Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 Part 1
Parishioners learn theology by story and symbol more than sermon or Sunday School book. Baptism, however practiced, provides for an experience of faith at the level of bone and marrow, the foundational faith of being, woven into the unconscious, guarding and guiding religious life.
The lessons for the day point to bedrock themes addressed by baptism. Psalm 29 celebrates the sovereignty of Yahweh experienced by the psalmist during a thunderstorm. Yahweh "sits enthroned over the flood" (v. 10). This harks back to ancient Canaanite myth, in which the gods conquer the primeval waters of chaos; and to the biblical account of creation: "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (Gen 1:2).
Modern cultures, flushed with the dominance of science and technology over the natural world, for a time lost touch with the essential wildness of creation. But the darkness of the deep is emerging again. This morning's newspaper contains reports of children on their way to a birthday party, shot to death by the random bullets of a joyriding teenager. Increasingly, those monitoring the ecosystems of earth are predicting doom with the zeal of ancient prophets. Psychology is searching for spiritual wisdom and power that addresses the darkest recesses of the human spirit which science alone cannot fathom.
The waters of baptism are not only calm blue waters of a baptistry or the sprinkle from a font. God baptizes people in the waters of the planet's teeming billions, and the forces of violence and survival which surge among us. The material universe itself, far from being the orderly machine which Newton envisioned, is a flux of space and time contingencies.
Isaiah 43:1-7, the first lesson, assure God's people, not of a halcyon universe, but of Yahweh's presence as they pass through the storm, and of the divine promise that flooding rivers will not overwhelm them. Confidence in human mastery of creation, like the unsinkable Titanic, dooms people to destruction; Trust in the ultimate goodness of the Creator leads through the hurricane by dry paths of meaning and grace. We often experience faith as a nature documentary on public television, when in actuality it is an Outward Bound expedition which thrusts us into extremities beyond our own resources, where only dependence on God will see us through.
In Luke, John the baptizer contrasts his baptism in water with the baptism of the Messiah, which will be with the Holy Spirit and fire. John's baptism, probably having as its antecedent the ritual lustrations of the Qumran community, signified cleansing from sins and repentance. The Messiah, according to Malachi, will be like "a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap" (Mal 3:2b).
We long to be cleansed from sin and guilt. David cried, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean," referring to the priest's sprinkling of the blood of sacrifice and water on a house to cleanse it. Fire cauterizes the diseased tissue of a wound. The fire of baptism needs to remove not only the sin itself, but the guilt and shame with which the evil one taunts us as a result of our sin. We often conceive of and practice baptism as a wading pool of cheap grace; nevertheless, it is the refiner's furnace of forgiveness from which we emerge (not magically) unbound, untouched, and pure.
The baptism of Jesus symbolizes his immersion through incarnation into the physical existence of humanity. Confronting the sanctimony and hypocrisy of established religion, of which Christians as well as all other religious people are often guilty, he endured the baptism of finitude in general and of crucifixion in particular: "I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed" (Lk 12:50). That the world chose to crucify rather than worship him ignited fires of judgment that still burn.
Through baptism Jesus identified with humanity. He became one with the crowds of people, harassed and helpless, like waves whipped white by the wind. He shared the common life, a Jew, a member of a race and religion longing for the voice of God to be heard after centuries of silence. We often homogenize him, blending his olive skin, black hair and first century outlook into heretical conformity with our own race and time.
Jesus' baptism also confirmed his identity as Messiah. Hindered by our scientific biases, we can get mired in details of what "really" happened, what a present-day journalist might have seen on the banks of the Jordan that day. Doing so, like prospectors panning the river, we discard nuggets of gold to collect sand.
The essence of the event eludes objective observation, while setting the heart on fire with its truth. Upon Christ the Spirit descended like a dove. The raging floods are subsiding. God's peace shines like a rainbow, on earth as in heaven. The voice announces, in the intimacy of second person, that the relationship of God and Christ is like that of father and son, recalling Isaac, the beloved son of Abraham (Gen 22:2) and the Davidic king, proclaimed God's son at coronation (Ps 2:7).
The baptismal formula also includes "with you I am well pleased," which joins the majesty of messianic rule with the stark reality of the servant's suffering. Isaiah of Babylon may have had in mind the exiled people of Israel as the servant. Jesus perhaps, and certainly the early church, found in this portrayal the secret of his identity and mission.
The Reverend Willie Woodson, preaching at Richmond Hill, an ecumenical retreat center in Richmond, Virginia, on July 25, 1994, took as his text Jonah 1. The reluctant prophet watched as devout pagan sailors rowed for safety, without success, for it was a tempest of God. Jonah advised, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea" (v. 12). When God's people cease merely observing and get thrown into the deep waters of human need, then the storm is stilled. Not only in the safe pool or font of baptism, but in the overwhelming seas of suffering, Christ baptizes his own with the Holy Spirit and with fire.