A great number of the prophecies of Isaiah deal with the chosen one who is to come. In this passage, the chosen one, the one upon whom God’s spirit rests, is described as being just, gentle, and faithful.
Psalm 29 VU #756
Psalm 29 reminds us that all glory, all power and all strength belong to God. It is God who gives us strength and the psalm end with a plea that, along with strength, God will also give peace.
Acts 8:14-17, 25
We often think of Paul as being the Disciple to the Gentiles, but even before Saul’s conversion experience, Peter was called by God to go to the gentiles in Samaria to share the Gospel of Christ. Although the lectionary reading assigned for today is Peter’s address to the gentiles, I have chosen instead to read a slightly earlier passage that talks about baptism.
Today we read Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus. But once again I have chosen to vary slightly from the lectionary by including the verses immediately before the story of Jesus baptism because it is in this passage that John talks about the one who come after him who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.
Fire and Water
The story of the baptism of Jesus is one of those beautiful stories we love to picture. Jesus goes down to the Jordon River where John is preaching and baptizing and Jesus walks into the water to have John baptize him. Although Matthew tells us that John recognizes Jesus neither Mark nor Luke have any indication that John knows who Jesus is.
Regardless of any conversation between John and Jesus, all agree that Jesus was baptized and that it was following his baptism that everything changed for him. After John had baptized him, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven claimed him as “my own dear Son”.
This is the moment that we generally accept as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He is claimed by God as the beloved Son and regardless of whether the voice claiming him speaks to those gathered or speaks only to Jesus, it is at this point that we assume the Spirit came upon him enabling him to recognize God’s call for him and giving him the strength and courage to respond to that call.
It is not the baptism itself but rather the gift of the Spirit that provides the guidance, the direction, the courage and the ability to move forward and do what God is calling him to do. John’s baptism washes away the past and allows the one being baptized to leave behind all that has separated him from God, but it is the gift of the Spirit that motivates and changes him and sets him on a new path going forward.
In our reading from Acts we hear how the people of Samaria had heard the good news about Christ and had been baptized in his name. But we are also told that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. They had heard the call to leave their past behind them in order to follow the way of Christ and they had been baptized to show their willingness to do this. But because they had not yet received the Holy Spirit they were unable to move forward.
Without the gift of the Holy Spirit they may have been willing to leave the past behind, they may have been willing to change, they may have even been willing to try to follow the way of Christ, but without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they did not have the direction and the drive that could show them how to move forward. It is only when Peter and John come to them, sharing their own story or testimony, sharing what Jesus had taught them, that the people of Samaria “received the Spirit”. Peter and John did not give them the Spirit, they received it. The Spirit is a gift freely given by God, but it is a gift that must be accepted and willingly received.
The words we heard from Isaiah this morning are generally accepted in Christian teaching as referring to Jesus. They describe what happens when the chosen one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord says, “Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my Spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth.””
Without being filled by the Spirit, could the Chosen One have ever hoped to “bring justice to every nation”? Without the gift of the Spirit, could Jesus have taught and healed and done all the things that he did? And what about those Samaritans? They were the first Gentile believers. If they had not been strengthen, chosen and filled with God’s Spirit would they have continued to share the message of Christ? Would they have continued to spread the gospel to others eventually leading to the formation of what we today call the Christian Church?
Long before the baptism of Jesus, John warns those who gather to hear him, “I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
It is not the act of being submerged in water or having water sprinkled on the head that changes a person and makes them a follower of the way of Christ. This may prepare them by allowing them to set aside anything in the past that might keep them from fully committing themselves to following. It may prepare them by having their parent commit to teaching them the way of Christ, but it is only when the gift of the Holy Spirit is received and allowed to work through that person that the amazing work of the Divine can be fulfilled.
