Tag: Baptism

Fire and Water

Luke 3:1-22

blessings_watercolor_by_texas_artist_laurie_pace
“Blessings” watercolor by Laurie Pace

Once upon a specific time, writes Luke, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. When the Word is upon you, you prophesize! And it was no different for John. He went into all the regions around the Jordan river, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John fulfilled the prophecies of the Prophet Isaiah, who heard the Word of God saying to prepare the way for God for ALL FLESH to see salvation.

“But we don’t need salvation,” said some. We were born from Abraham, we are the Chosen People. Today, it would be like saying – I don’t need to go to church to be Christian, or live a Christian life to be Christian – because I was born Christian in a Christian nation. I was baptized as a baby. Once baptized, forever saved. I never need to step into a church again. Courthouses can marry me and funeral homes bury me.

John replied, “God is able from stones to raise up children” – from the numerous stones all over the wilderness about them, from the field stones and river pebbles: God could make more humans. From dust like God did Adam or ribs like Eve. God can make more people.

John then foretells that God will destroy everyone — Christian or Jewish or not — who doesn’t produce good fruit. And those John speaks with panic – what should we do? How do we produce good fruit?

Should we go run away into the wilderness like John, away from society, and try to live pure? Should we go off and attempt to establish a faithful community by sword and war? Should we be the fire of God that burns the faithless?

What should we do?

“The first step of the redeemed community is for those who have to share with those who have not.” And John gives them concrete examples. If you have more than you need to survive – give your extras to those who don’t. Who needs two winter coats? Give one away to someone who needs a coat. Who needs two thanksgiving turkeys? Give one away to your food pantry. Whomever is using tax loops to avoid their fair share of taxes should stop. White collar crime is not victimless — the victims are everyone who suffers from the collapsed housing market or banks or economy. Whomever is in authority should use it for good, and justice – not use it to threaten people and make false accusations. Cops should be our security – not the force that oppresses people of color. Judges should be our law upholders – not the people breaking the laws. Presidents, Senators, House Representatives, and politicians of all sorts should be role models.

John focuses on individuals. The reign of God begins with individuals. With one person choosing to do good. Then another. Then another. Soon there are whole communities producing good fruit. But it begins with individuals choosing to confirm their faith by living lives that produce food fruit… good deeds, good relationships, good on heaven and Earth.

The people hear this, and get hopeful. Is John the messiah? The promised one who will change our society for the good? Who will right wrongs, bring about God’s reign, and bring wholeness to us all? Is John our savior?

No. John says. I am not. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming;” he is so much more powerful I am not worthy to untie his shoes. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His 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.”

Again! Destruction! John likes to focus on it. John knows fire is coming, and he thinks of it as something that will destroy and remove the rot from his faith. He does not yet know of Pentecost and the holy fire God sends as the Spirit! Luke knows, we know – the Pentecostal fire alights us inside, burns in our hearts, drives out the rot, and sets us to living the lives God envisions for us. That unquenchable fire within us arrives with our baptisms and it flares up and down our whole lives – but cannot be extinguished for it is the Holy Spirit of God. The destruction is our old selves. Our old sins are cut away. New growth is welcomed in.

This new life calls us to good fruit. To integrity. Integrity is matching what one says is also lived and also believed. It is wholeness. A whole integer. It is the life of repentance John speaks of; the life of love of God and neighbor and repentance for the sins we do and that over take us.

It is a life that is congruent, not hypocritical, unified in the way we live our life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice and our unplanned acts of compassion. ((cite: from the New Interpreter’s Bible’s Commentary))

It is the life that says ‘I am Christian’ and preaches love of neighbors, then does love for neighbors, out of belief God tells us to love one another. And when we fail to love, it is a life that is truly sorry and tries to make amends and love again.

It is a life that begins at any age, and continues our whole life through.

