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Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Baptismal Element

Water, wind and fire have the power to kill, and the power to bring new life. In Baptism, we encounter the power of those elements and are given peace with God and strength to face our challenges in the world.

Vicar Neal Cannon, Baptism of our Lord, year C, texts: Luke 3:15-22, Psalm 29, Isaiah 43:1-7

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Every outdoorsman knows that we are subject to the elements. Wind, water, and fire can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.

During the summers in college I worked at a Bible Camp called Camp Vermillion in northern Minnesota. Along with their regular day-camp program, Vermillion also led trips into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. One Summer I decided to become a BWCA canoe guide. I wanted to have adventures in the wilderness.

I had never been an outdoorsy type person before, so I was nervous about this, but I had taken a few staff trips into the BWCA and loved it. I loved dipping my toes into a crisp, cool, glassy lake in the mornings. I loved the feeling of a strong breeze at your back as you dig your paddle into the water and pull yourself forward towards your next campsite. And I loved warming my feet by a fire at the end of the day as you sit with good friends and share a story.

But as I quickly learned as a guide, you know there is another side to the elements that can be challenging as well.

That strong wind that started at your back becomes a gale force howl in your face, or worse, at your side. And all of a sudden the cool crisp waters that you found so refreshing in the morning become rough and choppy wakes that threaten to tip your canoe into icy cold water. And so you dig your paddle in the water, but each stroke feels like you’re stirring cement and for every inch you propel forward, it feels like you go two inches back.

And then when you finally get to your campsite, the rains begin, and in the distance you hear a faint rumbling and you pray it doesn’t come any closer. Because of the rain, there will be no fire tonight, unless of course a stray branch of lightning hits an area of the blow down a hundred miles to the north, and starts a dangerous forest fire.

Of course, you don’t have to be an outdoorsman to realize the power and awesomeness of nature. This spring in Duluth one colossal rain storm flooded the city so badly that entire streets sank. And on the news we’re always hearing the story of how a hurricane leveled a city or how a fire burned an entire community to the ground.

The elements are powerful. They have the power to aid and sustain us, but they also have the power to destroy and hinder us.

That’s what strikes me most about our text today. There is this sense that the elements are threatening us at times, aiding us at other times, but our God is Lord of it all. As our Psalm tells us,

“The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’ ”

Today is the Baptism of our Lord and this baptism is full of the elements. For example, when John the Baptist is asked by the people if he is the Messiah, he responds, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

John sets the stage for us here. He’s basically saying, “if you think I’m good, there’s someone coming who’s better. If you think being baptized with water is powerful, then wait until you’re baptized with fire.”

But sometimes, I think that John is selling short the power of baptism with water. We often think of water and baptism in kind terms. Water cleanses us. Water sustains us. Water gives us life.

But we forget that water also destroys. We drown in water. Water can destroy our homes and roads. Too much water ruins fields and crops. Water can be deadly.

Martin Luther understood the power of water in baptism. He once wrote, “These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam and after that, the resurrection of the new man.”

Luther says that baptism kills us and brings us to life. It’s not that John didn’t understand this. John wanted to kill our sinfulness through baptism. He’s known for saying things like, “Repent and be saved all ye sinners!”  John wants our sinfulness to die. But it seems as though John expects the Messiah’s baptism to kill our sinfulness even more as he says in our text today, “The grains of wheat he gathers into his barn, but chaff the Messiah will burn with unquenchable fire!!!”  And we’re left wondering, “Am I the grain, or the chaff?”  To hear John tell it, the Messiah will bring more fire and anger and judgment into the world. So this makes me wonder if John understands fully the power of fire.

When we think of fire, we often think of its destructive power. Fire burns, fire destroys, fire melts. But often we don’t consider the positive elements of fire. The campfire dries our socks by at night, fire from the sun warms our planet, fire cooks our food. Without fire, there would be no life.

Plus, the image of fire in the Bible is often used in an empowering, not destroying context. During Pentecost we will hear the story of the tongues of fire coming down on the apostles, and in the Old Testament God appears to Moses in a burning bush that is not consumed by the fire.

So when John says that the Holy Spirit will come to Jesus with fire, he talks about the power of that fire to destroy, but neglects to mention how that might also give us life.

