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15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
1 But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 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. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
During the month of January, St. Olaf worship team has invited clergy from around Northfield to be preachers at their daily chapel. Each preacher has chosen a word and is asked to preach on it. Words like grace, promise, healing, fear.
This past Thursday, Pastor Pam was the first of the clergy to preach. Her word was suffering.
During her sermon, she said something remarkable. She said that you cannot make sense of suffering from the outside, but rather you have to go in to the suffering to understand. To speak to it, to comfort it.
There is a great example of this in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. It is a movie about a dysfunctional family that is determined to get their awkward, 8-year-old daughter, Olive, into the finals of a beauty contest. One of the members of this family is Dwayne.
Dwayne is an unhappy teenager who has taken a vow of silence until he can achieve his dream of becoming a test pilot in the Air Force. At one point, the whole family is crammed into their yellow VW van driving down the road, when Dwayne and Olive decide to play these activities that test your vision. At one point, Olive decides to see if Dwayne is colorblind. So, she holds up a card with a big red circle on it and a green letter in the center. “What letter do you see?” she asks Dwayne. But Dwayne just looks at her, confused and shrugs his shoulders.
Olive looks at the card again and see says, “No, which letter do you see?” And Dwayne just shrugs his shoulders in confusion.
At this point, Dwayne’s uncle, who is sitting nearby, realizes what is happening. “Dwayne, I think you are colorblind,” he said. “You can fly jets in the airforce if you are colorblind.”
In that moment, you can see Dwayne’s hopes and dreams for his life come crashing down, and he starts to lose control. He starts hitting the side of the car. His body shakes in anger, he’s doing everything he cannot to break his vow of silence. Eventually, the chaos is so great that the van pulls over, he jumps out into an open field, drops to his knees and just screams. The first sounds out of his mouth in months.
The family didn’t’ know what to do. His mom went and did what most of us do, she tried to talk to him and fix it. Let him know it wasn’t that bad. That it would be all okay. This didn’t help the situation. And Dwayne tells her to just go away. But then, in one of the best scenes in cinema I think, while the whole family is standing around trying to figure out what to do, Dwayne’s sweet and awkward 8-year old sister, Olive, starts walking over to him. She’s tripping over the red cowboy boots, that are too big for her, the whole way to him. When she reaches him, for a moment, she stands over him looking, until she finally just squats down and lays her head on his shoulder – offering him her own momentary vow of silence. Eventually, he turns and looks at her and then says just one word, “Okay……okay.” And the two of them walk back to the van together.
You cannot make sense of suffering from the outside. You can’t stand on the outside and let them know it isn’t that bad, that it will all be okay. You have to go into the suffering. And lay your head on its shoulder.
Now, we could call that good psychology – that the human mind responds best this way. We could call it good advice – you don’t want to make a fool out of yourself like the mother.
But I call it divine work. It comes from God. It is the way of God. To enter into someone’s suffering is the work of God and the way God works. If you have ever experience someone like Olive come along side you in your pain or your darkness, then you know how sacred that moment can be.
Listen again to the words of Isaiah:
1 But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
The way of God is to go into the suffering – with you.
This part of Isaiah is written to people who are suffering. The Israelite people were living in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the great temple (which was a sign of God’s presence) were destroyed and they were forced to leave their land, and to live as despised people, as slaves in Babylon. These are a people who have been brutalized and conquered. They have endured loss after loss after loss. Their hopes and dreams for their life had come crashing down.
But then, come these comforting and transformative words of God – O Israel, my people, do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. God enters into the suffering of the world. God goes into the water with us. In order to understand, to speak to, to comfort the suffering, you have to go into the suffering. It is the way of God.
With that in mind, we turn to the reading from Luke.
Luke is writing to a community of people who are also living through great suffering. They too live under the crushing rule of Empire and are slaves under rulers; they too have watched as their Temple of the Lord has been torn down.
It is to that community that he is writing. And he tells them the story of Jesus’ baptism in a particular way.
Now let’s just imagine for a moment that this sanctuary is Luke’s stage. And let’s all watch the doors to see who enter the stage and who leaves the stage.
At first, stage right, on to the stage Luke brings John the Baptist. And then from the back, Luke brings in all kinds of people. A brood of vipers, John calls you. Despised people, controlled and enslaved people.
And John speaks a harsh word to you. About how a messiah more powerful is coming after him – a messiah who will from the outside wielding a winnowing fork and fire, threshing out the wheat from the chaff. The good from the bad.
But then something unusual happens – it doesn’t happen in any of the other gospels –stage left, King Herod shows up. And he is mad. On fire and angry that John has confronted Herod on all the evil things he has done. So along comes King Herod who grabs John and hauls him off stage and into prison. And all that remain are the people.
And then, in the quiet of the text, in the very next line, we hear that little line that is so brief and simple that you almost miss it: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.
Where did Jesus come from? Did anyone see Jesus come on stage? He wasn’t there a minute ago. In fact, John said he would come with fire and winnowing fork. Not a towel. Not wading in water with the likes of you and me.
All that remain on stage are all the people. And in and amongst the crowd. You can just barely make out the face of Jesus. Standing there among them. Dripping with the very same river water.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.
Do you hear it?
When you walk through the waters…I will be with you. Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.
When you pass through the waters (And all the people were baptized), I will be with you ( and Jesus was baptized too).
Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism is the embodiment, the enacting of Isaiah’s promise. That when we walk through the waters of suffering, God will be with us.
It is that word of hope to a people suffering from fear and loss. That God will meet us in our dark places of life and God will join us there. It is who this God is – this God with us. It is the way of God. That to comfort the suffering you have to walk through the waters of suffering with them. You have to enter in.
And notice that it is after Jesus has joined them in the waters, that God just can’t help but say, “That’s my boy!”
You cannot make sense of suffering from the outside, but rather you have to go in to the suffering to understand.
It is the way of God. To enter into the suffering of another person is to embody the very presence and promise of God.
Friends, that is the God who is revealed to us this day. That is the great epiphany. Not only that God is with us, but that God is with us and has entered into our suffering and in our darkness to be with us there.
If you are suffering, may God come to you embodied in the form of another. To be with you. To show you that you are not alone. And if you know someone who is suffering, may you, like Olive, have the courage to enter in. To be the enfleshed presence of God that is for all people. Amen.