Text I: Isaiah 43:1-7
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth– 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
Text II: Luke 3: 15-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with 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 granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 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, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.”
“How are you?” I hope and pray that you are well and coping pretty well with this prolonged pandemic. In our staff meeting this past Tuesday via Zoom, I asked them the same question; then they asked me how I was doing during my break. Well, I am now feeling much better. I was feeling a bit down after the busy Advent and Christmas seasons. During the week we celebrated Christmas, I was involved in five services. After that, I did not want to do anything; I felt exhausted. During my holiday I spent much of the time on my bed for a couple of days, listening to music. Then, I realized I was so inactive that I was not doing anything. I had planned a few projects to do during my precious holiday, but I was just idling. I started to worry about not being creative. Have you had a similar experience when you planned to do something, but you were so exhausted or worn out that you could not do anything? You are not alone and I am not alone; we have all been there; we are all familiar with this experience.
You are not alone! We are not alone! This morning we hear similar concerns from Isaiah but from a different perspective. If my experience was from a personal point of view; today we hear a similar reflection but through the experience of the words of Isaiah’s community. The exiled community of Israel had to pass though the trials of water and fire which symbolize the realities that jeopardized Israel’s life.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:2)
The poet, the writer of Isaiah, imagines the threats as the encroaching waters of the Red Sea during the Exodus, the long trek out of exile and the consuming fires of slavery life under the Babylonian empire. The waters and fires are symbolic images of the danger for the people of Israel. We, however, have experienced during last six months everything mentioned by Isaiah and more: wildfires, heat waves, floods, cold and pandemic. These are not symbolic threats but actual ones we had to go through and are going through now.
To the suffering people out of Israel, Yahweh twice says, “Do not fear.” (43:1&5). God will be with you during the frightening times, calling your names, embracing you and strengthening you with hope and assurance. We see these tangible actions through the baptism of Jesus which we celebrate today.
Last Sunday we celebrated the visit of the magi. That story takes place when Jesus is still a baby. According to Luke’s gospel story today, Jesus is about 30 years old. He is now an adult. We do not have much information or many pictures or stories about him between infancy and adulthood, but we can assume he was loved by his parents and well regarded by his neighbours during those years.
The reason we do not have stories or photos of Jesus’ youth and young adulthood is related to the time and place in which Jesus lived; this is very critical. The leader of the baptismal movement, “repentance and forgiveness of sins,” John the Baptist, is now in prison. King Herod puts John in prison and now John is being killed by the imperial power of Rome. It is a signal that, if you, any of you, speak about the Kingdom of God, your turn will be next. You will be killed like John. Herod sends a strong signal that if you want to preserve your life, you should not pay heed to the new movement but be silent. The shadows of death are being cast by the rulers who want to keep hold of the imperial social order and religious power. So, we sense the Gospel writer’s feelings of urgency that the movement led by John would come to an end with his impending death; there is not much time to describe Jesus’ early life.
This is the situation when Jesus reaches the age of 30. At that time living until the age of 30 was not that common; according to the demographics of his time only six percent of the population reached their sixties and life expectancy was just over 20 years of age. Even though today we may think him relatively young, in his social and cultural context, we can assume that Jesus is one of the seniors of his society. Jesus probably expects that his life expectancy is now limited. When he is preparing for his public ministry, he must have thought critically about the society in which he lived and to which he belonged. As a result, he decides to be baptized even at his mature age. In the spirit of Jesus, there is no age limit for baptism. We can be baptized and participate in God’s ministry at any age; there is no retirement age in Jesus’ ministry. All are welcome to do ministry in Jesus’ name. So, in one sense, Jesus’ ministry was that of a senior.
According to today’s scripture, when Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit affirms Jesus as God’s loved one: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Through baptism Jesus is welcomed to the embrace of God’s grace. God intimately calls Jesus, “You are my Son.” And God blesses Jesus, “You are beloved.” Baptism is a time to reconsider who and whose we are. At his baptism Jesus is named as God’s beloved one. And then Jesus is affirmed as belonging to God’s family. His ministry grows out of this revelation and affirmation of welcome, belonging and blessing. Through baptism Jesus is prepared to embark on his ministry with the people of all ages.
“How are you?” Maybe our respond would be “so so.” But let us remember the Baptism of Jesus and ours. In our baptism God welcomes us to God’s grace. God calls us, “You are my child.” God delights in us. We too are blessed by our own baptism because we are God’s loved ones. Even though we are all different, we belong to God’s family; we are all one family of God. Paul affirms this in the letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ … There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:27). In our baptism we are called, claimed, and commissioned regardless of our age to do God’s ministry with all God’s people.
By baptism Jesus begins his ministry. By our baptism we are called and commissioned to the ministry of Jesus. Even though we may not remember our baptism, since it may have happened when we were young, we are reminded through Jesus’ baptism that we are loved and affirmed by God; we are all the Beloved. With this affirmation and blessing let us journey into this New Year to do God’s ministry of justice and love. Let’s paddle together through the stormy waters. Amen.