Where Will We Look?
A sermon by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
Baptism of Christ (Second Sunday of Epiphany)
Think for a moment of being in a rainstorm. Imagine the sound of thunder, the flash of lightening. Think of a soft spring rain. Now think of a loud booming summer thunderstorm. Recall pictures you have seen of tornadoes and hurricanes. But also think of the fun you once knew when you playfully jumped into mud-puddles. This morning’s scriptures are about water.
Normally, we hear the morning passage from the Hebrew scriptures, and then a passage from the Christian Scriptures. This morning we are doing something a little different. We are going to start with the gospel lesson, Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. The story ends with God speaking.
Then we will hear the reading from the prophet Isaiah, who uses the phrase, “Thus says the Lord” to indicate that the prophet is speaking as God’s spokesperson. The words that Isaiah delivered to the people of Israel who were living as refugees seem to be appropriate words for God to be speaking to Jesus at the beginning of a public ministry.
Then we will hear the words of Psalm 29, which describes the power of God like a storm that comes from the sea, crosses the mountains, and moves into the dessert. In all of these readings, listen to the descriptions of God’s spirit moving in our world. Listen to the images of water – calming, soothing, restorative, rivers used as political boundaries, crossing waters as a sign of being a changes person, waters stirred up into a storm. Listen to hear God’s spirit moving among us this morning.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
But now thus says the LORD, the one who created you, O Jacob, the one who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When 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. For 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. Because 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. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I 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 — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
You, divine beings! Give to the LORD—
give to the LORD glory and power!
Give to the LORD the glory due his name!
Bow down to the LORD in holy splendor!
The LORD’s voice is over the waters;
the glorious God thunders;
the LORD is over the mighty waters.
The LORD’s voice is strong;
the LORD’s voice is majestic.
The LORD’s voice breaks cedar trees—
yes, the LORD shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon jump around
like a young bull,
makes Sirion jump around
like a young wild ox.
The LORD’s voice unleashes fiery flames;
the LORD’s voice shakes the wilderness—
yes, the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The LORD’s voice convulses the oaks,
strips the forests bare,
but in his temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”
The LORD sits enthroned over the floodwaters;
the LORD sits enthroned—king forever!
Let the LORD give strength to his people!
Let the LORD bless his people with peace!
This morning our scripture passages talk about water and they talk about God’s moving spirit. The prophet Isaiah is with the refugees of Israel, people who have been taken away from their homes by the conquering Babylonian army and then relocated in a land far away from their ancestral homes. It is a place without familiar landmarks. It is a place of a strange language. It is a strange territory: Jerusalem is a city on a hill surrounded by a dry and dusty desert, but this is a place of many rives that make much of the land a muddy marsh. It is a place of unfamiliar stories, a place where they are told their God is not powerful enough to protect them, because if their God was powerful then they would still be at home, they would still be among the familiar things, they would be able to live life in the ways that they always had done it before. It is from this strange place that Isaiah speaks of God’s promises:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When 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.”
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
Isiah is not describing some atomic or biological change that gives God’s people supernatural powers. This is not a comic book story explaining where our heroes get superpowers – like being bitten by a radioactive spider or exposed to God’s gamma rays. This is poetry: water, wind, and flame can be destructive forces in nature, but they can also be transformative. What are the symbols of God’s transformative power in your life?
The psalmist watches a storm as it moves from the sea, across the mountains, over the desert, and sees God moving across the land. For people who have lived through tsunamis, hurricanes, flooding rivers, tornados, and brush fires sparked by lighting, hearing that God is in the storm may not be a word of comfort.
Water, wind, and fire have always possessed power to inspire and to create fear in humans. And yet all three have a mystical quality, too.
Water is the stuff of life: it protects us while we are in our mother’s wombs; our bodies are made up of 70% water – and so is our planet, by no small coincidence; we are redeemed in the waters of baptism, we thirst for water all our days and may someday fight wars over it. After all, we might be able to live without petroleum, but we cannot live without water.
Fire brings light in the darkest night and heat in the coldest winter, and its power harnessed has helped to build civilizations. Fire has been used to make most of the objects in our homes, and it can consume most of the same possessions.
And wind – wind is the most evocative sign of the Spirit moving among us; in fact, the word “wind” can be translated “Spirit,” and when the heaven was opened, the Spirit descended like a dove.
The imagery of water in both Isaiah and Psalm 29 is quite frightening – and yet God assures the people that they need not fear because of God’s presence. “Fear not,” says the divine voice. This is not the gentle fist on the chin that we see between soldiers with the admonition “Be brave, have courage.” Fear not – let fear be banished! The Hebrew word here also means “revere.” God is here: do not fear. God is here: pay attention to what God is doing. God is here: let go of your fearfulness and be filled with awe. And people come together seeking God’s presence.
