“Wading right in" - January 13, 2013 by Robin Wardlaw
Epiphany 2, Year C Baptism of Jesus
Readings: (Isaiah 43:1–7); Psalm 29; Acts 8:14–17; Luke 3:15–17, 21–22
“‘But now,’ thus says God,
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.’” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
Who needs to hear this? Who is full of fear? Will this passage and others like it ever become unnecessary, relics of a time when people had to pass through waters, so to speak, or walk through fire? This is from Isaiah 43, the passage suggested for today from the Hebrew Testament that we didn’t hear earlier. Somebody was passing through waters, or walking through fire, or felt as if they were. Will we be able to make a museum display some day of human cruelty and oppressive regimes to tell children how things once were, in the dim past, in the bad old days?
That’s what we work and pray for here all the time. We dream great dreams. The closest we can get to a society where no is fearing right now is worship–a little time out from the hurly burly. Everyone has a role to play, we sing–sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, we speak and we listen, we move together, as if in a dance. Sometimes there is food, sometimes we welcome a newborn, sometimes we say goodbye to a person who has died as we release them into the river of love. And to be fair, we don’t have to go everywhere with a weapon on the other six days of the week. We don’t live in places with no windows, or bars all over them. Here, that is. Now. Although women are thinking to themselves, that’s easy for you to say. And women elsewhere...well we are hearing a fresh batch of stories these days, and the resistance that is growing up in India to traditional sexism and misogyny.
It’s taken thousands of years, but we have come so far. And there is still such a long way to go. In the meantime, we have to wade in, right in. We have the example of those who have gone before us, fighting for rights, working to change opinions. They had the example of others. Some people back when had the example of Jesus. He had the example of...? His parents? The prophets? John the Baptist? Other contemporaries? He left us no journal, no diary, no autobiography that would help us figure this one out. We love him and these stories about him. We keep telling his story, and finding oceans of meaning in a few pages of gospels.
A person goes out into the wilderness summoned by something. Why? A gutsy guy is there calling his society’s leaders to account, calling for a change of heart, a change of direction. He’s not willing to work his way into the hierarchy, compromise principles to get ahead, hope to make powerful friends who could help him achieve a bigger piece of the pie, make peace with a system that is serving so many so badly and so few so well. And John’s message resonates with Jesus. Jesus has looked around and seen people passing through floods, walking through fires set by others, struggling just to eat, saddled by debt and made to feel like... Well, you’ve probably had that feeling. Maybe it feels like fire and flood right now for you.
Luke tells about a dove, and a voice after Jesus’ baptism. I’m not sure what you would have seen and heard if you had been there. Something happens. Some kind of spirit gets into him, if not that moment, shortly afterwards. Whatever happened in those early days beforehand, and at the time of his baptism Jesus ends up creating a powerful message himself. One that still resonates with us, one that still generates powerful opposition. Like all radical messages, Jesus’ message gets watered down. You can see it through the gospels, the earlier one, Mark, being more blunt, and the later ones getting more and more smooth. The process continues. Not everyone who calls themselves Christian these days shares Jesus’ critique of power and wealth. Not every building with a cross on the outside bears a resemblance to the Crucified One on the inside.
What did Jesus leave behind at the Jordan? What did Jesus get when he went to the river? What insight did he get, what commitment did he make there that hadn’t been sufficiently focussed before his baptism? How fully formed was he when he dried himself off, fastened his robe on again, said goodbye to John, and went back west. Luke goes on to talk about forty days in the wilderness. Jesus needed to take a deep breath. Then he began teaching about the heart of the bible message, the heart of God. The way Luke tells it, it didn’t happen all at once.
The passage we heard from Acts is interesting that way. People in Samaria have been baptized, but that’s not enough. There is a stage two for them, and somehow it didn’t come with the water alone. “As yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 8:16) Only baptized. Quite a visit from Peter and John. They leave the capital, and head north, about 60 kilometres due north to Samaria, in what we call the West Bank. Hands on heads and presto, the Holy Spirit is communicated. Sounds simple. But the story is more complicated, not to mention the process of receiving the Spirit. The story is a warning, actually, involving a man named Simon, a magician, a great self-promoter. Check out Acts, chapter 8. And bear with me: I’ll tell you that story briefly.
Simon has been dazzling the crowds in Samaria, it seems, with his magic and his power. Like many others there, he gets hooked by Philip’s preaching, and gets baptized along with people who used to think of him, Simon, as God’s anointed. Then Peter and John show up to bring the Holy Spirit. Simon says, I’ll give you money for that power, the power to inspire people like that. Oh, oh. Peter is blunt in turning down Simon and his money. This here power ain’t for sale. Or something like that. What Acts actually says Peter tells him is, “You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore of this wickedness of yours,” and pray to be forgiven. Simon finally gets the message, and asks to be spared the fate Peter has foretold for him.
The key phrase in there is “your heart is not right before God.” What does that look like, and who gets to say whether one’s heart is or isn’t right before God? Peter tells Simon, “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Ouch. The chains of wickedness, I get that. Simon is trying to buy spiritual power, to grow his product to feather his nest or something. But the gall of bitterness? What’s that about? I sense we’re not getting the whole story in this short story about him in Acts. Peter is sensing something Acts is not telling us about this guy.
Leave Simon aside for now. Back to our main plot. The moral of the story seems to be that bitterness and wickedness get in the way of the Spirit. Now what? What if we fall into that category of people who are baptized but still bogged down by bitterness, say? Who will come to release us from the gall, the wickedness, whatever, and let us get right with God, break through into a Spirit-filled life? Where are John and Peter when you need them.
These stories are full of hope for us. First, the prophet Isaiah doesn’t hear the Ancient of Days saying, “Because I love you, you won’t have to pass through waters or walk through fire.” No, the message is when you pass through water or walk through fire, I will be with you. The waters won’t overwhelm you, the fires won’t consume you. This is so important when it feels like we’re drowning, or being singed by fire. Second, the Acts reading tells us our spiritual growth doesn’t have to happen all at once. There may be stages. So on the one hand, don’t be discouraged with your relationship with the holy at the moment. There’s room for growth. And on the other hand, don’t be satisfied with your relationship with the holy at the moment. There’s room for growth.
And finally the gospel. We don’t know what Jesus was like when he went to the Jordan. But he waded right in. This was the pattern throughout his ministry. People are hungry, thousands of them? Wade right in there. People in a crowd are needy, hurting, possessed by the wrong spirit? Wade right in. Get faith by being faithful. Receive the Spirit by behaving in a spirited way. Trust, even when the waters are rising, or the smell of smoke is getting stronger. Who created you, after all? Who formed you? “You are my beloved Daughter and Son. With you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22, altered)