January 07, 2019
The Epiphany 1C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 43:1-7 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 29 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Acts 8:14-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31 (Lord’s Day 12)
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke’s substantial narrative powers surely did not suddenly fail him in this third chapter. So we need a different kind of explanation for the curious way by which Luke frames up this part of the story. Consider:
First, we get the odd insertion in verses 19-20 about John’s imprisonment following his finally crossing the line with immoral old King Herod (the RCL oddly leapfrogs over this). This bit of news seems plunked there between soaring words about the nature of the coming Messiah and the report of Jesus’ actual baptism.
Second, there is the matter of this baptism. How understated can Luke get? He mixes Jesus in with the larger crowd, tells us Jesus was praying at some point, and then reports the descent of the Spirit but without giving us a single clue as to whether or not anyone other than Jesus witnessed this particular sign.
And then the whole thing is over and we slide, sideways it seems, into a long-ish listing of Joseph’s ancestors. It just doesn’t get much less dramatic, much more understated than this. So what is Luke up to? After expending huge amounts of narrative space and providing loads of intricate details on Jesus’ pre-birth and then birth narratives (Luke 1 and Luke 2 are among the longest chapters in the whole Bible), why now all of a sudden do we get so little by way of drama and detail? Why do we get to this point in Luke 3 only to have John the Baptist languishing in prison and Jesus seemingly being just a face in the crowd who, at the age of 30, hasn’t done a remarkable thing in his life yet?
Maybe it’s because Luke knows that this is finally how God operates. For all the grandeur and spectacle of the angels who popped in and out of Luke 1 and Luke 2, the number of people who saw and encountered those divine messengers could finally be counted on one or at most two hands. For all the times Luke listed for us the ruling authorities of the day, Jesus was born, was raised in Nazareth, and one day was showered with the Holy Spirit at the Jordan River all without a single one of those rulers noticing anything whatsoever.
For thirty years the Son of God in skin had been on this earth but never once did Caesar or Quirinius or Herod have any changes made to their legislative agendas on account of this divine presence. Never once did some harried aide rush in to the cabinet room or the office with frantic news about a new movement about which this particular big-wig simply had to be notified immediately. God had landed. God had made his move. A very few folks some three decades earlier had been let in on the secret that whatever it was God was up to, it had set the hosts of heaven to dancing.
But back in here on earth . . . life went on. Even John the Baptist was getting impatient. He ratcheted up the rhetoric near the end, picturing the coming Messiah as someone who would shake things up, throw around some fire, make it clearer than clear who was who in the wider scheme of things. And since nothing much else seemed to be happening, John took it up himself to upbraid Herod for his immoral shenanigans only to find himself slapped behind bars once and for all.
Score: Worldly Powers 1, Divine Powers 0
And yet . . . God had landed. God was on the move. God had made his move and nothing would ever be the same again. Perhaps Luke went for dramatic understatement at this point in his third chapter to provide a kind of semaphore of what faith is all about. The fact is—despite the utterly true stories he relayed to us in Luke 1-2—our days are not typically filled with angelic visits and divine miracles. We don’t often bump into a Simeon or an Anna who says jaw-dropping things to us or who in some other way encourage us in our journeys of faith.
Most days Jesus is a little hard to spy in the hustle and bustle of the everyday. Many days all the wrong people—including some really good people—get roughed up, locked up, killed even as some of the wickedest folks around go on their merry way with hardly a hair out of place. Most days we wish God would come down a kick a little tail, clear a threshing floor here or there, throw around some fire and perform a little razzle-dazzle to shake up the powers that be.
Mostly, though, it just doesn’t happen. The headlines seldom scream out the message “Jesus Is Lord!” “Breaking News” on CNN rarely leads to an uptick in anyone’s hope quotient. In this part of Luke 3, the Son of God in flesh came to be baptized. But Luke frames up the story right inside this real world, replete with all its unhappy events and apparent signs that chaos is in charge. Having made it clear in his first chapters that grand, galactic events were afoot, Luke now throttles back a bit to remind us that faith finally has to cling to God’s plan in the teeth of a whole lot of things that are not going to be nearly as obvious as angels dancing in the skies.
