Sermon: The Waters and the Voice of God
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 43.1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8.14-17; Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
Today is the Celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Water and the voice of God occupy a prominent place in our service today. In Isaiah we read God’s comforting words to Jacob and Israel during their captivity: “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…” (Isaiah 43.1b-2a; NRSV). In Old Testament passages, references to the waters often convey a sense of peril and chaos. We see this connotation in the creation story (“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1.1-2; NRSV). We also see it in the Exodus story when the Israelites pass through the waters of the Red Sea. In baptism we are delivered from the chaos of this world, we die to the old life, and are born into new life in Jesus Christ. God walks with us when we pass through the waters of baptism.
Biblical scholars believe that Psalm 29 was in part appropriated from an old Ugaritic poem which celebrated Baal, the god of storms, the “cloud rider.” The history of this psalm calls to mind the sacrificial contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel set forth in 1 Kings 18. The prophets of Baal prepare their sacrifice and dance around it for several hours, but Baal never answers. Elijah prepares the altar, soaks it several times, then calls upon God. The fire from heaven comes down and consumes the sacrifice, the water, and the altar. In Psalm 29, the gods are told to “Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (vs. 1-2; NRSV). Once again, we encounter an allusion to water: “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters” (Vs. 3; NRSV). The Psalm contains six more references to the voice of the Lord. We read, “the voice of the Lord is a powerful voice, the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor; the voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees … of Lebanon; . . . the voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire; the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness . . . of Kadesh; the voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe and strips the forests bare” (Vs. 4-8; NRSV). The imagery here portrays a great storm moving inland from the Mediterranean Sea across Lebanon and Mount Hermon. Baal has nothing to do with this, for this is the action of the Lord Almighty. “In the temple of the Lord all are crying, “Glory!” while the Lord sits enthroned above the flood. The Psalmist ends with words of comfort: “The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace” (Vs. 9-11; NRSV).
Now we move to a consideration of Jesus’ baptism, to another encounter with water and the voice of God. Jesus’ baptism is mentioned in all four gospels. In that the gospels were written some years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we should expect to find a few differences in these accounts; even so, the agreement among the accounts is remarkable. Today’s lectionary reading is from the gospel of Luke. Luke recounts John the Baptist’s assertion that although he baptizes with water, he is unworthy to untie the thong of the sandals of the one who comes after him; Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, the wheat will be gathered from the threshing floor and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. As noted previously, this is commonly interpreted to mean sinners will suffer eternal damnation, although it may mean that we who are baptized in Christ shall be purified by Holy fire – all our chaff will be burned away; in terms of ore, we will pass through the refiner’s fire. I prefer the notion of purifying fire, for as Luke then says, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people” (Luke 3.18; NRSV). Our purification is good news; can we say the same of turning sinners to crispy critters?
The lectionary reading then omits verses 19-20: “But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison” (NRSV). Luke then writes: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3.21-23; NRSV).
I am always amazed at the conclusions some commentators draw. For example, “Note that, according to Luke, John is not present at Jesus’ baptism: he is in prison (v. 20)” (Chris Haslam: http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/cpr01m.shtml). Luke does not tell us when John was in prison – was it before, after, or during Jesus’ baptism. The reference to Herod’s imprisonment of John is more like a literary aside. In this commentator’s defense, he does note John’s presence in the other gospel accounts. Concerning John the Baptist’s presence, in the gospel of John we read, “And John [the Baptist] testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’” (John 1.32-33; NRSV).
More importantly, Luke tells us the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form after he had been baptized and was praying. The heavens were opened, the Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Ibid). Did others hear this voice? Matthew’s account suggests they did, for Matthew wrote, “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3.17; NRSV). Thus, we are left to question whether only Jesus, or also those about him, heard the voice of God. Whichever it is, these words of affirmation in advance of Jesus’ public ministry must have profoundly affected him. What son, or for that matter, what daughter, does not long to hear such affirmation from one’s parent or parents? “You are my daughter . . . with you I am well pleased.” These words are words of blessing, words of empowerment when heard from an earthly parent – even more so when heard from our heavenly Father.
When we are baptized, we become the children of God – we are beloved, and God is well-pleased with us. God’s love is ever-present in our lives, but baptism is when we more consciously receive and truly begin to experience the depth of that love. Our baptism by water and the Spirit marks the beginning of our journey, for we are born into new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. As we mature in that life, we are slowly transformed more fully into the image of God. In baptism, Jesus leads the way through the water and we hear the voice of God. Alleluia! Amen!
Please turn to page 292 of the Book of Common Prayer for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows.