Baptism of Our Lord—Year C—January 13, 2013
Preached at the Lutheran Church of Framingham
Let the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and redeemer. Amen.
Water, water everywhere,
and all the boards did shrink
Water, water everywhere,
and not a drop to drink
These lines from the famous poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are a strong reminder that water is not always such a good thing.
Almost nightly on the news, we are also reminded of the destructive powers of water as we continue to hear stories of the destruction from Hurricanes such as Katrina, Irene, and Sandy…or as we see pictures of the floating island of debris that is drifting ever closer to US soil from the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. There is even a new movie out, entitled “the Impossible,” which is the story of a family’s struggle to survive the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004.
On a regular basis, water causes death and destruction on a massive scale. Water can overpower large Naval vessels, and lift homes right off their foundations or even destroy them completely. Water can kill.
And the same is true for the natural element that is its complete opposite—fire. Fire can cause damage and kill just as easily as water. No one knows this better than the congregation members of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Pomaria, South Carolina, who watched their church building burn this week and “the steeple [fall with], the church bell […] ringing on its way down.”
Normally we think of and interact with water and fire in terms their life giving properties. We focus on the fact that we need water to drink, and wash, and transportation, and to grow food. Or we think of how much colder, wetter, and less delicious life would be without fire to keep us warm, and dry, and to cook our food.
But then again, we do refer to their destructive power in turns of phrase for negative things in our lives. We “drown in debt” or feel as if we are “drowning in work.” When we try to resolve crises throughout our lives, we say we are “putting out fires.”
Even in religious language, we use fire in both positive and negative ways. We are burning with the fire of the Spirit—and that is a good thing. But at the same time, the chaff will be thrown into the unquenchable fires of hell.
Fire has great power, and so does water. Think of the waters of the flood, which destroyed all living creatures except Noah and his family and the animals that they had collected. But at the same time, the waters of the Red Sea saved the Israelites from slavery and the water that flowed from the rock kept them alive as they wandered in the wilderness.
Water drowns and kills, but water also gives life.
Fire burns and destroys, but fire also empowers.
And it is in Baptism that these dichotomies all come together. For it is in Baptism, that we are drown in the waters of baptism, and we die to our sin, which burns us, but then we rise to new life, are nourished by the waters, and empowered by the flame of the Holy Spirit to live into our new lives in Christ. Baptism is not just rebirth or new life, because you cannot be reborn or rise from death without first dying, ceasing to live. Baptism is both—death and new life.
And it is thinking in terms of all the complexities of the good and bad of fire and water that can help us clarify all that complex religious mumbo jumbo and clarify what Baptism actually is.
Baptism is…a conversion and rebirth.
Baptism is…the forgiveness of Sin.
Baptism is…an empowerment with the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is…an initiation into the community—entrance into the body of Christ
That is why there are so many parts of a Holy Baptism.
Open with me to the Rite of Holy Baptism on page 121.
Just in the first prayer, you see all four of these functions referred to: liberation from sin and death, rebirth as a child of God, membership in the body, and empowerment to grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.
Next, the parents and sponsors promise to work with the Holy Spirit and the community to help the baptismal candidate live into their new life in the church…again you see a new life, lived in the midst of the church, inspired and led by the Holy Spirit.
In the blessing over the water, we hear many more reminders of the life giving and destructive properties of water and fire.
And then finally, after confessing together as the church our trust in the triune God, we do as we have been commanded by God and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But we do not end there. Because we have talked about fire and water, but we have only actually used the sign of water so far. So next, the baptismal party moves to the altar, for a prayer, during which the Holy Spirit is poured out on the newly baptized. They are then sealed with oil, and finally given a lit candle, a small flame as a reminder of fire of the Spirit and light of God that shines in them, and how that light can shine and fire be shared throughout the world.
So all of us at our baptisms were reborn, forgiven, publically welcomed into God’s family, and empowered to do God’s work in the world.
And that is why we are able to see glimpses of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives. It is because we have the light of Christ burning bright inside us and the waters of Baptism sealed on our brows that God’s work can be seen in the world. It is through the work of God’s children throughout the earth that the Holy Spirit is present with us through the destructive waters, rivers, and fires in our lives.
For that is the promise that we hear in Isaiah: God promises to be with us as we “pass through waters” and that rivers will “not overwhelm” us and that we “shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume.” The promise is not that we will never face waters, and rivers, and fire, but that they will not win over us. For God is with us. God claimed us when we were yet in our mothers’ wombs and then proclaimed us children of the family of God publically at our Baptisms.
Nowadays that presence and protection of God does not tend to come in the form of a pillar of fire or cloud, or thunder, like at Mt. Sinai. Instead, God more commonly keeps a lower profile nowadays and works through, with the hands and the feet of God’s own children. Empowered with the Holy Spirit, we are called to be Christ to one another, that presence and protection through the rough times of life that God promised us.
And just as you will sing during our sending hymn, it is the Spirit that sends us forth to serve, by…
“bring[ing] glad tidings to the poor”
proclaiming “God’s favor”
“comfort[ing] those who mourn”
“set[ting] the burdened free”
“shar[ing] a dream” “where hope is dim”
“help[ing] the blind to see”
“be[ing] the hands of Christ”
“scatter[ing] joy like seed”
“serv[ing] in peace, the Gospel to proclaim”
It might look slightly different for each of us, whether it is saying a prayer, or collecting supplies to clean homes after a flood, or standing with a community while their church burns, in some way the Spirit works through us to do such things for others, and also works through others to be that support and strength and guidance and peace when we need it. For God, and God’s people, is with you even, well especially, through the worst moments of life.