1st Scripture Reading: Isaiah 42: 1-9 and Psalm 29
Isaiah the great prophet of Israel served as God’s voice to the people 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Isaiah served God by proclaiming prophetically God’s plans for the people of Israel.
Even with the hindsight of the 21st century, it is a bit eery to read this passage written so long before Jesus made his appearance, and to realize that there is some thread of continuity going on here.
This is prophecy, remember, a bit like fortune-telling. Isaiah is looking into the future and telling his people what God has planned for them. They don’t know Jesus. But in this time of war and insurrection, this proclamation must have given hope. It must also have opened some people’s eyes to what they were doing wrong, and what God requires to make it right. God calls them in “righteousness”, and tells them justice must be established on earth.
We can see the beginning of a path here – some movement is required from place A (war and injustice and darkness) to a future place B (peace, justice and light). God is using the prophet Isaiah to prepare the people for the road they must travel.
And just in case we doubt the power of the Creator to work wonders on earth, the psalm of David (#29) reminds us that God’s voice has all power both to create and to destroy. The psalm ends with this prayer: “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace.”
A loving God, like a loving parent, gives the children good gifts. But like a loving, responsible parent, God also sets limits and has expectations of those children. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions, and we cannot delay forever the call of God to grow up! To become responsible, compassionate, peaceful adults who are not afraid to speak truth to power, and whose lives reflect the vision God has for this beautiful world.
Hymn #30 MV “It’s a Song of Praise to the Maker”
2nd Scripture Reading: Acts 10:34-48 and Matthew 3: 13-17
I was baptized as a 12 year old by total immersion at a Baptist church in Vancouver. I was a very intense seeker after God and Jesus even then, but the experience was disappointing. I wanted to feel something – or hear something or be changed somehow.
What was clear in me was a strong sense of fairness – of justice, if you like. As a teenage girl I felt very strongly the injustice of a still strongly patriarchal system that valued me at something less than my brothers. So I left the church at about 14 or 15, having had my eyes opened to the fact, in those days, that women had very little real power in the church I attended, which was strictly run by stern men in grey suits.
At that time I did not really know that what I was seeking was justice – but I knew I had to keep seeking. The status quo was never an option.
But back to baptism: one of only two recognized sacraments in the United Church – the other being Holy Communion. Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River had two elements. First of all he went under the water as a rite of purification – for the cleansing of sins. (this is a pretty common spiritual practice – not exclusively Christian by any means). What is different for us in our understanding of this ritual, is that we believe that we die to our old sinful life as we go under the water, and we enter a new life as part of the body of Christ as we emerge. We are in some way transformed.
The second element of Jesus’ baptism was the hearing of a voice proclaiming that “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” He was then led into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he became very clear about his mission.
So in a way there are two phases to the sacrament of baptism. Some denominations are much clearer about this than we are, but the two elements do coexist nevertheless. The baptism with water is the outward sign of our acceptance of Jesus the Christ as our Guide, our Light which dispels the darkness of our previous life. The baptism by the Holy Spirit is more subtle for most of us, and helps us to perceive more clearly the spiritual direction for our lives. It can happen instantaneously as to Jesus, or as to Paul on the Damascus Road, or it can develop slowly over a period of time as the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert might attest.
But whether it is fast or slow, once we are marked as part of the Body of Christ, there will be movement, there will be transformation. We are all called to be better than we were. Growing up is an inevitability – not an option! Our spiritual growth is divinely ordained as our scriptures generously proclaim to us. If we don’t get this, we aren’t listening!
Briefly back to my story...I wandered, seeking that elusive knowledge or understanding or experience that would connect me to God, for something close to 40 years. Amazing isn’t it! 40 years in the wilderness of God’s beautiful world, absorbing like a sponge all my being could handle about different spiritual paths, different ways of thinking about the Divine, with the compass always pointing to more justice, more fairness, more love.
I came to understand that there are many paths to God – but nobody gets there without walking the path. And Jesus never really left me. My personal belief is that my baptism was more important than I knew. For I have encountered the Risen Christ, and somehow he knows my name and my address! And I have a calling – I have always had a calling to seek and proclaim God’s righteousness – the justice and compassion that are the only path to real Peace.
My path has not been without stumbles and delays and missteps, I have to say. I am reminded of the criminal crucified beside Jesus, who beseeched him saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus assured him that his very yearning for healing and forgiveness had won him the prize: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” We will all throw ourselves on the mercy of God when our time comes. In the meantime, we are called to be the best we know how to be, in service to God’s dream of a just and peaceful world. When we come forward after Communion to remember our baptisms, I invite you to pray as I will: “Jesus, remember me”.
Hymn #161 MV “I have called you by your name”