“Washing Away Boundaries”—Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 13, 2019


Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Children’s Message:
“The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn.
In Isaiah, God says that God loves us very much, and our baptism is kind of like the kissing hand—a reminder of how much God loves us—something that we can take with us no matter where we go.

As I mark the sign of the cross on your hand to keep you remembering, we’ll pray. Gracious God, thank you for your love and willingness to be one of us. Help us pass your love on to others. Amen.

And now, you get to pass that love on to others and make the sign of the cross on the hands of those here. And they can pass it on to those sitting next to them. And you all can pass it on to those you meet this week.

I love the passage from Isaiah 43. It has found its way into many funerals. I know that Elsa reads it frequently to those she visits and shares communion with. It is a beautiful poem of God’s provision. Isaiah wrote it when Israel was in the midst of exile. It describes God’s intentions. Everything in it is God’s actions. God redeems, God calls, God is present, God loves, God brings, God creates, God forms. Our part in this relationship? Do not fear.

Do not fear. Because God is with us. Verse 2 especially invokes images of baptism—‘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.’ Water and fire. Apparently, they’re inevitable. And yet…and yet, what?

I always hope that these words will bring comfort to those who are struggling—those who are within sight of the end of their life, those who are on the brink of challenging changes, those who find themselves in significant danger. And yet…life ends, anyway. And, one might think, the waters have indeed overwhelmed, and the fire has succeeded in consuming. And there is nothing left.

And that would be true—except for hope in the Christ, the Messiah, the risen one.

The question has often been posed—why did Jesus need to be baptized? If he was sinless, he didn’t need forgiveness. He didn’t need to be washed clean. He didn’t need to be claimed—he was literally God’s Son. And there are lots of answers to that question: it was his commissioning; he needed to hear God’s claim on him before entering the wilderness; the crowds needed to hear God’s claim on him before following him. And, as theologically grounded as they are, those answers only scratch the intellectual surface of an emotional and spiritual yearning. Because our question remains—does this really change anything?

It changes everything. First, Jesus got into the water so that we would know God is with us. In his baptism, Jesus allied himself with humanity. He chose us, against all odds. He chose us, though it meant being ostracized by family and friends and even his church. In his baptism, he stands with the broken, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the hurting, the oppressed, the victimized, the outsiders. Jesus stands with humanity and claims us as his family. In defiance of what the world wanted/wants of God—victory, strength, and might—Jesus chooses humility, weakness and death. Jesus chooses this broken and hurting world as home and refuses to abandon us. He gets in the water with us.

God says in Isaiah, “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.” I will be with you. God gets in the water with us—into the muddy, swirling waters of our worst days and poor decisions; into the clear, sparkling waters of our most blessed moments; into the trickling waters of uncertainty; into the roaring waves of excitement.

God gets in the water with us, come what may. Jesus gets in the water, and is overwhelmed by humanity’s brokenness. He gets in the water, and his life is consumed by humanity’s sin and arrogance. He gets in the water of life—and he dies.

4bf46110-2e65-4665-975f-1c5e3cdc5992Yes, baptism changes everything. One commentary I read somewhere called baptism a boundary-crossing. And I thought about that. This is the first time I’ve gotten really hung up on the part in Isaiah that says, “Because…I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.” And in the context of Israel’s exile, I’m sure that the promise brought great comfort to them—the idea that no one else was as valuable as these insignificant people who always seemed to be at the mercy of other nations. Imagine what it would mean for God to say that these powerful nations are nothing compared to the love God has for God’s people.

That was a fine sentiment when those who considered themselves ‘God’s people’ were always and ever under the thumb of someone else. It becomes dangerous when those who identify themselves as ‘God’s people’ are the ones holding all the cards.

And so I come back to the idea of Jesus’ baptism as a boundary-crossing. And on level, I agree. What he does—entering into our sin and our death and our humanity for the sake of pulling us out of it—is a crazy crossing of boundaries for a God who could have abandoned it all and walked away. It is absolutely what we need to hear in those vulnerable and scary moments of our lives.

We need to know that God is in it with us. We need to know that, though life ends in death, it is not without meaning. We need to know that, though we walk through the fire, God still protects us from fire that only consumes and does not purify. We need to know that, overwhelmed as we might be from the struggles and horrors and unimaginable stupidity of humanity sometimes, our lives are not overwhelmed by doubt and fear over a God who does not care.

God crosses every boundary between the created and the divine so that life is more than simply survival—that we have hope in boundless love. And then, we are invited to cross boundaries as the water is poured over us and we acknowledge in our bodies an unbreakable bond between our hearts and God’s. In baptism, God draws us across the boundary between the impossible and the possible, between death and life, between sinner and saint.

But I think baptism is more than boundary-crossing. That’s only the first step. The second step is boundary-breaking. Luke is too systematic and logical to use Mark’s dramatic description of what happened at Jesus’ baptism. Mark says that the heavens were torn apart. The boundary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, was not only crossed; it was torn apart.

3e89ccaa-58e8-4fd0-b4fd-e1de18595093I often hear good theologians say, “When humans draw boundaries or lines, God inevitably ends up on the other side.” But God doesn’t stop there. From the other side, God destroys those boundaries—boundaries that let us believe that one group is better or more civilized or more moral or more educated than another; boundaries that keep people under the thumb of those who hold the cards; boundaries that give way to oppression, sexism, racism, and every other form of bigotry; boundaries that led missionaries to places where ‘savages’ lived. All of these boundaries between people are eliminated by the God who loves people too much to allow us to keep hurting each other like this.

That’s what baptism is about—it changes everything. God dies in order to show us the way to life. God crosses and destroys boundaries. It is both comforting and frightening. But at all times, it is what God has promised.

Look again at the passage in Isaiah: “I give nations in exchange for your life.” I wonder, could the Living Word be speaking to us in a new way? Could this promise mean that the boundaries we have set up mean nothing to God—that God moves past the boundaries of nations and our tribes and our denominations so that, no matter who we are or where we come from—as God calls us from the east and the west and the north and the south, we might actually see each other as children of God?

Today, we lift up the baptism of our Lord—who got into the water with us so that we no longer see what divides us but what makes us all one.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE


“Response to the Light”—Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, January 6, 2019


Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Children’s Message:
I have this star lamp from Seth’s room. It’s been there since before he was born. It shines light when the room feels too dark. Today, we read about a star that showed the way for people from another country to find a new king born in Israel. Who did they end up finding? And where did they find him?

Now, Bethlehem is a long way from here, but I bet that this star might be able to lead us to places where we can recognize Jesus.

Pulpit: So, what happens here? We read from the Bible—the Word of God. Did you know that Jesus is even more the Word of God than the Bible? The Bible tells us about him—what he did, what he said, why he came to live with us, and how much he loves us. We meet the Word of God, Jesus, in the Bible.

Altar: What happens here? This is where communion begins. How do we meet Jesus in communion? The bread is his body—he said so. And the wine is his blood—he said that too. And when we celebrate his love for us together, he makes us all one massive, enormous Body of Christ sent to spread love and grace in the world.

Baptism: And what happens here? Do we meet Jesus here? Yes, in baptism we are specifically named a beloved child of God—just like Jesus. And he welcomes us into his family.

I have one more for you. (Middle of the Sanctuary.) How do we meet Jesus here? Each and every one of these people—including you—are born to show the light of Christ Jesus to others. We want to see Jesus in the faces of those who worship him. And we’re also the star—the ones who show the way for others to meet Jesus. So, I’m going to pass out a star to each of you, and then I want you to pass out stars to every one of the people here while we listen to the sermon.

These stickers will remind you that your job is to show the way to Jesus. Let’s pray. Gracious God, help us be a reflection of your love and point the way to your heart. Amen.

Before I go any further, it’s important that we keep reading the Scripture passage—to hear what follows the magi returning home a different way. Joseph is informed in a dream that Herod wants to destroy Jesus, so they flee to Egypt and stay there until he gets word that Herod dies. In the meantime, Matthew 2:16 continues:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

This is no sentimental Christmas story. It’s a statement regarding the powers that Jesus would bump up against all the way to the cross. It’s a reality check on allegiance—both then and now. It’s a mirror placed in front of all of us when our way of life is challenged. Will we be like the magi—recognizing and celebrating the light of a new way? Or will we be like Herod—doing everything we can to make sure no one takes away what we’ve rightfully grabbed for ourselves?