But take heart, Luke is saying by sounding this note of realism. Take heart: the Son of God came, the Spirit really did descend, and the Father was “well pleased” with how the whole project was going. Take heart.
Take heart on all those days when your spirit is locked up in some prison or another. Take heart on all those days when Jesus is at best a face in the crowd and you just cannot quite pick out his presence in your life on a Thursday morning or a Monday afternoon. Take heart on those days when all the wrong people seem to be wielding the axes and clearing various threshing floors even as God seems to be not nearly active enough.
Take heart. God has made his move. God is on the move. The Son is well pleasing to God because the Son has saved the world in a way no power, no prison, no disaster can touch. Reality is more than what you can see with your eyes, Luke is saying.
So take heart.
Luke’s inclusion of Jesus’ baptism is presented rather oddly. Verses 19-20 tell us of John’s imprisonment after crossing up King Herod. Then, only after we learn this, do we learn from Luke (almost as though it were an afterthought and a brief retrospective look back at one little detail he had left out earlier) that Jesus showed up one day to get baptized, too. The baptism of Jesus is a central event. Yet it is striking how understated Luke is about it. Only Mark’s account is briefer. Why might this be? Is it part of Luke’s understated way of telling us that Jesus really was truly human, truly one of us, truly just another face in the crowd by all outward appearances? Perhaps. It is, in any event, worth pondering. Left to our own devices, WE would be unlikely to tell this incident the way Luke does. We’d make a bigger deal out of it, shine a spotlight onto it, lard it over with lots of explanatory words. Indeed, some of us in the Reformed tradition have a habit of not baptizing anyone without first reading a long-ish formulary as to the meaning of baptism and all the theology that surrounds it. Luke felt no such compunction. Why?
In the Broadway play Copenhagen, playwright Michael Frayn presents four versions of a single event. The event is a 1941 meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. At that time Heisenberg was in charge of Adolf Hitler’s nuclear program even as Bohr was a Jew living in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Yet for some reason Heisenberg made a risky trip to meet with his old mentor. What did he want to talk about? No one is sure, so this new play presents four possible reasons (all a nice play on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, too!).
Even the staging of the play makes viewers think about physics and atoms as the play is presented on an elliptical stage where the characters (only 3 in the whole play) represent protons and neutrons orbiting around an atom (a hydrogen atom perhaps).
But back to the story: We know that Heisenberg had dinner one evening with Niels and Margrethe Bohr after which, to escape the Nazi microphones bugging the Bohr house, the two men took a walk. But the walk ended within minutes when an angry Niels Bohr stormed back into the house. The evening ended abruptly as Heisenberg fled back to Germany. The two never spoke again.
Apparently what led to this unhappy conclusion to the evening was Heisenberg’s asking Bohr what he thought about the work that was then being done on nuclear energy. Bohr sensed immediately the implication: Heisenberg was working in a program that could ultimately lead to the Nazi development of an atomic bomb. As a Jew living under the thumb of the Nazis, Bohr was incensed and so said nothing more to his old friend. But was it just anger that made Bohr clam up? The play presents that possibility among others. But in the end it presents one final scenario–one with amazing implications.
Because when the war was over, it turned out that Heisenberg and the Nazis were not even close to getting the bomb right. But Bohr, following his escape from Denmark some while after the mysterious rendezvous with Heisenberg, worked with the Allies in successfully developing the bomb. Bohr may have known something that Heisenberg simply missed. The key piece of data was the “critical mass” of uranium-235 needed to make a bomb. The Nazis were under the impression that at least a ton of uranium was needed for just one bomb–an amount too heavy to be practical. As it turns out, a bomb can be made with twenty times less that amount–a fact that any well-educated physicist could figure out if only he executed a relatively simple equation. Bohr seems to have known this.
So why did Niels Bohr clam up once Heisenberg broached the subject of nuclear power? The play’s final scenario intriguingly suggests that perhaps Bohr knew that if he and Heisenberg had talked about this subject for more than a few minutes, Bohr may very well have inadvertently tipped Heisenberg off. And had this happened, it is possible that Hitler would have gotten a weapon with which conquer the world after all. If this scenario is true, then by holding back, Bohr rescued the world. It was the silence that saved.
