First Congregational Church
January 13, 2019
First Sunday in Epiphany
Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, Luke 3:21-22
“The Handiwork of God”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
After a hardy rainstorm filled all the potholes in the streets and alleys, a young mother watched her two little boys playing in the puddle through her kitchen window. The older of the two, a five-year-old lad, grabbed his sibling by the back of his head and shoved his face into the water hole. As the boy recovered and stood laughing and dripping, the mother runs to the yard in a panic.
"Why on earth did you do that to your little brother?" she says as she shook the older boy in anger. "We were just playing church mommy," he said. "And I was just baptizing him ...in the name of the Father, the Son and in...the hole-he-goes.
This is the Sunday that the church celebrates Jesus’ baptism. We are in the year C, the first Sunday after Epiphany, and that means we get two passages from Luke and one from the book of Acts.
I included a map in the bulletin announcement page, because A: it may help with a little mental framing, B: we had the room, and C: I, for one, am fascinated at how much I have forgotten since the days when I prided myself in being a relatively good map rememberer.
If nothing else, it can link the two locales on which our passages are based. Jesus’ baptism takes place in the Jordan River, which not only feeds into the Dead Sea, but marks the eastern border of the area known as Samaria. The actual place of his baptism is called Bethany beyond the Jordan, which is about 6 miles from the Dead Sea.
John the Baptist had been doing his thing in this wilderness area, and people were going out to him to be baptized. As he told the crowd to share with those in need, told the tax collectors not to collect more than they were supposed to and told the soldiers he was baptizing to be content with their pay, John was also predicting Christ’s arrival. When Christ came, he would baptize not just for the forgiveness of sin, but to mark a new era, one no longer marred by brokenness, but an initiation into a community that anticipated the second coming of the Holy Spirit.
The other reason for the inclusion of the map was so you could “remember” Samaria - a name no longer recognized by Palestine or the international community. Samaria, the area marked by the dashed lines, which bled into the area known as Judea, to the south, is mostly known today as the West Bank.
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] 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[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
The Baptism and Genealogy of Jesus
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Thank you, Pat. One of the things that is interesting about this whole baptism thing is that it isn’t done from a distance, it’s not done with a branch or a rock or any other implement that is held, but is done by hand. Whether they fully immersed people or sprinkled water on their heads, baptism involved some actual manual contact between at least two people. And it’s still done the same way today.
Whether figuratively or in reality, the winnowing fork Jesus was to use would be “in his hand” as it says in Luke’s verse 17. In the second passage Pat just read, in his own baptism, Jesus had John’s hands doing the baptism, and in the passage from Acts, we don’t know who did the baptizing, but Peter and John laid their hands on the baptized, again utilizing these most convenient and “handy” tools. It’s also interesting that all three of these scripture passages include mention of the Holy Spirit in practically the same sentence as the word baptize. It’s hard to avoid the probability that these “coincidences” are there for a reason.
Last Sunday I attended church with my sister and the rest of the family, and the pastor used a phrase that day that I’ve heard him use before, but this time, it seemed to come across to my ears with flashing billboard lights and blinking letters. It was the phrase, “the fingerprint of God.” His message, the first of a new year, and being it was communion Sunday, focused on taking on new practices, like all good preachers are want to do on that particular Sunday. And one of the sub-points was about looking for the fingerprints of God that happen to be all over us and creation.
Another of his sub-points was to take a look at the ways that some of us have become used to, settled into, even too accustomed to the God we have shaped in our own minds, and how looking for the fingerprints of God can be not only enlightening, but refreshing and surprising - in a good way.
There was a boy riding on his bike outside a church.The priest saw him and told him to come into the church and the boy said,"...But they'll steal my bike."The priest explained how the Holy Spirit would take care of it, so they went inside.The priest showed the boy how to make the sign of the cross and told the boy to repeat it..."In the name of the Father, The Son…Amen" The priest said,"What about the Holy Spirit?” The boy replied, "Its outside taking care of my bike!"
I think it’s rather common for us human beings to look at baptism from our side of things. If it’s an infant, there is the right outfit - new or old - the gathering of the family and naturally, there’s food that goes with the gathering. And all that’s good. If it’s an older person, baptism is most probably about a state of a person’s heart, especially if they are wanting a ‘new identity’ in Christ, complete with a clean slate. And that’s all good, too. But when we are able to witness a baptism, how often do we think about God’s part in it, more specifically, the Holy Spirit’s part in it? And what part does the Spirit play, aside from perhaps enabling some moments for potential goosebumps?
The passages for this morning remind us that baptism - including Jesus’ baptism - is an empowerment by the Holy Spirit toward a new world, complete with subsequent opportunities to invite others into that vision of a new world, where all who are there - are those with whom God is well-pleased - where all will be reconciled to God and therefore to one another - perfectly and completely.
If we were to focus only on the baptism parts of these passages, we could speak to the past and to the future, but there might not be much in the “present” application. When the Holy Spirit comes into the limelight of these passages, there is a “present” component to the passages that reminds us that we are never without God, never alone, never unlovable in God’s eyes. When we include the Holy Spirit in our world view, much more is possible - in and through us.
Although Menlo Church pastor, John Ortberg gave this illustration several years ago, it still has the breath of life in it. He told a little story about canoeing in the wilderness, and how tedious and tiresome it can be to paddle a canoe all day, hour after hour, but then how it feels, when the wind picks up, to be able to grab a poncho, tie it to your paddles and make a sail, and then go flying across the lake. Ortberg’s point was that you can paddle if you want to, but it's a lot more fun to sail.
January in northern lower Michigan is not the time that we normally think about sailing, especially when we have to traverse stretches of ice - either by foot or car. Sailing can be risky, even in warm weather, because waves - like life - can surprise you. The path you thought you were going to take is suddenly not the one you are on. Sometimes you get wet sailing, even if it’s just that fine mist that makes hardly any moisture. But even the fine moisture can make you smile. Even the risk can be good when you realize that God has God’s fingerprints all over the situation. There is just no place in which God is absent. And if that knowledge doesn’t excite us, then it can at least give us an assurance that all will be well - no matter what happens.
If there is anyone who hasn’t been baptized and would like to be, let me know, and we can certainly make that happen. If there is anyone who would like to renew their baptism, we can do that, too. For today, look for God’s handiwork - in your life, in the lives of those you love, in people of whom you may not even be fond. For this week, check in, from time to time, realizing that the Holy Spirit is with you in that moment, in each decision, each reaction and each transaction, and if you need to step up those interactions, then do so with all Godspeed. For this moment, let us pray.
Gracious, Holy God of Spirit and Light, thank you for being the hand that guides us, even when we don’t recognize such leading. Thank you for giving us tangible practices that remind us of our connections - to you - through time and to each other. Help us to live into your handiwork, your fingerprints, that others will be drawn to you and your grace, mercy, love and joy. Forgive us when we turn away from your reaching out, from your offered hand, for whatever reason. Give each of us - and all your people - eyes with which to see your handiwork - now, this day, in the days to come, in all of eternity. For calling us beloved and touching each of our hearts, all your people thank you as we say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.