Isaiah 46:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
January 13, 2019 –First Sunday After Epiphany
Our anthem this morning said it perfectly. We come to the river to pray today. We celebrate the baptism of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We also celebrate our own baptism. It makes our baptism special…or at least it does to me…that Jesus was baptized too.
As Moses led Israel through the waters to escape bondage in Egypt…as Joshua led Israel across the Jordan back into the Promised Land…as we passed through the waters of our mother’s womb to pass from life into life…we come again to the waters…to be cleansed …transformed…born again.
In the days of the early church baptism was roughly the equivalent to Marine Basic Training. It was typical to prepare candidates for baptism into the Christian faith during the Season of Lent.
Men doing hard work on the railroad during Lent in the ‘50's were obviously weak, almost faint by the time Easter arrived. All of the abstinence that our Catholic brothers and sisters practiced during Lent back then was but a pale version of this early Christian training.
Candidates in the early church would be received as brothers and sisters on Easter Sunday. To be baptized was to die to oneself and to be born anew in Christ. You were one creature before your baptism, and you were an invigorated…empowered…called …and sent disciple of Jesus Christ afterward.
Recall Jesus’ conversation late one night with a leader of the Jewish council, Nicodemus. He came because he saw something special in Jesus. He wanted to know what it was. Jesus told him no one could enter the kingdom of God unless they were born again, of water and the spirit.
Nicodemus was baffled. How could anyone enter a second time into their mother’s womb? If only Nicodemus could have lived today, we could immerse him…sprinkle him…baptize him…and show him, from the inside out, how a person can be born again without reentering their mother’s womb.
Suddenly we see the truth in the scripture. All at once, we comprehend the text in a new way, not only true of that time and place …that circumstance…but all times and all places and all people and all circumstances.
The heavens open up and we hear a voice say something that is so obviously true that we want to kneel down then and there and give thanks for it.
Different denominations celebrate the sacrament in different ways, but the theme of passing through the water is a common thread through all manner of practice.
The place you are baptized or how wet or dry the season is could lead to some differences as well. In 2015, my first summer here, it was so dry that there was a rumor the Baptists were baptizing by sprinkling; the Methodists were using wet-wipes; the Presbyterians were giving out rain-checks; and the Catholics were praying for the wine to turn back into water.
But all these are trivial differences. Eventually they all merge into one and a river runs through it. It is like the River Jordan that Joshua, Moses’ chosen successor, crossed the day before the Nation of Israel was circumcised a second time…to renew the covenant they had with God.
They were receiving that day the fulfillment of the promise God had made to Abraham. The old had become new…what had long since passed was now present among them…had always been in their midst….even though they had not been able to see it right in front of their face.
Abraham Lincoln had been President for a few years, and he had seen circumstances arise around him that gave him a unique opportunity to end American slavery. At one point he remarked,
“In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid -- but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise.” [Reply to Eliza Gurney on October 26, 1862]
That man has come to the river, been baptized by water and the Spirit, by cleansing and by burning away. A winnowing fork has been run through his heart and his mind and he has opened himself to whatever might come next.
Jesus came to that same river this morning to commune…to be one with…with his cousin John the Baptist. John has so stirred up the faith of the people with his teaching and his baptism that they have asked him if he is the one they have been watching…and waiting for…
His work is exciting the people in a way that is reminiscent of Joshua renewing Israel’s covenant that God made with Abraham when they crossed the River Jordan. Something is about to happen. They know it. They can feel it. They better get ready.
Have you ever had a moment when it seemed like you had stepped into a timeless moment inside your life? You were one person before and another soul after.
Something happened one day that made your whole life take on new meaning, or made your future clearer…
I remember the many coincidences that began to appear in my life when I opened myself to the Ministry Inquiry Process to wonder whether I was hearing a genuine call to be a local church pastor.
Then one day the District Superintendent called me and said there was a little church in Huntley, about 15 miles east of Billings. He wondered if I would pray about leading worship and helping out there for a little while.
It was just one more coincidence but it was a deep one, and old one, a delicious one. I was being asked to serve the church where my mother had started Sunday school 75 years before.
That night, lying in my bed staring at the ceiling and trying to go to sleep, I looked back at the many places I had been and things I had done and it all looked to me like preparation for the task I had just been invited to take up. It had all seemed so random and unfocused before, but now it all fit together.
