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“One Baptism in Many Forms,” Baptism of our Lord, January 10, 2010 at Bethlehem

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Baptism of our Lord – January 10, 2010

Isaiah 43: 1-7 Psalm 29 Acts 8: 14-17 Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

One Baptism in Many Forms

It is now our tradition to celebrate communion every Sunday, so we experience the sacrament of Holy Communion regularly. On the other hand, we do not often experience baptism, because we do not have many children in our congregation, nor do we have adult conversions and their baptisms. That makes it hard to remember our own baptisms and to realize the importance of our baptisms: through them we become children of the heavenly Father.

Baptism can be considered our Christmas, because in baptism we are born of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Mark, instead of the story about Jesus’ birth or the coming of the Magi, we have the story of Jesus’ baptism. I believe that the baptism of Jesus is the Christmas story in the Gospel of Mark.

For Christmas the scriptures say that Jesus was born for us: “Unto us a Son is given.” In a sense Jesus was also baptized for us. The way Luther says that Jesus exchanges our births for his, we can take the next step and say that Jesus exchanges our baptisms for his. So on the River Jordan, we too can hear the Father say, “This is my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased!” or “This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!”

It could be a problem to say that Jesus exchanges our baptisms for his. He asks his disciples “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38) And in another place Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed” (Luke 12:50). But we need not be anxious or worried, we need not drink the same cup that Jesus drank, or be baptized with water and blood, the way he was.

It’s possible that we could receive a baptism like his, which means that a point could come where we too have to place our bodies on the line for the sake of righteousness, or for the sake of Christ, or the beloved community of the Kingdom of Heaven. But don’t forget that when our suffering becomes greater than we can bear, there are only one set of footprints in the sand, because Christ will be carrying us and bearing the pain for us.

Do you know the story? In a dream someone was comforted by two sets of footprints in the sand, because he knew that Jesus was walking beside him. But in the most troubling times of his life, there was only one set of footprints. Furiously he asked Christ, “Why did you leave me alone, desert me right when I went through my hardest times?”

“I did not leave you alone.” Jesus answered. “In those times you saw only one set of footprints because I was carrying you!”

I often remember my friend, Simon Tchenu Farasani, who stood up against Apartheid in South Africa, was arrested, and brutally tortured. I asked him how he could endure it, how he could have gotten through all that pain? In one torture they would tie his hands and feet and hang him like a hog on a pipe that made all his weight press against the bones of his arms and ankles, giving him excruciating pain. He said that he could feel Christ was there with him and he would quickly become unconscious and Christ would endure the torture for him. In the same way Christ endures our baptisms for us, drinks that dreaded cup for us, because he died for us and even our dying is now taken up in his resurrection.

Look at how wonderful the gift of our baptism is and how precious it makes us. Listen to Isaiah speaking:

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel: “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; for I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior.

I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 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.

Do not fear, I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the East and from the West I will gather you; I will say to the North, ‘Give them up,’ and to the South, ‘Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made’” (Isaiah 43:1-7).

God created and formed us in our old name, Jacob, and new name, Israel. God addresses us in our old self and our new self. God already loved us before we were converted! “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you!” God is with us while we are going through our baptisms! What a comfort! God is with us when we pass over the river Jordan to the other side! God is with us when we have our baptism of fire. That fire will not burn us. We are more precious to God than whole countries. That makes me think of how the Israelis are trading 1,000 of their Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli P.O.W. [Now this might be problematic. What God says to us on the vertical axis may be superiority feelings maintained by us on the horizontal axis.] God will return all the people to Bethlehem who have left us to the east, west, north, and south. God has called you by name. You are precious in the Lord’s sight. You are created for God’s glory! Can you hear these words from the mouth of God and let them speak to you! Take a deep breath and know that you are wonderfully made and loved and by God.

You may have seen the movie Precious. In all the ugliness God sees infinite value in you and me and names us precious. That’s why we sing, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” because we are the apple of God’s eye. We are precious in God’s sight.

John says that he baptizes with water, but the one who comes after him, whose sandals he is not worthy to untie, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. That makes it clear that there are different experiences of baptism under different elements, but let’s first look at the baptism of forgiveness.

What kind of fire of love and compassion must have burned in the hearts of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem to validate the baptisms of the Samaritans! The Jews called the Samaritans “dogs” and there was no love lost between these two nations. But in the baptism of forgiveness, via baptism, the Jews and the Samaritans become brothers and sisters in Christ. How much the modern day Palestinians and Israelis need a John and Peter to go and lay hands on each other, be baptized with water, but then also the Holy Spirit, that overcomes every barrier, every wall of division, even reconciling enemies by the cross of Christ.

Often we think that the baptism of forgiveness means that we are washed clean of our sins. But think about baptism as going through all the suffering that is entailed in forgiving those who have hurt us. Think of that baptism of forgiveness! A deranged man killed eleven young girls, the children of the Amish people in Pennsylvania and tying their feet together and executing them at the blackboard before shooting himself. It was a heinous crime. The Amish said that Jesus would have asked them to forgive him. So they helped the mother of the murderer and even attended the murderer’s funeral. They must have experienced a baptism of forgiveness, a baptism possible only because of Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire; otherwise I don’t see how they could have forgiven the criminal who hurt them so much.

The fire of love and compassion with which Jesus lights our hearts is the victory of life and light that moves us to forgiveness, our redemption and the salvation that God introduced in the baptism of Jesus Christ.