Silence can be powerful. A play like Copenhagen toys with the idea that one man’s silence may have saved millions. But that’s the silence of a mere man. Just imagine the far greater effect if the one who goes silently into baptism, who goes wordlessly into the desert of death, is also the very Son of God. When that almighty one makes himself humble and vulnerable, when that divine Son holds back, the results are nothing less than cosmic. It’s a quiet epiphany, but it packs more wallop than a million renditions of the “Hallelujah” chorus ever could!
Author: Stan Mast
On this second Sunday in the Epiphany season, the church focuses on the Baptism of Jesus, arguably one of the greatest manifestations of his glory. This Old Testament reading was undoubtedly chosen because of its baptismal echoes of passing through the waters and being called by name. In the same way that Isaiah 60 anticipated Matthew 2 last week, Isaiah 43 reads like an early script of Luke 3 (and the other synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism). Indeed, like Isaiah 60, Isaiah 43 helps us celebrate the Gospel of Jesus in deeper ways.
We see that immediately in the first two words of Isaiah 43, those gospel saturated words, “But now.” Isaiah 42 has ended with a solemn reminder of Israel’s sinful history and God’s angry response. “So he poured out on them his burning anger, the violence of war. It enveloped them in flames, yet they did not understand; it consumed them, but they did not take it to heart.” Indeed, they didn’t. As they sat in exile, Israel did not understand what had happened to them, or why. So, they did not amend their ways. They simply sat in silence, unable to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. And there was no word from the Lord—just silence, dead silence.
That’s what Isaiah 43:1 is addressing with these prophetic words, “But now, this is what the Lord says….” That’s good news; God is speaking again. What will God say to his sinful, sin blasted people? Will it be another word of judgment to a people seemingly abandoned by their God? Or will it be a word of salvation? The words “but now” point to the latter.
Isaiah has many comforting words for people ruined by sin, but the one word that stands out for me is the word, mine—“you are mine.” You might think that I have rejected you forever because you have been there in exile a long time. (Most scholars think that these words from God are addressed to Israel toward the end of the Exile, just before anyone went back home.) Having lost everything in the war that displaced you, you might have concluded that you have been cut loose forever, that you are condemned to be orphans the rest of your life. But now, the Lord says, “you are mine.”
Sometimes the word “mine” is spoken in selfish possessiveness, as when little children battle over a toy or, worse, when nations struggle for resources or territory. Many a war has been started by a bellicose “mine.” But the word is also used in loving relationships to indicate a special bond. That’s how God used it at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” That is the sense here. After all your sin against me, says the Lord, and even after I have punished you so severely that you thought I had abandoned you, you are still “mine.”
This will be the most tender preaching point in this text, because you will be talking to many people who feel abandoned. The sufferings of life will have made many people wonder if God still loves them. So, you will have to excavate this text to convince them that he still calls them his sons and daughters in whom he is well pleased.
How do we know God still loves us? What is the evidence? Isaiah 43 offers two pieces of evidence. First, says Yahweh, I have created and formed you. More than a reference to the kind of Genesis 1 creation that gives physical life, this is probably a reference to the creation of Israel as a nation, beginning with the call of Abraham and climaxing with the Exodus from Egypt. I have created you not just as human beings, but even more as my chosen, covenant people. The very fact that you exist as a separate people showered with covenant blessings is proof of my love for you.
“But you sent us away from you, Lord. You virtually destroyed us as a nation. We are now a scattered people without country, home, temple, or even God, it seems.” Thus, God gives them the second proof that they are still his. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you….” The word “redeemed” has the sense of “buy” or “purchase.” And so God says, “I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead…. I will give men in exchange for you and people in exchange for your life.” God speaks of those nations as a way of conveying that no price is too high to set them free. “I will pay anything.”
Yes, you’ve been sold into slavery, as in the days of the Egyptian bondage, but I set you free then and I will set you free now. God speaks as though it has already happened, because it is about to happen and it is absolutely certain that it will. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.”