Fourteen years later I had the same sensation when another District Superintendent called me, just as I was about to retire from law practice, and asked me if I would be open to an appointment in the Flathead.
I had my house and my yard almost all fixed up: Sprinkling system, landscaping, deck, stacking washer and dryer, ready to shop for a gas stove next. When I learned it was Bigfork, I asked, “When can I go?”
And so the transition from politics and law was complete and I began to shed myself of treasures that had become dead weight. It was like being born again. Everything was new and I knew so little.
Hope was renewed, even in the face of challenges I had faith I would find my true path soon…and very soon. Every few months I still go through a similar epiphany…a period of accommodation to a new understanding of reality.
That is life and it is a privilege to be a part of life… Even though your life may only be significant enough to tap the behemoth of human history gently…causing curiosity more than pain…you may still cause the great forces of life to awaken in a new way.
It is this kind of a moment we see unfold this morning for John the Baptist. He stands by the river that has not changed since Joshua crossed it a thousand years before.
It is an old river but it is a new river, too, carrying new waters from old mountains to an old sea, changing the mountains at its beginning and transforming the sea as it comes to its estuary. It is living water.
John knows he stands by this old river on a new day as Jesus comes toward him. Matthew reports that John was so humbled by the moment that he insisted that it was Jesus who should be baptizing him.
But Jesus insists that they do what he came to do “that all things might be fulfilled” and they proceed with him being baptized by John, to be prepared as the one Isaiah had proclaimed and prophesied.
Jesus may have been harkening back to an early prophecy of Isaiah where it is written:“On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious … Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy… once the Lord has…washed away the filth of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.”
Maybe that scripture is also why John predicts, in our reading today, that Jesus will clean the threshing floor with a winnowing fork and fire. Like the oracle from Isaiah, the divine transformation is accomplished by water and the spirit.
In any event, both Jesus and John know the scriptures. They both know that salvation…a new burst of life…is coming to God’s people …and Jesus is bringing it.
Jesus leads where we are called to follow, even through the cleansing waters of the Jordan. But when he does it, he does not simply repeat something that Israel has done…he becomes the salvation. He becomes the river…the water…and the spirit.
So we are called to be baptized by water and the spirit. To have the spiritual barnacles our earthly travails washed away and to have our sins burned up with a mighty forgiveness.
Our reading from Acts tells us of the believers in Samaria having only been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. So Peter and John laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.
They had been open to receiving it. They had wanted to receive it. Then something happened and they had it. People who came in the name of the Lord laid hands on them and their lives were changed – sweetened, deepened, redeemed – forever.
Our faith community is going through a kind of baptism these days. A desire to shed ourselves of an historic load of debt has caused us…somehow…to respond in a way that surpassed any obligation we had to our lender.
I have always theorized that this surprising result was because while we were being pushed by the debt behind us…we were also being drawn forward by the vision of ministry in the community: What could we do in our community, in our area and in our world if we didn’t have to send that $3033.00 mortgage payment to Denver every month?
I think it is fair to say, metaphorically speaking, of course, that the filth of Zion has been washed away…and we have yet to see the bloodstains of Jerusalem burned away by the receiving of the Holy Spirit. We are done with the debt but we are still groping to understand the ministry God is calling us into.
As a community, we have stepped into an old, old story. As a community, we have been called to write a new one. Everything that has happened is only preparation for that which is to come.
We are going through a baptism, by water and the spirit. Everything is being made new…even as we are diving into that old, old story. We are truly into the Word and into the world.
As believers seek to make Jesus story their story, sometimes Jesus also makes their story his story. We become one with Christ and one with each other…as we become one in ministry to all the world.
We remember the baptism of our Lord and Savior today. We remember our own baptism, too, even as we experience a receiving of the Holy Spirit in the midst of our striving.
May we be open to the new day that dawns before us even as we give thanks for the many days of faithfulness that many souls have spent to keep the lights on, to prepare a beautiful, convenient and increasingly powerful building in the midst of one of the most remarkable communities on earth.
We have been blessed…somehow …to be a blessing…somehow. We have been baptized…and Jesus was baptized, too.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do through us…through me…this day? Amen.