Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”


It certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity.

In their heart of hearts, people were wondering if this intriguing figure in the desert was the Chosen One. And John the Baptist would be quick to correct them, setting them straight. But it certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity in the Bible.

In Genesis 18 the Lord appears to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three visitors. The couple are gracious hosts, and the anonymous encounter is going extremely well until Sarah laughs at the suggestion that he will have a child in old age. But God (in disguise) is very patient, saying only “is anything too hard for the Lord?”

In Exodus 2 it’s the daughters of the priest of Midian who mistakenly assume that Moses is an Egyptian, based perhaps on his dress of the way he carries himself. And of course, much of Moses’ early life is a case of mistaken identity: raised by the daughter of Pharaoh—a Prince of Egypt with a secret—even to himself.

Joshua 5 gives us one of the strangest examples, with Joshua meeting an unknown soldier on the road to Jericho, sword drawn, ready for battle. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” Joshua asks. The mysterious soldier says “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” It’s the other passage where someone is commanded to take off their sandals, standing on holy ground, but we don’t talk about it much, God as an heavily armed soldier and all.

Mary in the garden (John 20) is another obvious example, through her tears asking where this unknown gardener has hidden the body of her Lord, but we know who he really is, and soon she will too, along with everyone who believes.

And before we get to Luke 3, there is one more example of mistaken identity relating to John the Baptist, this one from Mark 6. Jesus’ fame is spreading and old Herod hears about the miraculous things that are happening. Those around him say “maybe it’s Elijah returned,” or maybe some other prophet of old. “No,” Herod said, “it’s John the Baptist all right, raised from the dead!” But we know it’s not, although it’s a comfort to see Herod losing sleep over the John the Baptist and the terrible events at court that led to John’s death.

But that’s leaping ahead. The earlier case of mistaken identity is by the riverside, people seeking the Chosen One. They are anxious to accept this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the hope that their wish will be fulfilled. And John, of course, understands this mistaken hope and clears things up:

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

But just when we thought this passage exhausted the last bits of mistaken identity, there is one more. There, among the seekers and the pilgrims is the son of a carpenter, in the crowd, God in disguise. For now he is content to get in line, to accept John’s baptism and begin his ministry. God, however, gets the last word, clearing up (once and for all) this case of mistaken identity:

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And even without God speaking to interpret what’s happening, we can find various ways to understand our baptism. Wise people tell us that baptism, like communion, is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It’s like that hand stamp that only shows up under a certain type of light—it’s there, but it’s not immediately obvious.

And it’s something we do together, a point I try to remember to make from time to time. The church authorizes me to baptize, but I’m just a stand in for you, the people of God, who are doing God’s work of baptism while I’m busy up here with the baby, or child, or occasional adult. This body, the body of Christ found in the church, is also a visible sign of grace, grace upon grace as the church baptizes the next generation of believers.

And in the United Church, perhaps uniquely, we have this conversation every few years about the place of baptism in our denomination. It always begins around the question of membership, and what it means to belong, and the extent to which the non-baptized are excluded from certain aspects of our common life. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, our enhanced sense of fairness and our desire to include everyone, or maybe it’s just our unique brand of Christianity, our focus on justice (another word for fairness) that leads us to have this conversation.

Whatever the reason, our desire to remain within the Christian church usually marks the end of the conversation (until the next time). We remember that since the beginning of the church, baptism has been the only rite of initiation into the body of Christ, and that it’s always more than a ritual or a mark of entry—it’s a transformational moment, entering once-and-for-all into something much bigger than ourselves or even one denomination.

And when we step into these kinds of definitional conversations, asking who we are or where we belong, it can be helpful to ask the thinkers and sages to remind us what it all means, why we do what we do and why it still matters. Karl Barth, as an example, would remind us that baptism is a matter of life and death. ‘The person who emerges from the water,’ he says, ‘is not the same person who entered it. One person dies and another is born.’ (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 193)

And he’s just getting warmed up, because Barth says don’t listen to me, listen to Martin Luther: “Your baptism is nothing less than God clutching you by the throat,” Luther said, “a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order than you may remain under grace.” Maybe it’s good we don’t have a baptism today, since it’s starting to sound like a contact sport.

