January 01, 2018
The Epiphany 1B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 1:4-11 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 1:1-5 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Acts 19:1-7 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 18
Author: Scott Hoezee
Fans of Peter Jackson’s films in The Lord of the Rings trilogy will recall the opening sequence in the final film, The Return of the King. As the movie opens, we are taken back hundreds of years from the main action of the trilogy to the time when Smeagol finds the Ring of power, murdering his own cousin to secure the Ring for himself.
The film then moves quickly, covering scores and then hundreds of years in just a minute or two as we witness the Ring’s corruption of Smeagol’s soul and body until he transforms into the shadowy figure of Gollum who spends centuries living in caves to hide his Precious from any would-be thieves.
Through deft editing and swift narration, a huge amount of important historical/background material is conveyed in mere minutes before the film flashes forward to where the prior movie had left off as Sam, Frodo, and Gollum progress toward Mordor in order to destroy the one Ring.
The opening of Mark’s Gospel is like that. Mark wastes no time in getting us into the action as John the Baptist appears, predicts the coming of a powerful Messiah, and then that very person shows up to be baptized. The action is fast and furious and fraught with background. In the first 3 verses of Mark 1 we also are told in no uncertain terms that what will follow will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, who will fulfill prophecies like the one Mark goes on to quote from Isaiah. Savvy biblical readers will sense that for all its apparent modesty, this section in Mark is summing up for us nothing less than the whole history of God’s plan even as it launches us into the heart of that plan as the incarnate Son of God arrives on the scene, earning immediately (Mark’s favorite Greek adverb is euthus after all!) the favor of the Father above.
Yet no sooner does God express his love for Jesus and suddenly the Spirit pitches Jesus headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. (I realize that the Revised Common Lectionary fails to include verses 12-13—it will pick them up in a Year B Lenten lection on Mark 1:9-15—but you cannot really get the full import of Jesus’ baptism without those two key verses and so I will de facto include them here and encourage my fellow preachers to consider doing the same in their sermons.) That hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! God no sooner declares ardent love for Jesus and he slaps Jesus into the wilderness, into the realm of death and evil.
Very simply: because such an engagement with evil is precisely what Jesus’ baptism was all about. God did not send his beloved Son into our world just to be nice. No, God was in Christ to reconcile the world to himself and for that very reason task #1 was to engage the evil that holds our world captive. That’s why there are those hints of violent activity in these few verses. In verse 12, although many translations such as the NIV renders the Greek to say merely that the Spirit “sent” Jesus out into the desert, the Greek verb there actually carries with it the notion of being “thrown out” (ekballein). It seems as though the Spirit descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who picks Jesus up in his talons and brutally hurls him out into the realm of the devil himself! (Think of a bouncer hurling a troublemaker through the swinging doors of a bar and out into the street if you want to capture the essence of this image.)
It is indeed strikingly dramatic. This is no gentle baptism such as we see in church on a Sunday morning. Clearly something cosmic is afoot. However, having said that, it needs to be admitted that Mark’s text then seems to sputter a bit. Unlike Matthew and Luke who give us a lot of details on what went on between Jesus and Satan, Mark sums the whole thing up in just one verse, telling us Jesus was tempted for forty days, he was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. We’re not even told how Jesus fared in his temptations! Did he resist or give in? Mark doesn’t say.
Or at least he doesn’t say in so many words. But if you pay attention there are a couple of hints how things turned out. One hint is obvious: the angels were with Jesus. That probably indicates things turned out well. But the other hint is Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in. But think about it: when was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the animals of the Garden of Eden, calling them to his side, naming them.
By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus has begun life again for us all. Jesus is the Second Adam, doing it all over again but this time doing it right in order to set this cosmos back on the course God set for it in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists but instead of being consumed by it, he changes it into an oasis of shalom!
Mark’s action is swift and fast-paced and chockfull of detail for those with eyes to see. Because Mark wants us to know: In Christ a whole new world had dawned.
