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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 8, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Luke 2:41-52 and Luke 3:1-14, 21-22
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the overture to Luke’s gospel. You may remember I talked about this a month ago, this idea that the birth and childhood narratives in Matthew and Luke serve a similar purpose as an overture to a Broadway musical. They act as a bridge to bring you into the story you’re about to hear and they introduce the themes you’ll hear later in the story.

So we heard the end of Luke’s overture. It’s his last chance to get you ready to hear the rest of his gospel. And as simple as the story is, it is rich with foreshadowing.

The setting is the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is the most important festival of the Hebrew year. This is when the Jews remember how God led them from slavery to freedom, how God made them a people with the gift of the Torah. The Passover story is told in both the past- and present-tenses; God freed us and God is freeing us. So the story is about both Egypt and Jerusalem, both Pharaoh and Caesar. When Luke finishes his gospel, Jesus will be back in Jerusalem and it will be at the Passover and he will be facing down the Pharaoh of his day, Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem.

There’s a wonderful moment any parent can identify with in today’s first lesson. The family is returning to Nazareth with a big crowd of neighbors who also went to Jerusalem for the Passover. They assume Jesus is with his friends, somewhere in the crowd. When they discover that he is not, the search begins. For three days, they look for him, going back to Jerusalem. Three days. That will show up again at the end of Luke’s gospel.

When they finally find him, he’s in the Temple. He has to be in the courtyard, because his mother is present, and women were only allowed so far into the Temple. But he’s not playing tiddlywinks with some other kids. He’s with teachers, with rabbis, deep in discussion. He’s asking impressive questions and he’s giving impressive answers. Now, one assumes that the answers he’s giving are to the questions the teachers are asking. That certainly would be the Jewish style of exploring a text or discussing theology. Everybody gets to ask questions and everybody gets to offer their answers, and somewhere in the midst of all that, some word of God’s truth will emerge. But the text doesn’t say that – at least the English translation doesn’t say that. It could be that Jesus’ impressive answers are his answers to his own questions.

Imagine the setting. Learned teachers sitting around the Temple courtyard, talking theology. This 12-year-old joins the discussion and starts asking questions, deep, penetrating questions. A kid questioning men who are the authorities in the field. And his questions are wise, as are his answers. He is teaching the teachers and questioning their authority – a theme that will come up again and again in Luke’s gospel.

And then there’s this. When his parents find him, he’s surprised that they think he is lost. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” At the annunciation, Gabriel told Mary that her child would be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ and ‘the Son of God’ (1:32, 35). We know Jesus’ secret identity. And if we missed it there, Jesus says it here. “Luke’s Jesus is fully conscious of his divine status and asserts to his parents – but publically – that he is the Son of God and this is his Father’s house.”[1]

This theme of Jesus as the Son of God is one of the first themes we hear in the main body of Luke’s gospel. Our second lesson is about John at the River Jordan baptizing people and Jesus coming to be baptized. And it is in the act of baptism that heaven proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Luke begins the main body of his gospel the same way he started his overture: by talking about John the baptizer. You’ll recall from the overture that John’s father, Zechariah, was a Temple priest. Brian McLaren says that this probably meant that John had some comfort and privilege growing up.[2] Priestly positions were clan-based, so one would have thought John would have grown up to become a Temple Priest. As a PK (a priest’s kid), John would have known all about Tevilah, a Jewish purification ritual of immersing in water in a Mikva, an indoor pool naturally sourced with water.[3] It was used as an act of purification and it was a central part of the conversion ritual in Judaism. This purification was required before entering the Temple, to allow Jews to present themselves to God free from the contamination of the outside world. McLaren points out that this ritual also “preserved religious identity during a time of occupation and domination by ‘unclean foreigners.’”[4]

“Can you imagine how shocking it was for Zechariah’s son to burst onto the scene, preaching and performing baptisms – not in Jerusalem, but over eighty miles to the north and east? Can you imagine the disruption of him performing ritual cleansing – not in the private, holy baths near the Temple, but in public, out in the countryside, along the banks of the Jordan River? Can you imagine the gossip about his choice to trade the luxurious robes of the priesthood for the rough garments of a beggar, and the high-class menu of Jerusalem for the subsistence fare of the wilderness? What would such actions have meant?