But then Barth takes us back to scripture, back to the source, to expand on this idea that at the moment of baptism we are utterly transformed, that a new person is born. He reminds us of Colossians 3: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

In other words, we exist within the life of God, we are folded in, hidden within the unfolding story of God in the world. We don’t simply walk in newness of life, we are hidden within life itself. In the ultimate case of mistaken identity, we may appear as our former selves, but we a new person altogether. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come. (2 Corinthians 5).

Baptism, of course, is not magic. It’s not a shield from trouble, or a spell that saves us from ourselves. Luther said our sin is submerged so that can remain under grace, but it’s still there. Baptized believers are not perfect, as anyone who reads the paper will tell you, or anyone with an ounce of self-awareness will know. Folded into the life of God, we retain our free will—we still live in the world, and we are live with others.

But there is one last layer of mistaken identity, the one that allows us to look at others and see God. Understanding the we have a secret life within God, we can appreciate that others do too. We can see Christ in others, in the vulnerable, in those who love and those who need love, in the very fabric of the earth itself.

In each case of mistaken identity we looked at a few moments ago, God was up to something: making promises, acting in human history, giving hope when hope was lost. At our baptism we became part of this unfolding story, something bigger than ourselves, hidden within life itself.

May God bless us and make us a blessing to others, as we remember our baptism and give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Epiphany Sunday

Isaiah 60
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.
5 Then you will look and be radiant,
your heart will throb and swell with joy;
the wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.


Sitting here, in a Victorian church, on the edge of a Victorian village, in a Dominion formed in the Victorian era, if follows that there will be symbols.

Take a stroll through the village and look for symbols: on the gable immediately below the roof, on columns, door frames, fence posts, and in the brickwork itself. What first appear as design elements may have deeper meaning, something the architect or owner hoped to express to the passersby.

A cherub, for example, symbolizes love or fertility. A lion’s head says nobility, or love for the mother country. An owl means wisdom or vigilance, which leads to the symbol of an open book, for wisdom or learning. The green man is another common symbol, a face emerging from a leafy background, and one that is hotly debated (like the Christmas tree) regarding it’s pagan background.*

Head over to the cemetery, and the Victorians had even more to say. A column represented the death of the pillar of the household, often broken at the top to indicate taken too soon. An urn represented someone cultured (and not cremation, which was not practiced in Victorian times) and a veiled urn represented the veil between this world and the next. Most complex is the clasped hands, which often symbolized a couple reunited in death. You can generally tell which hand is clasping which, and the cuff of that hand tells you whether husband or wife died first, leading the other to the afterlife.**

Back in the village, one of the most common, to the point that we hardly notice it, is the symbol of the sun and the sun’s rays. It’s an optimistic symbol, certainly the symbol of a golden age of progress and prosperity, and in our context, a symbol of empire. Every Victorian child knew that the sun never set on the British empire, illustrated by maps and stamps with the empire in pink or red. It was an optimism that would endure into the century that followed—until the shadow of war fell across the empire—but the symbol of the sun endures to remind us of that unique time.

And the symbol of the unsetting sun had an ancient pedigree. Throughout the ancient near-east—Egyptians, Akkadians, and Israelites—the connection between royal power and the sun that never set was common. A version appears in Psalm 72: “may your anointed live as long as the sun endures.” And then it’s reinforces this with a verse that you might recognize: “he shall have dominion from sea unto sea.” That last part is also our motto (“A mari ad usque ad mare”), though oddly omitted from the version we read in our hymnbooks today. That’s not very Canadian, is it?

And like our hypothetical stroll through the village, the passage from Isaiah invites us to “lift up your eyes and look about you...look and be radiant” as your heart swells with joy.

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
2 See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.