Now all this may sound pretty intimidating and it may leave us feeling like there is no hope that we can ever become true disciples of Christ, but that is not actually the case at all. Every single one of us here today has been touched by the Spirit. We may never have seen doves descending or felt ourselves being “filled” with the Spirit, but we have all had those moments when the Spirit has touched and inspired us. These are the moments when we received the gift of the Spirit.
It may be that when we received the Spirit we were inspired to offer a kind word to someone who was struggling. We may have been inspired to donate to a worthy cause because we just felt it was the right thing to do. We may have found ourselves taking on a task that we would never have thought we could do, simply because we somehow knew it was just something we had to try.
Receiving the Holy Spirit does not have to be a huge earth-shaking experience. It can be as simple as feeling a nudge towards doing something. It can be a simple inspiration. And it doesn’t have to be a once in a lifetime experience.
The Spirit can nudge us at any time and in any circumstance. It can inspire us to try something new or it can call us back to something that we have allowed to slip away. It can challenge us to attempt something that may seem difficult and even frightening, or it can reaffirm what we are already doing and give us the motivation to keep going. It may come in ways we immediately recognize or it may be so subtle that we never do associate that inspiration with the Spirit.
Unfortunately, we really know nothing about what led Jesus to come to John to be baptized. Some believe that he came as a way to publicly demonstrate his readiness to begin his ministry. Some believe that Jesus had intended to become a disciple of John. Some believe that, as an ordinary man, he had sins that needed to be washed away just like everyone else. Some, like Matthew, simply say it was so that he could fulfill “all that God requires”.
But regardless of why Jesus came to be baptized, by doing so he demonstrated that he was ready to leave the past behind and start out on a new pathway, following his God, his Divine Guide, his Heavenly Father. And in leaving his past behind, Jesus opened himself fully to the possibilities that lay ahead. In doing so he received the gift of the Holy Spirit in abundance.
And so I would like to offer you all to opportunity to renew your own baptismal vows. By doing so you recommit yourself to allowing the Spirit to come and work within you and through you. I ask you to listen carefully to the questions that are being asked. The traditional responses to both the questions “do you?” and “will you?” appear on the screen. If you would like, you may use these responses or respond in any way that you are inspire to respond. You are also invited to stand if you wish to do so.
And so I ask you …
Do you believe in God, who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit?
I do, by the grace of God.
Desiring the freedom of new life in Christ, will you seek to resist evil, and to live in love and justice?
I will, God being my helper.
Will you join with your brothers and sisters in this community of faith to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in creation, and to love and serve others?
I will, God being my helper.
And now I would invite you to turn and look at each other as we pledge our support to one another as we attempt to fulfill our baptismal vows.
And so I ask you …
As Beacon United Church do you commit yourselves to support and nurture one another within this community which worships God, love and serves others, seeks justice and resists evil?
We do, God being our helper.
May God who has called and inspired us to make these vows grant us the power and the wisdom to fulfill them. Amen
And I’m actually going to ask you to be seated as we sing our next hymn so that everyone can see the screen.
Prayers of the People
Divine One, today as we remember the day your voice claims Jesus as your son, we seek to open ourselves to hear your call to us. It is sometime hard for us to hear your voice amid all the noise and confusion of our world. Sometimes we wonder if our prayers are even heard above all the noise. Sometimes we’re not even sure we want to. We try to listen but it seems so hard to hear your voice speaking to us not only in prayer, but in the voices of those around us. When we get so preoccupied with our own lives that we fail to hear your voice directing us on the path you choose for us, help us to listen…
Divine One, you know our thoughts our joys, our pains and our struggles even when we do not speak them. And you know the pain and helplessness we often feel when we see the injustice and suffering in our world. You know how easily we can get discouraged and feel like giving up. Set our hearts ablaze once more with the passion for your justice, your mercy and your call. Spur us on, to do all we can to be faithful disciples, living up to the commitments we have made to resist all that draws us away from you, to seek your love and justice, to graciously serve all who need our help, and to work together to support and encourage one another as we try to live out our call as faithful disciples of Christ. Amen