“John’s departure from both family and Temple suggested that John was protesting against the religious establishment his father faithfully served. Jerusalem’s Temple was not all it was held up to be, he would have been saying. A new kind of baptism – with a radical new meaning – was needed. Traveling to a special city and an opulent building could not make people clean and holy. What they needed most was not a change in location, but a change in orientation, a change in heart. People needed a different kind of cleanness – one that couldn’t come through a conventional ceremonial bath in a holy temple.

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion – as descendants of Abraham, for example. The identity that mattered most was one you created through your actions … by sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed. One word summarized John’s message: repent, which means ‘rethink everything,’ or ‘question your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values.’ His baptism of repentance symbolized being immersed in a flowing river of love, in solidarity not just with the clean, privileged, superior us – but with everyone, everywhere.

“Like prophets of old, John issued a powerful warning: God would soon intervene to confront wrong and set things right, and the status quo would soon come to an end. Crowds started streaming out to the countryside to be baptized by John. His protest movement grew, and with it, expectations and hope.…

“John kept thundering out his message of warning and hope, week after week, month after month. He dared to confront the powerful and name their hypocrisy. (Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Jesus [according to Matthew’s gospel], couldn’t withstand the agitation of John’s protest movement, so he ultimately would have John arrested and, eventually, beheaded.)

“Among the crowds coming to be baptized one day was a young man about John’s age. By receiving John’s baptism, this young man identified himself with this growing protest movement in the Galilean countryside.”[5] And by receiving John’s baptism, something radical and transformative began.

Retired Presbyterian pastor John Buchanan tells of baptizing a two-year-old boy in a Sunday worship service. After the child had been baptized, Pastor Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy’s head and said to him, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” It was a holy moment made more holy by the little boy’s response: “Uh-oh!”[6]

There is a deep element of “Uh-oh” in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. The demands on our lives are not a trifling matter when we’re disciples of Jesus. We have to rethink everything our culture tells us. We have to question our assumptions about what is of value and where the boundaries of love should be.

Luckily, it’s not all burden. There is also a deep blessing in being baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was baptized by John, he experienced heaven cracking open and God’s spirit pouring down. This man, this physical human body experienced not just the water moistening skin, but a bath of God’s love. And God’s voice called out to him saying, “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

God says the same thing to us.

We live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels to identify and define us, and often separate us – Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight or bi, rich or poor, Black or White, and the list of labels goes on. “Additionally, we are also and increasingly named and defined by the products we use or stores at which we shop. Nike, Apple, BMW, Tiffany, Hallmark – these are not just company names, but lend a particular sense of self, and increasingly the brand labels on our shirts, shoes, cars, and computers convey a great deal of our identity.”[7] Though we live in a culture that pushes us to take on labels, only one really matters and really defines us, once we’ve gotten wet. We are Christians, disciples of Jesus.

And like Jesus, we, too, are beloved children of God. Sure, the other labels may have some meaning to us. It’s just that “while all these other names, affiliations, and identifications may describe us, the dare not define us.”[8] Only the name we receive in baptism truly defines us: Beloved Child of God.

In Jewish culture, Jesus officially came of age when he was 12. But his real coming of age – of the new age he was bringing – happens at his baptism. He is now “a man with a dove-like spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb [as John called him], a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved child.

“When we awaken within that deep relationship of mutual love and pleasure, we are ready to join in God’s peace movement today – an adventure of protest, hope, and creative, non-violent, world-transforming change.”[9]

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… the memory of your own baptism or some other recognition of a milestone in your life; or
… the idea of John the Baptist breaking with tradition and what that would look like in your life; or
… this message from God to you:  “You are my child, whom I dearly love. In you I find pleasure.”

[1] Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 255.

[2] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 19, page 87. Retrieved from

[3] “History of Baptism,” Wikipedia, (accessed 7 January 2017).

[4] McLaren, op. cit.

[5] Ibid, 87-89.

[6] From an email from dated 3 January 2017.

[7] David Lose, “Baptism of Our Lord A: Family Name,” … in the Meantime, (posted and accessed 4 January 2017).

[8] Ibid.

