Monday, January 8, 2018

Talking About Baptisms

Epiphany 1 RCL
                                                           Rev. Adam T. Trambley                                  
January 7, 2018, St. John’s Sharon

I think there is a reason why John the Baptist shows up every January in our lectionary readings.  He at least wants to challenge us, but I think he also may be mocking us just a little bit.  Right about now, going out into the desert, stepping into a nice warm river in the sunshine sounds pretty good – whether to swim, be baptized, or just play Marco Polo, I don’t really care, as long as I don’t need to shovel snow off the sidewalk to get there.  Usually about a week or two into January is also when New Year’s resolutions are dropping off.  We’ve skipped the gym, eaten the last few of our favorite Christmas cookies, snuck a cigarette, and spent an evening scrolling through Facebook instead of cleaning the house or reading that New York Times bestselling self-help volume.  Here comes John with a call to repent, to make us all perhaps feel just a little bit guiltier.  At least this year, Mark’s gospel doesn’t recount John calling anyone a brood of vipers. 

Yet, if we turn to the reading from Acts of the Apostles this morning, we hear a very different perspective on John’s baptism.  Paul has gone to Ephesus, where he spends a number of years in his ministry and then later he leaves and writes them a letter.  Ephesus is an important early Christian place.  We have traditions that put John the Evangelist and possible even Jesus’ mother in Ephesus later in their lives.  But when Paul shows up, the disciples there have only experienced the baptism of repentance that John offered.  They have never been baptized in the name of Jesus, and have never even heard of the Holy Spirit. 

This omission might not be surprising.  John the Baptist was a big deal in the ancient world.  He was a religious gadfly to some pretty important government leaders, and all sorts of people, even those not fleeing cold climates, came out in the desert to hear him preach and to be baptized by him.  However these disciples got to Ephesus, which is a city in Asia Minor in present-day Turkey, they had experienced John’s baptism.  They knew what John had instructed, even if their understanding of Jesus message was much less developed.

Saint Paul is never shy about telling people the full gospel, however, so he lets the Ephesians know that there are two more steps in this process of becoming a believer. John’s baptism of repentance can come first, but then there is the baptism in the name of Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit.  Saint Paul also reminds them that even John said that there was one coming after him who was more important than he was, and that one was Jesus.  The Ephesians, then, waste no time in being baptized in the name of Jesus and then are prayed over and receive the Holy Spirit.  Like many in Acts who receive the Holy Spirit, they begin to speak in tongues and to prophesy.

Let’s look at these three steps into Christian discipleship, and what they mean for us.  First, John’s baptism of repentance.  Second, baptism in the name of Jesus.  Third, receiving the Holy Spirit, called in some circles baptism in the Holy Spirit, although it doesn’t always occur in a dramatically expressive way.

First is John’s baptism of repentance.  As Christians, we are called to repent of our sins, but this is, at best, a small part of our baptism.  We can understand a piece of baptism, especially in adults, as washing away our sins, but the rest of what happens through baptism is much more important. 

Let’s just talk about repentance a minute.  Repentance is vitally important in our walk of faith, and we need to take the time regularly to examine our consciences and turn away from our sins.  We do need to remember that repentance is about us, and, as such, is a small offering to God in light of what he is going to offer to us.  On the one hand, repentance is something we do.  We certainly need God’s grace to do it, but repentance is our action.  God does not do it on our behalf.  On the other hand, repentance benefits us.  When we stop sinning, our lives get better.  Sin is not some list of good behaviors that God puts off limits so he can catch us being bad and punish us.  Sins are those things we do that hurt us and the people around us.  Repenting of our sins means that we can start to have the life we want for ourselves and our families and our communities.  Certainly, we sometimes have to take the advice of more mature people to know how and where we may be hurting others, but repentance is the first step to the joyful life God wants us to live.  He is thrilled for us when we repent, and draws all of us in that direction.

The second step that Paul talks about, and often the first one in our Christian journeys, is baptism in the name of Jesus, or, today, usually in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  This baptism is baptism into the death of Jesus so that we are also baptized into his resurrection.  Here the water imagery is not of cleansing, but of drowning.  We are literally dying to our old selves so that we can be born again as new people in Jesus Christ. 

