The Baptism of the Lord
January 13, 2007
I spent a part of my vacation with my children in a certain magical kingdom in the south. And one of the great thrills and pleasures of the trip had to do with roller coasters. We didn’t always love roller coasters in my family: there was an era when we would stand patiently in line for one, literally get as far as “next ones up,” and then one of us would abruptly decline to board and decide that there was something much more fascinating over there. But at some point—perhaps it was after adolescence—there developed a dependable willingness in my family to get into a little car and have it fling us all around at something approaching the speed of sound.
And so, when we were in Disney World a couple of weeks ago, we rode those coasters. Except, now it’s mom who’s a little hesitant, a little worried about all that hurtling around and my neck and my back. I didn’t ride every coaster with them on this trip: they experienced the thrill of the upside down Rockin’ Roller Coaster without me, while I had a lovely conversation with a fellow tourist about the weather in Orlando. Roller coasters can be wonderful and they can be terrifying. Not everyone feels ready to hop right on at any moment.
The book of the prophet Isaiah can feel a little like a roller coaster. Over the course of 66 chapters, the prophet goes from the depths of God’s angry judgment to the heights of God’s compassionate caring for the people, sometimes, with startling speed. The reason there are so many peaks and valleys has to do with the structure of the book, most likely cobbled together from the prophecies of at least three eras, three different sets of historical circumstances. In today’s passage, we hear words from a section commonly referred to as “Second Isaiah,” written, it is believed, during the 6th century BCE, after the people had been taken into exile. While first Isaiah has harsh words of warning for the people in their unfaithfulness, second Isaiah has words of caring and compassion because the people are broken, and they are broken-hearted.
The passage we read today is one of a number of poems throughout Isaiah known as the “Servant Songs.” For many, many years we Christians have been interpreting the servant songs as being about Jesus Christ. It’s easy to see why. The prophet says,
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
We hear echoes in these words from the story of Jesus’ baptism (which we have just read a few moments ago): the voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). We understand Jesus to be God’s chosen one, God’s particular Beloved, the one in whom God’s soul delights, with whom God is well-pleased.
And yet, there is another school of thought about the servant songs. This sees them as less about an individual than a community, God’s covenant community. The prophet, rather than raising people’s hopes that one person will come to save them, is encouraging them to look to themselves, to their own gifts, to the strength they find in community. That is where they will truly find hope: in knowing that they are God’s chosen, God’s beloved, that God delights in them, that God is with them.
For us, today, I think we hold these ideas in tension. Yes, it is Jesus, whose baptism we celebrate today, who is God’s chosen, the savior of God’s people. It is Jesus who has received the gift of God’s Spirit, descending like a dove to show God’s presence with him. But Jesus is with us. We too have been baptized. We too have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. We too are chosen and beloved. It is in our own gifts, the gifts of that Holy Spirit, the gifts of every person gathered here, right now, that our hope rests.
Today we ordain three new elders, and we install them, as we install one continuing elder and two deacons. What does all this have to do with God’s chosen and beloved, with baptism and the gifts of the Spirit? Pretty much everything.
When we are baptized, we are baptized into a life of dangerous wonder, as one writer calls it. When we are baptized, we are opening ourselves (or our parents are opening us) to be called into service, kind of like God’s instant conscription plan. And none of us knows quite when or where God will call us into service. We might be called to help someone at the scene of an accident when driving on Route 17. We might be called to help a friend to recognize that her life is headed one a destructive path. We might be called to listen, when someone’s heart is heavy, to make his burden lighter. We are all called, each and every day, to serve God and our sisters in brothers in myriad ways. This is the calling of every Christian: to serve God and to serve one another, to care for the broken and the broken-hearted.
Some of us receive particular calls from the church, for particular kinds of work; we are chosen for special kinds of ministries. These ministries all flow from that first call of baptism: baptism is the foundation on which all our other ministries are grounded. In a few minutes, I will ask each of our candidates the constitutional questions. The first eight of these questions are identical for deacons, elders and ministers. They have to do with loving and trusting God in Jesus Christ, being guided by the scriptures and the Reformed tradition, using all our gifts for the good of God’s church. But then we come to the ninth question, which is different, specific to each office. Here is the one for Deacons:
Will you be a faithful deacon, teaching charity, urging concern, and directing the people’s help to the friendless and those in need? In your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
The deacons are the compassionate hands of the church. That’s not to say that the rest of us are exempt: every single Christian is called to works of caring, charity, healing the broken and the broken-hearted. That was probably the sharpest focus of Jesus’ ministry, and it should be ours too. But our deacons help to direct our works, as a congregation, to those in need of our help. This is the calling of every Christian: it is the particular, focused calling of deacons.
The elders’ ordination vow is focused in another direction:
Will you be a faithful elder, watching over the people, providing for their worship, nurture and service? Will you share in government and discipline, serving in governing bodies of the church, and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?
Elders and pastor together make up the session, the governing body of the church. They are responsible to ensure that worship happens every Sunday, that the pastoral care needs of the people are met, that the church truly lives into its mission, that the church is a responsible steward of its property and finances. And notice that both deacons and elders have the same final question, urging them to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ. Like the servant in our words from Isaiah, we are all called and chosen to bring about justice.
I will not soft-pedal it. It is a tall order. The “yes” our deacons and elders have said to the nominating committee is guaranteed to take them into realms that are challenging and exhilarating. The late Mike Yaconelli says that roller coasters are a highly accurate model for the Christian life.
You say yes to Jesus, and suddenly you are strapped in, and you think, I am going to die! Then you begin the long climb of growth—Sunday School, baptism, church membership—and you think, Hey, no problem. I can follow Jesus anywhere, and then—ZOOOOOOOOM—you crash into the twists and turns of life, jerking left then right, up then down…Passion is the roller coaster ride that can happen when you follow Jesus Christ. It is the breathtaking, thrill-filled, bone-rattling ride of a lifetime where every moment matters, and all you can do is hang on for life dear.[i]
When we were in Disney World, Larry, Petra and I all got passes for an evening ride on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This is a kind of next generation roller coaster, where you are basically dropped into a free fall, all in the guise of a haunted hotel elevator. Part of me was thinking, OK, I live in Rod Serling’s hometown. The least I can do is ride this thing. And the other part of me was terrified, and spent the better part of a day trying to figure out how to get out of it. As we approached the ride, at about seven in the evening, I started to fess up to Larry and Petra. Kids, I’m terrified, I said. I really, really don’t want to do this. But they said, Mom, it’s fun. We know you can do it. And we’ll be right there with you, one on your left and one on your right. You can do it.
The call of Christ can be wonderful and it can be terrifying. Not everyone feels ready to hop on at any moment. To every one of us strapped in for this roller coaster ride that is the Christian life, I offer the wisdom of my children: It’s fun. You can do it. And we—the whole church, the whole cloud of witnesses, going back to Isaiah and beyond, going forward into a church we can’t even imagine—we will all be there with you, on your left and on your right. We have been called, each and every one of us. We have been chosen. With the help of God and one another, we can do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Michael Yaconelli, Dangerous Wonder (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, Inc.), 93-94.