[9] McLaren, op. cit., 89.


A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 19, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The high school I went to had somewhere around 2000 students.  There were three lunch periods, so there were as many as 700 students eating lunch at any one time.  And in New England in the winter, one really needs to eat indoors.  The way they dealt with this hoard was to have six lunchrooms scattered across the campus in six different buildings.  With six different lunchrooms, there was enough room for each clique to find their own space.  So I never had to eat with the jocks or the druggies or the motor heads.  I usually ate with the theatre and music geeks or the math nerds.

Like in every high school with a sizable student body across the United States – and maybe in any high school no matter how small – every kid had a place.  A few knew their place before they came to the school.  Most found their place very quickly, as if some divine hand was guiding us.

I wonder how many kids actually enjoyed being in their group.  If we could have picked a group, would we have stepped outside our self-perceived and peer-perceived caste and entered into another realm?  Would we have purposefully created a diverse group?  Maybe we weren’t mature enough to do so, but can you imagine a group of high school youth in your high school who would have welcomed any kid, no matter who they were or where they were on their life’s journey?

I can’t imagine that happening at Lexington High School – at least not while I was there more decades ago than I care to count.  No, we ended up in a group to which we were somehow assigned.  “We wouldn’t have used these words in high school, but we were living out what we assumed was our calling.  And it was very hard, next to impossible, to transition out of your group into another one.”[1]

Unlike what we assumed in high school, none of us are assigned to a clique or caste or station in life.  That is the last thing it means to receive a call from God.

In our reading from Isaiah, we hear the voice of a prophet singing about his calling.  (I say “his” because, given the social context, we assume this prophet was male.)  This is the second of four poems in the book of Isaiah that we call the “Servant Songs.”  We heard one of the four last week.  It is believed that all four were written during the exile.  In this song, the servant sings about human failings in the midst of a desire to fulfill the calling which the prophet senses existed from before birth.

Exactly who this servant is is unclear.  The servant is named “Israel” and is later sent by God to Israel.  Jewish interpretation tends to identify the servant as the community of Israel.  Classical Christian interpretation (as in John Calvin, among others) has found an anticipatory allusion of Jesus.  Historical criticism has attempted (and failed) to identify a nameable, known historical figure.[2]  But I think rather than trying to figure out who the servant is, we should just listen to the text itself and consider if we find ourselves.

The calling described here is not just to bring Israel back to God – that calling is “too light a thing,” too small a thing.  The calling described here is to be “a light to the nations” so that God’s “salvation can reach to the end of the earth.”  Imagine that.  Called by God to be a light to the nations.  That’s a mighty big task.

When it comes to our community, the Niles Discovery Church community, I’m hoping that being a light to the tri-cities is enough.  And if you’re like me, you may find even that narrowed-down task still to be a little daunting.  And if you’re like just about anybody God has called, your initial response is to say, “Who me?  I’m not good enough.”  Prophet after prophet says, “I’m not enough.”  I’m not old enough.  I’m not brave enough.  I’m not a good enough speaker.  So if you say, “I’m not enough,” you’re in good, called company.

Even in today’s reading, the Servant says, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.”  In other words, I’m a failure.  And God says, “I’m calling you to be a light to the nations.”

Niles Discovery Church – a light to the tri-cities.  Okay, so if we accept that calling, how do we do it?  I suggest we turn to the reading from John.

This encounter by the River Jordan is “very different from last week’s text from Matthew about the Baptism of Jesus.  Last week, the sky opened, the Spirit descended, and the voice of God testified about who this Jesus is.  This week, we move from divine words to human testimony, the ‘fragile and vulnerable testimony’ of John the Baptist, who admits that he didn’t even know who Jesus was at first.”[3]

John the Baptist performs two pastoral functions in this gospel:  baptism and testimony, and baptism is downplayed.  He doesn’t give any scathing sermons or dire warnings in this gospel.  There is mention that John has baptized people, including Jesus, but the gospel writer focuses on John the Baptist as one who offers testimony about Jesus.  “Here, the Baptists is an unimposing preacher who is ‘not the light’; his sole purpose is to bear testimony to the light.”[4]

