1But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2When 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.
3For 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.
4Because 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.
5Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6I 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 —
7everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We start out in our passage from Luke with ground we have covered before. John’s challenging word from the Lord guided us during Advent and helped us prepare for the coming of Jesus. This week we come back to the Jordan, back to the prophet wearing rough clothing and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
We know that diverse crowds came out to hear John’s message. Tax collectors and soldiers came out to listen, people at the fringes of Jewish society or even outside it altogether. Scribes and Pharisees, those protectors of the religious order, came to check John out as well.
Between these extremes, big crowds of regular people came to the river to hear this fiery preacher and his message of repentance. As usual, we don’t know a lot about these crowds. Probably many were observant in their faith and many others were less so. Some must have come out of curiosity and others out of a hunger for God’s presence. Maybe most people came from a mixture of both. However you’re feeling this morning, you can find yourself in that crowd by the river.
And then there was Jesus. Jesus also came out to hear John’s message of repentance and forgiveness. Jesus came out to hear the prophet who was preparing the way for him. And Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan, even though he was the only person who didn’t need to repent. Jesus came out to be baptized and so began his ministry.
Over this last week I have been sending out daily readings by email. We’ve been reading some of the passages from Jesus’s childhood. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most is that people sometimes email back questions or thoughts about the reading. Several questions focused on what Jesus’s parents knew about his destiny when Jesus was a kid. We wonder what Mary and Joseph knew about who Jesus was and how his life would turn out. When I was preparing for this sermon I found myself with a bunch of other questions too. Questions like: “What did Jesus know about his ministry when he came out to the river to hear John? Was he surprised to see the Spirit coming down like a dove and to hear a voice from heaven? Did he know already that he was the Messiah?”
The truth is that Luke and the other Gospel writers leave these and many other questions unanswered, so we have to fend for ourselves and simply cope with being on unknown terrain.
When we stick to the scriptures, there’s a lot we don’t know. For instance, there’s this huge gap in the story from the passage Carl read us about Jesus the boy in the temple to Jesus the man about to begin his ministry in this passage today. We don’t know anything about the 18 or so years in between. We can assume Jesus learned Joseph’s trade as a carpenter and lived in the town of Nazareth with his parents, but we don’t know for sure.
We know that Jesus was marked as special at his birth and that Mary and Joseph knew there was something different about their child. My sense, though, is that many of the details of how that special calling would play out were still a mystery to Mary and Joseph, and maybe to Jesus as well. Here we move into Jesus’ adult life to see where his calling will lead. We move from knowing vaguely that Jesus will do great things to seeing his greatness unfold.
John is our guide in this passage. He is out in the wilderness of the Jordan River preaching repentance and preparing the way of the Lord. Since he’s clearly a prophet, people wonder if he might be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. John proclaims that, not only is he not the Messiah, he’s not even worthy to be the servant who unties the Messiah’s shoes.
John also tells the crowd he baptizes with water, but the one coming after him, the stronger one he’s preparing the way for, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
The funny thing is that Jesus doesn’t baptize anyone at any point in the Gospels. John’s Gospel is the only one that reports any baptisms connected with Jesus’ ministry and he goes out of his way to say that the disciples were baptizing, not Jesus. From John’s preaching we expect Jesus to appear at the river and begin baptizing in a new way, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Jesus appears at the river and is baptized by John in ordinary river water. It appears we’ll have to wait to see John’s words come true.
Even though John tells us he’s just baptizing with water, the Holy Spirit comes down from heaven like a dove and rests on Jesus. Then the Spirit leads Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. After the temptation the Spirit leads Jesus back to civilization to begin preaching the good news. Even though Jesus is the Son of God, he still needs the Spirit to fulfill his calling and that Spirit comes to Jesus at his baptism.
