Sylvania United Church of Christ
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The sermon for week January 16, 2011

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Isaiah 49:1-7 and John 1:29-42

Last Sunday our pastor, Bill Chidester, announced that he would be stepping back from some of his duties at the church for a while. He assured us that others would be stepping forward to assume these duties during the interim. How long that might last he could not say. For most of us this was a new, yet not unexpected development.

Many of us had come to church on Sunday having just heard the news of a shooting at a political gathering outside a shopping center in Tucson where six people were killed and a score of others were serious injured, including Congress-woman Giffords who remains in critical condition with a gunshot wound to the head.

Shortly after that announcement we stood together by the baptismal font and watched as Gus Joseph Tashima was received into the Church of Christ through the sacrament of baptism. Gus’ reaction as he felt the cold water drip down over his head and cheeks expressed the sentiments of many of us that morning. He howled!

Gus has no idea what the future may hold for him as a Christian and neither do we. Fear is simply our human reaction to the unknown and unexpected. What we heard last Sunday during worship was a cry and a whisper: a toddler’s cry, and a whispered promise as the words of Isaiah swept over us with the assurance of a quiet anthem.

And today on the second Sunday in Epiphany the world has turned, and calls have gone forth to quiet the rhetoric, to quell the violence. In memorial services this week for those who died in Tucson, President Obama comforted the nation with words chosen from the prophet Isaiah. He challenged us to engage in conversation that heals, and invited us to stand together in our pain and brokenness.

This Sunday we who affirm as a church that “God is still speaking,” gather together once again to listen with longing for words of comfort and hope, words that will provide the courage to withstand our fears in these uncertain times.

And once again the prophet speaks, “I will give you as a Light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” It is the voice of Isaiah speaking words of hope to Israel, a hope that must “await its time.” Israel must wait in order to see.

John the Baptist had been looking for the Light to appear when the figure of Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan River. And John tells us what he sees: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. This is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and I have testified that this is the Son of God.” John recognized the Light and he gave the Light a name: “Lamb of God!” he exclaimed.

In her book Holy is the Firm poet Annie Dillard describes this moment of recognition. “Christ is being baptized,” she writes.

“The one who is Christ is there, and the one who is John,
and the dim other people standing on cobbles or sitting on beach logs back from the bay.

These are ordinary people—if I am one now, if those are ordinary sheep singing a song in the pasture…

He lifts from the water. Water beads on his shoulders.
I see the water in balls as heavy as planets,
a billion beads of water as weighty as worlds,
and he lifts them up on his back as he rises…

Outside is bright.
The surface of things outside the drops has fused…
It is the one glare of holiness; it is bare and unspeakable.

There is no speech nor language;
there is nothing, no one thing, nor motion, nor time.

There is only this everything.
There is only this, and its bright and multiple noise”…

Dillard uses words as if she were painting the scene with a broad brush dipped in sun drenched colors, colors which suggest its deeper meaning. In Dillard’s description we are given an artist’s vision of the extraordinary in the ordinary; a verbal reminder that divinity is not so much hidden as disguised!

This is the promised Light that “shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” We can almost feel the warmth on our skin!

In this season of Epiphany we celebrate the process of Jesus’ unfolding identity. As Dillard suggests in her description of Jesus’ baptism, it is an act in which the world which has become segregated comes together once more in what Dillard calls “one glare of holiness.”

Epiphany defines a season in which the promised Light appears. The word means manifestation. It describes a process of coming to a deeper understanding of the essential nature or meaning of things. For most of us it begins at baptism, the sacrament that is an outward and visible sign of an inward grace which, if we are to believe today’s scripture, is also a call.

Epiphany is the season of increasing awareness of who Jesus is. Jesus, in turn, invites us to become aware of who we are in the Light of Jesus’ life. In baptism Jesus became totally identified with all those who had plunged into the Jordan before him. John called them “vipers.” Others labeled them prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, poor, sick or disabled. Jesus called them family.

By submitting to John’s baptism Jesus expressed solidarity with all humanity. In “one glare of holiness” Jesus transformed the ordinary water of the Jordan River into a sacrament of the Church, and included us in that ancient rite of naming, to which we are called.