John’s testimonies are lacking in content and a bit repetitious:  “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  When John identifies Jesus, he calls him ‘the Lamb of God,’ many, maybe even many of you, interpret those words to mean that Jesus is a “sacrificial lamb,” and start thinking about penal substitutionary atonement.[5]  It has been pointed out, however, that lambs weren’t used for sin sacrifices by the Hebrews.  The lamb is only for the Passover sacrifice, which remembers the liberation and deliverance of the people by God.  John the evangelist is portraying Jesus as the new Passover Lamb, an image that will be repeated toward the end of John’s gospel.  Jesus liberates the world from slavery.[6]

But John the Baptist (and John the evangelist) don’t unpack the testimony.  All the Baptist says is, “Look!  The Lamb of God!”  But that seems to be enough.  By pointing to Jesus, John even succeeds in getting two of his disciples to leave him and follow Jesus.

Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?”  “Asked a momentous, life-challenging question by the one proclaimed as the Son of God, the followers reply by asking for Jesus’ address.”[7]  At first glance, that’s kind of funny.  But the disciples may not have missed the mark, whether they realized it or not.  Rather than getting themselves tied up on deep theological conversations or self analysis, they ask a question that will move them into relationship with Jesus.  Where are you staying?  They are seeking a person.  They are seeking Jesus, “to be with him, to know him, and to follow him.…  Their simple question challenges the church today to examine what we are seeking – Jesus or something else.”[8]

Jesus’ response is pretty pithy, too.  No long-winded sermon or theological discourse – just three simple words:  “Come and see.”  Rather than first asking these people to come to a full understanding of who Jesus is and then setting out to follow him, Jesus’ invitation brings these seeking close to him, into relationship with him.  “Come and see.”  Come to where I live.  Come to where I am.  And in coming to where Jesus is, lives are transformed.

When I got off of BART last Tuesday night in the City, the stairs I usually take from the platform were blocked off, so I walked down to the next staircase.  When I got up to the next level, I had to walk past the blocked-off stairs, and there was a crowd gathered around the stairs, looking down.  “Jeff,” I said to myself, “you really don’t need to see what they’re looking at,” thinking that maybe some interesting maintenance was going on.  But I stopped anyway and looked down into the stairwell.  And do you want to know what I saw?

As I was writing this sermon, I really wondered whether I should tell you what I saw.  I suspect that most of you are, at this point, with me as I got close to the railing, wondering what I will see.  That’s how it is when someone says, “Come and see.”  Our curiosity gets to us.  Karl Barth is supposed to have said that that anybody who stops on the sidewalk and points upward will draw a crowd of onlookers, each one looking up to see what’s captured another’s attention.[9]

Well, what I saw was some paramedics tending so someone on the stairs.  The stairs had been blocked off to allow the medics tend to the injured person without people walking past.

I’ve heard people say that what they would really like is a neon sign.

They would like for the sky to open and the voice of God to provide dramatic and clear instruction.  But maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking around us.  And maybe we’re missing the myriad ways that God is still speaking through us.

This gospel passage illustrates the call of the followers of Jesus to listen carefully, to live faithfully, and to tell the story of what God has done in the midst of their own transformed lives.

John the Baptist points toward the One who is salvation rather than drawing attention to himself.  Most of us would have to admit that one of the challenges of discipleship is not to lose sight of the true center and focus of our ministry:  Jesus.  Especially in the life of the church, it’s easy for the center and focus of our ministry to become all about us – or all about the building, or all about the program, etc.  Above all, it is not about loss, right?  We want to grow, to gain, to expand.  And yet, we hear, and feel, that discipleship costs.  What losses are we willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel?  Are we willing to forego recognition and popularity when we so easily enjoy both in the life of the church?

“Our calling, most of all, is to know and enjoy God.  Anyone who responds to this grace-filled call discovers freedom from anyone or any social group that tries to be a god in our lives.”[10]  After that, our calling is simply to be a light to the nations.  And we do that be giving our testimony of our stories of meeting Jesus.

The notion of predestination – at least in this life – that comes out of Calvinism is wrong, except for this:  We are all predestined to be loved by God.

