A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
with notes from Dr. Tom Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 13, 2018: The Baptism of The Lord
Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Several years ago I flew in and out of Denver International Airport for a quick overnight trip for a funeral. The afternoon of my return trip the airport was packed—it took nearly an hour to snake through the turnstiles just to reach the point where everything and everyone goes through the scanners. Eventually it was my turn through security. I took my shoes off. I emptied my pockets. I laid my laptop out in one of those plastic bins, and I stepped into the body scanner, hands up. As I retrieved my things at the other end of the scanner, and hurried to get out of the way of the next traveler, I heard a TSA agent at another scanner yell, “Stop!” The whole place froze. My heart skipped a beat. Everything came to a grinding halt.
It turns out that a man’s carry-on suitcase had been chosen for a secondary inspection. But for some reason the man did not know or understand what was happening with his bag. So, when he was done putting his shoes back on and everything back in his pockets, he walked up to the secondary inspection booth where his bag was sitting on a table, took it in his right hand, and started walking to his gate. An innocent enough mistake, I guess. No one was hurt. He did not push or shove anyone. He didn’t seem to pose a threat to any of us who were just trying to get home. But you better believe that when that TSA agent yelled, “Stop!” my mind, and probably others as well, went to a pretty dark place.
As I walked to my gate, I overheard a woman say to her husband, “You know, I think the old world where we thought we were safe and secure is gone forever. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. That scares me.” Indeed, that’s what scared all of us in the security line that day. We heard the agent yell and we had no idea what was going to happen next. Even as people of faith I think we can easily agree with the woman’s sentiment. It is one thing to trust God, to feel close to God, to feel God caring for us when life seems stable and secure and safe. But what happens in those times when the old world where we thought we were safe and secure dies and the winds blow and the world shakes and fearful change and terror seem to be lurking around every turn? What happens to us, and to our faith, then?
The historian Eric Hobsbawm remembers when his safe and secure world became a world of terror. He grew up as a Jewish orphan in Berlin. On a cold January day in 1933 when he was only 15 years old, he saw the day’s newspaper at a street corner stand boasting a headline that would change his life forever: “Adolf Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany.” Later in his life, Hobsbawm reflected on that moment and said that it was if he and his sister, and the whole world, were passengers on the Titanic and everyone knew it was going to hit the iceberg. As Europe hurdled out of control toward World War II, the old world was violently ripped apart, and the new and uncertain world began to be born. Hobsbawm said that this new world was difficult to describe because it meant, “living in a reality that was simply not expected to last.” He said it was like living between a dead past and a future not yet born.
Living between a dead past and a future not yet born. That was exactly the situation for the Jews in the Bible who heard Isaiah’s prophecy. Their old world had died. The world’s greatest super power, Babylon, had marched into the city of Jerusalem, crushing it, leaving it in ruins. The Jews had no home and no place to worship. Many of the Jews were taken back to Babylon as war prisoners where they sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept. They felt like they were pawns in a game they could not control. And just when they thought things could not get any worse, they did. A new power, Persia, arose in the East and was rattling its sword against Babylon. The Jews were now, once again, in harm’s way in the middle of a war zone. Babylon was sure to be destroyed. The weak and frightened colony of Jews would surely be taken as spoils of war. The wheels of history were about to roll over them again, and they were living in a world that was not expected to last. And they were afraid.
It is into this fearful and uncertain time that the most amazing, almost unbelievable word of the prophet Isaiah comes: “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 the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame will not consume you.” Do not fear, God says to the people. Do not fear the calamity that surrounds you. Do not fear the rattling swords you hear. Do not fear the warlords and power-hungry and the corruption and the evil. Do not fear strange surroundings or foreign languages or unfamiliar customs. Do not fear. For I have redeemed you. You are mine.
Of course, as Christians we recognize these words. If I had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, it would probably be, “Do not fear.” It is what the angels said to the shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. It is what the angels said to Mary and then Joseph when they learned they would be parents. It is what the angels said to Peter, James, John, Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother James on Easter morning when they discovered the empty tomb. It is what God says to those who have seen their once secure retirement savings evaporate when the stock market gets shaky. It is what God says when every day the news is filled with bombs and terror and gun violence and missile attacks. It is what God says now that schools are the new Fort Knox and every person has to be patted down in order to enjoy Disney World and people freeze in fear when a TSA agent yells. “Stop!”
