01/12/20 – Out of the Water and into the Fire – Baptism of the Lord


January 12, 2020
Baptism of Our Lord
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


Do you remember your baptism? If you were born into a Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran or Reformed faith, such as our Presbyterian Church (USA) you probably do not remember because you were an infant. In these denominations, any baptism with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is done only once and baptism in any Christian church is accepted. Only denominations that practice “Believer’s baptism” and total submersion in water do not accept baptism done in another church and a person joining such a church is required to be baptized again.

I am in the unusual situation of having a baptism before the age of individual consent but not as an infant, so I do have some recollection of my baptism. My parents had left behind their Southern Baptist upbringing when they married and took some convincing before they dared enter a church again. My father’s sister’s husband was a United Church of Christ minister who had grown up in the UCC church in the same Baptist dominated area. He understood their hesitancy to return to church and convinced my parents to try the Reformed faith. This is how I came to be baptized, at the age of 4, in a church of that denomination, later joining another reformed church, the Presbyterian church at age 10. When I was baptized, I had just experienced my first Easter in a church, and I knew baptism was something very special. I received a bible from one set of grandparents and a cross necklace from the other. Until this point, my grandmothers had been quite concerned about my unchurched status. It was that pressure that initiated my parents’ search for a new way of being part of a Christian congregation.

A Presbyterian pastor in Harrisburg once said: “baptizing your child is the most dangerous thing you can do. You never know where it will take them.” At the time her daughter was serving as a missionary in Central America.  I have never risked my life for my faith, but I have found myself in some unexpected places, most notably as a seminary student in the same seminary from which my UCC uncle graduated. Today, as the Church celebrates Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember our own baptisms, to trace how it has shaped our lives to this point and to discern how we will live out our baptism in the future.

Our first scripture reading was from one of the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah. Matthew took great pains in the writing of his gospel to show the continuity of the Christian faith with Jesus’ Jewish faith.  In the gospels, Jesus uses passages from Isaiah to announce his identity and mission. At the time of Isaiah, kingdom of Judah was occupied by a foreign power, the Babylonian Empire, and the best and the brightest of its citizens who would have served as leaders in their communities, were marched to Babylon to live in exile. The temple had been destroyed as well as many homes, shops and fields. Without a Davidic king, they could not see a way forward. Isaiah spoke God’s Word to people who needed assistance, assurance and a new vision of themselves and their future. Into this bleak picture, Isaiah promised God would send a new king, a king filled with God’s spirit, who acted as God’s servant and brought delight to God. The hallmark of this king would be his commitment to restore God’s justice and peace. His success would be marked by lifting up the downtrodden – the poor, the afflicted, and the prisoners. This king would strive to be God’s servant by total obedience to God’s will, unlike the past kings who had gone astray and served themselves. This king would not dominate his people but ser

The Psalmist declares the unqualified sovereignty of Yahweh over all of creation and assures God is present within creation. This is no absentee landlord. The Psalmist affirms God is present over the waters, in the thunder, in the fire, in the wilderness, in the floods, which are all metaphoric ways God had revealed Godself to those God called into service in the scriptures. These are the settings of epiphanies revealing God’s omnipotent, omniscient state of being in the world. In viewing this psalm as a liturgical reading in response to our Old Testament reading, God’s promised new leader would be faithful to the all-powerful God who would strengthen the people and bless them with peace.

In our reading from Acts, Peter has a transformative epiphany. God revealed to Peter in a dream that God’s love extends to all people without partiality. Just as there are no inherently unclean foods, there are no “unclean” people from whom we should distance ourselves. All of God’s children are loved and worthy of being loved by others. All are worthy vessels of God’s Holy Spirit. In this time of division in our own country, this is a message that needs to be heard. This is a message that we are called to bear witness in our words and deeds. In direct opposition to this Good News, we have leaders, both political and religious, who wear their condemnation of and their superiority to others like a badge of honor. Fulfilling our baptisms, we are called to reject these threats to God’s peace and justice. We are called to be servants to one another, especially the most vulnerable in society, not the dominant hoarders of the good gifts God has given us to share.

Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism has unmistakable ties to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant king. Both are recipients of God’s spirit, who act as God’s servant and thus engender God’s delight.

Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism addresses head on the theological concern that early Christians had with Jesus, one without sin, being baptized by John who baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Typically, Mark gives no explanation, and in Luke and John, Jesus appears to baptize himself with John present in John’s account and not present and in prison in Luke’s account. Matthew explains that Jesus submitted himself to baptism according to God’s will – “to fulfill all righteousness” are his words. And, John goes to great pains to admit his inferiority to Jesus. John differentiates the baptisms he performed to what a baptism in Jesus’ name would do. It was customary for people to wash themselves in running water to ritually cleanse themselves after a confession of sin. John, however, explains that Jesus will baptize with spirit and fire.

Now, fire sounds terrible to us, especially with the recent unprecedented fires in California and Australia. I saw a picture taken from a space satellite of Australia. It appeared as more than half of the land was ablaze. The rapid rise in heat nearest to the two poles of the earth is a frightening warning for the future of our planet. By forgetting that we are mere stewards of our sovereign God’s creation, we have treated the earth as though its sole purpose is our pleasure and profit. Destruction by fire is an unwelcome reminder we are not in ultimate control. In biblical times, the fire was a more positive image. The fire was cleansing. Under fire, metals were polished, making them more beautiful, useful, purer and stronger. Isaiah reminds us that God is the one who created us, formed us, loves us and claims us. Thus, God says, “Do not fear, for I am with you.” God loves God’s people so much so that God wants to be with us (“I will be with you”). God does not leave us in the fire alone.

Isaiah helps us understand that the fire is inevitable: “When you pass through the waters…when you walk through the fire.” Isaiah says When not if. The fires of life are unavoidable. We will have pain. We will endure hardships. There will be cancer and broken relationships, Alzheimer’s disease, and acts of violence.  But, God promises we will not be consumed by these fires. God promises to be with us. This is the promise of Christmas and Epiphany.

In the same way, water can be both destructive and saving. Like fire, water is cleansing. Water is life-sustaining but can also be life-destroying. With the rise in temperatures increasing more rapidly than the rest of the world, more water is flowing into areas of dry land along the coastlands. In these areas we are seeing unprecedented flooding. Beachfront property is a risky investment these days. At Jesus’ baptism, the life-sustaining properties of water are recalled. God’s voice that the psalmist attests to 7 times, spoke over the waters of creation and created life according to the Genesis account.  Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, the same river the Israelites crossed to escape slavery in Egypt and to enter the promised land. Water is a powerful metaphor in the scriptures.

Christian baptism means many things. It is an initiation rite into the kingdom of God. It is the cleansing away of sin that clings to us in a way that saps us of the abundant life God intends for us. It is a symbol of God’s reaching out to us in love and acceptance through no merit of our own. One might say infant baptism is the ultimate sign that God reaches out to us with pure grace. Before we can do anything to make ourselves worthy, God comes to us. In Christ’s baptism, we see the reflection of our own. In our baptismal liturgy we say we are buried through baptism into his death and raised with him into new life. Like John the Baptist we become messengers and witnesses to the Messiah. In baptism, God reaches out to us in love and the Holy Spirit falls upon us in an embrace.

Our baptism opens a new reality in the world. We are only baptized once but we can renew

those vows as often as we choose. The Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, claimed he woke up every morning by joyfully proclaiming: “I am baptized!” For him it was a reminder of who he was and to whom he belonged, that God was saving him by grace through faith and nothing would separate him from the love of God. This declaration is also a charge. We are to live out our baptismal vows daily. We go out of the water and into the fire.

So today, we will renew our baptismal vows and celebrate Holy Communion, joining Christ in his mission to bring peace and justice to the world and to live together in love. These sacraments are what St. Augustine declared are “visible signs of invisible grace.” We are given a trinity of blessings:  assurance of pardon, a sign of hope and the promise of divine presence. We are accepted we are forgiven; we are loved.




© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2020, All Rights Reserved
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