The Year B Revised Common Lectionary will spend a lot of time in Mark’s gospel, and so as we begin this new Lectionary year it is well to focus on some of Mark’s key characteristics, starting in Mark 1 with the first occurrences of Mark’s #1 favorite Greek word: euthus. The force of this word is “immediately,” though sometimes Bible translations blandly bury the word under some boring-sounding phrase like “then” or, as in Mark 1:10, obscure the word from sight altogether by translating it “As . . .” as in “As Jesus came up out of the water . . .” But in the Greek Mark really is saying, “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn.” And then not two verses later we are told in verse 12 that with equally lightning quick speed the Holy Spirit “Immediately hurled Jesus out into the desert.” Things happen fast in Mark’s narrative style but something of the very verve and vitality of the gospel is in there, too! We don’t want to miss it!
In Jesus’ life a funny thing happened again and again: when he touched the sick, they got well; when he touched the unclean, they got clean. Jesus reversed the conventional wisdom of his day that said it is sickness that gets transferred from the sick to the healthy. Jesus went the other way letting his health flow to those who were sick. Jesus reached out to the sick because he knew that the contagion of God’s Spirit with which he had been anointed was stronger than the contagion of sin. As it was with the wild animals, so with everyone else thereafter: where Jesus went, shalom followed.
But people today have a hard time believing that. In the movie Pleasantville we see a reversal of the Christian story. In the film two teenagers from 1998 somehow get trapped inside a 1950s situation comedy show on TV. They suddenly find themselves in Pleasantville U.S.A. long about 1953. Like the old TV show itself, the entire town and all the people in it are in black-and-white. It’s the typical caricature of 1950s buttoned down, middle class suburbia where Mom wears a dress all the time (even when baking cookies), Dad goes off to some nondescript job every morning, returning home each evening around five with the characteristic, “Honey, I’m home!” And in those pre-Elvis, pre-Beatles days, the teens of the town are all very square and moral and, according to the film, boring.
So the kids from the future set about to inject some enlightenment into the town and they do so through (what else?) sex. But no sooner do they start to spread the sexual revolution around town through seducing basketball players and providing homebound housewives with lessons on what sexuality is really all about and suddenly the black-and-white town begins bursting into color. First it’s just one red rose but soon it is entire persons (the enlightened, sexually active persons, of course) and finally, as the roaring 1990s gets fully injected into the staid 1950s, the entire town is in Technicolor splendor.
Get it? It’s a reversal on the Garden of Eden story. Being moral is dull and lifeless and colorless. Eating the forbidden fruit is what gives life zing. The Garden of Eden bursts into color and full bloom after sin arrives, not before.
The story of Jesus insists that we resist thinking this way. Because Jesus was the incarnation of Eden regained. The world into which Jesus was born was black-and-white and lifeless. But wherever Jesus went, whomever Jesus touched, suddenly new life and glorious color burst back onto the scene! Jesus came to restore shalom, to bring us back to God by bringing God down to us.
Author: Doug Bratt
Questions about the “beginning” (1) of the universe, earth and people intrigue at least some of us. So God’s people sometimes turn to passages like Genesis 1:1-5 for answers to those questions. Yet wise people also ask whether Genesis is even interested in those increasingly divisive issues.
To honestly answer questions about creation’s beginnings, God’s children ask just why God inspired someone to write Genesis in the first place. I Timothy 3:16 insists “all Scripture is … useful for teaching … so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
That suggests that God inspired someone to write Genesis in order to, among other things, teach us about our gracious God who creates life. After all, once we know about God, we’re better equipped us to respond to God’s grace with our good work for the Lord.
Confusion about God was rampant in the ancient world in which Genesis was written. Israel also proved to be vulnerable to such confusion. Citizens of the 21st century are also naturally susceptible to misunderstandings about God.
In Old Testament times not just the Israelites but everyone believed gods existed. Those gods had all sorts of different active roles, including in creation. So, for example, the Babylonian creation account starts with a rowdy bunch of gods that rebel against the boss god, Marduk. He dictates the creation of savage humanity that will serve as the gods’ slaves. Marduk, however, creates those savages out of the blood of one of the rebellious gods’ that he has murdered.
How, then, could God teach an Israel that had spent hundreds of years enslaved in a spiritually confused Egypt about God’s real nature? How could God prepare Israel for life in spiritually chaotic neighborhoods like the land of promise and the Babylon into which God later exiled her?
How does the Church prepare its children for life in a world that samples from a perhaps even bigger buffet of gods? How does the Church prepare its members to live and work in a world that has so many different ideas about God?
Don’t we try to teach our children about the God whom we profess reveals himself to us in both the Scriptures and in creation? And as we mature in our faith we also seek to learn more and more about the God who both creates and saves us.
Genesis 1:1-5 is one such teaching and learning tool. It’s in part God’s response to the plethora of gods in which people have nearly always believed. In fact, all of Genesis is a kind of passionate argument against all of the false gods we naturally and so eagerly worship.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday insists right from its opening words that there is, for example, only one, not many gods. Light and darkness, as well as the sun, moon and stars are not, as Israel’s neighbors assumed, creators, but creatures. The planets are part of God’s creation and so do not, as some of our contemporaries believe, control our destiny.
So while Genesis 1:1-5 insists God is intimately involved with what God creates, it also reminds its hearers that creation isn’t itself divine. As a result, things like light and darkness can’t destroy us because they’re creatures, not gods.
Our text basically announces that the God who enters into relationship with God’s people is also the Creator of everything that is created. In the light of the New Testament we profess that the God who saves us in Jesus Christ is the One who “created the heavens and the earth.”
Genesis divides its description of that creative work into six “days.” Each, including the one that this Sunday’s lesson focuses on, follows the same pattern. Every “day” begins with an announcement: “And God said …” (3). So our text reminds us that while our world’s origins may look random, its design isn’t accidental. Creation is what it is because God somehow speaks.
Our text then insists that on each day, including the first “day” “there was” (3). When, after all, God speaks, things happen exactly as God commands. As Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke notes, God’s word is finally irresistible and creative.
So while many religions believed that creation emerged from a battle among the gods, Genesis insists that God fights no one to create the heavens and the earth. God simply speaks, and creation somehow happens.
When God speaks on the first day, light separates from darkness (4). Boundaries are, after all, as Waltke points out, important in both creation and society. When everything does what God created it to do, there is order. When, however, creation fails to fulfill the purpose for which God made it, there is chaos.
So it’s not surprising that our text then notes that once God has created, God also assesses God’s handiwork. Genesis 1:1-5’s narrator announces that “God saw that [the light] was good” (4). When God evaluates God’s creation this way, God is assessing its fulfillment of the purpose for which God created it. On the first day, God deduces that light is doing what God created it to do.
So what does God want to teach God’s beloved people through this morning’s text? Various Christian traditions offer various answers to that seminal question. Those who proclaim Genesis 1:1-5 want to be sensitive to their hearers. I too want to be sensitive to this Sermon Starter’s readers’ perspectives.
Yet it is fair to say that the kind of scientific writing with which some of us are familiar is only a few centuries old.
What’s more Genesis’ first Israelite hearers simply didn’t know as much about the “hard sciences” as we do. So had the Lord spoken to them in modern scientific terms, no one would have understood what God was talking about. In fact, throughout the Bible, God speaks in simplified ways God’s people can, with the Holy Spirit’s help, understand.
What’s more, while Genesis certainly does tell about God’s creative work, there are no human eyewitnesses to God’s first creative acts. So there’s no one to record the kind of history we find in, for example, textbooks. As a result, at least some Christians recognize that Genesis is less of a 21st century kind of textbook than inspired history that’s written with a purpose.
So Genesis does teach extremely important things. To a culture that increasingly suspects that matter is eternal, it insists that God created matter at measurable time’s beginning. To a world that can’t agree on what God’s like, to say nothing of whether God even exists, our text insists that God exist and is, among other things, a loving creator.
In order to know that God well, God’s adopted sons and daughters study the two “books” that are creation and the Scriptures. Yet we don’t study things like Genesis and genomes, Song of Songs and cell biology just to learn more facts.
We see things like classes in science and history books as opportunities to praise God as we learn more about what God’s does. Peeks into telescopes or solving physics problems prompt us to praise God as they help us to understand what God makes. Even our time with people brings praise to our lips because those neighbors somehow resemble the God who created us.
Revelation 21’s account of the new creation’s light only intensifies that praise. It reports, after all, that while there will be no night or even darkness in the new earth and heaven, there won’t be a sun or moon either. There will be, in fact, no created light. In the new creation there will only be the perfect Light cast by the everlasting God’s glory and the Lamb.
Where there is darkness, there is fear. Where this is light, however, there is life. There is also safety and confidence. In his January 10, 2017 New York Times article, “The Lights Are On in Detroit,” Michael Kimmelman describes how in December, 2016 Detroit officials turned on the last if its 65,000 new streetlights. Those lights are spread all across the city.
