Living In-Between: The Gift of Baptism
Pastor Leta Arndt Behrens
Sermon Scripture: LUKE 3:1-6
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
There are voices shouting strongly now in our culture. The voice is “more”. (whisper it like wind) more. But in Advent while the voice of more possessions, more power, more status keep speaking to us there is a voice from God saying “There is more. More grace, more love, more hope… trust in me…walk with me.”
A couple of weeks ago as I was standing at the altar leading prayers I noticed that I could see into the nursery pretty clearly. This is now my new favorite part of the building expansion-not because I can spy on the children, although I am sure that will come in handy someday, but because of the beauty and the reminder of preparation and welcome and grace I saw that day. As I prayed, one of our nursery staff, Espen, was walking gently in a circle holding a young child, perhaps about 9 or 10 months old. He had him supported with one arm and the little boys head was on his shoulder with Espen’s hand sweetly resting on his back. They were cuddled in, clearly a walk of comfort, calm and patience. Then another one of our staff, Sophia, walked in and I saw Espen smoothly pass this child to her as she resumed the gentle walk. They thought nothing of it, just part of their work and presence for the day.
Some will argue that because we welcome children in worship that we should not even have a nursery, but I will argue that it is a part of our gift of welcome, of preparation, of grace for tired spirits when they need it and what I saw through the window was holy. It was a holy moment to look out from the sanctuary, the altar, and in the midst of lifting prayers to see a prayer in action. This is the breath of the holy spirit. The breath of welcome and preparation was sent and infused in the smallest one among us by the simple act of care and grace. This little boy is being shown that the presence of God can be felt in the arms of teenagers who patiently walk in a circle. These young people in our midst are being shown that their presence, their patience, their sense of connection in this place matters and is a gift. And we all are in the presence of the holy even when we can’t see her pacing circles behind us.
This is not the first or only time the Holy Spirit has biased what we might consider the places of holy authority. In the gospel today Luke begins by naming all the important people and places. This is intentional. He names the emperor and the governor and the rulers of the land where John and Jesus are living. He also names the high priests, the ones with religious authority. And then he names John, the son of Zechariah whose birth to a barren old woman Elizabeth was a gift from God and a calling to be ready to be prepared to announce Jesus emmanuel, God here with us. Luke does this to make a point that there were rulers and authorities, even ones of high regard in the synagogues. There were people to whom it would make sense to send first to announce Jesus, to play the political game correctly and bring insight, wisdom and honor to they who sit in positions of influence and power. And yet, the Holy Spirit of God does not do this but bypasses all the expected places and persons and goes to the outside, to the wilderness, to John who has been dwelling there, waiting, standing in a gap between the prophet Isaiah who first said one will come and shout from the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord and Jesus who has come and is coming.
The wilderness- a place we in Colorado may at times know of as a place with two extremes. It is a place where if one is not careful they could get incredibly lost, turned around and end up in danger of being unable to navigate a way out. And also, we know the wilderness to be a place of beauty, even respite and calm as many head to the mountains to find solace and peace. The wilderness in Hebrew scriptures is similar. It is used as a way to describe a place of desolation and scarcity, far removed from conveniences and other people. And it is also the place where divine inspiration comes and where the people there find a grounding and sense of safety and peace. Moses leads the people for 40 years in the wilderness and it’s a place of discomfort and yet a place filled with the actions and presence of God. David runs to the wilderness to seek safety from Saul and Jesus will later in life be led to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil but come through to show again and again that he is from the goodness of God. Isaiah 3 describes the wilderness as a place to cry out from and then in chapter 35 declares “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom …”
John is not in the wilderness for a short amount of time. In fact when we go back to Luke one we read “The child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.” John’s grounding, his calling, his spiritual growth and assurance of faith come from what happened in the wilderness over a period of time. John becomes a leader, an announcer and preparer of God not by wheeling and dealing with the powers of the time but by opening and listening and perhaps walking small patient circles for the Holy spirit to enter in.
We can see violence, death, fear, scarcity and destruction in our world today. Sometimes really close up in our own lives and sometimes come at us from the television or newspaper or social media. We can feel that our prayers are not being heard or answered and that Holy Spirit is having a difficult time showing up where we think she should be.
Luke tells us a different story. As Luke continues through this gospel he tells the story of the ministry of Jesus and how every time the crowds overwhelm or issues arise, Jesus goes out to a deserted place to pray, to commune with God, to listen even briefly but always fully. This is a story that for us today says sometimes you have to go into the wilderness to hear God. It’s as if Luke is reaching into the 21st century and saying to us “you’ve got this!” Sometimes that means that we retreat in prayer alone and sometimes we come together in prayer and praise together. And sometimes it’s through our spiritual practices and our listening and sometimes from our willingness to pause for a moment and walk in small patient circles. Sometimes we willingly walk into the wilderness and sometimes it is thrust upon us…
But always this is where the Holy Spirit promises to meet us–between the promises of grace through our baptism and the calling of our baptism to follow God in our everyday living–yesterday, tomorrow and in all the spaces inbetween. God shows up in big loud ways that feel announced and life changing and perhaps even more often, God shows up in quiet, consistent ways that beckon us to notice and wander deep into what is right in front of us and continue to walk those circles and hold on to the vulnerable.
And this is all preparation for when we are called out of the wilderness to be the ones with the voices crying out- prepare the way of the Lord. See God is here and God will come again and again. We light candles of hope and peace today–two small lights that say to ourselves and the world–there is more, there is grace, there is love and there is hope and peace even today. Let’s sing prepare ye together one more time as we move into our time of sacred space.