Obviously, infant baptisms have softened some of this language.  For good reason, those aren’t the images we want with our children.  Plus, when we have babies being born and raised in a Christian home, their dedication, while still a baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus, is another step in the life of faith of being raised in the Body of Christ.  Ideally, they have never been outside of the community of faith.  As infant baptisms have replaced adult baptisms, we have also domesticated baptism with our liturgical furnishings.  The art deco baptismal font we have at St. John’s is beautiful, but doesn’t feel very threatening.  No one is likely to drown in it.  Yet baptism in the name of Jesus should be threatening to us.  We are letting go of everything to be born again into a new and eternal life. 

On New Year’s Eve, a few of us from St. John’s joined some African-American churches for a watch night service.  Watch night is a yearly service in the African-American community remembering December 31, 1862 when slaves went to church all night to pray and worship as they watched for the Emancipation Proclamation to declare them free persons on January 1, 1863.  At Second Missionary Baptist in Farrell this year, Pastor McKeathon from Second Baptist Sharpsville preached, and he talked about what we need to leave behind as we enter the new year.  He had a longish list of things like fear, and criticizing people, and running off our mouths, and holding onto too much stuff that we all need to leave behind.  But baptism in the name of Jesus goes beyond even that.  Baptism in the name of Jesus is leaving everything behind.  We really don’t want anything going into the water with us, because we are getting dunked and we need to be free to come up again as new people.  John’s baptism of repentance is letting go of the bad stuff we need to leave behind for our own good.  Baptism in the name of Jesus is letting go of everything, to die to self and to status and to stuff, and letting God bring us out of the water again to live for him.

Once we have died to self and come out of the water for Christ, then we can receive the Holy Spirit.  We pray for this at baptisms when we anoint people with chrism immediately after baptism, and pray, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Being filled with the Holy Spirit allows us to unlock the gifts we have and be used powerfully for God’s purpose.  The Holy Spirit offers us a sense of closeness with God, and discernment, and whatever else we need to do the work that God has given us to do.  For some people, the Holy Spirit manifests in exuberant signs such as praying in tongues or incredibly joyful singing and extended praying.  For others, the Holy Spirit manifests in much quieter, but equally intense and effective ways.  Part of receiving this fullness of the Holy Spirit is wanting it so that we can love and serve God and our neighbors more fully and completely.  The gifts of the Holy Spirit are meant for the building up of the Body of Christ, and all of us have different gifts but they serve the same purpose. 

Now these distinctions were very important to the disciples in Ephesus who had not yet been baptized in the name of Jesus or in the Holy Spirit.  Most of us, however, have been.  So why does this matter for us? 

Well, we aren’t going to be baptized again.  Once we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have brought into the fullness of eternal life.  We don’t have to worry about that.  But even with the Holy Spirit filling us, we aren’t perfect.  We fall back into sin after we repent.  We accumulate various stuff and status and situations that we find very hard to give up to jump in the water and swim with Jesus.  We slip into using our resources for our own benefit instead of offering ourselves to be used by the Holy Spirit.  These failings are easy and all too human.  So we read John the Baptist every January to shake us out of ourselves and recommit again wherever we are.

When I was in Hong Kong at a missions conference in 2015, one of the presenters was an incredible missionary in Southeast Asia, probably in his 40’s or 50’s.  He had planted churches and preached the gospel in places that were incredibly dangerous to evangelize.  He had seen friends persecuted and even die for their faith.  He was working in a new area and not getting any traction.  He felt a tug to go and evangelize at a local college.  He didn’t want to do it.  He didn’t see how it could be effective at that point, and it was sort of “been there, done that” feeling.  Then he described having an encounter with God where he felt convicted that he had to offer everything back to God again.  He said, I’ve already given you everything, God.  And he heard God reply that he had to give everything again.  He told us that he realized that after he had set out on his Christian life, at some point he had started to value the comfort and ease his life was taking on.  But God still wanted him to give up everything so he could receive everything from God and the Holy Spirit.  So he made the decision to hand everything over to God again.  And he went to the college, and he quickly planted a new church that developed great energy and joy beyond his wildest expectations.

