Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
I once had a job I was so unhappy with. I really disliked going in. I took as much sick time and vacation time as I could, and loathed Mondays.
I remember my friends asking me, why not get a new job? Why continue here? Was it the benefits? No. Lack of other jobs? No. The people? Oh no, absolutely not. So why? Why did I keep going in to THAT work?
I couldn’t come up with a good reason. I just kept going. When I thought about seeking a new job, I got anxious and worried. What if the new one is even worse? I mean, it was hard to get a worse job than the one I had, but they’re out there.
What if … what if…
Eventually, I realized that some people suffer from thinking the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence…
… and other people suffer from thinking the brown grass they got is still grass and try to convince themselves the green grass they see on the other side of the fence isn’t worth climbing over.
In other words: we prefer the hell we know to the hell we don’t know.
We fear the unknown. It’s better to be in an awful position than take a risk into… that great unknown. We don’t know what we’ll face if we change. We do know what we’ll face if we stay the same.
I knew what every day would involve. It would be trying to sell ‘insurance’ which really wasn’t insurance and feeling like a scammer… because I was…
But if I applied to work elsewhere, would it be any better? I didn’t know. And I feared that unknown. So back to door-to-door sales I went.
The ancient Israelites were in the hell they knew. They were in exile in Babylon. They, or their parents, had gotten settled in the new land. For awhile, everyone was miserable. But now they’re comfortably miserable. Some are even starting to like this exile.
But now the prophets are calling them back to their ancestral land in Israel, and the king of Babylon was saying they could go back too. So who will go? Who will leave the known for the unknown?
The people were comfortable in their known exilic shame, and scared of the unknown of traveling back to Israel. Fearful.
“O Israel, do not fear,” says God through the Prophet Isaiah. “For I have redeemed you.” I have bought you. I have taken you from debt, from shame, and released you. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” God is calling your name. Your own personal name.
You, listening, are called to risk the unknown.
I, back then in that awful job, was called to risk the unknown.
Today, we’re all called to still walk with God into the wilderness and unknowns where the Spirit moves us, like it does to Jesus after his baptism.
God promises to stick by us through that wilderness journey into the unknown. Stick through us through whatever we can image.
God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
I will be with you through the rivers and they shall not overwhelm you.
“When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.”
What other horrible things can you picture happening?
I pictured leaving my job and not finding another. Then I’d be back on food stamps. Then maybe I’d lose my apartment and have to move home to my mother’s couch. Then I’d be a failure and ashamed.
The Israelites may have thought about robbery and being stolen and taken into slavery.
God told them, “I give Egypt as your ransom, and Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Talk about a kick to the butt for me. God would give an entire nation – or the richest nations – for me. I’m worth that much. How could God want me to stay in a sleazy job? How could being fired from a sleazy job for telling the truth “No, this insurance ISN’T going to help you” make me a failure? I am precious in the sight of God. My honor is from God, not my boss. I am loved… by God.
God promises to give whole “nations in exchange” not just for my life, but “for your life” too. You are worth whole nations to God. You are precious. You are honored. You are LOVED by the very creator who moved the waters of creation and spoke through the flaming bush. You – you who are terrified of what might be on the other side of the fence – you who are scared of the unknown – are loved by the unknowable itself who reassures you – I AM WITH YOU DO NOT FEAR!
God says that from the east and west we’re called. From the north and south. Everyone is called, called by their own name, and lovingly created as the sons and daughters of God.
God is calling the Israelites to their ancestral home, and to not fear the land and troubles in between.
But God is still calling today. Calling all of us to God’s self, and to not fear the reputation and troubles we’ll get for being faithful to God.
I listened back then to the call. And when this little old lady answered the door to me one afternoon with a big, brilliant smile on her lips and the fogginess in her eyes saying she couldn’t see… I couldn’t lie to her. She directly asked me, “Will what you’re selling actually help me?”
“No.” No, it would not.
At that moment, I stepped into the unknown. Time to buckle up! Now we’re off the script my boss had my memorize!
God never promises there will be no fire and there won’t be water. Instead, God said God will be with us in these things.
And yeah, I got fired real quick. But it felt… good. It felt good to be without a job. That time without a job, and that time of choosing to not lie to the elderly lady helped lead me towards seminary. I know it. Joblessness pushed me back into school… and although it took some time, eventually I began to say yes to God more and more often until I ended up in seminary, and chaplaincy, and that to here.
The grass was greener on the other side. But man, getting over that fence was rough. I’m so glad God the Good Shepherd was there to help me get from one pasture to the next.
If God were as John describes God, I’m not certain any of us would dare to call God a shepherd… let alone, ‘Good.’ John the Baptist preaches about the forthcoming “ax-wielding arsonist.” ((Barbara Brown Taylor)) That guy terrifies me. And he is some people’s God. Some people do picture God as wrathful and angry and hacking the world to bits and burning it.
But that’s not who Jesus reveals God to be. Jesus reveals God’s personality as the “gentle carpenter whom the Holy Spirit chose for a roost” ((Barbara Brown Taylor)). Since we know who God is through Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection… I’m inclined to think the gentle carpenter is more accurate of who God is – THE God of love – than the ax-wielding arsonist.
That’s not to say John was wrong and not the messenger preparing the way for God. I’m just pointing out it is Jesus who is more powerful than John, and Jesus who John feels unworthy beside. So it’s Jesus’ depictions and examples of God I feel more confident relying upon.
Still, Jesus does come with fire and water.
Jesus came to John to be baptized. And he stepped into the waters, the heavens opened – but instead of raining down fire, from heaven came the Holy Spirit, which was like a dove, to alight upon Jesus and infuse in his soul an unquenchable fiery spirit.
“When you pass through the water I will be with you”
In the waters of baptism – there is God!
In the waters of birth – there is God!
In the water of rain, and flood, and snows, and ice – there is God!
In the water of tears of sorrow and the tears of joy – there is God.
When we pass through the waters of life, God is with us.
And the waters will not overwhelm us because we have God, and we have one another.
Troubles will be there, but we shall overcome.
“When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned.”
The fire of the Holy Spirit alighting upon us will not burn, but refine.
The fires that consume houses, and lands, and bodies cannot consume souls.
The fire that rages in anger and in war will and do surround us – but God sticks with us offering always the hope of peace of soul and mind and world.
Through this all, God declares: “You are my child, and loved, with you I am well pleased.”
You are my daughter.
You are my son.
You are my love.
We are NAMED by God. NAMED beloved child. NAMED and CLAIMED. Given a family. Given a protector. Given a companion. A brother. A redeemer. A savior.
If that’s not enough to encourage us to step out in faith and take a risk to do good; what would be?
If you’re in a bad situation and scared to change… Do not fear.
When you’re comfortable in the earthly hell you’re in… trust God will be with you through the transition towards living into the reign of God now.
Changing jobs. Starting relationships. Ending relationships. Telling the truth. Moving. Downsizing. These are scary waters! God promises to stick by us and not let us drown in them.
Confronting our sins. Confronting complacency. Confronting family racism. Addressing gay or lesbian intolerance. Welcoming strangers… These are fires God promises will not consume our souls.
In the waters of baptism we were given unquenchable holy fire for we are created for the glory of God and personally, PERSONALLY called by our names to relationship with God.
You can do this.
You’re not alone!