We are the baptized people of God. Even if we don’t experience many baptisms here at Bethlehem, we can remember our baptisms by considering Jesus’ baptism. By our baptisms we are claimed and named by our heavenly Father. Don’t you often find yourself taken for granted? Sometimes we can tell that we are not wanted around in a group. Even in our families, sometimes we are not loved. Sometimes we even experience discrimination and rejection. By your baptism you have a way through all that. You know that you are claimed and named by God, who calls you by name and lets you know that you are his precious possession. God loves you more than your dog, who jumps up on you, jumps up and down, he is so happy to see you come in the door.

God pours love over you like the waters of baptism transforming you into someone capable of loving others, like those precious Amish people. Your eyes are washed out so you can see the needs of others and not be completely blinded by your self absorption. God washes out your ears so that you can hear others crying for help. God gives you a heart open to take in those who are rejected, who find themselves behind walls that block them from any relationship, any sharing in our common humanity, any way to come inside from out of the cold, the coldness of their loneliness, isolation, and rejection.

The love that washes over you from above and burns like fire in your heart breaks down the walls that divide us, that divide men and women, people of different races, ages, rich and poor, loners and the well connected, people out of their minds and people inside them. We break down the walls that divide us and see the precious human being that God loves behind such walls.

The baptisms of earth, wind, water and fire: in the old days, these were the four elements. Now-a-days we have a whole periodic table with 103 elements listed by atomic weight from hydrogen all the way to Lawrencium. Back in those days they spoke of only the four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire.

The scriptures speak of baptisms by all four of these elements. The baptism by earth: we were buried with Christ into death (Romans 6:4a) so that we could be raised up by God the Father. This is the baptism of earth. Whenever we accept the call of Christ, we will soon discover that we go under. All the demands of the needy on us go way over our heads. We are buried alive, so to speak. But the strong hand of God reaches for us and pulls us out of our graves and into the powerful help and rescue of others, the saving of all the troubled people that God loves.

Wind is another name for spirit. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is by the wind. Wind is considered the breath of God. This baptism sweeps us off our feet, like a leaf blown in the wind, the wind that is the Spirit of God that picks us up and lets us down right where God wants us to reach out to someone needing to hear the Words of life.

When I was traveling in India, I suddenly wanted very much to be with Mother Theresa. I was over 500 miles away from Calcutta where she ministered. I prayed that God might help me get to be with her before Christmas. I caught a train; usually it was impossible to get a reservation right away. I caught a bus. It covered the miles like nothing. One connection went right to another, like having a green light at every intersection you come to. On Christmas morning 1975, I walked into the House of the Missionaries of Mercy just as Mother Theresa was coming down the stairs to start her full-day of Christmas programming and she invited me to accompany her and we went from one of her Christmas events to another till late into the night. She came and looked in on me while  was eating a wonderful dinner of fish and curry rice, which the sisters had served me.

That made me understand how Philip was picked up by the Spirit and let down beside the chariot of the Ethiopian. Do you remember how he was running beside the chariot and heard him reading from the book of Isaiah and asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian was reading about the baptism of the suffering of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. And soon Philip baptized him and then immediately, it says, he was picked up by the Holy Spirit, like a leaf in the wind, to carry out another mission to a precious person for Christ, – while the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. This baptism places a person completely under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

That was a glimpse into the baptism of earth and wind. Now let’s look at the baptisms of water and fire a little more. Water makes us clean and pure. Think of your baptism when you wash, shower, or take a bath. Think of it when you dive into a pool and swim. When you go under water you drown your old self and are raised back up a new self to walk in righteousness and purity forever.

Isaiah touches on the baptisms of water and fire, too. When you go through the waters, God will be with you. When you cross the river, that means, when you die and go over to the other side, God will be with you, too – the wind and the waves will not overwhelm you – you dip deep down into chaos – water can stand for chaos, you know, you dip deep down into chaos and come up in the new order on the other side.

You can walk through fire, Isaiah continues. Fire can burn away all the dross within you. By dross I mean your laziness is burned away, your apathy, your ignorance, the dead ear you lend to those who ask you to do something or who call for your help, the callous way we walk by those who are suffering. All your impurities are burned away and there you are with a heart of pure gold, precious unto the Lord.

Let us pray that our baptisms take, that we answer God’s loving call. We are claimed and named by the One who loves us and wants us to be about the mission of Jesus Christ, visiting and healing the sick, getting people out of their ruts, opening the eyes of the blind, the ears of the deaf, and the hearts that have been shut down not to let others come in.

Let me end with a story. A fellow was in New Orleans standing on a balcony of his hotel looking at the carnival passing by thirty feet below him. An old man beside him started to fall over the balcony and held onto him and he tried to hold him, but the railing of the balcony gave way and he went crashing down to the pavement 30 feet below, the old man falling on top of him. He had many broken bones and became paralyzed, recovering somewhat after years of physical therapy. In all that time, he could not forgive the old man for hanging on to him, nor the hotel owner for not having a reliable railing up on the balcony. He remained furious and unforgiving for years, but noticed that it was not allowing him to continue his life. He went to a course that was all about forgiveness. Suddenly he realized that forgiveness was going to give him his life back and it would end up helping him. He called his lawyer and told him to settle the suit against the hotel owner. He wanted to get on with his life again. Because of his forgiving the old man and the hotel owner, he suddenly took a deep breath and felt happy once again.

We looked into the baptisms of earth, wind, water, and fire, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This fellow experienced what I’m calling the baptism of forgiveness once again. Amen.

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Written by peterkrey

January 11, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Posted in Selected Sermons

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