Today, we welcome Luke into our church family and have witnessed his baptism of water. Unseen, but felt, is the presence of the Holy Fire that now resides with him. Today we promised to be that community of integrity for Luke. Today we promised to be that orchard that produces many different types of good fruits. Fruits of love, of compassion, of peace. Fruits of wisdom and encouragement. Fruits of supporting his family and his walk in faith. Whether he is called by God to the wilderness or led to put down roots here… we are his family.

And family has a very important role to play in every child’s life. Every person NEEDS to hear from the adults around them, “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” We NEED to hear these words. NEED to hear it to grow into our best selves.

God the Father spoke them to Jesus the son – and Jesus was called into his ministry, his messiah-ship, his mission to bring salvation to everyone of every race and creed and gender and age and social standing.

We speak them to Luke – he is our beloved child, with whom we are well pleased. What great things God has already gifted him and will continue to gift him, and we will walk along side.

God speak these words to you – “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” You strive to produce good fruits and God encourages you to keep on keeping on. The fruits begin with individuals choosing to do good, to share, to welcome, to love.

The baptismal waters of life and the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit anoint you to do the good work of Heaven here on earth.

Go and be the church! Amen.

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Whose Baptism?

Acts 8:26-40

thekla2
This fresco represents the calling of Thekla, which led her to renounce her engagement and her life as a married woman. Thekla appears at a window (far left), listening to Paul as he preaches with his raised right hand on an open codex. Behind Paul, stands Theokleia, Thekla’s mother, with her right hand raised in admonition (her eyes and right hand have been scratched out, an indication that someone considered her a heretic). Thekla was not permitted to appear in public, but she heard Paul’s sermon from the window of a neighbor’s house and was spellbound by his words. In spite of her mother’s admonition, she renounced her engagement, followed Paul, and spread the word of God. “Stylistic comparisons suggest a date for these paintings in the late 5th or early 6th century A.D., in particular in the Justinianic period” [Austrian Archaeological Institute (www.oeai.at/index.php/st-pauls-grotto.html)].
 “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Ethiopian treasurer asks Philip this as they ride along in the treasurer’s royal cart and carriage. “Look, here is water!”

And Philip responds by leaping off the wagon, and baptizing the new believer.

No special water.

No special time.

No special place.

An ancient story, not in our Bible but still from 180 AD, is the story of “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Thekla, like the Treasurer in our Gospel today, is a noble. She listens to Paul’s preaching, and she decides to become a follower of Christ. She breaks off her engagement with another nobleman and says: ‘I’m staying a virgin and following Paul about and the Christ!’ This goes over just as well as you think it will. The town flogs and tosses Paul out, but decide to burn her at the stake if she won’t give up Christ.

And she won’t.

What begins is a series of miracles — rain saves her from the fire, smoke covers her like clothing so she doesn’t have to be naked, and Thekla walks boldly back to Paul. She now says – Don’t just let me come with you, listening, but let me cut my hair and pass myself off as a man, so I can preach this good news too! Just give me a baptism!

And Paul says no. She’s a woman, and women clearly don’t preach. So he won’t baptize her.

But Thekla doesn’t go home.

In the very next town, Thekla again is told to give up Christianity and marry a guy. And again she refuses. And again the town takes her clothes away to shame her and tries to kill her. Again miracles occur. When it looks like things are over and Thekla is in the middle of the city arena where the pond is full of hungry seals and the land with every angry beast, Thekla knees and prays.

“In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize MYSELF” and she throws herself into the pond of hungry creatures.

No special time.

No special place.

No special water.

Then there are more miracles. Lightening strikes and fire and lots of chaos. Every animal and every human that tries to harm Thekla finds they cannot. In the end, the town is scared of her and asks, “Who are you?!”

She answers, “I am the handmaid of the living God; and what I have about me-it is that I have believed on that his Son in whom God is well pleased; for whose sake not one of the beasts hath touched me. For he alone is the goal (or way) of salvation and the substance of life immortal; for unto them that are tossed about he is a refuge, unto the oppressed relief, unto the despairing shelter, and in a word, whosoever believeth not on him, shall not live, but die everlastingly.”

