Readings for Baptism of Our Lord 7 January 2007 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Baptism of Our Lord Textweek

Baptism of the Lord (First Sunday after the Epiphany) 7th January 2007

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

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

The Baptism of our Lord is the feast day for today and it’s a fitting celebration for our first Sunday of the new year. And likewise the readings, the way the readings work together today, provide us with an opportunity to engage in the beginning, to start a new year off. When I first looked at the reading from Isaiah - there’s quite a lot of geography in the readings today, have you noticed that, there are quite a few place names? Just be aware that they’re not place names in the Middle East, and they’re not ancient place names that we no longer know where they are, they’re place names inside, they’re actually landscapes within yourself. So when you hear about the wilderness of Kadesh don’t think, ‘Gosh, where’s that?’ and look around, say ‘Gosh, where’s that?’ and look within, and we discover those places, they’re still there.

When I first looked at the reading from Isaiah, particularly just as it started: ‘But now thus says the Lord who created you, O Jacob, 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.’ Wonderful sense of journeying through all these and I thought this is a stunning contrast to those government travel warnings – ‘Unless you have urgent business, don’t go there.’ There is a real sense of this is coming from another place, from another part of the landscape. And what is the difference in those paradigms? What’s the difference? I think if we strip it back and say, where are those worldviews coming from, where is the worldview of Isaiah coming from, what we discover is the place where the shepherds stood. We come to the place where we can clearly hear the voice of angels, because as you read the narratives the angels always begin with, ‘Do not fear, do not be afraid.’ And it’s that ‘do not fear’ that creates the difference, but the ‘do not fear’ has value, is real and tangible, if it is closely followed by a hearing of the word of God. So you can’t say, I like it when the angels say ‘do not fear’, that’s how I’m going to go through the new year, because you take four steps and you’ll be afraid of something. You’ve got to find the place where the shepherds stand, probably a place of surprise, but it’s a place whereby I will hear the word of God following the words ‘do not fear’.

So as we get stuck into 2007, with all its expectations, all of the possibilities that a new year provides, when you read through the rest of Isaiah, it’s as if he’s giving us a wonderful opportunity to just pause for a moment and look at where we’re at. Knowing where we stand, where we’re at, in turn gives us an opportunity to become aware of our vision, that which we look at. If we know clearly where we stand and we know what it is we’re looking at, there’s a good chance we will also have an awareness of where we’re going. Knowing where we are in relation to the divine, I think, is the process of knowing who we are and who we’re called to be. So if we can discover the place we stand in relation to God we have the opportunity to discover who we are. Who we are gives us the opportunity to discover who I am called to be, what is it that I can become – ‘Gosh, I’m a tomato seed, I could become a tomato plant.’ Until we know that ‘who we are’, the ‘where we’re going’ almost becomes something that we do not wish to look at.

So what does Isaiah have to say about our relationship with the divine? Stunning: he says ‘I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine, I will be with you, you are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.’ If we could just read those words over and over again for the next few days and say, ‘this is where we stand in relation to the divine, at the beginning of each and every new year, each and every tomorrow.’ This is where we stand – we’re not some little clod that cowers away from the divine, that huddles into churches lighting candles before images, not at all, we’re honoured, we’re loved, we’re precious, the divine is with us, we’re called by name; it’s not someone else that’s called – ‘you are mine’. If these words can echo within our landscape, then surely we will have confidence for the year ahead and for the journey ahead. ‘Do not fear, for I am with you.’

Christmas seeks to acknowledge this truth: do not fear, I am with you. Our celebration of Christmas seeks to acknowledge the truth, and yet it’s interesting because Isaiah found what we would say is a Christian truth before ever Christ walked the earth. That is or should be a little bit disturbing for many Christians, for much of the Church thinks that that truth became real in Christ: the ‘do not fear, I am with you’ was the revelation of Christmas. But Isaiah’s confident knowing goes before - he speaks of a truth, a divine truth, a reality that names our being, and he speaks it before and therefore beyond the Christian faith; he speaks it, certainly for us, in a context that’s out of time and if we can hear it that way we have the opportunity to hear it spoken into the present: the words that Isaiah speaks which are the truth that are revealed in Christ at Christmas, are spoken at the beginning of 2007 - that’s where they are real; and they are spoken at the beginning of every next moment - that’s where they are real.

There is not a time where we will be able to find a worldview in which God does not love us, in which God will say, ‘No you are not mine’. And I wonder if that’s why the image, the symbol of the vulnerable child, is so hopeful at Christmas for revealing a truth that Isaiah could reveal way before Christmas, because as our eyes begin to open in vision, so we look around in wonder and the next thing we do is we begin to question, what is it that I see. And that’s so easy to see in a child, even babies - their heads turn all over the place and the minute they master language they begin to ask questions. This is the process that post-Christmas we’re invited into.

Blind faith can be the order of the day for many orthodox Christians, but what we get in the narratives and the readings is not blind faith; there is nothing in the Bible that asks us just to accept without thinking. The indication in the Bible is to come and find ourselves, in the question – join the quest, join the journey, not buy a ticket to somewhere, but rather become a part of the movement toward somewhere. 2007 is an invitation to stay with questions, not to accept answers.