The Spirit becomes even more important after Christ’s resurrection when the disciples take on his ministry. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that that’s also when baptism becomes an important part of the story again. At Pentecost we see what John was talking about when he says Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Tongues of fire rest on the disciples and they are filled with the Spirit. Guided by the Spirit they preach the good news of God’s love, and guided by the Spirit they baptize new believers wherever they go.
When they baptize in Jesus’ name the Holy Spirit fills those new Christians, guiding them in ministry. Acts is full of amazing stories of what the Holy Spirit does through the disciples and through the growing church. Those stories are the fulfillment of John’s prophesy that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus baptizes through the church, which is his body.
We are heirs of those stories, heirs of that baptism. When we baptize we pray for the Holy Spirit’s presence with us in the sacrament and we pray for the Spirit’s continuing presence in the life of the person we are baptizing. There may not be doves or heavenly voices, but we can count on the Holy Spirit’s presence because Jesus told us that God sends the Spirit to those who pray for it.
Jesus began his ministry with baptism in water and the Holy Spirit, and we begin our ministries the same way. God’s voice announces that Jesus is his beloved Son and in our passage from Isaiah God says the same thing about us. God says, “Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine.”
In the same passage God calls all who are formed in his image sons and daughters. We are made in God’s image; we are God’s beloved children claimed in baptism and marked with the Holy Spirit. God calls us each by name and sends us out in ministry in the world.
So what will your ministry be? How is God calling you today? How is God calling Laurelton?
When God called and claimed Jesus in our passage it was dramatic. For many of us the calling is quite subtle. But God’s calling can still infuse every aspect of our lives. Sometimes the way that calling shapes our life is clear like when we feel God calling us to teach children or heal the sick. Other times the connection between our professional life and our calling is more complicated. Sometimes circumstances dictate what kind of work we take and God’s calling instead shapes how we approach our work each day. God leads us to treat our co-workers kindly and take the opportunities in our workday to help others.
Our calling affects how we raise our kids, how we live with our partner, how we love our friends and spend our time. Sometimes we make an active effort to put more of our faith into our work and play. Other times God simply shapes us to be more Godly without our noticing. Under the Spirit’s guidance we change to become more faithful to our calling as we walk the path God lays out for us. Often much of the journey is a mystery as it must have often been for Mary and Joseph; other times the next step is clear as can be.
Yesterday I had the honor of worshipping with the a family as we bore witness to the resurrection and celebrated the life of their mom, Jeanne. One of the things I noticed in the family’s remarks and in the many pictures from Jeanne’s life was how much she enjoyed life. There were pictures of Jeanne on skies and sitting by the pool. Pictures of her gardening and working as a lifeguard. In all those pictures she’s got a smile on her face and looks like she’s right where she wants to be.
Jeanne raised five children and taught them many things, among them canning, skiing and singing. More importantly, she taught them about love for others, and she showed them the value of life in a community of faith through her faithful service here at Laurelton. Even when her memory had failed for many other things she loved going to worship at St. Anne’s and singing the hymns of faith. She led a life full of joy and activity and love because that was who God called her to be and those were some of the gifts the Spirit gave her.
One of the items on display at the funeral home that really caught my attention was a commendation for saving a man’s life when he fell from a canoe and was in danger of drowning. I don’t know if Jeanne consciously thought of her work as a lifeguard as part of her ministry as a Christian. Maybe she just saw it as a natural match for her love of swimming, but it’s clear God used her that day to make a big difference in someone’s life. God often uses our passions to show us our calling.
Take a moment to think back over your week at home or at work. Can you pick out a time you felt the Spirit guiding you in your work? What is one thing you can do in the week ahead to make your work or home life reflect your faith a little more clearly?
God has called each of us by name. God claims us in baptism and guides us by the Spirit. God calls us to minister to others no matter where we are or what we are doing. That calling can lead us to surprising places, but wherever it leads, God is right there with us. Hear that voice within like Jesus heard God’s voice by the riverside. Know that you are God’s beloved child and follow where he leads you.
Thanks be to