For Lyonsville, what are the signs that God is indeed present? For Lyonsville, what are the ways you seek God’s presence – not just as individuals but as a congregation? For Lyonsville, what are the fears that inhibit God’s transforming power?
Luke tells us crowds gathered to hear the message of John the baptizer. The gospel writer Luke paints wonderful word-pictures. Most of the stories in Luke have a crowd of people and a few individuals who stand out. The crowd speaks with one voice, as though they are the choir in an opera: everyone has ONE question.
This crowd is filled with expectation, looking, watching, and waiting, filled with an urgency that has them asking questions. In this particular crowd we’re told soldiers and tax collectors come with their questions, and we can assume that these outsiders were among the many who were baptized.
Jesus is also part of a crowd of people who is baptized. All of them see that God is up to something important. All of them have come to John to prepare for God’s new act. Jesus is just one of the crowd.
As we look over the crowd, we’re left wondering “Who are we supposed to be watching?” The answer may seem obvious: Jesus. But that answer may be too obvious.
It reminds me of an old joke. A Sunday school teacher asks the children, “What is grey, furry, and carries nuts in its cheeks?” A stunning silence sits over the children until one brave kid answers, “I know the answer is a squirrel, but since this is Sunday School I’m gonna say Jesus.”
Are we supposed to pay attention to Jesus in this story? Looking again, I see Jesus actually plays a small part in this passage: he is baptized among others who together make up a crowd, and then Jesus is off to the side, praying. John is preaching, crowds are people are asking questions – probably having to yell them so John can hear, John is responding with prophetic announcements, and Jesus seems to be quietly praying. In fact, in this whole passage, Jesus does not even speak. John speaks, crowds question, John responds, and God speaks. Jesus is silent, praying.
And as Jesus is praying, God comes through the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The voice of God declares that the work of God’s reign is about to take a fresh direction.
The first readers of this gospel would have understood Jesus’ baptism in the same light as the anointing of Hebrew prophets, kings, and judges.These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God’s words from Isaiah long before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
God’s love is from of old, and it is focused on each one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. Because of psalms like the one that we heard this morning that describe God’s voice as thunder, we expect everyone heard this voice, stopped everything they were doing, and listened to the voice.
It’s easy for us to imagine such a booming voice, because we are used to microphones and amplification being used for every event. But this is a voice without a microphone. And Luke does not tell us who heard this voice. Luke does not tell us if this was a public announcement that the entire crowd heard or a private message spoken only to Jesus – or a whisper that only a few in the crowd heard.
We need to pay attention here – so let me ask you three sets of questions.
First, imagine that you are walking through the park one day and you hear a thundering voice calling your name saying, “I love you, you are mine. Go and do as I say!” What would you do? Would you acknowledge that voice? Would you assume it was God or would you look around for the speakers and the person holding a microphone? Would you look for the candid camera trying to catch your response?
Here’s the second question: Think of the people who have claimed to hear God’s voice. What do you think about them? Did you trust them to have a divine gift of discernment? Or did you step back skeptically and wonder what they may have eaten, or drunk, or smoked to raise their consciousness? How suspicious are you of people who hear the divine voice?
If you are suspicious of God speaking to you this way, here’s the third question: How do you expect God to speak to you? How do we expect God to be speaking today? How do we expect to discern God’s call for Lyonsville congregational?
The expectancy of the crowds that came to hear John was that John was the messiah – God’s promised leader who would begin a new age of God’s reign on earth. But the surprise that the crowd gets is that John says he is not the messiah – another is coming. Because we’ve heard the story before, our attention goes to Jesus, a member of the crowd, the one who sits to the side praying. Amidst all this urgency, all this hyped up expectation, all the energy of a major rock concert, Jesus – who we claim is the messiah – is not at the center of the activity but has moved away from the center of attention. And so we’re left asking, “Where will we look for God?”
There are a lot of ways to look for God. There are a lot of ways to be a congregation. The issue is not which one is more right than the others but rather which ways best fit you – as individuals and as a congregation.
During the rest of this month, as we approach the annual congregational meeting, I am going to be reflecting to you some of what I see about this congregation’s dynamics. That is leading up to celebrating at the annual meeting what has been done in the past year, visions for the upcoming year, and installing new leaders for the upcoming ministries. It also anticipates a leadership retreat at which an agenda for the upcoming year will begin to take shape – specifically addressing what changes and transitions need to be engaged in order to begin searching for a new called and settled pastor.
Central to that search, central to the process of getting ready for that search, is this question: “Where will we look for God?” It is a good question to ask today as we move from Christmas and Epiphany to the season following Epiphany, where we are invited to look for God anew.