January 13, 2019 – Baptism of Jesus
1But 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.
2When 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.
3For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
John Muir was a naturalist, conservationist, and is widely considered the father of the national parks movement in the US. His journals have been a source of inspiration to generations of people who see the divine nature of God in creation. He describes what he saw as we hiked through mountains, forests, and prairies in poetic and spiritual terms. He wrote, after a short but sudden storm, “A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.” Like John Muir, I believe that God shows love and beauty and majesty through and to nature and I love all the nature symbolism in our readings this week. Psalm 29 tells us of God’s powerful voice, forests, and cattle. Our Gospel (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) gives us fire, water, and a dove. And in Isaiah, we hear the good news that was first proclaimed to an exiled Israel – through the waters, God will be with them and God will gather the scattered people from every corner of creation. But using this creation language isn’t all just about tranquility and beauty.
Using images of nature, especially water, might seem quaint, but it is also extremely symbolic. Waters, in the ancient Hebrew world, was code for chaos. You can’t control water. You can contain small amounts of it – a cup or a tub – but you cannot control how it acts in large amounts. Water may be just as likely to flood a field as it is to water a crop. It’s just as likely to destroy as it is to refresh. It’s unpredictable – a group of people fishing may catch more than they expected, or they may find their nets empty. We rely on water, but we cannot control it. The same is true of fire, which John the Baptist uses in our gospel. We need it to cook, but a fire can also destroy. A candle can light a room, but it can also burn down a house. It can refine gold or become a disaster. If we put our minds to it, I imagine we could find countless ways in which the beauty of nature can also become chaos.
So what does it mean, then, to see these creation images in our texts today? It means that God is aware of how things of beauty can become things of chaos. We see references in our Isaiah text today to creation – God created the world and God called each and everything “good”. That is true of you, too. God created you and called you “good”. Richard Rohr calls this “original blessing”. But we can certainly see how things that were made good do not always act that way. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll quickly see that what was made good is not always perfect. Whether it’s natural disasters, abuse, racism, sexism, or greed, it is not hard to see that this world, although created and called “good”, is not always acting that way. As individuals who make up this world, the same is true of us.
But there is good news. In Isaiah, we hear a promise which I hope we can all hold dear. That promise is that God is with us through the waters and through the fire and through whatever else we may face. Through anything we have done or have failed to do, God has remained faithful. God knows what you go through; God knows temptation, grief, joy, pain, and illness. God knows that sometimes it feels as though the world is breaking us, burning us, and drowning us. God knows your struggles and God knows your strengths. And through the waters, God is there with you.
As we celebrate the baptism of Christ and another baptism today, we recognize God’s presence in every moment. Through water and God’s Word, we find that God has claimed you as a daughter and son of God. Through the waters, God is there, walking with you. Whether the waters feel like a gentle shower or a raging flood, God is there. And through the waters of baptism, we witness God’s promises to love unconditionally and remain faithful. We hear the promises in our baptismal liturgy – that God has loved you from the beginning, that God has claimed you as children, and that, through whatever waters you may face, God is with you. We are claimed and we are gathered, through baptism and Holy Communion, with God and all of God’s people.
As forgiven and claimed people of God, gathered from every corner of creation, through the waters and fire, we are changed. God’s love never will never make you change – God loves you as you are, not as you might someday be – but it will never leave you the same either. As we come to grips with our belovedness, as we experience God through the waters, we will live lives reflecting that love which creates, claims, and gathers us. Our baptismal liturgy challenges all the baptized to “proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” In our belovedness, because God is with us through the water, we will stand up against injustice, give voice to the voiceless, help those who struggle, care for the sick, and comfort the grieving.
This is easier said than done, especially when it is us who need the comfort and care and voice. When the waters we experience feel more like a flood than a drink, when the fire feels more like a wildfire than a candle, it’s hard to see God in the chaos it all. It’s hard to feel beloved when we feel wretched. The promises of baptism are not promises that everything will be perfect, but that you are never alone. The promises of baptism remind us that, like all of creation, God sees you and calls you “good.” Jesus himself is our example of this. Today, we hear that he was baptized and God called him “beloved” and “son.” We know about his resurrection, his new life which grants eternal life to all, but we sometimes forget about his strife, his grief, his death. We forget, sometimes, that a life marked with the promises of baptism will sometimes be a life which hurts. But it is also a life marked with love and it’s a life marked with grace and a life lived in a community of gathered and beloved people.
Whether the waters around you today feel like a day at the beach or you’re just treading water, God is with you. Whether the fires you see are raging out of control or are warming your soul, God is with you. Whether you’re lost in a forest of fear or enjoying the shade, God is with you. You are gathered and welcomed. You are claimed as a daughter and son. You are created good. You are loved. Through the waters, you are not alone. Amen.