Before that, businesses like Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles had to shut down by dinnertime because people didn’t want to go out to eat after the sun went down. They were afraid of what people might do to them in the dark. Foot traffic, says its owner Mr. Spencer, “almost fell to zero after dark. Since the lights came on, it’s up 15 percent across this neighborhood.”
Mr. Kimmelman also notes that he Louisiana Creole Gumbo Restaurant catered to neighborhood workers before drug dealers moved in and the lights went out. Now the lights are on, says the restaurant’s owner, Mr. Spencer, “and diners are returning at night.”
Author: Stan Mast
The Revised Common Lectionary chooses this Psalm for this first Sunday after the Epiphany of Christ in all three years of its reading cycle. Clearly the Lectionary sees Psalm 29 as a parallel to the baptism of Jesus, because in both the voice of God rings out over the waters. Psalm 29 shows us an epiphany of God’s glory in a passing thunderstorm, while the baptism of Jesus is an epiphany of Christ’s glory as he begins his passion that will end in the darkness of Calvary.
Further, the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism helps us deal with the problem Psalm 29 raises, namely, the role of God in natural disasters. Is the voice of God to be heard in, say, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria? This problem of theodicy is answered by the voice of God that thundered over the waters of Jesus’ baptism.
Even as the baptism of Jesus should have caused everyone present to fall down in worship, Psalm 29 is essentially a call to worship God for his glory revealed in a natural event. Picturing a thunderstorm brewing off the coast of Lebanon to the north and west of Israel, the Psalmist calls on those observing the storm to “ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.”
It is fascinating that the call to worship goes out to the “mighty ones,” which is loose translation of the Hebrew which is literally “the sons of God.” Scholars differ in their interpretation of that phrase. Does it refer to angels, to what the New Testament calls “the principalities and powers?” Or does it refer to the gods of the nations around Israel? On their best days the people of Israel knew that those gods were nothing but emptiness, but the nations surely thought they were real and alive. Often Israel joined them in their worship of those false gods. So, is the Psalmist commanding those so called gods to give all the glory to the real God, Yahweh the King of Israel? The latter interpretation is probably the right one.
That interpretation gains credence when we notice what these gods are commanded to give to Yahweh—glory, kabod in the Hebrew, which has the sense of weightiness, heaviness, as well as splendor and majesty. The gods are nothing, vanity, emptiness; there is nothing to them. Yahweh, on the other hand, is weighty, heavy, substantial in his magnificence. There’s something to the true God, and those false gods are commanded to confess that by giving him his proper weight, important, splendor.
Note the overwhelming use of the proper name of God in this Psalm. It is Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh—4 times in the call to worship in verses 1-2, 4 more times in the conclusion in verses 10-11. In the account of the storm, the phrase “the voice of Yahweh” is heard 7 times, like rolling thunder. Indeed, the word “voice” is the Hebrew qol, which is an example of onomatopoeia. Its repetition creates the effect of repeated, rolling thunder (cf. the seven thunders of God in Revelation 10:1-4). The thunderous use of “Yahweh” identifies this as a specifically covenantal Psalm, urging the gods of the nations to give glory to the God of Israel.
After that majestic call to worship, we hear the storm roll off the Mediterranean, “the mighty waters.” It rumbles over the mountains of Lebanon, where it creates havoc in the legendary cedar and oak forests. The power of the thunder makes the mountains move like frightened animals. And that earthshaking power continues as the storm moves south over Israel as far as the desert of Kadesh. The power of the “voice of Yahweh” in the storm moves “all in his temple [to] cry ‘Glory!’”
Scholars have noted that this Psalm bears a striking resemblance to ancient Canaanite hymns of praise to Baal, the god of thunder, rain, and, thus, fertility. Some opine that Israel has simply borrowed one of those pagan hymns to praise their God. But given the Old Testament’s universal antipathy toward Baal, it is more likely that Psalm 29 is a polemical piece against Baal. “So you think Baal is the god of thunder? Well, listen to the storm carefully and you will hear Yahweh, not Baal. And Baal must join the rest of the gods and all of creation in Yahweh’s temple, crying ‘Glory!’”
