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Sermon – January 10, 2010: Baptism

Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Baptism

Psalm 29; Acts of the Apostles 8: 14-17; Luke 3 :15-17, 21-22

In Jesus’ day there was a pool in Jerusalem believed to have healing powers. It

wouldn’t cure people’s ailments all the time. It was only at the right time, when a ripple

wrinkled the surface of the pool, that those seeking a miracle had their chance. The

movement visible on the surface of the water was apprehended as evidence that the spirit

of God was present.

The Grateful Dead did a song linking disturbed water with spiritual opportunity–it

went “ripple in clear water, where there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow; reach out

your hand if your cup be empty, if your cup be full, may it be again-let it be known there is a

fountain that was not made by the hands of men.” The idea of an invisible power which

beckons to one and offers blessing had obvious appeal to that late-sixties/seventies

consciousness, which rejected materialism. It sounds quasi-mystical, and that pop culture

fondness for mystery and veiled meaning is with us still, but grown-ups often shake their

heads at it, and suspect it lacks substance.

This morning’s texts, which have to do with unseen power gaining substance,

challenge a couple of our usual ways of thinking about things. We have two powerful and

seemingly well-justified prejudices which our scriptures don’t share. We really believe, and

even have religious reasons for believing, that human welfare is the most important thing in

the cosmos. Generally speaking that’s what the Bible tells us, but it makes it difficult for us

to share the psalmist’s enthusiasm for a deity who revels in, and is revealed in, the violence

of storm and flood.

We are offended by natural disasters, and naturally enough, since they bring human

misery. On the other hand, a bad conscience about environmental carelessness and regret

at poisoning ourselves and other creatures has encouraged us to tell ourselves that nature

itself is benign, that it is only human greed and shortsightedness which deforms it in

destructive ways. This doesn’t really jibe with our reasonable fear of tornadoes, landslides,

earthquakes and floods, and we smooth over the inconsistency by calling natural disasters

“acts of God.” That implies that nature is only nurturing, but that sometimes the architect

behind the routine harmony of nature gets bored with its serenity and whips up dramas

which accidentally, as it were, create headaches for the creatures of the world.

Psalms like psalm 29, you may say, are responsible for deeming violence in the

natural world “acts of God,” and there’s something to that. But the psalmist is not

complaining, and the psalmist is not focusing either on the inconvenience or the danger of

floods and flashes of fire. This is because the psalmist doesn’t assume that the natural

world itself is friendly to people, and the psalmist doesn’t take it for granted that there is

nothing more important in the cosmos than human peace and prosperity.

So what could be more important than the happiness of creatures like you and me?

God is more important. We, in fact, only enter the psalm as those creatures who go to the

Temple and shout “Glory!” because we are in awe of the power and majesty of our God.

God’s greatness and mastery of everything is of such delight to the psalmist that the

necessary hazards associated with dramatic natural phenomena don’t occur to him. He’s not

thinking of thundering and tumults and lightning strikes as menaces to mortals. He’s

conceiving them as intimations of the boundless energy and force of the Almighty. He’s

also happy to picture them as evidence of God’s domination of the powers of nature, which

the psalmist already eyes less positively than is our current instinct. The Old Testament

understands that nature is wondrous and harmonious and happy in its own sphere, but it

also believes nature uncooperative or hostile in its relations with human beings.

Consistent with our bad conscience about our own relationship with the natural world,

it’s our fault and not nature’s that it is at odds with us. The curses pronounced on Adam and

Eve–which I read as a comment on the human condition–are that nature will not easily

support us now that we have relinquished Eden. Humans are distanced from nature by an

uneasy admixture of super nature, in distinguishing right and wrong, which are moral

categories not applicable to the natural world. Now that we’re not all of a piece with the

workings of soil and season, there are thorns and thistles and weary hours of work to coax

our food from the earth.

Too, nature includes not only the harmony of creatures all receiving their food from

God’s hand. It also has wilderness, and wildness. One of the images of disaster common

in the Old Testament are towns which have been abandoned by human society and have

become the haunts of jackals, with crumbling buildings being overgrown by weeds.

So the image of God flexing divine muscles by making hills skip like rams and

stripping the leaves off of trees is not contrary to a positive, “Mother Earth” concept. That

concept really isn’t there in the way we have it. Neither is the celebration of divine

boomings and blowings and floodings dampened by fear on behalf of mortals, because

the immortal God is good, and this is not a poem or song about dangers, but about power.

The invisible God, of whom it is forbidden to make an image, and whose existence only

can be intuited by the human spirit, becomes manifest in whatever in nature is stupendous

(we still speak this way about beautiful sunsets), and God’s people are glad to have that

forceful, fleeting reinforcement of their faith in God’s existence.

It is human nature to be uneasy with counting on the invisible. Just as a pool of

water which ripples reveals the presence of an otherwise unseen force, there are outward

signs of spiritual or emotional energy within persons. This is important to the New

Testament community for the same reason that the psalmist loves demonstrative nature. It

supports the presence of an invisible spiritual reality.

We are not a charismatic church. That is to say, we neither encourage nor expect

outward signs of spiritual enthusiasm–people speaking in tongues or throwing up their arms

or fainting. Some varieties of Christianity focus on that, and understandably so, since there

is a Biblical bias that such demonstrations of something going on within one’s soul are useful

to reassure one about God’s being there.

There is what I believe is a louder Biblical voice which wants to put this kind of

ecstatic religion in perspective. The apostle Paul has found charismatic gifts more

problematic than positive, and links them in the letters to the Corinthian church with pride and

presumption. Paul’s test for authentic connectedness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ is

the love people demonstrate for others. All Christian churches which experience the Holy

Spirit in quiet and subtle ways have the burden of believing that love shows their faith.

In the book of Acts a basic Christian belief is highlighted by the existence of a group

of Samaritans who have been baptized in the name of Christ but not with the Holy Spirit.

We assume this resulted from an incomplete grasp of true Christianity, or from some other

inadvertent mistake, because the apostles are glad to make up the difference by delivering

the real baptism. This shows us what the early conception of true baptism is, and that is a

baptism bestowing the gift of the Holy Spirit upon the person baptized. Here the

emphasis is not on charismatic gifts but on the physical presence of the apostles laying their

hands on the Samaritans. That is the outward sign which supports faith.

This same eagerness for an apparently undeniable–on the premise that “seeing is

believing”–transformation informs all the accounts of Jesus’ own baptism. We are told that

following Jesus’ baptism, while he is praying, the spirit descends upon him bodily in a form

like a dove. There’s also a spoken affirmation from heaven, to underline the significance of

the event, which becomes the model for all disciples ever after. We are to understand our

baptism not only as a profession of faith, and not only as a repudiation of sin, and not only,

as some people do, as a cleansing of our spirits–but as being informed by the spirit of

God, so that we live ever after not only counting on our own power, but on that invisible

might discerned in the powers of nature or the life-enhancing energy of love.

Most of you have been baptized, and if baptized in this tradition, at an age of

reason, then perhaps the memory of your baptism remains. Whatever it felt like, it matters

whether you believe that God, in giving you faith, provided God’s own spirit to speak to

your heart and strengthen your life in Christ. We understand faithful people’s desire to see

God made evident, in varying ways. It is our privilege as God’s people to be given

opportunities, over and over, to live by faith–to show in our willingness to forgive and to

accept forgiveness, to care for and provide help, to be brave in adversity and faithful

through times of trial– that a power demonstrably not arising from ourselves or our

circumstances can be present to the world, to mend, and make new, and witness to the

reality of a God whose image we do not make, but who makes us show forth God’s reality

by who it is we are given the strength to be.

 

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