The fact of the matter, my friends, is that fear is very real for us. And yet, the prophet Isaiah calls us to a different way. Isaiah can confidently proclaim, “Do not fear,” because Isaiah knows the Lord who spoke these words. This is not some distant deity, not some impersonal force loose in the universe, not some god pulling the strings of history. Isaiah’s God, my God and your God, is the mother that listens in the night for the cries of her children. Isaiah’s God, my God and your God, is the father that runs out and throws a cloak around the child who has miraculously returned home. This God knows us, as deeply and intimately as God knew Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Samuel, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the rest of the Apostles. This is the God we see in the face of the risen Jesus as he walked along the beach and called out to Peter, Andrew, and John, “Follow me.”
Our God, the God who created the heavens and earth, knows my name and our God knows your name, too. Our God knows the number of the hairs on our heads, or, in some cases, the lack of hair on our heads. Our God remembers you and does not forget you. Our God listens for our voices and hears our cries even when the winds blow and the world shakes and fearful change and terror seem to be lurking around every turn. This God speaks into the midst of our dead pasts and yet-to-be-born futures, “Do not fear. I know you. I have called you by name. I am coming to help you. You are mine.”
I get asked a lot of questions as a pastor. One of the more common questions I am asked is about the purpose of baptism in the Presbyterian tradition. Unlike some other Christian traditions, Presbyterians don’t believe that something supernatural happens when we are baptized. We don’t believe that you go into the waters of the baptism one way and come out a completely different way. We don’t believe that baptism stamps your ticket to heaven, and we don’t believe that baptism makes you invincible, although that would be pretty cool. We believe that God bestows grace on all people as they are born into the world, grace that was not earned and cannot be taken away. We believe that through the Holy Spirit God calls all people to himself, in different ways and at different times, to lay down their lives to follow Jesus Christ. And this raises some question about baptism. Is it necessary? If nothing really happens in baptism, why do we do it? If God is going to have the final say on our lives, is there a point to baptism?
To all of these questions I simply point to the Scripture lessons we have heard today. We baptize in the Presbyterian tradition as a way of showing to all people just how close God holds us to his heart and says, “I know this one. I called this one by name. This one belongs to me. Do not fear.” That’s what happened when Jesus was baptized. The heavens opened up as Jesus went down into the water, and as he was coming up, the Holy Spirit dropped down from heaven and danced on his head. Then there was a voice, and it said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From that moment until the moment he ascended into heaven after the resurrection, the whole world knew who Jesus was and who’s he was. God knew him. God called him by name. He belonged to God. Even though he had he had every reason to, Jesus was not afraid.
Look, I don’t know what happened when you were baptized, but when I was baptized I’m pretty sure the roof of the church did not swing open to allow the Holy Spirit to dance on my head. I don’t remember it since I was only a few months old, but I’m sure my parents would have told me if a voice had called out from heaven when the water touched my head. No matter, though. The moment the water touched our foreheads, the truth is made plain: God knows each and every one of us. God calls us all by name. We become, at that moment, the treasured possession of God. The past is the past; the future is yet to be seen. The wind blows. The world shakes. Fearful change and terror are seemingly lurking around every turn. But you and me, my friends, we don’t have to be afraid—we know who we are and we know who’s we are. We are God’s beloved and in us God is well pleased.
In a few moments I am going to invite you forward to touch the waters in our baptismal font. Maybe you were baptized in this very font; maybe you were baptized in a different church or in a river or in a bathtub or swimming pool. Regardless of where you were baptized, the Spirit of God descended on you in that moment and God proclaimed, “This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased.” As you come forward to touch these waters today, lay aside your fear. Lay aside your worry and anxiety. Lay aside those things that burden you and hold you back from God’s abundant life. Lay them aside and feel the cool rush of God’s grace as it washed over you. And then take that grace with you and let it guide each step you take and every word you speak. When you pass through the waters, God will be with you. When the rivers rage and break their banks, God will be with you. When you walk through the fire, God will be with you. Do not fear, beloved, God is with you and in you God is so well please. Amen.