(A sermon based on Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 for the Baptism of the Lord)
The images are ones we still use. “I feel like I’m going under.” “I really got burned.” Water and fire have long been images of trial, testing, and suffering. We experience events and situations that either are life-threatening, such as a serious illness or accident, or feel like they are life-threatening, like a divorce or job loss or serious problems with a family member. We feel like we’re going under. We feel like we’re getting burned.
Sometimes, we don’t just find ourselves in such a situation; we rather put ourselves there. So the prophet speaking in Isaiah 43 spoke his words to guilty people, to people who had sinned and who either knew they had sinned or needed to admit their sins. Their nation had been devastated by the Babylonians and they had been transported into exile hundreds of miles away and it was all because, the true prophets had told them, they had sinned against the Lord by trusting in their own power and wisdom and because they had put their faith in expedient gods and in military and political alliances.
There were no doubt (relatively) innocent sufferers among the exiles; those were people who were faithful back in Judah or who had been born in Babylon. Always there are the innocent sufferers; always there are the ones who are not evil but who get caught up in the evil. The very nature of society means that we are connected to one another and are affected by one another.
Sometimes we know why we are suffering. Sometimes we don’t.
The exiles were already going through the fire and the flood and they had more to go through before they left Babylon and once they began to return to Judah and even after they got home.
Going through the fire and the flood is the way of things.
God through God’s prophet assured the people that they could have confident trust as they went through their trying experiences. God assured them that God would be with them. After all, it was God who had created them, it was God who had redeemed them, and it was God who had established a relationship with them. It was God who had brought them out Egyptian bondage and it was God who would bring them out of Babylonian bondage.
Most amazingly, God would be with them in the flood and the fire and would bring them out on the other side “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4a). Yes, they had sinned and yes, they had suffered because of that sin, but still God loved them and even treasured them.
God loves and treasures us, too. God passes through the waters with us, too.
Jesus even passed through the baptismal waters with us.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. One day, right at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized. Notice how Luke describes that event: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” Jesus was baptized along with all the other people. Imagine him standing in that line, maybe fourth from the end.
Lots of people were baptized the night I was back in 1966. It was a long line comprising a motley bunch made up of children and teenagers and adults. I’m picturing Jesus being in that line, just waiting like a regular guy with the rest of us regular folks. After all, we were all in it together. And Jesus was in it with us.
That’s one of the reasons—maybe the main reason—that Jesus submitted to baptism, even though Jesus himself was without sin. He went through the waters of baptism with us because he goes through all the waters with us; by joining with those sinners lined up to be baptized by John, Jesus was immersing himself in their sin, suffering, brokenness, and pain. He entered into it so as to make it clear that God is with us in all we go through; he entered into it to destroy from within those realities that threaten to destroy us.
Jesus was as aware—maybe even more aware—of the sin of the people in that line, waiting to go into that river, than they were. We need to be aware—probably more aware than we often are—of our sinfulness. Back when our friend Melvin Giddens was diagnosed with cancer he and I talked about the Lord (after Norma had already talked with him). He said that he had trusted in Christ but when I broached the subject of baptism, he balked. “I want to really mean it,” he said, “because the Lord will know if I don’t.” Thankfully he was able to work through things and he was baptized.
Jesus was aware—he was the only one who was aware—of the special nature of who he was and yet he dove right in with those sinners. As his followers, as the body of Christ in the world today, it is our responsibility and privilege—it is our mission—to dive right in, too. This cartoon says it well.
It is good to be secure in the knowledge that we are the beloved children of God. But out of that security let’s take the risk of being with the lost and hurting. Anton Chekhov once wrote,
There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him -- disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree -- and all goes well.
Chekhov was wrong about one thing, though: there is a man with a hammer, reminding us of the unhappy people with all their hurts—his name is Jesus.
And he taps away, continually asking us, “Why isn’t (your name here) with me?”