But Psalm 29 is not only a polemical poem; it is also, and primarily, a pastoral poem, as we hear in verses 10-11. Here the storm is over. It is the calm after the storm and, rather than surveying the damages produced by it, Israel basks in the blessed reminder that their powerful God is the King who “gives strength to his people and blesses them with peace.” When all is said and done, when the storms of life have done their worst, “Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood; Yahweh is enthroned as King forever.” Whether “the flood” is the primeval waters of Genesis 1 or the cataclysm (that is the actual word in the Greek translation of verse 10) of Genesis 6-8 or the local flooding caused by the storm that has just passed, Israel is assured that their covenant God is King even of the storm. What a comfort!
And what a problem for us in a world awash in storms and floods and earthquakes and fires! In Psalm 29 the storm causes all creation to cry “Glory!” In our world today, all the cataclysms cause us to cry “Mercy!” The idea of God being in the storms that have devastated so many lives is problematic to say the least. I recall Pat Robertson’s ill-advised comment a while back that a certain hurricane was God’s punishment on the United States for its immorality. I doubt many preachers would go that far in their interpretation of natural events. But how shall we preach Psalm 29 today?
Shall we say that the voice of God is heard in the storms? I can’t think of a better way to turn people away from God. Even if we carefully distinguish between the natural causes of such events and say that God uses them to speak to us, we will run the risk of making God seem like a celestial bully. It is hard to talk about these things; arguing is mostly fruitless.
The best response to the theodicy question is theophany, as God did with Job. God didn’t so much explain himself to Job when Job challenged God to answer for the sufferings of Job. Instead, God simply showed up in all his power and glory. No reasons were given; the revelation of God was enough to still Job’s questions.
That, of course, is exactly what we have in the story of Jesus’s baptism– a revelation, a theophany, God showing up, not merely in a voice echoing over the waters or a dove gliding down from heaven, but mostly in a man who was the beloved Son of God. God speaks to our cries for mercy in the storms by becoming one of us and entering the storm himself. To people who wonder what kind of God could send/allow such terrible storms as have hit the US, the story of Jesus’ baptism answers that it is the God who suffered in the person of Jesus Christ.
From the darkness of the storm over Calvary, God said, “I have not left the world to suffer. I have come into the world precisely to suffer for the world.” The baptism of Jesus was the public beginning of the journey to the cross. The voice of God called over the waters that this humble Jew was in fact the Lord of glory come into this world to reign in strength and peace.
It is not accidental that this Psalm ends with the word, Shalom. That is what the voice of God finally says over the troubled waters of life. Shalom, peace, be still.
Though it is a bit dicey to pursue the role of God in natural disasters, C.S. Lewis gives us a little help in his famous quotation about how God speaks to us. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (The Problem of Pain)
In the classic film, “Forest Gump,” Lt. Dan Taylor is a Vietnam veteran who has lost both legs in battle. He wanted to die on the battlefield, but Forest saved his life, a good deed that made Lt. Dan furious. After a long separation, Lt. Dan shows up at Forest’s shrimp boat and offers to become first mate. Out to sea they go with Lt. Dan still furious. In one scene he is perched on the highest part of the boat, screaming at God, daring God to come and get him. As we see the horizon getting darker and darker, Forest says, “Just then, God showed up.” It was Hurricane Carmen. Lt. Dan was never the same after meeting God in that storm.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some of us have had the experience of being challenged as to whether we have really received the baptism of the Holy Spirit or not. Speaking in tongues is not something I have ever experienced, and while I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of those who have received that gift, its lack in my life has been used by some well-meaning Pentecostal sisters and brothers to question whether I have the whole Trinity in me or just two-thirds of the Godhead.
But I will say this: when in the past I was asked whether I had been fully baptized in the Holy Spirit, at the very least I can assure you that my answer was never, “What Holy Spirit?” Had I honestly responded that way, I think the shock of it all would have caused my friends to faint dead away even as they would fear the roof would cave in or the ground open up. It may be one thing to wonder whether you are living into the fullness of the Spirit’s power as some might think you should. It would be quite another to indicate you had never heard of such a Being.
Yet that is exactly what happens in Acts 19. In this Epiphany Season when we ponder the spread of the light of Christ throughout the world, here is a story that indicated that in those earliest days, there was still a measure of confusion—or at least a measure of incompleteness—as the Gospel moved into various areas.
