Last Sunday we got to do a joyous and wonderful thing: We were given the privilege of officially welcoming Arabella Anders into God’s great big family. Various relatives came from near and far to join us for this special occasion. Ryder, Arabella’s big brother, was particularly fascinated when I began to pour the water into the font at the beginning of the ceremony. I got a chuckle as he peeked out from behind his parents, and then stepped forward to see what in the world Pastor Dave was doing.
We baptized Arabella in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Sprit. We anointed her with oil to remind her that she is marked with the cross of Christ forever, which is a pretty marvelous thing when you think about it. We also gave her parents a baptismal candle, and welcomed Arabella “into the Body of Christ and into the mission we share as God’s family.” Ryder ended the ceremony by blowing out the candle, which put a great big smile on his face.
Of course, after worship, there was cake. You cannot have a baptism without cake (Well, Jesus never got a cake at his baptism, but Lutherans must have cake!) It’s a sacramental kind of thing. It’s a way to fully celebrate Arabella’s new life in Christ. The joy and love which surrounded her last Sunday, was quite evident and shared by everyone.
This brings us to Jesus’ baptism. Even though Luke’s description of it is pretty brief, some pretty amazing things happened at his baptism as well. The heavens were “opened”, whatever that means! But it’s not something that happens every day. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus “in bodily form like a dove.” A voice came from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As we try to picture this scene in our mind’s eye, we envision light gently peaking through the clouds, like Ryder peeking from behind his parents to see what was happening during Arabella’s baptism. We see a dove gracefully flying downward, and perching herself on Jesus’ shoulder. Finally, like any proud parent at a baptism, we hear God calling Jesus his “beloved,” just like Meara and Mitchell claim Arabella as their beloved. And although there was no cake, the occasion was joyous nonetheless. Every time we tell this story, we feel God’s love for us since we, too, are God’s beloved children.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every day was like this? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every day we were filled with joy and surrounded by love? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our family and friends were always there to cheer us on and feed us cake? But, friends we know life is not like that. Not every day can be a baptismal celebration.
As Luke’s gospel continues we see that Jesus, “was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” Forty days of trials and temptations. That’s not the kind of news we are eager to hear. It reminds us that life can be difficult, and even downright painful. Even though we are God’s beloved, Luke reminds us that there will be days when we feel less than beloved.
Now, there are Christians who believe that if we have enough faith, God will bless us with one good day after another. If we can somehow manage to be “good little Christians” all the time, God’s light will shine upon us, and every day will be a baptismal celebration.
But we know this isn’t the truth. It wasn’t true for Jesus, so why do we think it will be true for us? Life is full of trials and temptations. It’s full of devils who tempt us, and wild beasts who seek to devour us. Given the choice, we would rather have cake every day than have to face the wilderness. But we know in our heart of hearts THIS IS NOT GOING TO HAPPEN! Jesus had to face the wilderness, and so will we.
Yet this should not cause us to give into despair. The wilderness serves a purpose in our lives, just like it served a purpose in the life of Jesus. Think about his story for a moment. Jesus; ministry did not begin before his temptation in the wilderness happened. All four gospel writers agree on this. He did not proclaim that he had come “to bring good news to the poor,” before the wilderness happened. He did not heal the sick or call his first disciples before the wilderness happened.
What I believe this is telling us is that the wilderness is not only a place of testing and suffering, it’s also a place of transformation. It deepens our character and teaches us lessons we could not learn when everything in our lives is going well. I know we don’t want to hear this, but deep in our hearts, we know it’s true. I would not be the pastor I am today, if it wasn’t for the challenges life has thrown at me. Granted, it was not fun going through them. I would have preferred to avoid them completely. But God used the wilderness times in my life to strengthen my character and mold me into the spiritual leader, husband, father and grandfather I am today. I am absolutely confident that God will do the same for you.
At this point I need to make a disclaimer. I do not believe God intentionally causes suffering to happen in our lives. There are some Christians who believe this, but I am not one of them. Some suffering is natural and biological, as we face natural disasters and disease. Some suffering is set into motion because of bad choices that are made by us and others. The rest of it is due to things like greed, fear, envy, and the insatiable need for power.
I have come to believe for a very long time, that God is not the old man with a long white beard who is holding lightning bolts in his hand, trying to figure out who to smite next. Instead, God is the good shepherd who promises us that even though we walk through the valley of the show of death, God walks in solidarity with us. God’s presence is always found among the suffering, the neglected, the forgotten and the abused. It is there, in the wilderness, that God provides us with shelter, healing and hope.
Our first lesson states this truth beautifully and poetically: “Do not fear,” Do you hear that? “Do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
This is the promise God made to us on the day we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of theHoly Spirit. This is the promise God made to us when we were called God’s beloved and marked with the cross of Christ forever. The body of Christ which surrounded you on the day of your baptism surrounds you today as well. The names and faces may have changed, but the same love and encouragement is present. We are here for you when you face times of trial and testing. God is here for you when you face times of trial and testing. This is a promise you can count on.
In a few moments we will have the opportunity to renew our baptism as we walk to the gathering space and swirl our hands in the font. It is my hope that these baptismal waters will remind us that we do not need to fear for God is with us. When we pass through the roaring rapids and floods, God will be with us. The raging storms shall not overwhelm us. We always have been, and will always be, God’s beloved, even on days when we don’t feel like it! So, let’s all claim and remember this promise made to us on the day we were baptized. Amen
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck