Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
January 13, 2008
Second Sunday of Epiphany
Fire and Water
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
I laughed out loud at a cartoon I saw this week in the New Yorker. Two men in togas are looking at a piece of paper. One complains, “There I go – still writing ‘B.C.’ on my checks.” We are prone to live in the past – one time back in 2007, I actually wrote 1987 on a check! Even so, it’s challenging to preach each Sunday from a text as ancient as our Bible, because it’s hard to imagine what the world was like before Christ.
When the baby Jesus was born into this world, great kingdoms and empires had risen and fallen for thousands of years – Sumerian, Egyptian, Judean, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Greek. The one currently on top was Rome. Through it all, the Hebrew people had held on to their unique faith and their special identity as the chosen people of the one true God – this amazing, invisible God who blew through the desert and led them with pillars of fire and pillars of cloud to their Promised Land. Unlike their neighbors, they didn’t get to worship a friendly assortment of stone gods and goddesses who sat smiling in the garden, happy with little flower and fruit offerings. The God of Israel couldn’t be bribed with treats like a pet. He had not been domesticated. The God of Israel was far from tame – he was full of fire and steam and great power – and he led the way wherever the faithful could travel. The Hebrew God demanded not vegetable offerings but blood sacrifice. Their God was a jealous God who didn’t tolerate the worship of anyone else. He demanded strict obedience, and sometimes drowned or incinerated those who strayed.
The other thing it’s easy to forget about life in Israel “B.C.” was that Judaism was practiced in different forms and styles, as Christianity is today. Since John the Baptist condemns two other “denominations,” the Pharisees and Saducees, as a “brood of vipers,” he probably was an Essene. The Essenes were radical separatists who fled to the wilderness to fast and pray and study God’s word – far from the corrupt influences of the Greco-Roman world. They cried out against the rulers of the present age – both the pagan oppressors and their own religious establishment – and prayed with great hope for divine intervention to set things right again. Many scholars believe that John the Baptist’s younger cousin Jesus started out as one of his followers – even his right-hand man – as the movement grew out there in the desert. John’s call to a baptism of repentance, being cleansed of one's sins in the waters of the Jordan River, was not a call to abandon Judaism and convert to Christianity, but to turn away from the collaborators’ agenda and be converted to follow a prophetic vision of the coming Kingdom of God.
John and his disciples were not out there in the wilderness because they were nature-lovers, or because they were crazy enough to like the taste of locusts and wild honey. Baptism – a ritual of both repentance and recruitment – couldn’t have been done in town right under a governor’s nose. John was not just preaching; he was spreading a seditious political message. The Kingdom of Heaven that John and Jesus proclaimed was not all clouds and golden sunshine in the great hereafter that most of us imagine today. Their Jewish Kingdom of Heaven was not the Christian afterlife with pearly gates. Their Kingdom of Heaven would arrive with God’s Messiah – the anointed one Isaiah foretold. The good news was that the time was “at hand” – God’s coup d’etat was about to start.
It must have been an exciting time for a young man to be a Jew – kind of as it must have been in our church back in the 1770s, when Congregationalists like us were beginning to struggle for independence from the great British Empire. People were daring again to place their hope in a God of justice, who would once again send them a great leader who would lead them to freedom– a new Moses. Jesus appeared to many of them to be that man. He would go on a mission to fish for “a few good men” and call those new disciples to give up everything to follow him – casting out demons of fear, releasing people from their blindness and paralysis, and preaching the Good News of God’s inclusive and redeeming love. Like John, he was not converting people from Judaism to Christianity, but instead enlisting them to realize the vision announced by the prophet Isaiah. Because God’s kingdom was coming soon, John called his people to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make his paths straight.”
I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to clear a tangled path or straighten one, but I have – and I’m here to tell you, it’s hard work. Right after my daughter Lela was born, I was looking for a church mission trip that wouldn’t be too physically demanding. So I found us a job in a city park, in an area of Chico, California, that they call “The World of Trees.” It was shady and peaceful, and all we had to do was to clear back some overgrowth, widen and straighten the path, and add a small raised garden border – to make it safe and accessible to wheelchairs and strollers, and to the blind. Turns out it was some of the hardest physical labor we had ever done. Every day we had to hack away at more briars and vines, and it turns out some of the lovely weeds we pulled turned out to be poison oak.
When John the Baptist proclaims “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire,” he isn’t announcing a garden party or Sunday School picnic. He’s predicting Armageddon, the Day of the Lord, the overthrow of Caesar’s evil government. He’s warning people that the way ahead will be painful and that they should prepare. It’s almost as if John’s baptism of water is like the preventative soaking homeowners might do when a wildfire is coming – or the water-drenched towel you might wrap over your head and face before crawling low out of a burning building. Elijah disappeared into heaven in a chariot of fire – people would expect him to return with at least equal spectacle. But did fire from heaven arrive at the baptism of Jesus, as John predicted?
Sometimes I think it’s helpful to imagine what the text might have said, which is hard to do when most of us have heard it so many times before. The baptism of Jesus has inspired many beautiful works of art – paintings of two men and a bird, and shafts of golden light breaking through the clouds and sparkling upon the waters. But think about it – after hearing the big windup of John, you’d almost expect Jesus to rise from the waters and the heavens to open to release a hail of fire and brimstone, or lightning bolts, or at least the flames of the Holy Spirit that arrived instead on Pentecost. After that fiery sermon from John, I’d expect to hear a voice from heaven shout, “Fall on your knees, puny mortals, and worship the son of God – pray that you might be saved!” The last thing I’d expect at such a dramatic moment is for the Spirit of the Lord God Almighty, Creator of the heavens and the earth, to flutter down and alight gently upon Jesus – not demanding and angry but quiet and simply present, like a dove.
For centuries, the Christian church has offered baptism to people by either threatening them with hell or trying to bribe them with the rewards of heaven. I think this text argues not for prophetic and fiery preaching about repentance, in the way of John, and not for easy promises from the pulpit about salvation in the life to come – but I think it calls us instead to an awareness of the Kingdom of Heaven that opens up to us in the present, where the love of God in Christ is poured out for us, and is available with every breath, through Holy Spirit.
There is a story about the 8th century Iraqi Sufi mystic Rabia that goes like this: One day, she was seen running through the streets of Basra carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked what she was doing, she said, “I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to God. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of God.”
This was the way Jesus was would begin to lead his people – straight into the heart of God – and it’s the same way he leads us today. Jesus does still call us to a dangerous prophetic vision of God’s kingdom, where people actually do “love one another” in both thought and deed. He demands a lot more than the hypocritical middle class piety of the Pharisees or the formal temple worship of the Saducees – he calls for a full commitment and complete obedience to God alone, a willingness to give up a safe and ordinary life and be transformed instead by God’s way of grace and peace. Most importantly, he promises to walk with us and guide us every step of the way. The Spirit of the risen Christ is present among us now – in these days, A.D. and not B.C. – and when it alights, it transforms those people and churches it touches. The inrushing flood of God’s grace lifts us up and makes us more loving – and lights a fire in us to share the Good News of Christ to everyone we meet.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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