this is pretty cool, because Peter and John go to these new believers.  Now this is a bit of a stretch because these new believer were Samaritans and there was that Jewish-Samaritan animosity that Jesus liked to use in his story telling.  But when they get to Samaria, Peter and John discover that these new believers haven’t received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So they pray over these newest members of the movement, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed.

Luke separates the ritual of baptism from the action of God.  It’s as if Luke is saying to me, “Jeff, you can get them as wet as your want, but it’s the action of God that really matters.”

We shouldn’t be surprised by this separation.  Luke tells us that John realized that what he was doing and what God was doing were different things.  He’ll baptize you with water as a symbol of your desire to repent.  But only Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”

Listen to the first two verses of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned for today.  Isaiah 43:1-2:

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

In Isaiah, the waters threaten to overwhelm us and the fires threaten to consume us.  In Luke, water initiates us and fire refines us and makes us ready to truly serve God and one another.

It’s like the story of the egg, the carrots, and the coffee.[ii]  A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her.  She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up.  She was tired of fighting and struggling.  It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen.  She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire.  Soon the pots came to boil.  In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans.  She let them sit and boil, without saying a word.

After a while, she turned off the burners.  She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl.  She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl.  Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.  Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me, what you see?”

“Carrots, eggs, and coffee,” she replied.

Her mother brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots.  She did and noted that they were soft.  The mother then asked the daughter to take an egg and break it.  After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg.  Finally, the mother asked the daughter to sip the coffee.  The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma.  The daughter then asked, “What does it mean, mother?”

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity … boiling water.  Each reacted differently.  The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting, but after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.  The egg had been fragile, its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened.  The ground coffee beans were unique, however.  After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.

“Which are you?” she asked her daughter.  “When adversity knocks on your door, how do you respond?  Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean?”

Baptism doesn’t protect us from the hardships of life.  Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t give us a “get out of hardships free” card.  “At baptism we proclaim our desire to walk with God.  When we receive the Holy Spirit, God responds, assuring us that our primary identity has already been decided:  ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ (Isaiah 43:1).  Luke confirms this most clearly with Jesus’ own baptism.  Jesus’ step toward God is reciprocated with God’s acknowledgement of Jesus:  ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[iii]

I’ve listened to a lot of sermons over the years.  Yes, most of them were mine.  In all honestly, I only remember a few of them – including the ones I preached.  One that I remember was preached as the consecration of an Episcopal bishop I was attending to help represent the ecumenical community about two decades ago.

The event was one of pomp and circumstance as only the Episcopalians can do.  This was a big deal.  Becoming a bishop in the Episcopal Church is a big deal.  From a liturgical point of view, consecrating a bishop is a rare event.  Ordinations of priests happen with some regularity.  Baptisms are a dime a dozen.

The bishop who preached at the service made a point of this.  To illustrate the point, he spoke about the certificates that you get at each occasion.  At baptism, a card is issued with the baptized’s name.  At ordination, a certificate is issued – suitable for framing, but it’s the size of a piece of standard paper.  At a bishop’s consecration, a grand certificate is issued that embossed and ornate and big and substantial.

And then he said that we have it backwards.  Of these three liturgical events, the important one is the baptism.  Yes, we pray for the Holy Spirit to act in all three of these events, but the event that claims us, that makes us know who we are and whose we are is not the consecration or the ordination.  It’s the baptism.

Studying these scriptures has made me think about how the Holy Spirit has been at work in my life.  I was an infant when I was baptized, so I don’t remember it.  I believe the Holy Spirit came and whispered in my ear that I, too, am a beloved child of God, just as I believe that Holy Spirit whispers this good news to everyone who is baptized.  But I have no memory of that experience.  Likewise, I don’t remember any heaven-rending epiphany at my confirmation.  The hoard of us (there were four or five dozen in my confirmation class) stood before the congregation, answered some questions, and received certificates.  And as much as I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit doing something at my ordination, mostly what I felt was hands pressing on me as prayers were recited.

My deep Holy Spirit experiences have happened outside the confines of those liturgical moments.  You could have filmed what seemed to be the action at those rituals, but the real action took place at other times.  In many ways, baptism is an out of water experience.

My baptism was happening when I received a Bible during worship in fourth grade – a moment of connection to God that sill rests with me.  My baptism was happening when I heard a scripture read and I left the sanctuary and was one the road with Jesus, only to be disappointed with how the reading ended.  My baptism was happening again when I heard my call to ordained ministry.

Earlier this week, representatives from three of the five congregations associated with the United Church of Christ in Fremont met to do some initial brainstorming for UCC-wide mission effort that will start on April 1.  “Mission 4/1 Earth” will focus us for 50 days on caring for the earth.  We will have opportunities to contribution toward the national goals of:  1 million earth care hours; 100,000 trees planted; and 100,000 advocacy letters written.  Some of this work we will do on our own and some of it will be done in community.  All of it will be an opportunity to live out our baptisms, and if we’re open to it, the Holy Spirit just might use it to keep your baptism happening.

You see, ultimately, baptism isn’t about sin and forgiveness and getting some good after-life insurance.  Baptism is about claiming and being claimed, about accepting who we are and whose we are … and about how that changes how we live.

As holy a moment as baptism is, the importance of baptism is what happens after we’re baptized.  It’s an out of water experience.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Fearless Submission,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_100149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).

[ii] Author unknown, “A Carrot, An Egg and a Cup of Coffee,” Deep Thoughts, http://www.hapkido.com/deepthoughts/coffee.htm (12 January 2013).

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Receiving the Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_040149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES USED

Jim Rice, “‘You Are My Beloved,’” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_980149_CEpiphany1&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).

Ched Myers, “Baptism’s True Claim,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=Soj0607&article=060722&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Epiphany_1 (12 January 2013).

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