“We Belong to God”

January 13, 2013


Isaiah 43:1-7

Luke 3:15-17, 22-23


People hear some of the stories in the Bible more as puzzles than as anything else. Rather than offering enlightenment, some accounts of Jesus leave those who hear with a sense of “So, what’s that have to do with me?”

The baptism of Jesus is one such story. It has long troubled people in the church.

Even those who are most skeptical about our ability to know anything about Jesus agree that he was baptized by John. That event marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. All four gospels mention this baptism—and it is not the kind of story someone would invent.

Why, after all, would Jesus—one who is greater—be baptized by John—one who, by his own admission wasn’t worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals?

Why would Jesus—who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire—be baptized by John with the water of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?

Luke tries to skirt around these disturbing facts and difficult questions by never really saying that John baptized Jesus. Instead we are given a picture of John roaming all over the region of the Jordan River. We hear him cry out and call the people to repentance. We watch as Herod, showing what he thinks about John proclaiming the good news to the people, shuts up John in prison.

And then, with John securely under guard in some cell, Luke tells us, oh, by the way, “Jesus also had been baptized.” You decide how that happened.

Today our problems and questions arise more from what happened next. After being baptized, as Jesus is praying, “the heaven opens, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven…”

We have our own contemporary questions:

What does it look like when the heaven opens?

How does the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form?

What is the sound of a voice from heaven?

Add to these questions the fact that for most of us our own baptism is an event in the distant past and today’s gospel lesson seems one that any preacher with an ounce of sense would best avoid.

But what if we stand around this scene for a while? What if we look until we see? What if we listen until we hear? What if we come to this story seeking not certainty but faith? What if we call it an “epiphany” and try to discover what is revealed?

Throughout his Gospel, Luke uses word pictures to make theological points.

Angels appear to frightened shepherds in a blaze that lights up the nighttime sky.

Angels in dazzling clothes appear to frightened women at an empty tomb.

Heaven opens and the Spirit of God descends.

Through such pictures Luke helps us to look behind the event at hand so that we might glimpse the God who is acting in the world.

Now, of course, for heaven to open, it must first be closed.

That’s probably the best place to start—with something familiar. It’s said that the closed heavens suggest nothing less than human beings afflicted and forsaken and the earth barren.[1]  I’m willing to bet that most of us here this morning know something of that from our own lives. The closed heavens remind us of those times when our prayers seem to go nowhere, when we are cut off and God seems distant.

Suddenly we see something else. Heaven opens.

The heavens are ripped open, a sign that God has not abandoned us. When the clouds break we see the sun that has been there all along. The heavens open, revealing the One who was always with us and always will be with us. The Creator is still present to this weary world.

This is what we know—and what we often need to be reminded of: Even in our affliction we are known and loved by God.

We see the light of the sun differently after a long time of clouds. And here at the Jordon we see the light of God in a new way. It is—yes—an epiphany—a showing forth of what God is like: present to us not only in the sun but also in the dark and cloudy times.

The heavens open and the Creator and the created meet. Earth and heaven embrace.

The Spirit descends like a dove, like the Spirit of God that brooded over the waters of chaos at creation.

Look—a new creation is taking place. We see a glimpse of the wholeness that God desires for each of us and for all of creation.

To all who know affliction—to each one of us—good news comes down: comfort, release, and gladness.

The Spirit of God finds a dwelling place in Jesus. God’s Spirit, however, is given not for Jesus alone but for the whole community of those who would follow him. Jesus receives the Spirit of God for the sick whom he heals, for sinners whose sins he forgives, for the outcast whose fellowship he seeks, for the women and men he calls into discipleship. Jesus receives the Spirit as the brother of men and women.

The Spirit of God did not begin working in the world with Jesus. The whole history of the Jewish people is a history of that Spirit.

The Spirit spoke through prophets like Isaiah and Hulda.

The Spirit acted through judges like Gideon and Deborah.

The Spirit worked through leaders like Moses and Miriam.

It is not saying too much to affirm: “God desires the health and wholeness of all of life in the face of the corruption we and the powers and principalities have brought upon it. To that end the very word of God became flesh. And under the assault of our crucifying ‘No’ God spoke the divine ‘Yes.’”[2]

This yes was spoken in the baptism of Jesus and spoken again—even louder for those with the ears to hear –in the resurrection of Jesus.