We aren’t all going to be missionaries to Southeast Asia, but God probably does have a ministry with the college students in our community he is calling someone to take on.  I don’t know if that call is for someone here today, but I do know that God does have something in mind for each and every one of us.  If we don’t feel like we are doing it, we should look at ourselves closely. We might find that we have become one of the barriers to achieving what God has in store for us.  Maybe we have decided to let our fear, or our comfort, or our convenience, or our desire to look good or sensible or sane in the eyes of those around us, or our security, or our attachment to our own favorite sins to be our first priority, and let God and his will for us slip down the list a ways.  We all fall into that trap at some point.  But John the Baptist and Paul remind us of the way out.  Just follow Paul’s early baptism instruction.  Repent of our sins.  Remember our baptism in Jesus’ name when we died and rose with him, and let everything that gets in the way of that float down the river without us.  Then ask the Holy Spirit to give us whatever we need to do the work God gives us to do, because God will never call us to something without equipping us to do the work. The twelve disciples at Ephesus became the core of a church that changed the world.  Who knows what God has in mind for us.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40, 2 Peter 3, John the Baptist, and God's Salvific Timing

Advent 2B RCL
                                                           Rev. Adam T. Trambley                                  
December 10, 2017, St. John’s Sharon

In the reading from Second Peter today we hear that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  This message is helpful to us in an era when the news cycle is constant, when the Facebook algorithms pump articles and ads at an ever-increasing pace, and when the cell phone vibrates every minute or two with some new notification demanding our immediate attention.  So often we feel like the world will end if we do not respond RIGHT NOW.  But God, who is arguably much more important to everyone and everything else than we are, has let his plan of salvation play out over millennia.  As Peter says, this isn’t slowness, but patience.  God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth is so good that he wants everyone to be able to come to repentance and enter it.  In the meantime, Peter tells us to be at peace while we wait, which can be hard, and to live good lives.

To give a sense of the unfolding salvation of God, I want to focus on today’s reading from Isaiah.  This passage stands at a pivotal place in the Book of Isaiah, and is quoted in the gospel reading about John the Baptist as the fulcrum of a pivotal place in all of Salvation History.  

The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah are concerned with the prophetic work of the man Isaiah who lived in the 700’s BC and with his interactions with the kings and people of Judah. 

Many of us are familiar with his call story in chapter 6 where he has a vision of the heavenly throne room and says, “Here I am.” (Ron can start to play the song under this portion of the sermon if he wants.) The ending of that call narrative is not so happy.  Isaiah knows he is living among a sinful people, and God tells Isaiah to go prophecy judgment on the people, even though they aren’t going to listen.

Isaiah does prophecy judgment on Israel, but he does not exclusively preach judgment.  In the midst of his judgments are also messages of future hope and restoration.  During his life, the primary geopolitical problem is the Assyrian Empire, and most of his prophecies deal with them.  At the same time, he is willing to challenge the kings to be faithful to God so that Assyria doesn’t destroy Judah as it does to the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  His prophecy about a virgin bearing a son comes out of a conversation with King Ahaz, and he later has numerous interactions with King Hezekiah, who manages to remain faithful enough to survive the Assyrian attack – and we have Assyrian records that confirm the Biblical narrative, albeit with a slightly different spin.

The last interaction between Hezekiah and Isaiah we read about comes in Chapter 39, right before today’s passage.  Some emissaries come to visit Hezekiah from a far-away country of Babylon.  Hezekiah decides to show off.  He takes the delegation through all his treasure chambers and shows them his great wealth.  They go back to Babylon, and then Isaiah comes in.  He basically says, “Hezekiah, you are an idiot.  Now Babylon is going to come and invade the country to take all this stuff.”  But Isaiah also says it won’t be during Hezekiah’s life, so Hezekiah decides he doesn’t really care, which is not the long-term planning you want to see in your monarch.

Sometime between chapter 39 and chapter 40, a number of things happen.  Hezekiah dies and the Babylonians do come to Jerusalem.  They destroy the city and take all its treasure, and lead most of its key people into exile.  Isaiah the prophet also dies, at least we assume.  We are never told in scripture about his death, although a number of interesting stories have grown up over the years.  Either before he died he somehow wrote and preserved the rest of the book of Isaiah, chapters forty through sixty-six; or, much more likely, at a later time, one of Isaiah’s disciples drew on the many threads of the prophet’s words to show how they spoke into the new context of the Babylonian exile and then, later, the very difficult return from exile.  Chapter 40, which we read today, is the beginning of this second body of Isaian prophecy.

I’m only going to look at some of the links found between today’s reading and the first part of Isaiah.  We could spend all day on them.  Knowing they are there is important because it helps us see the connections between Isaiah beginning his work in the 700’s and the Babylonian captivity beginning 150 years later, and the restoration and rebuilding of Jerusalem a few generations after that the exile.  By the time we get to Isaiah being quoted in our gospel, over 700 years have passed.  Isaiah’s prophecies continue to speak about how the salvation God is unfolding over the long haul.

