Lectionary blog for Jan. 13, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29;
Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
S.I. McMillen, in his book “None of These Diseases,” tells the story of a young woman who was applying for admission to college. She was very uncomfortable with the question, “Are you a leader?” She knew that colleges were looking for leaders, but she felt that the only honest answer was “no,” so that is what she wrote and sent in the application, expecting to be rejected.
A week or so later she received this letter from the college: “Dear Applicant: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower.”
As our Gospel lesson begins, John is very aware that the people are wondering if he is the leader, the messiah, the savior, the one sent from God. He is also aware that they are unclear about what the coming of a messiah will mean, both for them and for the world. So he proceeds to set them straight by telling them, “No, I am most definitely not the messiah.”
He then proceeds to explain to them the difference between what he is doing and what the coming messiah will do. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. 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” (Luke 3:16-17).
I think I like the sounds of baptism with water a lot better than baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire, especially an unquenchable fire. John the Baptist has long been seen as a hard-hearted, straight-laced and razor-toed religious fanatic; but in this text he comes off as a real softy when compared to the messiah to come. What is he talking about here? What is the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus?
John’s ministry and baptism were primarily about repentance and the washing away of one’s old life. In the Coen brothers’ movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” there is a great scene where Delmar (no relation) gets baptized in the river. Later in the car he is joyful as he exclaims, “I been redeemed. The preacher said so. All my sins and wrongdoings has been wiped away, including robbing that Piggly-Wiggly.” “Uh, Delmar, I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.” “Well, I lied, but I been forgiven of that too.”
John proclaims that while the messiah’s mission includes repentance and the removing of the old life (burned way with fire rather than washed away with water) it also involves moving one’s life in a new direction under the influence and guidance of God’s Holy Spirit. John says something like, “I have the job of calling you to turn from your old life and to start in a new direction. The messiah has the power to change your life, to create in you a new heart, to lead you into the new kingdom of God’s future.”
Luke treats Jesus’ baptism in two short verses. “ Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).
Too often too many of us act as though we have been baptized with John’s baptism only, redeemed from the past, but not empowered for the future. We sometimes forget that as Christians we have also been baptized with the Holy Spirit.
One of the basic definitions of Christian baptism is that it be done “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The service for Holy Baptism in many traditions includes this or a similar line, “[Name], you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is to have the dove of God’s peace descend upon us as it did upon Jesus. It is to be claimed and adopted as one of God’s many beloved children. To be baptized by the Holy Spirit is most especially to be empowered to be a follower of Jesus, to be an effective member of the priesthood of believers.
I once heard Desmond Tutu tell a story about his early days as a priest in South Africa. He gave a Bible test to a group of young teen-age boys. One of the questions was: “What did the voice from heaven say to Jesus after his baptism?” Most of them got it right but one boy got it wrong in a very creative way. He wrote, “The voice from heaven said, ‘You are the Son of God; now act like it!’”
Sisters and brothers in Christ, you have been baptized. You have been forgiven your sins; they have been burned away in the fire of God’s love. You have been redeemed. You have received the Holy Spirit. You are a beloved child of God. Dare I say it? Go forth into the world and act like it!
Amen and amen.
- If asked “Are you a leader,” what would you answer?
- What does it mean to you to be an adopted child of God?
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.