This, of course, is an anticipation of our redemption, our ransom, our purchase “not with perishable things such as silver or gold…, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (I Peter 1:18, 19).”
In spite of it all, in spite of your persistent sin and God’s terrible anger against it resulting in the temporary ruin of your lives, God says, “you are mine… you are precious and honored and… I love you.” Here’s the proof: I have created you and I have redeemed you. Whatever happens in your life, remember those twin truths. They are the foundation of your life.
Here’s the difference those truths make in your life. “I have summoned you by name….” Out there in the vast melting pot of the nations, you are not anonymous and you have not lost your identity. I know that the Babylonians have given you new names; for example, Daniel (meaning “God is my judge”) was renamed Belteshazzar (meaning “Bel, protect his life”), a sign that Daniel’s god had failed him, so he now has a new one, Bel.
But I still know your name, your real name, all of you and each of you. That matters a great deal. It means we’re not alone, not lost, not ciphers in the crowd. My wife often tells the story about shopping at Christmas time in a huge mall near us. The aisles were packed with people. She was bumped and pushed like a calf in a stampede. She was about to escape to her car and her home, when she heard a voice from above. “Sharon, hey Sharon.” She looked up and there, above her on the escalator, was an old friend who had seen her in the mob. She felt instant relief and joy. “I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”
But it’s not just the mob that makes us want to escape; it’s also the water and fire that threaten to destroy us. The words of verse 2 are some of the most realistically powerful Gospel words in the Bible. The images of water and fire emerge in many crucial places in the Scripture. Israel is delivered from Egypt be the exodus through the Red Sea and ushered into the Promised Land through the parting of Jordan. They are led by a pillar of fire in the wilderness and Daniel’s three friends survive the blazing furnace through the intervention of a mysterious companion in the fire. Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan and John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with fire.
In Isaiah 43, however, those images suggest trial, trial by water and by fire. Here God says, when you go through trials (not “if” but “when”), you might think you will drown or burn up. But I will be with you, so even if you come up gasping for air and emerge smelling of smoke, you will survive. This captivity is the hardest trial you will ever have to endure, and you don’t think you will ever make it out, but I am with you here, even here.
And I will lead you out of your prison. Not only do I know you by name as you languish there in your captivity, not only am I with you in your terrible suffering, but also “I will bring your children from the east and the west, the north and the south, from the ends of the earth….”
This was a wonderful promise for ancient Israel, and God did bring a remnant back to the Promised Land. But that wasn’t the end of it. Many remained in the land of their exile, having become accustomed to living in a far country. And, of course, there were and are all those natives of distant lands who didn’t even know the name of Yahweh, including us and our ancestors.
That’s why I’m glad that verse 7 says, “everyone who is called by my name,” or to change the words a bit to echo Romans 10:13, “all who call on the name of the Lord.” Jesus sent his Jewish disciples into all world to proclaim that the Lord has redeemed his people, so that all of those people could come back home. Here is a wonderful promise for God’s people of all nations and languages: your lost loved ones are not too far away for God to redeem. He can and will bring them from afar. “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name….”
All of this depends on God and God alone. At the center of these foundational truths and comforting promises stands God, who identifies himself in verse 3, “For I am Yahweh, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” He saves us not by standing aloof and speaking words from afar, but by entering our captivity, plunging under the baptismal waters, and enduring the fire of God’s fierce anger against the sin that ruins our lives. The beloved Son of God was destined to hang on a cross where he experienced the God forsakenness of Israel in Babylon and of us in our sin-created captivity.
The central command in this passage full of promises is repeated twice: “Do not be afraid… fear not, for I am with you,” in the mobs of the far country, in the trials of fire and water, and in the long journey home.