We are not even predestined to experience that holy, gracious love.  I think we are given the freedom to accept that love or not.  Aside from being predestined to be loved by God, everything is quite open.  God does not assign us to a particular, unchangeable lot in life.  We are free to get up and eat at any table in any lunch room we choose.

And I choose to eat at this table,[11] Jesus’ table, because this is one of the places where I meet him and where I am nourished for my calling.



[1] M. Craig Barnes, “Life after high school,” Christian Century, 11 December 2013, 35.

[2] Karen Georgia Thompson, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (16 January 2014), citing Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 Westminster Bible Companion.

[3] Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, (16 January 2014).

[4] William H. Willimon, “Reflection on the lectionary,” Christian Century, 8 January 2014, 19.

[5] Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief/theology that says that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was necessary for any of us to be forgiven by God.  This is a belief/theology that I reject.  If Jesus’ death were necessary for God’s forgiveness, how could Jesus tell people, “Your sins are forgiven,” something the gospels say he did regularly, before his death?  The opening paragraph on penal substitutionary atonement on Wikipedia ( explains this theology and the page has a ton of information (which I haven’t read).   You might also like to read this ( blog post (read the whole post, please) and maybe even the links that go from it.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] Ibid, quoting Charles Campbell, The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels.

[8] Ibid, again quoting Campbell.

[9] Willimon, op. cit.

[10] Barnes, op. cit.

[11] the communion table.

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.



[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Fearless Submission,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).

[ii] Author unknown, “A Carrot, An Egg and a Cup of Coffee,” Deep Thoughts, (12 January 2013).

[iii] Michaela Bruzzese, “Receiving the Spirit,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).


Jim Rice, “‘You Are My Beloved,’” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).

Ched Myers, “Baptism’s True Claim,” Sojourners, (12 January 2013).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 9, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 3:1-18 and Malachi 3:1-4
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

The desert is cold tonight.  It can get so hot in the day and so cold at night, this unloved place.  But those people, they stink of the city.  I can only scrub them so much.  They tell me their hard-luck stories – how they have been defaced, debased, dishonored.  Sometimes their sorry souls leave draglines behind them in the dust.  What did they come to this wilderness to see?  Am I only a hollow reed to them, blowing a tune not my own?  I know who I am, and who I am not.  When I can’t take it anymore, I just walk away.  Sometimes their voices eat at me like lice.

So I need to come here, to this spot out here, to this rock under the stars, away even from those who come up into the wilderness.  I can be alone here.  And alone, I am myself, and tonight, with little moon, the stars sprinkle their half-light from the heavens.  I like it best when there is no moon at all, and no small fires.

Those people call me “devourer of devourers” because of the little locust I eat.  In truth, I am no devourer.  I am consumed.  I am engulfed by a passion, by a refiner’s fire that melts me, that purifies me.  And I have no desire to be with them – any of them.

I am sick of the smells of their little lambs and their goats, the stench of their domesticated ways.  I know that tomorrow, or the next day, I will go back to the river.  And they will be there.  And I will throw hard words at them, like rocks thrown to keep carrion birds off a corpse.  Not out of respect for the corpse, mind you, but to keep them from becoming fascinated with death.

It is the Awful Breath that drags me where I do not want to go.  Ever since the time I was in my mother’s half-lit womb, it drags me.  Like a fox kit by the scruff of the neck, it drags me.  “Here,” it commands, “practice saving them.  Now here – practice renouncing them.  Go here, John.  Eat this terrible knowledge.”

Then, when I cannot look at the crowds another moment, I walk away.  And the Awful Breath always lets me go.  That’s the horror of it.  I can leave whenever I want – and I don’t leave.  Or, more truthfully, I always come back.  We have been a long time alone together, this Breath and me.  It is what I know.  Is it who I am?

O Breath, why have you made me see?  The Temple has been compromised, our faith has been compromised.  How will we be ready?  His refiner’s fire doesn’t just consume me; it will consume us all!  And we have softened the edge of our identity as God’s children.  We have accommodated the culture and its values.  We have given tacit approval of imperial militarism and cynical acceptance of social violence.  We are casually indifferent to the suffering of the poor.

I shout my condemnations to this brood of vipers.  They know – at least for a moment – that not even their birthright can save them.  Nothing they can do can save them.  Who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  No one.  Not one of us can endure, and so we must rely on his grace, his love.  And then do what is right.  Do what is just.

