Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Steam Heat?


AS STEAM pipes click in colder weather, we of the church also need to make noise as we warm and focus our attention. This week the text used in celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, provides us with new fire from the Gospel According to Saint Luke, as a centering message concerning mission. We read...

As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with 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.”
 So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.
 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, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:15-22)

Water and More…
Our author tells of an important happening in the life of Jesus. Under his supervision, Luke is thought as responsible for the writing of this gospel, and also the book that we entitle “The Acts of the Apostles”. Thought by historians that he was a Greek physician in nationality and trade, Luke was likely influenced in theology by Saint Paul, his contemporary and friend. By this knowledge, we see the works written here carry some of the fire expressed by Paul’s evangelical spirit. However, as we are doused with healing waters... and feel the warmth of these hot stones for our healing, Luke’s words carry a course of treatment for those of harried soul.
 Being a physician by knowledge and trade, many biblical authorities view Luke as an historical  witness who sought exactness in the telling of this account. Living remote from the many regions talked about in the text, our author, made full universal symbolic use of both water and fire. In ancient cultures, the meanings contained in water went far beyond element and physical energy we often take for granted in modern society.
 First, in the ancient world we know that water was a basic and required element for human survival. Assuming that several millennia ago, the Middle East was either arid or desert, water’s involvement in life was noted most assuredly needed. The need was met with the deliverance of a child… as a woman’s water broke just prior to giving birth. Water was thus seen as a life-sustaining mystery. Ancient flood stories, such as the saga of Noah’s ark... held very deep meanings. Water was highly regarded as a needed substance for cleansing persons or objects.
 Tribal civilization gathered around streams called “wadi” in the ancient Hebrew language. Stream water gave life’s meat as game would come to drink, or fish could be caught. The proper use of water for washing purification proved to keep demons of illness at bay. Finally, water was seen as ambiguous and also transformative, for it could be beneficial in one sense but deadly when agitated. Indeed a person could drown falling from a boat, to be mysteriously claimed by a sea serpent or its denizens. Still other persons would be washed away in sudden flash floods. History reveals, to a greater degree than ourselves, the ancient people had a love-hate relationship with water. The very nature of the element seemed supernatural.
 Tribal holy persons could attempt to appease the water gods such as the storm god Ba’al, who was accompanied by Astarte and Tannit (named goddesses known by description who were simply thunder and lightning). The priests would paying homage to these by drowning children to make the storm go away. Later, through baptism, a ritual involving water, they provided to symbolically “kill” and give “rebirth” as payment to the god for tribal sin.
 Baptism and cleanliness thus became a desert tribe's method to petition s a nature god’s bestowing forgiveness. They would petition for relief in whatever offenses existed. In Israel, a people born from the same region as the nature gods Ba’al and Marduke, inherited the habit of trying to keep their God at bay through washings. This they showed Jehovah, their God, the sorrow they held for their sins, to  keep the demons and death at bay for another season of growth. As the life cycle of Hebrew tribal members passed, a person died as they aged and their personal water dried up. They returned to the dust. Water, as you can see, was surely a needed commodity.
 Israel developed amid these nature god cultures and shared baptismal rituals. Therefore they used water washing as purification for themselves and objects within their culture. Within the ancient scriptures we find that Hebrews coveted water, such as Jacob’s well, for supporting the life of their livestock and themselves. They used water for personal and ritual cleansing. The observance of many of ritual washing laws within the Old Testament are proofs of its importance among Jewish people.
 In the ministry of John the Baptist then.., we find that repentant persons in Israel sought God’s favor through the application of water, bathed by the waters of the Jordan River. Thus the people received forgiveness and were cleansed.
 The site of the Jordan was indeed meaningful. You see, John’s baptism was offered to the crowd gathered at the Jordan. The river was the one through which the people of Israel had passed to be granted the promised land.John’s baptism was therefore re-dedication meant to return the Jews, clean in body and the soul. Through the ritual, John wanted to provide the children of Israel with a new beginning in the land… freeing persons at least temporarily from being slaves to their past offending burdens.
 However, as Luke tells the tradition, we see that though similar action the baptism of Jesus was quite different. Luke tells us that John stressed that he was to baptize Jesus... person who would also baptize. John had said that Jesus was the one greater than he, and thus was to be ministering after him. Jesus, his cousin… was a person who would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire”.
 We see that in doing our Lord’s ritual washing, John baptized God's only begotten son, who had no sin. Jesus thus endured the piety of baptism so that all lawful requirement would be fulfilled for those who would come after him. You see, from the beginning, Jesus Christ was intended to take our place. Jesus grew into the knowledge that he must provide salvation to his disciples. and those who would follow their witness. This was Luke’s message to the churches in his region and beyond.