Then at the end of the reading, we learn something interesting. The Holy Spirit, the same fire that John mentions, comes to Jesus in the form of a dove. Now there are a couple of significant things about this.

In the Bible, the dove is a sign of good tidings. When God floods the world, Noah sends out a dove from the ark and when the dove comes back with an olive branch in its mouth, Noah knows that the waters are receding from the earth and God will save them. Thus the dove is a sign of peace, between God and humanity.

This is ironic because John says the Messiah will bring more judgment and instead, he brings more peace. What’s more, in the New Testament, the word for Holy Spirit is pneuma (nooma). While this is usually translated as Holy Spirit, the more literal translation is actually wind, or breath.

It’s where we get the term pneumatic device, or a device that transfers air or gas from one object to another. So when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit, what we’re actually talking about is the breath of God or the wind of God being like a dove of peace being transferred from God into Jesus.

In Jesus’ baptism, the breath, and wind, and fire of God descend on Jesus from heaven like a dove when he is baptized with ... water. These elements symbolize death and life and they are sealed with a sign of peace. And in this baptism, Jesus is empowered to begin His ministry on Earth.

This happens for us too.

One thing about being in the wilderness is you become keenly aware of how you are transformed by the elements. You become inexorably changed and shaped to go out into the world once you’ve passed through wind, water and fire.

Some of my best and most challenging moments in the BWCA were fighting with my group to get across the lake on a gusty day or huddling with the group on the side of a hill as the thunderstorm passed overhead.

At first, you feel like the elements are going to kill you, your muscles ache from paddling, a bolt of lightning strikes nearby, but then, by the grace of God, you make it to your campsite, and the storms pass overhead, and the skies clear.

You are reminded that the water, and the wind and the fire didn’t kill you, they made you stronger. And this takes away your fear so that the next day when the winds come, and the rain pours, and the lightning crashes, you’re ready to face the challenge again.

This is what baptism is doing in our life. It is killing our sinfulness and our fear and in? its place we’re strengthened daily to overcome the next obstacle and go on our next adventure. And it’s in these moments that the words of Isaiah are especially potent in our lives.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 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. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

What I love about this verse from Isaiah is that you get this sense that God searched us out, and is searching us out. God is calling our names and finding us in our struggles.

So in those moments when we feel depressed, sad, alone, confused, those times in life where we feel like for every inch we move ourselves forward, we’re pushed two inches back. Then we remember that God brings us through the water and fire and wind to be redeemed. We remember that God gives us the Holy Spirit in baptism and Jesus dies for us on the cross. The Trinity crosses rivers and oceans and fires to bring us to salvation.

In this we’re given the strength to believe and hope that we can overcome anything that life throws at us. God never lets us go backwards, but continually draws us deeper into the Trinity with the promise that he will see us through to our salvation.

Remembering our baptism in this way helps us to face our fears, and our trials.

For example, have you ever had that moment in your life where you worried whether or not you were going to heaven?  You’re scared that you’ve done something so wrong that God would never forgive you?

What if every time we passed that baptismal font we were reminded that we were given the Holy Spirit as a dove, and a sign of the peace that God has made with us.

What if we marked ourselves with the sign of the cross to remember that God has crossed oceans to be with us, and there is nothing we can do to separate ourselves from him.

Or have you ever felt like you’re too weak to take on the next challenge?

Maybe you’re in a toxic relationship that you need to get out of or maybe a life-giving one you can get into.
Maybe you need a new line of work, or to rededicate yourself to the old.
Maybe you’re scared to talk about your faith with people because you’re afraid of how you’ll be perceived.

Then, just maybe, touching that water would remind us that the same water, and fire and Spirit that strengthened and prepared Jesus Christ for ministry … is with us.

Do not fear, says the LORD, for I have redeemed you.

This is the promise of Baptism – that whatever trials we are facing in our lives, whatever it is we fear in our death, that the Triune God is redeeming us, bringing us new life.

So go forward with the confidence that the LORD sits enthroned over the elements. So when the fires come you will not be burned, when the waters rage you will not drown. And when the winds blow, you will not be pushed back. And know in your baptism the Triune God gives you strength and peace to face your next challenge, and begin your next adventure.

Thanks be to God.

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