a sermon on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:1-21
preached on January 10, 2016, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
You’ve gotta love John the Baptist. He bucks every trend in the book. His parents had so given up on having a child that his father directly questioned the messenger of God who brought this news and ended up mute for nine months. John himself took an old Jewish tradition of ritual washing and put new meaning on it by inviting people to venture out into the wilderness to repent and find forgiveness for their sins. He offered a message compelling enough to draw people out of the villages and cities to come hear him preach in the wilderness. And he managed to amass such a large group of followers that he still had a pretty big group left after calling them all a “brood of vipers” and suggesting that they were trees who would be cut down if they did not bear good fruit.
The people left behind took his words seriously and asked him what this repentance would look like in their lives. First, the told the general crowds that they should share from their abundance with those who are in need. Then, he instructed the tax collectors to be fair in their collections. Finally, when soldiers came, John told them to end extortion, treat people fairly, and be satisfied with their wages. People clearly thought that John was something important—they were “filled with expectation” and “questioning in their hearts concerning John”—but they couldn’t tell what he was really up to. Had he come to offer a new prophecy for their new time and their new challenges as a people under Roman rule? Had he come to lead a political rebellion against these strange overlords? Or had he come to be the Messiah, blending these political and religious roles to guide them out of this terrible morass and save them from all the difficulty that was before them?
According to Luke, John did not see himself as the Messiah. In his view, his baptism and his message were surely important, but there was something more coming up ahead:
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s message was unmistakable—the old way of doing things that benefited only a few had to be set aside, and a new way of living had to emerge. Some would find hope in this new day, especially those who had little hope in the present, but others would find this new path far more challenging, with their power and privilege drawn into question along the way. This message had immediate and real consequences for John. There were some who were truly threatened by this way of life, and so the puppet king Herod threw John into prison because he had condemned several of Herod’s actions.
But somewhere along the way, it seems that John the Baptist had encountered Jesus. While all four gospels record an encounter between these two figures of renewal, our reading from Luke this morning is very vague about exactly what happened. “When all the people were baptized,” Jesus also “had been baptized.” Somehow Jesus was brought into John’s tradition, following in the footsteps of this one who had come “crying out in the wilderness” preparing the way of the Lord, offering himself to receive this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and claiming this connection with John and his troubling words at the beginning of his own ministry.
But we don’t usually think of baptism as in any way troubling. The brutal honesty of John the Baptist at the Jordan River in this reading is usually eclipsed at our modern-day baptismal font by a beautiful baby and smiling parents. These are generally not people that we would think of as a brood of vipers! Based on my conversations with them over the years, parents presenting their children for baptism are usually not concerned that their child needs to flee from any wrath ahead. And when approach baptism, we generally do not worry that we must bear good fruit or face the threat of being thrown into the fire. The troubling words of John the Baptist at the Jordan are likely replaced with something more like the gentle and hopeful words of the prophet Isaiah when we gather at the font:
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.
Surprisingly, in this case it is the Old Testament that gives us comfort and the New Testament that strikes fear into our bones!
But this strange mix of loving and troubling words is probably the most faithful thing we can carry when we come to the waters of baptism. There is great love revealed to us in these waters, the love of one who welcomes us no matter who we are, the love of one who stays with us when we feel like we are being overwhelmed, the love of one who gathers us in to show us the pathway to new life. But this great love also shows us that we have responsibility, too—responsibility to set aside the things that might get in the way of us embracing the fullness of this love, responsibility to care for those others who journey with us on this way, even if they do not venture into these waters themselves, even responsibility to examine ourselves to find ways that we can bear greater fruit as we follow the example of Jesus through these waters into new life.
Every time we approach these waters, we must carry all these words with us. Whether we come to the font to be baptized or to reaffirm the promises of the baptismal covenant, we are asked to reject sin, profess our faith in Christ Jesus, and confess the faith of the church, to honor John’s challenging words as we embrace his call to repentance and new life. But then we are even more reminded that these waters are a gift to us, a place that shows us how we are created for God’s glory, an opportunity to experience everything that we need to go forth in justice, love, and peace. These loving and troubling waters remind us of the depth and breadth of God’s care for us and presence with us and the real call and challenge that God gives us as we respond to all that we have received. And these loving and troubling waters express the deep wonder of God’s gifts to us, gifts that remind us that God loves us so much that God is not satisfied with the way things are now, gifts that invite us to respond to God’s love in our lives by joining in the transformation of our troubled world.
So as we reaffirm the promises of the baptismal covenant and remember our baptism today, may we experience God’s grace and mercy in these loving and troubling waters as we are assured of God’s love for us and empowered to join in God’s transformation of our broken and fearful world until Christ comes to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Alleluia! Amen.