Isaiah 43: 1-7 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 January 13, 2019
“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.”
Prayer: Holy God, may we, your children, be open to your spirit once again, that we may be moved to serve you with joy and gladness. Amen.
Some of my most moving moments as a pastor occurred during the Sacrament of Baptism. I feel the Holy Spirit more powerfully than ever moving within me as I hold a little child, feel the water drip from my fingers and onto the child’s head. It’s is almost indescribable.
But, the most moving baptism was not with a baby, but was with a high school youth very early on in my ministry. This young man went through Confirmation, but declined to get confirmed. Then at a Fall Youth Event at Camp LaForet, Colorado Springs, he came to me and asked if he could be baptized and could confirm his faith. After talking it over with him and praying with him, I got this sense that he truly was ready. So, in the worship service that Saturday night, with all his friends, the youth, and advisors gathered around, he knelt in the middle of our circle. The youth laid their hands on him as I baptized him. This was one the first baptisms I ever did in my ministry, certainly the first for an older person making a confession of faith. So, being quite inexperienced at this as I was, I cupped my hands in a big bowl of water, and drew out the water in my hands, and opened them over his head. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and water ran down his head, onto his neck, and into his shirt. He got soaked! I did that two more times! We all laughed together, but in the end, you would have thought that I dunked him in the river! He stood up, tears streaming down his face, which made my eyes fill up, too. We prayed in thanksgiving, sang a beautiful song, then everyone created this enormous group hug. And, we just held on to each other for what seemed like an eternity. He was soaking wet and all of us were on fire with the Holy Spirit.
Baptism. By water. By the Spirit.
John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water…” By water, it’s the mark we make on a person, usually at imitation of the journey of their Christian faith. Sometimes, though, a person may believe in Jesus Christ and live life practicing that belief, but was not baptized as of yet. Like the young man at LaForet. Like some of our youth even here at Christ Church. Maybe even some adults here today.
Even so, baptism by water at any age affirms what God did and does for the human race. It’s Christianity’s way of saying that God, with infinite grace, spiritually opens wide the gates of love, the gates of heaven, the gates of the eternal kingdom for every one of us. One author wrote that “baptism [by water] is the mark of a Christian—our citizenship papers” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=baptized&imageField2=, retrieved January 11, 2019). That’s not a bad analogy. It’s our permanent spiritual Visa. By virtue of being a human being, we have a passport—our total acceptance and welcome by God as a participant in God’s realm in this life and the next. Jesus taught us this. Jesus died for this.
Baptism by water is the powerful affirmation of what Isaiah says, that God redeems us and restores us into favor. A chance to start anew after messing up. You know… sometimes after screwing up, you might say to your boss, your spouse, your child, or yourself, or whomever, “I know I messed up, but let me try again. Let me redeem myself.”
Well, God says, “I have redeemed you.” I’ve restored you. Get up. Start again. God also says, “I have called you by name. You are mine.” God redeems us. God claims us, knows us, and calls us by name. God is with us in all of life—through struggles, trials, life’s overwhelming moments AND in life’s joyous, momentous, and meaningful moments. We trust that God will strengthen the foundation of our faith with forms of adversity or forms of comfort, with types of misfortune or opportunity. All of it. And, all this is wonderful, providing us great hope.
But there is danger here. Spiritually, we may have the watermark of baptism, we may be soaking wet, but subtly, somewhere along the way, most Christians think that is all there is to it. Being baptized by water has morphed into thinking that God is there for our personal purposes. Our wants. Our desires. We want God to answer all our prayers, to bless us with prosperity, and to fix our problems, to bring us good health. We expect God to give us a good life.
And being people who are fair and honest, we don’t expect God to do all this without anything in return on our part. So, we choose to be kind, loving, respectful. We try to treat others as we would like to be treated. We try to live a good life. We live with values and morals. We may develop prayer lives. We go to church. All this good. All this is because we’re soaking wet in the waters of baptism.
But! John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water, but…” Whenever you hear “but,” you know something more significant is coming. There’s something more here calling out to us. John said, “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 with fire!”
Baptized with water is only one part of the Christian life. Baptized with the Spirit and fire is the other part, and that shifts everything. Being on fire with the Spirit means that God wants to give us the Spirit of the living Christ. The same Holy Spirit that was the essence of Jesus Christ is regenerated in our spirit, in our heart and soul. And what happens? Paul said it like this: “It no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2: 20).
On fire with the Holy Spirit means that Christ lives in us, and we decide to waive away the thought that God is for our personal purposes. And we shift. We become available to God for God’s purposes. I think this means we relinquish all our wants, whims, and desires, and we let God have all our abilities, our talents, everything about us. Because I believe God wants us to identify with God’s purposes. Whatever those are. We trust and believe that God knows what we need and want in life and will take care of us as we are used by God.
This is not easy. Does this mean we are to go deeper in the spiritual maturation process and do some hard work? Together with Spirit of God, are we take stock of what is good in our spirit, our attitudes, our hearts, and separate out that which is not usable to God? Don’t worry, the Spirit of God will help you detect what those are in your inner conscience. It’s the winnowing fork that separates out the useful from the unusable. Then we become the light of God for others to see.
I read a story about a woman who was baptized in early November. One of her coworkers asked her what it was like to be a Christian. She was caught off guard and didn’t know how to answer; but then she looked up, saw a jack-o’-lantern on the desk and answered, “It’s sort of like being a pumpkin.” The coworker asked her to explain that one. “Well,” she replied, “God picks you from the patch and brings you in, and with water, washes off all the dirt on the outside that you got from being in the pumpkin patch. Then God opens you up, and with your help, takes all the yucky stuff out. You and God do the hard work of removing all those seeds of malice, hate, greed, prejudice, and all that. Then God carves a new image for you on the outside and puts the light of Christ on the inside of you to shine for all to see. It is our choice to either stay outside and rot on the vine or to come inside and be something new and bright” (https://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?keywords=baptized&imageField2=, retrieved January 12, 2019). It’s not a perfect illustration, but it helps us understand the hard work that we do as we become identified with God’s purposes for others and not our own.
That is why I have a deep respect for people of faith and conscience who go out and engage in social activism, for example. I believe that many of them are on fire with the Holy Spirit. From a place of faith, they call attention to those in power where injustice is taking place, where people are being mistreated and systemic changes are needed.
That is why I have a deep respect for all of us at Christ Church as we are baptized with water, and we are on fire with the Holy Spirit. We, as a community of deep faith people, a church in partnership with the Holy Spirit, are doing the hard work of identifying that which is not compatible with God’s purposes of inclusively welcoming every person into ministry with us. So, we are addressing places where we can be more reflective of God’s great love for our planet earth, for example. That’s what our Green Team and our Creation Justice Covenant we adopted in November are all about. I praise God for that!
We are focusing on places where our building may not give full accessibility for everyone. That’s what our Imagine the Future Dream team is all about. They are looking at our facility and are making recommendations of physical change so to make all our ministry events in every part of our building accessible for everyone and safe for everyone.
And, we are concentrating on how we can be more inclusive, more welcoming, more intentionally mindful of God’s great love for every person of the human race, for everyone who is called by God’s name, who is created for God’s glory. That’s what our Open and Affirming Covenant is all about which is on our Annual Meeting agenda for us to approve in two weeks.
All this is because we are soaking wet by the waters of baptism and on fire with the Holy Spirit for God’s use.
Let us stand and sing of these truths as we conclude our worship today. Amen.