Heated Witness!
However, here we also see that Luke has introduced the element of fire into the reader’s mind. Fire existed then as a powerful element of spiritual action. As with water, fire had an ambiguous relationship with human beings. The fire that was kindled at our Lord’s baptism, was sparked in preparation for what would be presented later… during the heated flaring at the Feast of Pentecost. We are reminded that written under Luke’s pen, the account of the spiritual event was recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. At Pentecost, the feast of fifty days, flames of fire were described as seen above the heads of the apostles as they taught concerning Jesus’ death and his subsequent Resurrection.
 However, we know that on the one hand fire can warm, and on another hand it can kill. For Luke’s audience it would simultaneously do both. As symbolized by “tongues of fire” given at Pentecost, the hard-to-handle power of fiery witness was used by God to grow the church, cauterizing the wounds caused by Jesus’s death and empowering the church with the knowledge of the Resurrection. As well, the flaring heat of Christian evangelism brought horrible heat to the doorsteps of the disciples… even to their being burned alive in the stadiums of Rome.

Water and Fire Combined!
 Today, we note as described by Luke, a specific... seeming impossible sequence of events occurred as Jesus was baptized. First, a substitution has been made by our Infinite God and a finite man. After Jesus the Son of God was baptized, he died to free us from our death sentence... so that we may be saved. Then he descended into the hellish lake of fire. From that realm… he again did the miraculous and arose again… and now sits in glory at the right hand of the Father. Today we recite in the creed that from there he shall judge the living and the dead.
 We also note that in words, Luke portrayed our Lord as being baptized for our forgiveness, and then he prayed. This prayer spoken was not mentioned by the other two synoptic gospel accounts. In Luke then, as Jesus prayed, a dove is described as having descended upon him. Was this a sign that his substitutionary saving of humanity, and his giving of his life in mission was accepted by the Father? I rather think so.
 In this, his self-giving love, the pattern was set for the baptismal practices of our Lord’s early churches. I consider that in this, the Father is well pleased. You see, for Luke, baptism contained two features that he passed along to his readers. First, as faith communities they needed to rightly communicate that Christian baptism was not just a work of repentance that we as a people must do. Rather than a ritual purification which needed to be done annually, repentance and baptism was to be understood as an unchanging, once-in-a-lifetime sacred event/ Baptism is not done by us, therefore, but by God. Baptism is accomplished by God through Jesus Christ, and presided over by the Holy Spirit. Again, I repeat… baptism is not done by the power of the baptizer! Baptism is an eternal, sacred event in that it is not to be repeated. This also means that any pastor or person who baptizes simply provides a functionary role, providing only ritualistic movement as the candidate being baptized is overwhelmed and cleansed by water and the Holy Spirit.
 Second for us is that while functioning in the Word, as vehicles of the Holy Spirit, both the pastor and congregation participate in fervent prayer for those being baptized. This is in keeping with the pattern laid down by Luke, in showing that Jesus prayed. The baptized and gathered congregation are rightly presented as living then in the warmth of the healing “fire” of the Spirit. Being Spirit empowered, they all are raised up with the baptismal candidate to provide the Word and healing for others out in the world. Consequently, I consider that Luke presented the early church with this basis for baptism. Baptism was more than a ritual, but a gift to be administered freely. It made no account of age, race, sex or station in life. How important is the institution of baptism? Very! Even so it is that we have contested with one another over the baptism of children for centuries. The gospel message was spoken, repentance sought, and baptism was offered. In the instance of children who could not yet speak, the parents of the child would promise that they accepted the responsibility of teaching the baptized infant the way of the Lord.
 The book of Acts written by Luke, testified that the disciple Philip baptized an Ethiopian court official while traveling on the road toward Gaza. The two men simply pulled the chariot over after Philip’s teaching… and the baptism of the man occurred according to the Holy Spirit. While I, like many clergy, prefer to perform this Sacrament amid the congregation gathered, we as Christians may also rightly baptize in the Spirit using water, any amount of water… whether that water is sprinkled, dripped, dunked or sprayed on an adult or child! In discussion, I have claimed that if sudden death was expected, that my loving God would honor baptism using any water available and blessed… even the spit from the baptizer’s mouth. By invoking that we baptize in the name of God, as stated to be “the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit… we who baptize stand on no merit of our own. We just do it… and are privileged to see a sacred instruction fulfilled.
 When doing so, however, we need to remember and remind that it was Jesus who was baptized by John for our sake, who died that we might live, who was raised that we may see eternal life, who sent his Spirit into the world so that his church should have the fire of witness.
 How important is the institution of baptism? In the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Jesus gave his church the mandate to go into all nations and baptize in his the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We who have been called forth in our baptism into Christ are thus sent in turn to… preach the Word, baptize, pray, and heal others. As a modern church committed and empowered by the Holy Spirit then, we are to do these things and increase in our numbers until that last day when our Lord shall come again. Let us be alive and energized in the Holy Spirit. May we be empowered to go this Sunday from our hearing about this celebration of divine love… to once again do as we were instructed. Thanks be to God.


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