One of the year’s most powerful movies is “The Hate U Give,” a movie about race and racial injustice in America. It focuses on Starr, a black girl who lives in an all-black urban neighborhood, but attends an all-white high school in the suburbs. Part of the conflict in the movie occurs in Starr who acts white in her school and black in her neighborhood. Who is she, really? Her struggle to find and express her true identity in the swirling crowds of her school and her neighborhood arches back to exilic Israel and over into the lives of all children in this confusing world. “I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Speaking of movies, I have never forgotten the seagulls in the delightful animated film, “Finding Nemo.” Perched on posts that dot the harbor, the seagulls are always looking for a scrap of food. I laughed out loud when a piece of bread hits the water and all the seagulls dive for it, screaming, “Mine, mine, mine, mine.” It’s a hilarious picture of the very unfunny human lust to make it all mine. How comforting to know that God has dived into the waters of chaos and the fire of judgment to prove that, “You are mine.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Thunderstorms. On average each day 45,000 such storms occur on Planet Earth. They are among the most powerful forces we know. In the simplest, but also in perhaps the most boring, sense a thunderstorm is an atmospheric stabilizer. Acting like a giant heat machine, a thunderstorm forms when there is a lot of cold air sitting on top of a lot of warm air. In order to re-balance the atmosphere, a thunderstorm pumps the warm air upward and the cold air downward until the atmosphere evens out. Once that happens, the thunderstorm has achieved its stabilizing purpose and it dies out. In that sense thunderstorms exist only to destroy themselves.
But along the way these storms produce some of this planet’s most stunning marvels because that shifting around of cold and warm air can produce incredible winds. Here and there an outflow produces a microburst that can puff down toward the ground at 100 mph–we’ve all seen those grim pictures of what such wind shear can do to airplanes if it hits them at lower altitudes. Then again, as I discovered recently, a microburst that plunges the plane several hundred feet even when up around 35,000 feet is a bit of a shock too! Especially when it happened right after everyone had just gotten a drink!!! In addition to wind, thunderstorms also produce rain and ice. The storm’s strong currents can supercool water particles to well below freezing, and if enough of this ice builds up, it falls to the ground as hail–though usually no larger than pebbles, some strong storms have produced so much ice that it falls in chunks as large as a grapefruit.
The forces within thunderstorms are so great that particles of energy smash into one another with enough wallop to exchange electrical charges. So some particles get stripped of electrons while others add electrons, thus producing both positively charged particles and negatively charged particles. The positive particles zoom to the top of the cloud and the negative ones sink to the bottom, creating a high-voltage chasm that equalizes itself through a fiery flash. Lasting only 30 microseconds, a bolt of lightning peaks out at 1,000,000,000,000 watts (one trillion) with a surface temperature of 20,000 degrees centigrade: three times hotter than the surface of the sun!
Psalm 29 is an ode to a thunderstorm. But this poem is not just that–the real aim of this Psalm is not to wow us with the kinds of facts above. No, the primary aim here is to move through the storm to the Lord of the storm, to the King of Creation, to the one, only true, sovereign God: Yahweh. As such, Psalm 29, for all its lyrical and poetic beauty, is actually a fairly feisty piece of polemic.
This psalm throws down the gauntlet of challenge to some of the other religions of the Ancient Near East–religions that claimed that the forces of nature are gods and goddesses in their own right. Psalm 29 reveals the falseness of those idolatrous claims by saying that the God of Israel is the One who creates all those wonders. More, he’s the one who is greater than them all. So in a way you could read this psalm as a rebuke to those who worshiped the creation instead of the Creator.
As such, Psalm 29 walks a fine line. This is the only Old Testament text that so extensively identifies God directly with what people today might call “natural phenomena.” The thunder simply is the voice of God, the lightning just is the strike of God’s voice, the wind is the effective speech of God that is so stunning, it twists even the mightiest of oaks the way a child might mold Play-Doh. This is indeed the treading of a fine line seeing as the Bible is always very careful to distinguish God the Creator from his creation.
But despite its close identification of God with the manifestations of a thunderstorm, Psalm 29 never blurs the boundary line between Creator and creation. Yahweh can be seen in, through, and by the thunderstorm, but he’s never just the same thing as the storm. The thunder, lightning, wind, and the very power of the storm are the effective presence of Yahweh in the same way that my voice through a loudspeakers reveals my presence in a church sanctuary when I am preaching. But I am not just the same thing as the sound from the speaker. So also God is manifest in the storm without being the same thing as the storm.