The governor orders clothes given to the woman and her permitted to leave.

But Thekla says no. She’s put on the garments of salvation, and those are what she’ll leave with.

A whole lot of the town converted to Christianity that day.

Thekla then traveled, preaching, testifying, healing, and teaching the Word of God.

When she ran into Paul, he was amazed to see what a following she had, and he asked what was going on – and did she still want baptized? She answered, “He that hath worked together with thee in the Gospel, hath worked with me also unto my baptizing.”

In other words… The same person who converted you, Paul, to Christianity and brought you to understand the scriptures is who baptized me.

That same person is who baptized the Ethiopian treasurer. Philip just was there, enabling the receiving of the gift.

That same person baptized each of us.

The water doesn’t matter.

The time doesn’t matter.

The place doesn’t matter.

Baptism is a gift from God to us, and we respond back to God. And as a community, we welcome our new sibling and begin to walk with them through all of their lives.

It is why little ones can be and are baptized.

Baptisms are from God.

No human can prevent them because we humans, we’re participating in and witnessing a sacred moment between an individual and the Holy Divine.

No one here heard the conversation Rebecca and God had today. But it happened. It is in her soul. There in the desert near Ethiopia, or in the crowded coliseum arena of a city, no one HEARD the conversation that man or woman had.

But Philip and a whole ancient city witnessed the holy moments.

Today you are Rebecca’s witnesses. You need to tell her the story of her baptism. Just like you need to tell the story to Alden, and every one of our children — age 0 to 100.

And we need to remember our own baptisms, and the stories we’ve been told about them.

At that moment, you and God connected in a brand new way. At that moment, you joined in Christ’s birth, and life, death, and resurrection. At that moment, you gained a family that will never, ever fit in one place for a family reunion. (Well… no reunion here on Earth.) At that moment, some human baptized you in the name of Christ – but it was God who reached out, touched you, washed you, sealed you with the Spirit, and gave you a new life in Christ.

So who’s baptism is it? In our scriptures, we hear of people arguing about whether someone has received the baptism of Paul’s, or the baptism of John’s. You may today hear today people refer to the Methodist baptism, or the Catholic baptism, or the United Church of Christ baptism…

But there is only one baptism. One God. One Creator, sustainer, and redeemer in who gifts us this sacred ritual.

We all share the baptism of Christ.

Amen.

A Different Spirit

In honor of the baptism of Caleb.283

Numbers 13:26-33-14:11; 14:22-24
Matthew 28:18-20

The Israelites have traveled and traveled and traveled from Egypt and at long last, have reached the Promised Land… but they find it is already occupied. So they send in 10 spies to check out who is living in this area.

In our reading, the spies come back with the report that the people already living there are the children of Nephillim — angels or giants. They’re so big and strong that the Israelites feel like grasshoppers around them. Tiny little bugs! When they hear the report, everyone in the camp begins to fret and worry.

But Caleb stands up and says: hey! We should trust God’s promises. God says this is where we’re supposed to go, let’s go!

But no one wants to listen to Caleb.

Moses and God have a talk about what to do. God is upset – why do the Israelites keep not trusting me? Didn’t I do miracles in Egypt to get the people free from Pharaoh? Didn’t I do miracles at the Red Sea, and miracles in the desert with manna, and water, and birds to eat? This situation looks hopeless, but I AM GOD! I DO MIRACLES! WHY CAN’T THE PEOPLE GET THIS?!

God decides to order the Israelites to wander around in the desert for 40 years. And in those 40 years, everyone who is complaining and regretting leaving Egypt will pass away from old age. A new generation will return to the Promised Land and maybe they will believe God this time. But Caleb will live a long life and enter the land because he has a different spirit, a spirit that trusts God wholeheartedly.