When the disciples of John the Baptist heard John identify Jesus as the “Lamb of God” they left John and began to follow Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following and he said to them, “What are you looking for?”

All we know is that somewhere along life’s way it becomes easy to get lost; and we’re too proud to ask for directions. So it’s with a sense of relief that we hear the disciples ask Jesus for directions. “Where are you staying?” they ask.

The disciples' question seems to be less about Jesus' living arrangements than with the substance of his being -- Who are you? -- Where do you stand? -- What are you about? Anticipating that there is an element of seeing in believing, Jesus responds, “Come and see.”

The disciples, who had just emerged from the waters of baptism were about to learn what it means to be baptized by fire. Jesus was about to ignite a fire that would change the world. Not a candle blowing in the wind; but a fire from a distant sun, shining brightly from an unknown Source. The unsuspecting disciples were the first to experience the heat from a fire so intense it could transform a simple fisherman, like Simon, into a rock called Peter.

If we are to follow Christ’s invitation to “Come and see” we may need to overcome our fear of fire. Jesus’ invitation is a call to discipleship that causes us to abandon our illusion of security for the challenge of following Jesus, where ever that journey may take us. To be baptized by fire is to stay close enough to the Source to allow the power of God to transform our lives.

We will continue to look for “something out there to become real” until we recognize that what we were looking for is already here. It is the reality that you and I are not separate from God; but with God in a way that changes the landscape of our lives forever. Whether we come to church because we believe or because we want to believe, we are drawn to a Light we suspect has the power to change our lives. Like the disciples who followed Jesus after their baptism by John, we, too, must learn what it takes to stay close to the fire.

Chances are we will continue to hear news of wars and rumors of wars, and the prospect that the concerns we share will continue to outpace the joys we confess each Sunday. But we are changed. We are no longer the false gods at the center of our own universe, but fellow participants with the Life generating Spirit of the fire of our spiritual baptism.

The baptism of Jesus brings closure to the Christmas liturgical cycle and provides the setting upon which the succeeding church seasons rest, just as our baptisms set the stage for the succeeding drama of our spiritual lives. Baptism is an event; but it is also a process. Like Jesus we pause at the water’s edge, encircled by a cloud of witnesses. We are marked with the sign of faith and immersed in a story, deep and wide in its proportions. The water of baptism creates a family called the church, belonging to God and united in a common vocation.

Just as Jesus would change the Law by fulfilling it; Jesus reinterpreted the significance of baptism from the repentance of John with water into the baptism of the Holy Spirit, with fire. Baptism with fire is nothing less than the power of God to perform the work of God.

Isaiah’s vision of epiphany includes a servant people who would become a steady beacon of God’s Light in the world. We are chosen by God, called by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Whatever the incandescence of your particular Light, you are the Light of the world. God needs your Light to shine in the darkness and promises that the darkness will not overcome it!

The gospel is about conversion and transformation. It’s about recognizing our need for God in the naked light of the fire Jesus brought to earth with his life. It’s about standing in the fire until the dross is burned away and we can be transformed into instruments God can use to transform the world. God knows we don’t want to be that important; and yet God has chosen us.

This summer shortly after we learned that our pastor would be facing surgery in NY, I was standing at the back of the church greeting members of the congregation as they left. One of our seniors, whom I’ll call Marge, took my hand and said, “It’s serious…about Bill, isn’t it?” I responded sadly, “Yes, Marge, it is.” She thought about it for a moment, then, looking up at me she said, “Well, at least we have you!”

Yes, Marge, and we have you! And we have each other. And now we have Luke and David. And we will learn to pray and to lean together on the strength of the One who stands with us until God gives birth to whatever we cannot yet see that is waiting out there to become real among us.

We will face the uncertain future together and know with the certainty of experience that we are not alone. Nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible to us in the life of Jesus.
“Where are you staying?” the disciples asked Jesus in this morning’s gospel,

We know the answer: the God who comes at Christmas has come to stay!

And that, Epiphany reminds us, “makes all the difference!” (Robert Frost)

Thanks be to God.

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