That crowd today.  What must we do, John?  What must we do?  It’s not that hard.  If you have what you need, share the rest.  If you have a job, don’t use it to extort or steal.  Do what is right and just.

They come.  I suppose that’s a good sign.  They are seeking the reign of God and they come out here to this unloved place thinking that I might have some key, some insight.  At least they’ve come out here looking.  If we ever find the reign of God it will be in unexpected places, it will be out here on the margins.

It doesn’t matter who the emperor is, or who they’ve set up as governor of Judea, or who is ruling Galilee or any other region, or even who the high priest is.  But out here, what’s happening out here among the unloved – that’s what matters.

Out here is where we need to prepare the way of the Lord.  Here is where we build a highway for God’s chosen one, a straight highway, a smooth highway.  Out here.

But maybe I come out here to escape, too.  In the cities I see far too many people who live in fear and despair, I see far too many children starving and dying.  As if the wealth that’s concentrated in the hands of the Roman elite and the Jewish collaborators would somehow trickle down to those who are most in need.  Poverty seems to flow down much faster than money or justice.  And when a day laborer can’t earn enough to feed his family …

Out here I’m able to notice these two blessings that are always at hand:  this breath and this moment.  This breath and this moment:  the currency of God’s grace.  That’s what empowers me to stand; that’s how I can endure.

Repent!  Repent!  Repent!  Keep turning back to God.  This breath.  This moment.  Keep turning back to God.  We can’t endure.  We can only trust in God’s grace and then do what is right.

Do they hear that this call isn’t only for us as individuals?  This is a call for our whole nation!  We Jews can easily see the sins of Rome – Rome that thinks it can do no wrong – but we are so blind to our own sin.  And it’s not just the things that we do, the injustices that we perpetrate.  It is also the things we fail to do, the justice we fail to administer.  War, violence, nationalism, and militarism.

My father used to say that God was sending one “to guide our feet into the ways of peace.”  And I believe that the promised Prince of Peace is coming.

Ezekiel said that the sin of Sodom was this:  “She and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

But they don’t hear this good news.  They don’t understand that this is good news.  This is an invitation to salvation.  This is an invitation to the reign of God.  This is our hope as we build a way for God’s Chosen One.

So, every evening, after a day of dunking flesh in the river, I return to this rock.  Sometimes at night I feel there is someone out there – watching me, hunting me.  I am only a desert rat; he is the descending raptor.  But I am not frightened.  I know I am too small, too weak, to break the binding cords he has fashioned for himself.  He has lashed shut his beak and wrapped his talons to prevent himself from eating me whole.  Yet, I feel his eye on me.

Soon the mountains will uncover their shy pink smile for me.  Rather than go to them like a lover, I will descend to the river again.  I will breathe the awful stink of my people.  I will say to them, “By me you are drowned in water, but there is one who pursues me – stronger and greater than me – who will flood you with the Awful Breath.”

Even now I know he is coming closer.  Even now I know what will happen to him.  The Breath will drive him out straight into the unloved places.  There he will be pierced by demons.  He will be led like a burdened beast by strange creatures who will tend to him and love him.  And, when the time comes for me to be given away, he will rise up.  He will herald “Yahweh is salvation” and will show forth the God-forward foundations of power.  Even as the stars wash away in dawn, I turn – exposing my belly to him.  My death.  My life.  My God.


This sermon is based largely on:

Rose Marie Berger, “Being John the Baptist,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).  This was the inspiration for the sermon.  The beginning of the sermon (the first 6 paragraphs) and the end of the sermon (the last 3 paragraphs) are taken from this essay and modified only slightly.

Additional sources used:

Walter Brueggemann, “Back to Basics,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Joyce Hollyday, “For What?” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Jim Rice, “Where is the God of Justice?” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Marie Dennis, “Partnership in the Approaching Miracle,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Julie Polter, “Re-Rooting Ourselves in God,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Joyce Hollyday, “Take a Seat,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Jim Rice, “Rejoice in the Lord!” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).

Mark O. Hatfield, “Repentance, Politics, and Power,” Sojourners, (4 December 2012).


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