A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes
Luke 3:15-17, 22-23
January 13, 2019
Main Idea: God loves us without reservation.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In 2014 a small book was published entitled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Japanese author Marie Kondo. This month Netflix has released an 8 episode series called Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. [Who has seen it?] The central premise of the KonMari Method is to declutter by getting rid of stuff by category; first clothes, then books, then papers, then miscellaneous stuff, dealing with sentimental items last. The way to determine what to keep is to hold each object, thank it for what it has done and then ask “Does it spark joy?” The end goal is to have a life and home filled, not with clutter, but with joy. I have read the book and have started watching the series. I appreciate the hopeful and grateful approach that Marie Kondo brings to our stressful and cluttered lives.
Our Scripture text today is about decluttering; about getting to our essential selves and recognizing that God loves us without reservation. It is the story of Jesus’ baptism as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. All four gospels tell this story but each in a slightly different way. Luke connects the story to the preaching of John the Baptist, who made people nervous, who makes us nervous, with his “brood of vipers” talk. This morning, we are going to ponder the three kinds of baptism that John lays out. We have some sense about a baptism by water; we have seen it and many of us have experienced it either by immersion or by sprinkling. But what is meant by a baptism of the Holy Spirit? And a baptism by fire does not sound pleasant in the least!
John says ‘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 into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (3:16-17)
Let’s take the baptism with water first. As Baptists we experience baptism as a full immersion; a dunking of our whole bodies into the water, we understand it as a washing off of all of the masks and personas that we carry. It actually takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a group of people looking like a drowned rat! Baptism by immersion is a dying of our old selves and a rebirth to a new life in Christ. It is a symbolic bath in which we are cleansed of all the junk with which we have cluttered up our lives; our sins, our resentments, our apathy, our inertia. In the act of baptism, usually we are only in the water for a short time, especially here when the water is cold. But let’s stop and think about immersion and floating in water. Close your eyes and imagine being immersed in water. Perhaps a warm bubble bath at the end of a long day, perhaps the cool buoyancy of floating in the lake or ocean on a hot day. The only way to enjoy it is to relax and soak; to let the water hold you, protect you, loosening up the dirt and stresses that have accumulated. The water requires us to let go of control and give ourselves to the experience of weightlessness and grace. And we can become immersed in more than water, yes? Immersed in a good book, immersed in a project that so captivates us that we think of nothing else. A baptism with water encourages us to let go of all that burdens us so that we may experience fully the love and grace of God.
A baptism by water prepares us for a baptism with the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit is very active from the very beginning of the Gospel when Zechariah is told that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit before he is born. The word for Spirit in Greek is pneuma like pneumonia or pneumatic. The word also means wind and breath. A baptism with the Spirit fills and cleanses our bodies like a deep cleansing breath. When we are stressed or overwhelmed, we tend to breath shallowly which increases anxiety and decreases our strength and stamina. Since I had abdominal surgery a few years ago, it is a challenge for me to breathe deeply. I really have to think about it. Deep breathing not only brings needed oxygen to our body, it helps realign our posture, it helps us think, and it gives us a moment to respond to others reflectively rather than reactively. A baptism with the Spirit invites the Spirit of Christ within us. At Christmas we celebrated the Incarnation of God in Jesus. In baptism with the Spirit we celebrate the Incarnation of God in us! We are “in-spired”. We breathe in God and breathe out peace.
A baptism with the Holy Spirit prepares us for a baptism with fire. Wait a minute! Fire does not sound pleasant in the slightest! John says ‘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.’ (3:17) Usually this is interpreted as harsh judgement. Get ready or else! But the image of separating the wheat from the chaff is the same as washing away our burdens. It is the same as a deep cleansing breath. It is a decluttering, an opportunity to get rid of all that holds us down. The prophet Malachi speaks of a refiner’s fire which removes all impurities to reveal the true gold, the true, essential self. The image of unquenchable fire is disconcerting. But what if this unquenchable fire is not the eternal torments of hell but rather an unquenchable light which can not be extinguished. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.” What if this unquenchable fire is a fire or passion that burns within us to live as God’s people, to serve Christ in the world. A baptism with fire clears us of junk and empowers us to live our lives with passion and energy. What fires you up? What gets you excited and energized? To paraphrase Marie Kondo, “What sparks your joy?”
One of the commentators I read this week called these three baptisms; Bathe, Breathe, and Burn (Peter Wood, thelisteninghermit.com). We bathe to let go of all that burdens us. We breathe to make space within us for Christ. And we burn to grow in our understanding of and service to God.
And Jesus was baptized just like us! Luke has him standing in line with all the rest on the bank of the Jordan. Jesus chose to be baptized. He chose to be in solidarity with us, recognizing the burdens that we carry, the griefs and the joys we experience. After his baptism, during his prayer, Jesus saw the Holy Spirit descend as a dove and heard God’s voice. ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (3:22). This voice is not for Jesus alone. This is what God says to each one of us. When we let go of all the garbage, when we breathe deeply, when our essential self shines bright, God speaks to us. “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Let us pray,
God of water, Spirit, and fire, we thank you for loving us, just as we are. We thank you for leading us and challenging us to let go of all that separates us from you and from others. We thank you for inspiring us to share your love and grace with the world. Amen.