Refreshed for the Journey
Rev. Lindsay L. Fulmer
Ladera Community Church
January 10, 2010 – First Sunday of Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Along the Connecticut shore there’s an old estate – a big columned nineteenth century stone mansion set on a rolling lawn overlooking the sea. Now a state park, the grounds are open to the public, and picnic tables wait under shade trees. A winding path leads down to the shore. Follow the path, and you walk across a boardwalk bridging a stream. If you’re lucky you might spot an egret, poised and still, waiting, watching the dark water with singular, Zen-like focus. Come over a small rise and the white sandy beach curves toward you, pebbled with shells, the small waves lift and fall with a quiet shush. Here at the far east end of Long Island Sound, there’s no crashing surf, only the gently curling wave. Still the tide leaves tracings: strands of seaweed, laced with bits of driftwood garland the dark wet edge of sand. Walk the beach, and sea gulls circle overhead, while others stand sentry on promontory rocks out past the breaking waves.
Just a few feet out, in shallow water, rises up a large, hump-backed rock. With it’s brown surface smoothed by wind and weather, it looks much like a slumbering bear. Come closer and discover a singular word, carved into the side in block letters, a finger wide and deep. GOD. When the water recedes with the next wave, you walk out to get a closer look, ankle deep in water. Trace the word with your finger. GOD.
You wade in deeper, then clamber up onto the rock to sit on the sun-warmed back. God, you are my rock, you think with a smile, looking out over the sun-dazzled sea, the wisps of clouds in the pale blue sky, the strands of kelp and seaweed fanning in and out with every wave, an endless swirling dance. All the elements are here: wind, water and, with the sun warm on your shoulders, this distant fire - all the elements of creation. And supporting you, solid, strong, a rock named God. Is it a name, or a signature? you wonder. This rock, this sea, this salt-tinged breeze, the bird soaring by, the dazzling sun casting diamonds everywhere around, all this carries traces of God’s signature, seen or unseen.
Wind, water and fire – powerful elements - each an agent of transformation, strong enough to create a new landscape, or even, as lava flows and cools, create rock where there was none. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the light we need, all these components essential to life, ever-changing, shaping, layering the old with new. Cathleen brought into the office this amazing print – captured in this image these powerful forces at work, birthing a new creation. Water, wind, fire. These same elements are the ones referenced in our text today, as John the Baptist names them in speaking about baptism and the one to come, Jesus Christ. “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Water, wind and fire, these are agents of the holy and creative spirit. Water, nurturing, sustaining; wind, the breath of life; fire the spark of inspiration, light by which we grow. With these, John says, God’s set to make a clean sweep of your life – everything true set in order; everything false, like chaff, set aside to be burnt into ash. Wind, fire, water, natural elements of life, agents of change.
But the story continues, revealing another vital element. Among the crowd, Jesus also comes to be baptized by John. And when he was baptized, praying, The heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased. Love, the original blessing, love from the very beginning, from the birth of creation when stars were sent spinning and light shone in the darkness, and God said, this is good. Love has the real power to bring life, to transfigure, transform and transcend. This shining moment of revelation shows up in every gospel account of Jesus’ baptism. This moment when God’s name is signed with a word, claiming Jesus as God’s good creation as surely as a sculptor chisels a signature into rock. You are mine. You are beloved. Following this moment, Jesus begins his ministry. This moment inaugurates his ministry, even as it inaugurates ours, in his name. Who’s to say if this moment, this breakthrough awareness of God’s great love made possible Jesus’ ministry; the memory of it maintaining his courage and commitment?
Who of us could stand the tidal shifts life brings, the ebb and flow, the gains and losses, the joys breaking into sorrow, pulling back to gather strength like a wave, tumbling forward once more, without a touchstone of love to hold onto? Some experience, some encounter, some, even one person, who has affirmed for us that yes, we are loved. Jesus, in essence, made this the substance of his ministry. To offer this blessing: you are loved, just as you are, loved by God. Believe this. Let it soak in. Let it shape you, the actions you take, the decisions you make. Live out of love, to love one another, and watch the landscape shift and change, and God’s realm emerge, shining and new.
When someone comes here to be baptized, be it a babe in arms or an adult, in Jesus’ name, this is what we affirm. We recognize God’s signature on this one particular, unique and amazing life, God’s blessing theirs from the very beginning. We make promises to remind them, support them in holding fast to that blessing, through all the circumstances of life. Through storm-tossed time, when tested by temptation to forget this original blessing, the community, the living body of Christ, promises to witness to the truth. You are God’s beloved.
So we take the opportunity, at the outset of this new year, to affirm the blessing of baptism and the reality of the holy spirit that by wind and fire and water creates, and keeps creating; inspiring imagination, firing up creativity, forging a new creation. Blessing is a powerful thing – both to give and to receive. John knew it, Jesus lived it. Knowing we are loved, that’s a great gift. Knowing we can love, that is a miracle in the making.
(A ritual of remembering baptismal promises followed.)