Because in the end Yahweh is seen as seated in glory on his throne above it all. Though something of his glory and strength can be seen in the storm, all of that is at best but the faintest of hints as to his true grandeur. It is almost as though the psalmist points to the magnificence of the storm and then says, “If you think that’s something, you ought to consider the God who doesn’t even break a sweat in producing such wonders!!”
To keep the ultimate focus on God, this psalm begins and ends with pairs of verses that direct us to think about Yahweh. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with a call to render Yahweh alone glory. Then in conclusion verses 10 and 11 redirect us to the heavenly court of Yahweh, where he rules as the supreme King. The psalmist is pulling back the curtain on reality to show us God, high and lifted up in glory. The problem most people have is they fail to see this God.
And so the middle portion of this psalm, verses 3-9, serves as a kind of illustration. Verse 2 ends with a call to worship Yahweh “in the splendor of his holiness.” That sounds kind of abstract. What exactly is “the splendor of holiness”? Holiness seems to be an invisible quality. You can no more “see” holiness than you can see kindness. You can’t see kindness the same way that you can see blonde hair or a tree. Kindness needs to be embodied by someone for you to see it.
So if I tell you to praise Leanne for the splendor of her kindness, you may respond, “What do you mean? What kindness?” And true enough, just looking at a picture of Leanne won’t reveal kindness to you. So perhaps I would then say, “Well, look over there, for instance. Do you see how Leanne plays so tenderly with those homeless children? That’s just one example of what she’s like all the time. She’s got kindness all sewn up, and so she deserves to be respected for the splendor of her kindness. That’s what I mean.” Some things need to be illustrated, lived out in concrete ways, if they are to be seen at all.
So also in Psalm 29: the psalmist says that an example of God’s splendid holiness is a thunderstorm. It’s not the only example, but it is one example that can be seen and appreciated. It’s a window through which to glimpse the one true, almighty God of Israel. So the psalmist takes us to the edge of a body of water as a storm approaches. Many of us know this kind of experience. Sound travels exceedingly well over open bodies of water. And so even on a clear day in my neck of the woods at a Lake Michigan beach, you may suddenly hear a distant rumble. Soon it gets closer, and as you look westward from Michigan toward Wisconsin, the horizon gets dark.
Often it is astonishing how quickly the conditions change. A chill wind kicks up as the thunderstorm begins its pumping effort to move the warm surface air up and the colder air down. Then flashes of lightning become visible, the thunder gets louder. The waves kick up and start to wash over the pier. Hail begins to bounce off the beach like popcorn. Trees may fall, lightning may split the taller trees unlucky enough to become the equalizing point for the storm’s electrical currents. And if you’ve ever been dangerously close to a lightning strike, then you know that Psalm 29’s description of the ground shaking is no exaggeration. A trillion watts cannot discharge at 20,000 degrees without the surrounding air and ground rocking and reeling in response!
It’s an awesome, often even a frightening, spectacle. But the real punch of this middle portion of Psalm 29 is not the tumultuous waves, the high-voltage lightning strikes, or the split oaks. More powerful than all of that is the conclusion of verse 9 when all who are in Yahweh’s temple cry, “Glory!” It is an amazing feat of faith to be able to see a display like this one but even so not be distracted from the Creator God whose glory the storm reveals. The response of this psalmist to this powerful storm is not, “Wow!” or “Awesome!” or “Cool!” or even “Yikes! Let’s take shelter!” No, the response of the faithful is simply, “Glory to God in the highest! A sliver of God’s nature just got paraded before our eyes!”
In verse 11 we are told that Yahweh gives strength to his people and this, then, leads to peace. A psalm that shook the foundations of the earth, a psalm that rattled the panes of our stained glass windows, a psalm that split oaks and caused us to plug our ears and cover our eyes from the noise and brightness of it all–this very psalm ends in peace. But this is not just the calm after the storm. This is not a depiction of that moment when suddenly the sun peeks back out, and the only sound you can hear is the dripping of water from leaves.