Jesus, too, tells us to live with a different spirit in us. The Holy Spirit. A Spirit that comes upon us with our baptisms and keeps faith in hopeless situations, keeps trust in God through hardships and trials, and strives to live a life of love for God, and for others.

We’re called to live our lives in ways that make believers of all nations. Caleb lived this way. And our Caleb is called to live this way. No one is able to do it alone. It takes the whole body of Christ.

So you, who have the different spirit, the Holy Spirit, be the guide to disciple Christ’s newest follower – our little Caleb. Be his parents’ support, his sister’s assurance, his own encouragement. Live your life in a way that leads him towards the promised land. And remind him of this day – the day we affirmed he is baptized in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and he is a part of Saint Michael’s UCC, and a part of the Body of Christ universal.

Amen.

Dead to Sin, Alive to God

Genesis 21:8-21diseased-or-dead-tree-1
Romans 6:1b-11

In our first reading, Sarah sins and is cruel to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham weeps, but complies with his wife and sends Hagar and her baby into the wilderness desert with a bit of water. When their water runs out in the desert, Hagar places her baby under a bush and goes away – she can’t bear to watch her son die of thirst. A bow shot away, she cries out to God.

And God hears.

Ishmael, the name of the child, literally means: God Hears. God hears Ishmael’s weeping, and Hagar’s weeping, and gives them a whole well of water. The boy grows up to be a great bowman of the wilderness.

The sins inflicted on Hagar and Ishmael hurt, but God won’t abandon them. God gives them new life. Where the world gave them just a single skin, a thermos, of water – God gives them an entire well. The world hoped they would die, forsaken, in the desert. God made them the start of a great nation.

God brings us to waters in deserts. God brings us to peace where the world thought we’d know only woe. God grants us new life when death surrounds us.

Paul writes about this death and life in our second reading. I hear it sort of like… I have two apple trees at my house. I can cut a branch off of either. Now if I cut a branch off of the East one, the tree keeps a wound where the branch was, but it heals over. A year or two, and you’d never know. It will fill in the hole and produce lots of good fruit. The tree keeps flourishing and growing. It is full of life.

However, if I cut a branch off the West one, the tree not only keeps the wound… it never recovers. It cannot grow a new branch in the place of the old. A year or two, and that absent branch will still be apparent. And there will still be no fruit. This second tree is dead.

This is how I understand what Paul is writing about when he tells us that through baptism we die with Christ and are risen with Christ; we remain dead to sin and alive to God. You see, he is arguing about the worth of baptism. If baptism saves us from sin, or reunites us with God, and we can only be baptized once… what good is baptism? Should we save it until the very end of our lives hoping to reduce the amount of time we have to potentially sin? Or should we be baptized, and then keep on living a life of sin because we’re confident our sins don’t count? Neither, says Paul. Rather – live for Christ.

Whether or not we’re baptized, we’re going to sin. Both of my apple trees are going to lose a branch. Sin – things that separate us, do damage, to ourselves, those around us, or God – just happens whether we intend it or not.

The difference, argues Paul, is whether we are dead or alive.

The dead don’t recover from their sins. They spurn God’s assistance and sit in bitterness, not producing any good fruit. Each sin separates, destroys, more of themselves.

The living recover from their sins. God is there, encouraging new life, new growth, and good fruit. Each sin hurts, but they recover, regrow, and flourish with God.

The baptism we all share is our death to sins’ permanent effect and our birth into the eternal, rejuvenating, life God offers through Christ.

It is our sign and seal, our promise from God, that the strength of sin is broken.

We are always alive in God!

Amen.

Easter Sunrise Remember Your Baptism

1 Peter 3:8-22 sunrise-sun-river-grass-hdr.jpg

Do you ever get accused of being naive? Our scripture this morning says when people ask ‘Why are you so optimistic?’ ‘How can you be happy in a time like this?’ ‘How do you remain hopeful?’ tell them about your faith. Tell them about how when everything seemed lost, God was not done with the story. Tell them about how love has the final word. Tell them about how second, third, fourth, forty times forty chances our God offers. Tell them of Jesus’ love.