You see, that’s essentially what Herod the Great had done. He colluded with the Roman powers in order to have this ‘throne’ in Jerusalem. He was a puppet king. A fraud. He grabbed the seat that rightfully belonged to the heir of David and held on with all his might. He held on so tight that over the course of time, it is said that he killed over 300 public officials, 2 of his own sons, and 1 wife—all because he believed that they were plotting against his throne. So, a few toddlers were nothing to him if it meant that he would eradicate the rightful heir to the throne.

Then there are the magi—practitioners of astrology and Zoroastrianism. Foreigners—but not just any foreigners. They came from the areas of Persia and Babylon—the very nations that had forced Israel into exile. They represent the ‘bad guys’ in terms of their nation’s history. They represent terrorists. Ironically, it is the area where Iran and Iraq are now found.

So, the foreigner terrorists make their long journey to Israel and end up where any logical person would expect to find a king—Jerusalem. And they naively ask the current king where they can find the new king that was born recently. Wouldn’t you want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation?

But even if the magi don’t know the score, Herod does. He’s the first one who makes the leap from child-king to Messiah. He recognizes this very real threat to his power and calls on the religious authorities to look in the books and find out what the prophecy says—specifically. And then he sends the magi off with the understanding that they would return to him like spies and tell him what he wants to know.

When they finally find Jesus and his family in their home, they present him with gifts literally fit for a king. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh would have been appropriate gifts for a king—though they seem a bit heavy-handed for this toddler who would prefer building blocks. But the gifts hold a deeper meaning, as well. The gold signifies his authority on earth. The frankincense signifies his spiritual authority.

And the myrrh—the myrrh signifies his death. It’s the resin used to wrap dead bodies at their burial. It was what the women would have been bringing to his tomb on the day of his resurrection to prepare his body. And, in some way, it also symbolizes the many lives that the powers of this world will take in an effort to maintain their false authority—toddlers in Bethlehem, girls in Nigeria, boys taught to make war in the Congo, children and families seeking asylum, men and women and children taught to hate based on everything from skin color to gender orientation to political leanings.

Will we be like the magi—honoring Jesus with our generosity of wealth, hospitality, and love? Will we be like Herod—striving to maintain our way of life at any cost? Truth be told, we’re both. Wars in this world simply signify the war we wage inside ourselves—battles between what we want and what we think we want; battles between who we are and who we want to be; battles between life, light, and hope and the ugliness of sin, death, and despair.

But it is for all of us—our whole selves—that Christ was born and that he died. He came to show us a new way, and we felt—we feel—threatened by it. Because this new way means letting go of how we have learned to live—dog-eat-dog, wealthiest and most powerful wins. Even toddlers get it. A meme I saw recently pointed out the toddler’s rules of possession—and I think it’s true for adults and nations, as well:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must NEVER appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.
9. If you are playing with something and you put it down, it’s automatically mine.
10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

That’s what Jesus came to transform in us, and we are less than ready to accept it. Unless, of course, we have already lost everything and have nothing left to lose. Then, the gospel of hope and transformation is actually good news. Until then, we hesitate to embrace it in its fullness. We’re afraid of what it will cost. It sounds like a good enough idea in abstract, but when the gospel becomes real, our inner Herod breaks out and we fight tooth and nail to make sure we find a way to keep the life we’ve come to know and love.

But Jesus came for the Herods of this world—not to threaten or kill them but to redeem them. To redeem us in all of our forms of Herod. To redeem us and transform us and liberate us from the fear that we have clung to for so long. Jesus came for the magi of this world—to receive the gifts we offer, whether they be gold and myrrh or hearts filled with gladness or financial abundance or food for the hungry. Jesus came for the lost and hurt children of this world—to comfort them in times of fear and death, to be companions for them on their journeys, to offer hope that this isn’t the end. Jesus came for Marys and Josephs and shepherds and innkeepers and tax collectors and prostitutes and religious leaders, for the wealthy and the homeless and hopeless.

Jesus came for us in all the ways that we honor him and threaten him—in the ways we provide for his children and deny his children. He came for our whole selves and stops at nothing less than complete transformation. Whether we meet his arrival with gifts or fear, he has come to redeem you and intends to set you free.

So, as Isaiah says to the people returning from exile:
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE