Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Isaiah 43: 1-7 January 10, 2016
“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.”
Prayer: Open your heavenly realm to us today, O God, that your Spirit may baptize us anew with your love and grace. Amen.
We’ve heard it again and again… in the Call of Baptism, God says to each of us and to every child about to be baptized the wonderful words, “I love you! I love you with an everlasting love.” We heard it today as we re-affirmed our baptisms with a sprinkling of water.
We get those words from Isaiah who quotes God saying, “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.” Wow! “What a wondrous love this is, O my soul, O my soul!”
Why would God love us so? What makes God love the child? Because that child earned God’s love? No. Because that child is so innocent and free from bad behavior, not having lived long enough to sin? No. Because she’s been baptized? Uh-uh. Because he’s been going to church? Nope. Are we loved by God because we’ve learned how to pray, spent time with God in daily devotions? Because we’ve been saying and doing all the right things? No, no, and no!
What, then, makes God love us? Because it has nothing to do with who we are, or where we are, or what we do or don’t do, what we say or don’t say… I think weare loved by God because it’s in God’s nature to do so. There’s human nature and there’s God’s nature. God’s nature is perfect, complete love. There’s holy love (agape). There’s romantic /physical love (eros). Brotherly/sisterly love (filo). Family love. Tough love. We are loved because God IS love—the source of all Love is God. We are loved because God’s love and grace are unmerited, undeserved, and unconditional, and Jesus showed us just how far God was willing to go to ensure we know this! We are loved, and in baptism, we affirm that each of us is “The Beloved!” recipients of Love. Each of us are daughters and sons of the living God! Family members.
I absolutely love this passage from Isaiah 43. I always use excerpts of it in the Baptismal ceremony. I go into more detail with it when I consult with parents helping them prepare for their child’s baptism. I love it because it speaks of God’s love—how God names, claims, and redeems us. It shows just how far God is willing to go to get this love into our hearts and minds, metaphorically giving up anything and everything, even whole nations, even God’s own Son, just so we get it.
Love is absolutely an essential ingredient to our survival, both physically and spiritually. Study after study shows that the loving touch and loving attention between parents and a newborn infant facilitates the bonding process from the first moments after birth. Healthy bonding with both parents can also help the infant develop better psychologically and socially later in life. Babies who don’t receive human love in their first days or weeks of life often suffer from health problems related to this deprivation. They can exhibit a failure to thrive, a condition often seen in orphanages among some children who did not receive enough human love when they were babies. Newborns denied physical contact with other humans can actually die, even when provided with proper nutrition and shelter (http://www.livestrong.com/article/72120-effect-human-contact-newborn-babies/, retrieved January 9, 2016). So, baptism is our affirmation of God’s holy and eternal love, and love is absolutely essential to our survival, like the air we breathe and the water we drink.
It’s no accident that water is used in baptism. Yes, we baptize with water because Jesus was baptized with water. Yes, we baptize with water because we know it’s essential for our physical survival; indeed ~ approximately 65% of our bodies are made up of water, and ~71% of our planet earth’s surface is water. Yes, water is a metaphor of God’s ability to cleanse our lives.
But, we also baptize with water because it represents both the goodness of life and the sheer terror of life. Water is innocent enough for baptism, drinking, bathing, and recreation, but it is terribly powerful—it carved the Grand Canyon after all. Too much of it can cause massive destruction, like a tsunami, or a flood. And the very water we need to survive by having it in us will kill us if we’re in it too long and it fills our lungs.
But God tells us, through Isaiah, that God will be with us when the waters of life are too powerful. As we pass through the rivers, we won’t
be overwhelmed. God is with us. But that’s not all… don’t we have to choose to rely on God, trust in God, deepen our faith in God? Yes, God is with us, but we may also have to make the decision tolearn how to swim in order to survive.
This past November a movie came out called “Brooklyn.” It’s about a young Irish teenaged girl named Ellis Lacey. Ellis takes the risk of leaving all the world she has ever known in Ireland and comes to Brooklyn in the 1950’s. She’s never travelled, never been overseas, never encountered others outside her village, let along the strange and exotic world of Brooklyn. But, she takes the risk because she believes in Brooklyn, there are more chances for a better life than Ireland can offer—economically, socially, romantically, and spiritually. But, she must change her looks to work. She has to change her self-effacing style. And, she must decide to make peace with her family as she cuts ties with them in order to come to America. Brooklyn is a baptism for Ellis Lacey, and it’s not a splash; it’s a long, learning to swim process (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/learning-to-swim-in-holiness/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Progressive%2001%2006%2016%20(1)&utm_content=&spMailingID=50411939&spUserID=MTI1MTY4NzQ2MzY0S0&spJobID=840954681&spReportId=ODQwOTU0NjgxS0, retrieved January 8, 2016).
Friends, I believe God ALWAYS wants us to survive, both physically and spiritually, learning to swim as we move through life. God provides for us the Holy Spirit to guide, comfort, cajole, lead, and inspire us. And, I believe, God taxes every available resource just so we know that God has our backs.
When you have a time in your life going through the baptism by fire or by fire, we don’t need to be afraid because God is saying “I got you. I got your back. I love you.”
And even if we are afraid, despite the challenges we face, don’t these words inspire hope for our survival because God is with us? In the context of the threat of terrorism, for example, we are easily filled with fear or anger. And, those feelings are exacerbated by the rhetoric of politicians which play on our fears and anger. But, God is still speaking, “I got you. I got your back. I love you.”
I invite us to remember that these feelings of fear and anger do not excuse us from ethical behavior, from being Christian, from exhibiting God’s love. In fact, our fears may challenge us to be more caring, more rational, more spiritual, more God-focused in our decision-making. Perhaps our sense of survival both spiritually and physically depends on us living faithfully?
I was troubled this past Friday evening when I watched CNN anchor Don Lemon interview a Muslim woman, Rose Hamid, who moments before was escorted out of a Donald Trump political rally. Rose was there as an audience member wearing a t-shirt that said, “SALAM, I come in peace.” She didn’t say a word in the rally. She didn’t heckle. She didn't disrupt anything. She just stood there. And, she was escorted out amid some taunts by some in the crowd. She said to CNN, “I was there because most Trump supporters never met a Muslim.” She explained that she hoped people would see a peaceful image of a Muslim person, rather than the terrorists and militants portrayed on TV. “This demonstrates how when you start dehumanizing the other it can turn people into very hateful, ugly people,” Hamid told CNN. “It needs to be known” (http://www.aol.com/article/2016/01/09/muslim-woman-removed-from-trump-rally-after-silently-protesting/21294589/?icid=maing-grid7%7Cmain5%7Cdl2%7Csec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D876043466_htmlws-sb-nb, retrieved January 9, 2016). I was troubled because she had every right to be there. In our country, she has every right to express her opinion on her shirt, or to protest, even silently. But, mostly I was troubled because the fears of the people did not challenge them to be more caring, more rational, more spiritual, more faithful, more God-centered and focused on God’s ways. Instead, they chose old habits, old prejudices, old discriminatory actions that have been ramped up by the political rhetoric in a culture of mistrust gone amuck.
Folks, I believe that old habits and prejudices such as these are the chaff that needs to be burned away by the Holy Spirit’s fire. I believe our survival as a people baptized by the Holy Spirit is dependant upon our trust in God’s love and welcome of us, and our willingness to let God’s transformative power burn away the chaff that is not usable in God’s ways.
Might each of us be invited by the Spirit to know of God’s great and holy love as we carry our burdens and joys in life? This love is essential for our survival, but if we do wish to survive, we also are encouraged to
leave our old familiar ways, risk our own transformation, and be renewed by the Spirit. As we do, hear God’s promise: “I love you, I got your back. You are not alone.” Thanks be to God. Amen.