But do it with love yourself. With gentleness and reverence. Don’t ever smack people over the head with your faith. Don’t preach brimstone and fire.

Speak of your God, who did everything to lovingly reunite us with God’s self. Speak of our God – who though Christ offered forgiveness and reconciliation and peace to all people in all times – even the times before Christ was born.

Speak of your baptism – it does not remove dirt from your body, but rather is an appeal to God through the baptized and resurrected Christ for a good conscious – for the Holy Spirit.

So this holy Easter morning, be a blessing to others. As scripture says and we heard today: You are called to be a blessing to others – and by being a blessing to others, you are blessed.

This holy Easter morning, remember your baptismal vows – those you said, or that someone who loves you very much said on your behalf – remember your confirmation – remember you ARE baptized and ARE a child of God – remember all those who are being baptized for the very first time this morning.

This holy Easter morning – remember where your undying hope comes from – an empty cross, an empty tomb – and a full heart.

Amen.

 

Remembering Our Baptisms (adapted from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship)

 

Pastor: Dear friends, as we come to this font of living water, let us recall the meaning of baptism. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, although many, are one body, so it is with Christ.

People: For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body– Jews or Greeks, slave or free– all were made to drink of one Spirit.

 

Pastor: Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it. Let us pray: We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving word. Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters. Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life. Eternal God, we offer our prayers to you.

 

People: Be with us as we recall the wonder of our creation and the greater wonder of our redemption.

 

Pastor: Bless this water. It makes seeds grow. It refreshes us. It makes us clean.

 

People: You have made of it a servant of your loving-kindness: Through water you set your people free and quenched their thirst in the desert.

 

Pastor: With water you washed the Earth clean in the time of Noah. In the time of Moses, your people passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery to freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the promised land. With water, prophets announced a new covenant that you would make with all humanity.

 

People: By water, made holy by Christ in the Jordan, you made our sinful nature new in the bath that gives Rebirth.

Pastor: Let this water remind us of our baptism.

 

All: Let us share the joy of our brothers and sisters throughout the world who are baptized this Easter through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

 

Renewal of Baptismal Vows

 

Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?

I do.

 

Do you believe in God, the creator of heaven and earth?

I believe.

 

Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the only one begotten of God before all worlds?

I believe.

 

Do you believe in God – the Holy Spirit?

I believe.

 

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and community, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer?

I will, with God’s help.

 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God’s help.

 

Those of you who would like to, please come forward to the font for a blessing.

 

Let us pray: Eternal God, you have come to us in Jesus Christ, given us a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and forgiven all our sins. Bless us now with the grace we need to fulfill what we have promised. Let us remain faithful and joyful in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ! Amen.

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Ephesians 4:1-16

What is stronger? Rock, or water?

Rock seems stronger than water. Rocks keep water back, such as with dams. A rock goes through a window a whole lot easier than a rain drop. People build solid foundations out of rocks – not on sinking watery ground.

But let’s consider water: with enough time, water seems stronger than rocks. It finds cracks in that dam and slowly erodes the rock away. With enough time, it carves solid rocks and makes holes as gigantic and as deep as the Grand Canyon. A rock shatters with a big impact against it. Water, however, splashes, moves, around the rock that hits it and keeps on moving – unchanged.

In the short term, rock may be stronger.

But in the long term, water is more enduring. Water is stronger.

Perhaps this is why the Bible speaks of hearts that get hardened, that get turned into stone. Pharaoh’s hardened heart ignored the plight of the Israelites and turned Moses away. Hardened, cold, stony hearts made Jesus sad and angry. People who owned these hearts were more concerned about the proper way of doing things, about propriety, than simply helping others whenever the opportunity arose.

Jesus asks his disciples if they have hard hearts when they argued about how to share a single loaf of bread among them. Jesus reminded them that they had just seen him feed thousands of people with a few loaves – do they not understand?

A single loaf can feed many people.

But only if their hearts are not hard, but rather: are strong.

Hearts of stone never think there is enough to go around. Hard, solid, stony hearts are a dam, a defensive wall, that shuts out others and shuts out God. Isolated and alone inside that dark, cold, chamber, we huddle fearful of the outside world. Scared that our single loaf of bread will run out, and scared to share it too.

Soft hearts, strong hearts, hearts drenched in holy waters, are like river stones. These hearts are porous, full of holes. Gently, baptismal waters have carved space into these hearts. Space for the Holy Spirit to flow. Space for Christ. Space for others. These holey hearts, full of holes and God’s love, know we have more than enough resources when we all share. These kinds of hearts have windows to let the world in, and the graces given to us by God out.

You see, when we are baptized, we baptize with water and the Holy Spirit. The water cleanses away what is old – washes off the dirt, sins, and fear. We die with Christ in Baptism, and we arise with Christ in Baptism. So as the Spirit fills us, we become full of new life – a purpose – full of gifts to share for the community.

These gifts are graces, gifts from God, and never meant to be hidden away.

Like the children’s song ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ these gifts, these lights, are supposed to shine.

In us, from Baptism, the light of Christ burns. It is our own little candle. Our candle to shine out of our porous hearts to guide others towards love, towards Christ, towards God. This holy light we carry with us, wherever we go, as a beacon of the strength of water.

The world tells us to be harsh, to be cold, to be rock hard.

But our God tells us to be patient, to be kind, to be loving.

In the short term, a person can get ahead by playing by the world’s rules.

But in the long term, water is stronger. God is stronger.

For as Paul wrote us, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39

That long term, permanent love – that love that breaks holes into even the toughest of hearts – that love that is patient enough to work for decades eroding away a spot to plant the light of Christ – that love of God is stronger than all else.

We, today, are privileged to witness an act of that love.

We, today, are witnesses to God and Ella Grace communing in a way beyond words.

We, today, are the eyes, the ears, the memories, the hands, the mouths, that will remind this little girl as she grows up of this moment. We will tell her we were present for this holy moment when the Spirit alighted upon her. We will pledge, during her baptism, to guide her and her family, aide and assist, pray and support, them as Ella grows. Part of that will be telling her that she is a beloved child of God, a child who has God’s ever lasting love, a child who has been washed with baptismal waters and the Spirit, a child who carries Christ’s light within her.

And when she is five, fifteen or a hundred and fifteen, these truths will not have changed.

Let us, we the people of one faith, one Lord, one baptism – the people who are children and yet gifted the Words of God – let us now prepare ourselves for this holy, once-in-a-life-time rite of Ella’s that we are privileged to be a part of.

Called By Name

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Do I have any Inside Out fans? Anyone who’s seen the movie? That’s a movie about more than emotions. That’s a movie on identity.

And what happens when your identity begins to crumble.

The main human girl, Riley, moves with her mom and dad from Minnesota to San Francisco. This change in location changes her core-memories, the core of her personality. The emotion-people in her head try to keep her the Riley they knew in Minnesota, but the worlds inside of Riley keep collapsing as her external world keeps NOT being Minnesota.

In other words, she has an identity crisis.

Who is Riley that lives in San Francisco?

She isn’t the Riley who lives in Minnesota and plays hockey on the pond.

Who is Riley?

Have you ever been like Riley and not known who you are? It usually happens when we’re teenagers — when we feel stuck between being a kid and being an adult… That moment when you realize hanging out with the kids is boring because they’re too concerned with make believe, and hanging out with the adults is boring because they’re too concerned with the real world… and you don’t fit well in either place. Who are you? Where do you belong?