The reading – it’s a stunningly short reading from Acts that follows the reading from Isaiah. I think it’s a brilliant illustration of where questions need to be asked, and the invitation today on the feast of the Baptism of our Lord is to have a look at and question our own baptism and our encounter with the divine as those who are post-baptism. So we’re not about to come into our baptism – been there done that, now let’s question what it’s all about, and it’s so short it’s worth a reread: ‘Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Holy Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.’

‘Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God…..’ This text is so easy to translate: it might just as well have been, ‘When the apostles at Jerusalem heard of St Paul’s Beaconsfield,’ because we too have accepted the word of God, and others - a few anyway, thanks to websites - others have heard of us, others are aware that we’ve accepted the word of God. And like those in the reading from Samaria, we too have been baptized - this is looking good. Then we come to the question, big question: has the Spirit come upon any of us, or like Samaria, have we only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus? Are we Anglican Christians or actual Christians? I guess this is what’s being asked there.

It’s a short reading but if we look at it and then look at what we’ve been taught by the Church, then surely it will raise questions. It asks of us, where are we in relation to our baptism, in relation to our alignment with the divine. Now some churches teach that baptism is the mark of salvation, it is the alignment with the divine. The Emperor Constantine was so stunningly aware of this teaching that he waited, kept putting off his baptism, because he knew that once aligned in baptism you went straight through, you were in, you were there, you were with the One. He put it off until he was on his death bed and when there was nothing more that they could do for him in those moments leading up to death, they rushed a bishop in and baptized him, and he didn’t sin between that moment and death! He was in! He’s up there, he’s with us.

Now other churches think that they’ve sussed this one a little bit, and what they’ll ask us, no we need to become slain in the Spirit in order to find this alignment, this mark of salvation. And these two churches look at each other with mutual frowns at each other’s dogmatic positions. The reading though asks us to stay with the question – don’t ask either one of those positions or any other to be the answer, but stay with the question. And what it suggests is that our alignment with the divine, our baptism and our empowerment in the divine - the Spirit upon us - become realized when we are touched by those who are apostles. It’s just a good image to hold, I don’t know what that means but it’s a very helpful part of the question. So it is not baptism given by the Church, it is not the Spirit given by the Church, it is something else that occurs, in this narrative, when you’re touched by Peter and John, or in our narrative when we are touched by one of the apostles.

If the first reading opens for us the idea of vision and this second reading takes us from vision into questioning, then by the time we get to the Gospel what we’re now looking at and being asked to consider is choosing and choice. The Jesus-cult of Christians – that 80% of Christendom – will skim today’s reading and see it as a pseudo-historical text and they will follow two lines. They will follow the difference between Jesus and John the Baptist, and there are endless sermons you can preach on pointing the way as opposed to being the way. Or they will go with the mark of Jesus’ baptism as being the divine anointing of the ministry of Jesus the man and the start of his journey and his unfolding.

But I think as we look at it, it’s very easy to find a connection with this reading and us today. It begins as, ‘The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.’ This, with very little translation, this is us. It’s post-Christmas: there’s a part of us, part of our heart that truly does question: ‘Was there anything about the Messiah in Christmas? Truly, did anything happen, did the world change?’ There’s a part of us that desperately wants it to change, but the question is deep within us – I want Christmas to be true, and a part of me that knows it is true, but there’s an ache somewhere between the part of me that knows it is true and the questions that have come up as a result of having lived through it. So this again, the Gospel speaks to us. We want to believe, we want to go beyond a dogmatic answer and the question is there, as if it is stuck in our hearts.

So when we read through the Gospel narrative we see lots of choices – make a choice between John and Jesus, that’s a good one. Make a choice between wheat and chaff, that’s another good one. Wheat and chaff is not us and them - the winnowing in the fields – again, bring the geography from outside to inside. It was brilliant as we were singing the hymn, ‘Breathe on me breath of God’: ‘Breathe on me, breath of God/ till I am wholly thine.’ We become one in love: go back to the words of Isaiah – what is the relationship between us and the divine? ‘I love you, I am one with you, I am with you wherever you go’ - there’s a oneness there. ‘Breathe on me, breath of God/ till I am wholly thine’ – this hymn is picking that up – I want to, I want this movement Isaiah speaks of - ‘until this earthly part of me/ glows with thy fire divine.’ Come back to the Gospel and what you see is, the chaff will be burnt, so we need to know our ‘wheatiness’ and we need to know our ‘chaffiness’ and not to go, ‘Ooh that’s a horrible part of me, I must make that nice.’ But know that that can actually - go into that space, because that part can be consumed by divine fire. Maybe it’s the entry point, maybe it’s where you throw yourself onto the divine fire or into it.

So the Gospel is talking to us about choices and for those who don’t have the capacity to choose - that is some of us - those who don’t have the capacity to choose, just acknowledge that, just say ‘Yes, I don’t have the capacity to choose, for one of a hundred and one reasons’, and then follow one whose path leads towards fullness of life; follow one who is more fully alive than you - doesn’t matter who it is, doesn’t mater what faith, what colour, what language - someone who is more fully alive than you, follow them; have confidence in an Other: ‘You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.’

There is a movement to vision to question, to questions that we ask that open up for us choices to be made; and the choice that we make, whether it is a choice to take steps in a direction or a choice in which we follow, the choice returns us to the realization of vision. Those few words from Isaiah give us a stunningly confident kick off to 2007. May they now and forever echo in your heart.

Peter Humphris