|The following is Rev. Meeter's sermon for 1/11/04|
Why Would Jesus Get Baptized? |
|Epiphany 1, Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-22|
When through the deep waters I call thee to go / the rivers of sorrow shall not overflow, / for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, / and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
I want to talk about the troubles of your life, I want to talk about the turbulence, the overwhelming weight, the suffocating pressure. You've got to go into these deep waters, God calls you into them, you can't go round them, you can't go over them, you've got to enter them.
When the Children of Israel stood on the edge of the Red Sea-the deep before them and the Egyptians behind them-God was among them in the pillar of fire, and they followed the fire to the other side. Forty-two years later, when their children stood on the banks of the Jordan, the Promised Land on the other side, they had to go through the waters. God was among them, this time not in the pillar of fire, but upon the Ark of the Covenant on the shoulders of the Levites. God's Spirit was enthroned upon the Mercy Seat between the cherubim, so when the Levites stepped into the River, and stood in the middle of the river-bed, God's presence was among them in the middle of the waters, and called them to go through it and keep on going.
1200 years later, Jesus stands in that same river, baptized by his cousin John. Again God is among them, this time neither in the pillar nor the ark, but in a human being. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. God is hidden in an ordinary man, yet is more fully present among us than ever before. Jesus has come to lead us through the water and he calls us to follow him. What waters overwhelm you? What is the woe that's drowning you? Is it from the outside, from distress or opposition, or disappointment or disease? Or is it on the inside, like congestion, is it your unhappiness, your depression, your shame, your anger, your fear? What is the suffering that you must enter into, that you may not go round, what is the fire you must go through? What is the trouble, what is the testing, what is the judgment? Jesus got baptized to undergo the judgment too, and it killed him.
He was not exempt from suffering. Indeed, it was his special calling. At the heart of the gospel is a paradox. The paradox is this-suffering is bad, but entering it is essential to Christianity. First, the gospel does not consider suffering to be good, it is never a good thing in itself, it is never an end in itself. Suffering always means there's something wrong. We disagree with those religions that teach that suffering is just plain necessary to the universe, that it belongs to the great wheel of existence.
We believe that suffering indicates that something is wrong, and that we should hope for an end to it. But second-and here is the paradox-suffering is at the heart of our religion, it is what Jesus came to do. Had he avoided it, as Satan would tempt him, he would have failed as the Messiah. He embraced the suffering that came with his obedience. He calls us to follow him. We may not take the option of avoiding suffering. He calls us to wade into the water. It is right through the deep waters Jesus calls us to go. That's why he was baptized, and why we are baptized in his name. In Christianity, you've got to get wet, and you will get burned.
Baptism was not new to Christianity. It was a familiar Jewish thing that John the Baptist did. But what it meant was something different. Baptism was not a sacrament, it was a sign of your commitment, a symbol of your desire, an expression of your own dedication. It's how you put yourself in the Red Sea with Moses, and with Joshua in the Jordan, you wanted to be there when God came through. That's what John the Baptist meant. Jesus had that same desire and dedication, that same commitment. But God did something unexpected, God poured on that familiar baptism a whole new layer, something new. Jesus' commitment was answered by God's investment, human desire embraced by heavenly emotion, and a believer's dedication confirmed by the Lord's declaration. "Jesus, my boy, I love you, I think you're great, I commit myself to you." Suddenly baptism takes on a whole new layer of meaning, God takes it over, God makes it a monument and marker of an intimate relationship, that of a Father with his child.
God went further than a declaration, God acted, God moved. God came down as a dove. The Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus. Of course he already had the Holy Spirit, even the fullness of the Spirit, yet his fullness became more full. And this gets shared with us. That's what the Epistle is about. The Samaritans had been baptized in the name of Jesus to show their discipleship and commitment, but their baptism in the name of the Spirit was their acceptance of a miracle, of the new reality of God's movement and investment into them, of God's coming to live and work in them. God is energetic in us, and this energy can be a flame of fire, it is being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The fire is the Lord, like a refining fire, and maybe its purification in you feels like suffering. To starve an addiction, to surrender an idol, even to forgive someone, this may feel like suffering, to submit to heavenly chemotherapy, or to radiation-the Spirit's energy.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all-sufficient shall be thy supply. / The flame shall not hurt thee, I only design / thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine. You have heard it said that God gives no one more suffering than they can bear. When people say to me I do not argue with them, but privately I doubt it. On two counts. First, I don't believe that God actually sends us suffering, suffering is simply the consequence of our condition in the world, of our having bodies, of our living inside time, and upon the crust of a planet. And second, I can think of numerous examples of suffering so severe that the persons could not carry it. God did not send it, but neither did God spare them. Does this mean that God is cruel? In my heart I do not come to that, though I do not have the words to explain it. This problem is a mystery, it is like deep, deep water, you can see far into it, but you can't see through it. And yet you have to enter into it, this problem and this mystery. And is it not true that at the end of our lives, we all shall face a burden that is too great for us to bear, and that is death? Death kills us, death does us in, death beats us. And if this were not so, then why should I believe in Jesus Christ? Why not just believe in myself? If it were true that I am never given a burden that I cannot bear myself, than why should I require a savior? If I can finally carry everything myself, than why should I be baptized in his name? Indeed, the greatest burden I have is my own self, and I cannot carry that, my own self is a burden that is too heavy for me to bear, I am not supposed to carry it, I am supposed to let it go, to drown it, to cast it into the fire, and to let myself be carried out again.
But something new and real and eternal and undying has come to life in you, just where the Holy Spirit is. This I believe is really true. Underneath your awareness, beneath your control, when you are sleeping, when you are weak, or when you are in prayer, or in a conversation, the Spirit develops a new person inside you, the real you, the longer-lasting you. This is the little flame inside you, sometimes only just a little pilot light, sometimes a blazing light, this is the flame that the Holy Spirit will never let go out, and this little flame will power you to face your sufferings and your troubles, not only to get through them, but even to shine in them, and to offer a light to the one who is next to you, and the spark to revive your neighbor.
This is the flame of love, the love of God, the personal energy of the Holy Spirit, for God so loves that fragile you inside you that God will never forsake you, and God's love for you will keep your flame going even through your death, your spirit through that final suffering which is too heavy to carry, so you will cast it off. Through life and death, through turbulence and peace, through fire and water, your life is the story of God's love.