When God speaks, what is it like? Recall the poetic description of the psalmist that we read this morning:

The voice of the Lord is powerful

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars

causes the oaks to whirl

strips the forests bare

shakes the wilderness.

And in God’s temple all—all—say, “Glory!”

The word “glory” points to the radiance, the fullness, the beauty of God. Theologians suggest that it is something like the feeling aroused in us by bright, concentrated light—something that can only be described by pointing to that feeling.

In this congregation we seek to speak faithfully and accurately about God. We weigh our words, we study the ancient words of the Bible, we listen to the words of one another. Still we confess that God is beyond our thinking and our speaking. The light of God’s glory shines brighter than even our best efforts.

Our experience of God begins with wonder and awe and ends with the worship. Between wonder and worship we study and pray, we work together. But we don't come up with all the answers.

This awareness that we have more questions than answers marks us as members of the United Church of Christ in the Congregational tradition. We are passionate about action for justice in the world and understanding the scriptures and the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives and our work and our worship. We put less emphasis on “getting it right” when it comes to what we believe. Each time we receive new members into the life of our congregation, we remind ourselves that we are held together by covenant not creed, by our actions in this community rather than our statements of faith.

Baptism welcomes us into the community of those who have heard the “Yes” of God—if only faintly over the din of the world. It unites us with Christ and with all who cry “Glory!”—with those who recognize there is a power in the world greater than what can be seen and heard.

The covenant that binds us together is our glory. Yes, we know it’s not always comfortable to sing a new song or to minister to people unlike us or to work with members with different opinions. And yet God keeps calling us into just such ventures.

With our discomfort also comes the word of comfort that we heard from the prophet Isaiah: when it feels like we’re drowning in deep water, when we’re so upset that it seems like we’re on fire, God is with us. The waters will not overwhelm, the fire will not consume. Along with God’s discomfort comes the comfort of God.

Why do we get both? Listen again to the words of the prophet: We were created for God’s glory. You were created for God’s glory.

Absolutely amazing, isn’t it?

Yes, we get complacent and comfortable. We get angry and afraid when that comfort is disturbed. But we were made for the glory of the God who disturbs and comforts us.

So let us return to our first question: What does this baptism have to do with me?

Through our actions, through our words, through the ways that we relate to one another and to the rest of the world God is speaking through us. God is announcing to the world that the value of each individual human being—of you and me, of neighbors and strangers—is grounded in the fact that we are the children of God. It's not who you know or what you know; it's not what you have done or haven't done; it's not how much money you have or don't have that establishes your worth as a person. You are a child of God. That is enough. That does not change.

The baptism of Jesus established his identity and his authority. But its full meaning was only revealed in the unfolding story of his life, death, and resurrection. The beginning established what he was to become. That beginning was worked out as Jesus healed the sick, and ate with outcasts, and taught those who had the ears to hear.

So it is with our own lives as those who have been baptized.

We are who God says we are—the sisters and brothers of Christ, the daughters and sons of God. We look backward to our baptism and remember who we are. And we look forward, realizing that we are always announcing by our lives what it means to be the children of God. The identity that we receive in baptism is only a word until it is revealed in the unfolding story of our own life, death, and resurrection.

Probably the most difficult task anyone has is to find out just who he or she is before the living God.

We brought many questions to this story. We walk away with just one:

Who is God calling you to be?

If the baptism of Jesus means anything for us, its meaning might be found in this: One human being was able to be fully faithful to that image of God. His baptism was the beginning of working out what that meant. That faithfulness led to crucifixion. That faithfulness led to resurrection.

In baptism we are called children of God. This is the message of the prophet that we heard this morning: “I have called you by name. You are mine.”

Our baptism calls us on a lifelong journey, one step at a time. Our faithfulness to our baptismal calling will always be partial, incomplete. Even in the partial, however, we know God’s complete forgiveness and mercy.

The heavens open. God is with us.

Let us walk in God’s light and God’s love.

Let us discover what we might yet become.

[1] Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, pg. 89.

[2] Interpretation, January 1992, pg. 52.