The setting for this opening of the second portion of Isaiah is once again the heavenly throne room we first saw in Isaiah chapter 6.  Now, however, instead of a command to preach doom and gloom, God says to “Comfort my people,” that her penalty is paid and her punishment is over.  The threads of restoration found throughout Isaiah’s prophecies are taking center stage. 

Then the prophecy of salvation comes forward with one of God’s heavenly servants crying out, “Prepare the way for the Lord.”  The thrust of this passage in context of Isaiah is that the presence of God is coming for all people to experience it.  Since getting to where God is going requires passing through the wilderness, that is where this highway of God is to be prepared. 
A heavenly voice then says to cry out, but the response is skeptical.  “What shall I cry?” another voice asks, noting that people are weak and fickle and quickly disappear.  Then the first voice answers, noting that yes, “the grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”  The heaven instruction here is saying two things.  First, generally, even if we can’t rely on people, we can rely on the Word of God and God’s promises.  But more specifically, the voice is reassuring us that all of Isaiah’s original prophecies that were over a hundred years old then and are even older now, are still reliable because the Word of our God will stand forever.  Now the holy city of Jerusalem is to be the messenger proclaiming to all God’s people that God is here and is coming with a reward, feeding his flock, gathering his lambs, and gently leading the mother sheep.

This prophetic Word of God proclaimed by Isaiah and then applied to a new context will unfold in another new way in our Gospel passage.  The voice crying in Isaiah 40 is identified in Mark as a prophecy looking forward to John the Baptist.  He is the voice in the wilderness crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  He is calling the people to make straight paths for God to come.  Finally, centuries after this prophecy of God coming to his people, God is actually coming to his people as, among other things, the Good Shepherd feeding his flock. 

John the Baptist also gives details about how this prophecy will be fulfilled.  He has specifics about what it means to make straight the paths and to experience the Glory of the Lord that is to be revealed.  Preparing the way means repenting and being baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  That preparation in the wilderness of the heart allows an encounter with Jesus, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, allowing us to know his presence with us always.  For John, these words had a particular understanding during his life and ministry, but we know they continue to be relevant even for us today.  We don’t have to go out to the Jordan riverbank like the people of John’s day, but his words still matter for us.  As we repent of our sins, we open the way for a full experience of God, and when we receive the Holy Spirit of Jesus in our lives, we come to know the power and the love of God in an abiding and intensely personal way.      

Imagine, though, that you were a faithful Jew living at the time of John the Baptist.  You may have been waiting your whole life.  Your people had been waiting for hundreds of years to finally have this important prophecy of salvation come to fruition.  We know from Luke’s gospel the stories of Anna and Simeon who had waited their lives to see the coming of God in Jesus Christ.  Why God took as long as he did, I don’t know.   But we can trust that God had a plan.

That trust and patience is the message of Second Peter.  While we are waiting eagerly for Jesus to come back in power and put things right, we can know that the delay is allow for a fuller measure of salvation.  Peter says that God wants all to come to repentance and none to be lost, so he is taking his time, which is not the same as our time.  We can be grateful for the hundreds of years that Isaiah’s prophecies percolated to bring us to the message of John the Baptist and the coming of Jesus.  We can be grateful, too, that God is doing something that will be good for us and for many others as we wait for the fullness of the love, joy, and peace of the coming Kingdom of God. 

A good practice this month would be to live into God’s long-term perspective.  The holiday season often adds to the tyranny of the to-do lists and the press of the immediate.  Remember, that whether we check all the boxes or not, Jesus is still coming back on his schedule and he is bringing the fullness of salvation. We can have faith in him, even if he seems to delay a bit.  As we live into that trust, our anxiety should abate and our peace increase.

I want to end with a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  He had a habit of spending 24 hours each month on a retreat with his spiritual director, and he didn’t allow anything to interfere with that time.  During the most tumultuous period of apartheid’s end, people like the President of South Africa or other leaders sometimes felt like they had to talk to him NOW.  But if Archbishop Tutu was on retreat talking to God, he didn’t take their calls.  In retrospect, they said that his dedication to something greater helped them keep things in perspective and have a greater peace about their own situation.  The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with us.  While you are waiting…strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.