No, the last Hebrew word of Psalm 29 is shalom. This is not “peace and quiet” but rather the peace that passes all understanding. This is the inner peace you get when you know that all is right with the world. This is the kind of peace that descends on your soul after a beautiful evening out with your family to celebrate a 50th anniversary–a peace that produces a deep sigh of satisfaction as you reflect on how much you love your children and grandchildren, how much they, blessedly enough, love you, and so how good it is to be alive in this particular moment. That’s shalom. That’s the sense that all is well.
Shalom is the sense that things are as they ought to be. In this case, it’s the sense that things between you and the Almighty One of the cosmos are all right. And how do you get this peace, this sense that everything is in plumb and in proper alignment? You get it, verse 11 says, because Yahweh gives strength to his people. And after all that we’ve seen in this psalm, that little line ought to deliver quite a few gigawatts of juice to your soul!
Because in this psalm the strength of God is what we’ve seen laying waste to forests, boiling up oceans, cracking the air with sound, frying the atmosphere with heat hotter than even the sun itself. And this, this is what gets hard-wired into your soul! It’s a wonder we don’t disintegrate like a lightning-struck oak! Forget about Air Jordan or the Energizer bunny! We’ve got God’s Holy Spirit connecting us to the Creator himself. It’s like plugging your child’s battery-operated toy train directly into a Con Ed substation.
It’s a wonder we’re not fried! But that was the fundamental mystery of Israel’s existence in the Old Testament: God dwelled in the midst of her and yet she was not consumed. It’s the mystery of the burning bush as Moses first saw it: the bush burned and burned and burned but never burned up! And so for us: the Holy Spirit of God himself glows within our hearts and yet we are not destroyed. The thunderstorm tells us that God’s got vastly enough energy to wipe us off the face of the map if he wants to. Like moths that get too close to the flames of a bonfire, so we could easily just evaporate. But that doesn’t happen. The God who roars and wheels his way through the thunderstorm uses his majestic power not to wipe us out but tenderly to give us shalom.
Author: Doug Bratt
While it’s at least tangentially related to this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Acts 8:14-17 may seem like a rather odd text for the second Sunday of the new year. It isn’t, after all, just a mysterious text that even the most learned scholars struggle to fully understand. While the Lectionary longs to unite Christians around the study of a common weekly text, interpretations of Acts 8 also divide Christians, including, perhaps, those who read this Starter.
This Sunday’s text and story’s seed lies outside of this lesson, in Acts 8:2. There, after all, we learn that when religious leaders stone Stephen to death, “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Jerusalem” (italics added).
One of the Christians that persecution scatters is Philip. However, we might say that he “gets scattered” well outside the early church’s “comfort zone.” It sends Philip, after all, to Samaria’s home of Jews’ ancient cousins-turned-enemies. It’s a place where even the most optimistic early Christian could might never have imagined the gospel receiving a faithful welcome.
Yet this week’s Epistolary Lesson forms part of just such an announcement. When Samaritans hear (and see!) Philip’s gospel proclamation, they don’t just pay attention to it. They also turn to the Lord Jesus Christ in faith. In fact, with more than just a touch of hyperbole, verse 14 announces, “Samaria … accepted the word of God.” It as least suggests that the whole area receives God’s amazing grace with its faith. We might compare this to the entire 21st century Middle East receiving God’s grace with its faith in Jesus Christ.
Among the Samaritan faithful recipients of God’s amazing grace is a man named Simon. He’s a very popular sorcerer who both amazes people and knows it. Samaritans even seem to think of him as some kind of god.
But, of course, such popularity’s shelf life can be very short-lived. It may expire when someone else does even more amazing things. So when the Samaritans hear they good news not of Simon the sorcerer, but of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they seem to turn away from Simon and towards Jesus. Philip, as a result baptizes “both men and women” (12), including, perhaps ironically, Simon himself.
This text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday actually begins with the news of this amazing revival reaching the Early Church Headquarters. While we’re not sure just how the apostles feel about it, we are sure how they respond to it: they send two of the “old pros,” Peter and John to check things out.