Strikingly, it was as often as not the looming shadow and influence of John the Baptist that the apostles kept bumping into in various parts of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus’ flashier cousin had made such a splash that decades later not a few still wondered if he had been the true Messiah after all such that having his baptism was all a disciple needed. Probably the Gospel of John was the last gospel and probably it got written later in the first century at that. Yet we are just four verses into his soaring prologue in John 1 and the evangelist has to interrupt his poetry long enough to say, “Now just to be clear, folks: I am NOT talking about John the Baptist here, OK? He was great and all but he came only as a witness to the Light. He was not the Light. OK? Got it? John the Baptist is NOT the Word, NOT the Light. Now, back to my song . . .”
It is not clear whether Acts 19 is a full-blown instance of that kind of confusion as to who the true Messiah was. But somehow this group of people identified as “disciples” in the metropolitan city of Ephesus had not moved past John’s teachings or baptism. Indeed, when asked whether they had received the Holy Spirit, they really did reply “What Holy Spirit? Never heard of him!”
Notice, though, that in response to this—and contrary to my well-meant Pentecostal friends—the apostles do not then perform a baptism of the Spirit. Rather, they baptize into the name of the Lord Jesus and that is itself enough to bring them the Spirit. The fact that on this occasion this led to that early church hallmark of tongue-speaking indicates this, but the reception of the Spirit through being baptized in Jesus’ name is the main thing to notice here. Jesus himself at the end of Matthew’s Gospel indicates baptism into the full Triune formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that has become the orthodox marker of true baptism ever since. The idea that there is some extra baptism specifically into the Spirit seems to have tenuous biblical support.
But for this passage the striking feature to note is that it was possible in the earliest days to have missed the fullness of the Gospel message about the true Messiah, Jesus, and all the power that could be unleashed in a person’s life upon baptism into his name.
Today you are very unlikely to encounter someone in any church anywhere in the world who would fit the precise situation Paul and others encountered in Ephesus as recorded in Acts 19. So aside from a biblical and historical curiosity, what in Acts 19 might be worth talking about or preaching about today or on the Sunday designated in the Lectionary as “Baptism of the Lord”? Well, it could be an occasion to wonder if we believers actively appreciate the power that was poured over us and into us at our own baptisms.
Whether or not we speak in tongues or have gifts from the more flashy end of the gift continuum as detailed in the New Testament, the fact is that each believer is imbued with tremendous spiritual power at baptism. The riches of Christ are ours. The ability to glorify God in our living, to resist temptations, to do good works are all ours for the taking if we lean into the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and go with his good flow in our lives.
Do we? Or could it tragically enough be the case that those who know us see nothing of the kind? What if someone who knows me were asked about what I do with my life, and if even more specifically what if someone who had observed me for a time were asked “Do you see the Holy Spirit working in and through him,” how sad it would be if this other person had to reply “What Holy Spirit?”
Years ago in one of my seminary classes we had a guest lecturer one day who had spent decades as a missionary in Africa. She did what many of us have often heard missionaries do, and that is tell many tales about African Native Religion, black magic, witch doctors, and many clear instances of demon possession. One of my classmates noted that we often hear such things from other parts of the world but particularly in terms of demon possession, we don’t bump into that so much in North America. My classmate wondered why. The missionary thought for a moment and then said, “Not sure, but maybe it’s because there are so many more baptized people here than in some parts of the world.”
I never forgot that answer. And I have never been sure whether she was onto something spiritually or not. But it raises the question: what does baptism do? Whether you were baptized as an infant, a child, an adult, what mark does baptism leave? What is the action of the Holy Spirit in his sacrament of the church? As pastors, we know this can come up acutely when the parent or grandparent of a wandering covenant child comes to ask if there is any hope for this beloved child. Is God still with her or not? Does the fact that she was baptized years ago count for anything?
Most of us are, I think, correct to say that yes, baptism cannot be undone, even by the person who has (for now anyway) turned his back on the faith. Maybe one thing baptism means is that you can turn your back on God, but he never turns his back on you. Maybe that “hound of heaven” is still there, pursuing, watching, hoping, and forever ready to say “Welcome back!”
Maybe. Probably. The point is: let’s not discount the power or the endurance of baptism into the Triune Name.