I felt this way when I realized I was now engaged and going to marry my husband. Up to that moment, my identity was ‘seeking.’ Watching for someone to date, watching for a match, giggling with friends about what ifs… and suddenly, all of that was over. Somehow, I had slipped from my cohort of single girls seeking guys into the category of girl with a guy… And not only I felt it, my friends did too. How were they to relate to me?

I have seen a man or a woman lose their love one before, after a long and blessed marriage, and that widow or widower is so… lost. For decades, their identity was ‘I am a wife/husband.’ For decades, they knew who to turn to, to share stories, ask questions, and center their lives around. But now… it is as if their life is hollow. The core of their life is gone. When we lose someone so dear to us, it feels like a piece of us has died… perhaps it really has died… for we are no longer the same. But who are we then?

Divorces. Kids. Parents who no longer can care for us but who now need us to care for them. Loss of job. Change of job. A new illness. A disability. Aging…

… Am I still the world’s best cook when I can’t get the energy to cook anymore?

I wonder what the people coming to John the Baptist were struggling with. I can think of many things… They had been told for a long, long time… for generations… that they were God’s chosen people. Called by name. That nations would be paid – sacrificed – to rescue them. Told again and again God loved them, was with them, favored them as God’s own children…

… and yet, here they were: occupied. Paying their food and money to their occupiers. They no longer had the Davidic line ruling; instead, they had puppet kings of Rome.

Their own religion was threatened. Caesar sent out gospels, good news alerts, of how he’d taken this town or that town — occupied new regions– and the people should pray to him because through Caesar alone salvation came. Caesar gave roads, gave food, gave unity, gave peace: but you had to submit and worship Caesar as the son of the gods.

… The people of Israel witnessed loved ones beginning to believe the propaganda. Watched loved ones say, ‘I could be a Jew and a second-class citizen, or a slave, all my life… or I could just convert, praise Caesar, and become a Roman Citizen.’

The people coming to John had people who were in identity crises. Who am I? What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to wait for the Messiah? What does it mean to be a child of God? Can I serve two masters at one time – Caesar and God? Can I be Roman during the week and Jewish on the holidays and Sabbath? Who am I?

And they also asked John, Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the one who is going to provide answers? Are you the one we’re waiting for? Can we stop waiting?

You heard in our reading, John tells the people he is not the Messiah. He predicts God will come and sort the people into the pure and the impure. God will give rest to the pure, and purify the impure. “I baptize you with water… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

A spirit of holiness, the Spirit of God, and flames, fire to add to the river’s water.

I hear in John’s words an echo of the Prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah once prophesized that God said, “When 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.”

Through water and fire, through rivers and flames, through good times and bad times, through life and death, God will be with us. Whatever we wade through, whatever trials by fire we face, and even death itself – none of these will be the last of us. Our promise and assurance is that God has the final word.

As John’s baptism gave people the opportunity to commit themselves to the coming Christ; gave them the opportunity to say ‘I stand with God and not with Caesar;’ gave them the opportunity to claim their identity as a Child of God… so too, did Isaiah give us an identity.

Isaiah tells us the words of God. The words that proclaim God made us. God redeemed us. God tells us not the fear for, “I have called you by name. You are mine… I am… your God.” All that I do, I do “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. Do not fear for I am with you.”

Who am I? Who is my core?

Each time we recall our baptisms, we can recall just who is at our core. Who our solid center is. This world is always changing, always making new identities for us, but we can cling fast to our identity as children of God: formed, redeemed, called, and loved.

Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the UCC writes, “Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God’s grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. Just like those crowds coming out to the wilderness so long ago, with Jesus right there in their midst. The voice from heaven says, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God’s words from Isaiah long before: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”

God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (49:16). God’s love didn’t start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is ancient, before time, it is from of old, and it is focused on each and every one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It’s as if God is trying to say to each one of us, “No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don’t you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God.””

Who are you?

A precious and beloved child of God.

Amen.