When these men who’d been among Jesus’ first disciples arrive at what we might think of as Samaria’s “Revival Meeting,” the Spirit who already fills them quickly shows them what’s still needed among the Samaritan Christians. They pray, verse 14 reports, that those new Jesus followers “might receive the Holy Spirit.”
Add, however, to that verse 15’s mysterious, “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” and you have a recipe for modern scholars’ confusion. As Karoline Lewis in her January 10, 2010 Preach the Word article asks, Does it mean that “the baptism of the Samaritans not take the first time? Something was missing? There needed to be ‘official’ church officers present to make the baptism of the Samaritans legitimate? What was the Holy Spirit doing at the time of the baptism anyway?”
My colleague Stan Mast does a wonderful job of exploring some of Acts 8:14-17’s ramifications in his January 4, 2016 Sermon Starter on it. He notes that Reformed Christians, at least, profess that since only those whom the Holy Spirit helps can profess that Jesus is Lord, the Samaritan Christians must already have the Holy Spirit. Mast suggests, then, that the Holy Spirit hasn’t yet fully transformed their lives in the way it had those on whom the Spirit descended on the first Pentecost. The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday at least suggests that the Samaritan Christians still need a tangible manifestation of the Spirit who already lives in them.
I respect Christians who have a different understanding of this mysterious second baptism. I urge them to explore Acts 8:14-17’s text through the lens the Spirit and their theology of baptism provides them.
Yet those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary lesson might let the Spirit who lives in us take it in another slightly different direction. A direction on which most Christians might agree. We might focus on the way the text’s Spirit for whom the apostles pray unites Jews and Samaritans whom history and theology long divided.
Few Jews (or Samaritans, for that matter) could have, prior to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, imagined God working in the hearts and lives of their ancient cousins. Each had his or her own understandings of God as well as God’s plans and purposes that left little room for the understandings of “the other.”
It’s, in fact, fair to wonder if the first Jewish Christians send Peter and John to check out the Samaritan revival because, in fact, they can’t imagine the Spirit making the Spirit’s home in those outsiders. Yet when the apostles show up, they recognize that God not only is doing amazing things in and with the Samaritans, but that God also wants to do even more wonderful things. So Peter and John pray the Samaritans will receive the Holy Spirit. They even serve as conduits of that Spirit into the Samaritans (17).
On this Sunday on which most people who follow the Lectionary will likely focus on Jesus’ baptism, Acts 8’s report of the Samaritans’ baptism provides a kind of good supplement. It reminds us that Jesus was baptized to minister not just to the Jewish insiders, but also to gentile outsiders like the Samaritans. Not only that, but also that the Spirit fills Jesus’ followers so that we too may witness to and witness the mighty acts of God within both insiders and outsiders.
Yet it remains highly ironic and deeply sad that the baptism that united Jewish and Samaritan Christians so deeply divides modern Christians. It’s not just that our theology of baptism divides us. It’s also that we’re sometimes tempted to reject the baptism other Christians have received in other parts of Christ’s body.
Might this second Sunday of the year of our Lord, 2019, then, be a good time to reaffirm Paul’s assertion that there is only “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)? We will probably continue to have diverse theologies of that unifying sacrament. However, Acts 8:14-17 might serve as a good invitation to live more fully into the unifying power the Holy Spirit graciously gives to baptism.
In her January 19, 2010 commentary on Acts 8:14-17 on the Preach This Week website Karoline Lewis tells about her experience with preaching a sermon about baptism. “After the church service, she writes, “a long-time member of the church, 90-years-old, came up to us and the other pastors and asked, ‘Is it really true? That God is the one who baptizes you?’
“We soon learned that her older sister was born extremely ill. There was neither hope for her survival, nor for her to be able to leave the house. As a result, the grandmother baptized her.
“When the baby died, and her parents approached the pastor about the funeral, the pastor refused to perform the funeral in the sanctuary because he had not baptized the baby. The funeral for our member’s 3-month-old sister was held in the church basement. Ninety years later, she wondered, she prayed, ‘So, my sister is OK?’ The sister she never knew; the sister for whom she still shed tears.”