The darkness, in this case, is exile. Long ago, the people were carried into exile, the great city destroyed, all hope seemingly lost. But for God, all was not lost. It remained God’s desire to lead these exiles home, to restore the people to the land, to bring light to the shadowed places that were never forgotten.

But there was problem with this plan, a shadow that the passage hints at but doesn’t fully reveal. Some, we know, were reluctant to return to the ruined places, even in the midst of great joy that they were allowed to return. Some clinged to comfort, or opportunity, and some perhaps to the belief that this redemption would be short-lived. Whatever the cause, some need to be convinced to return, and that convincing can be found in the text:

3 Nations will come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 “Lift up your eyes and look about you:
All assemble and come to you;
your sons come from afar,
and your daughters are carried on the hip.

See the dual promise: the nations will be drawn to this new Jerusalem, kings in the brightness of a new beginning. And the children (we always worry about the children!) they will assemble and come along too! Sons from afar, and daughters ‘carried on the hip,’ a delightful turn of phrase that should get anyone out the door and back to the land of light.

Through it all, there is an abiding sense that the prophet is trying too hard. He’s overselling it: again a reflection of the very human tendency to choose the ‘devil you know’ over the uncertain promise of return. Hear what I mean:

The wealth on the seas will be brought to you,
to you the riches of the nations will come.
6 Herds of camels will cover your land,
young camels of Midian and Ephah.
And all from Sheba will come,
bearing gold and incense
and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.

There is a reference here to something else you might be familiar with, but I’m going to set that aside to focus on the need to promote the very thing people longed for, prayed for, worked for, but some chose to ignore. Exile is a state-of-mind as well as a physical reality, and people needed to be convinced to make the trip. It was wrapped up in royal power, the promise that Jerusalem might become something it never was, and the sentimentality of taking the children home. It was a compelling message.

Again, why would you need to sell a return from exile? You would expect people to drop everything and run home, not wait around for a prophet to sweeten the deal. Doesn’t the promise of return sell itself?

There are a few things we should remember as we figure this out. First, the exile lasted decades, meaning many exiles were living in the only place they ever knew. Jerusalem sounded remarkable, but for most, it wasn’t home. Also, Babylon was world-class (as we would say today) and anyone living there might feel some pride being at home in such a great city. Finally, the exiles were hardly suffering in Babylon: they made lives for themselves, doctors and lawyers, and high places in the royal court such as our friend Daniel (of the lion’s den fame). They were the High Victorians of the ancient near-east.

Looking at the clock, it might be time for the ‘so what,’ the link to today that will help us put the whole thing together. And whenever the preacher talks exile, there is a moment when we need to complete the circle and decide who’s in exile today. Or, in the context of this passage, who is light-shy? As with all popular metaphors, there is a cast of usual suspects.

Some are in exile from themselves, and lack of sense of their true selves and who they were created to be. Some are in exile from the success and prosperity that many enjoy, and see no route to return or even begin. Some are in exile from any kind of higher meaning: they attach to status or things or the ‘perfect life,’ until they discover how truly fleeing these are. And some are just mad: mad at life, mad at the people around them, even mad at God.

Convinced that there are many forms of exile, and equally convinced that for many, it’s the only life they know, our task would seem to be light-bearers, or light-bringers, into the dark places we go. We are not the light, we bring the light, reflect the light, promote the light. “Arise, shine,” Isaiah said, “for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” We allow the light to rise upon us, that others may see a way home from exile.

Again, we’re not making the light, we’re allowing the light to shine through our lives to cast a pure light on others. They may or may not choose to see it, embrace it, follow it. But we can bear witness to the power of the light in our lives and see what comes next. God will do the hard work.

May God shine through us, into the darkness of an often weary world, and make all things new. Amen.




*https://gizmodo.com/what-the-secret-symbols-in-victorian-architecture-reall-1529767254
**https://woodlandcemeteryhistory.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/victorian-monument-symbolism-expressions-carved-in-stone/