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Sunday Message for 16 December 2018: “Beyond Water”

Today’s message arises from Luke 3: 7-18, which reveals a dramatic encounter with John the Baptist, a rustic stern prophet who prefaced Jesus’ ministry. John warned people about how following God requires a change of behavior from the inside-out more than an outward ritual such as baptism.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3: 7b – 8a). This bold quote represents the manner in which John admonished the crowd, who were pursuing what may have been a viral fad of water baptism. John’s dramatic words would capture peoples’ attention, and many preachers throughout the centuries have used a similar technique to both insult and captivate their audience. John was cautioning people that the baptism he offered was more than a dunk in the Jordan River.

As was true with many previous prophets, John gained notoriety from a startling message condemning peoples’ bad behavior. John coupled his signature baptism with instruction of how to live a righteous life. People from different vocations came to receive John’s popular baptism, which may have been perceived as some sort of short-cut to cleansing themselves from sin. John warned all the varying groups of people that baptism was not magic but was instead the outward bit of what was supposed to be a life-changing inward transformation.

“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” (Luke 3:16). John is known for water-based baptism but what is baptism with the fire of God’s spirit? There are differing opinions about spiritual baptism, ranging from ignoring the issue altogether to an extremist position held by charismatic, Pentecostal Christians, who claim that true believers must demonstrate miraculous signs of spiritual power such as the controversial act of speaking in tongues (described by many outsiders as ecstatic babble).

Neither ignoring nor caricaturing spiritual gifts is optimal. Dismissing the potential for spiritual baptism may needlessly curtail peoples’ appropriation of God’s presence. Alternatively, becoming obsessed with theatrical expressions of speaking in tongues threatens to demote spirituality into some sideshow spectacle. For people who feel pulled to either ignore or push spiritual gifts too far, it’s good to recall John’s wisdom: true spirituality entails transformed attitudes and behaviors.

It’s helpful to perceive yourself as God’s worthy child, someone privileged to feel and exhibit spiritual power. In Advent you can emphasize the promise and possibility of a new life in Christ, the messianic child of Almighty God who offers you a fulfilling life. As always, baptism and other rituals historically part of church tradition are supposed to be done as a sign of a change in a person’s thinking and actions. The temptation is to substitute something which is overly emotional and superficial for the legitimate, inward miracle of God’s spirit. There’s nothing wrong with getting excited, but don’t let enthusiasm about spiritual gifts overcome their higher purpose.

Embrace the God of love and truth this season and welcome the       lifestyle changes that you wish to continue into the new year. Welcome the Christ child as a way of renewing your faith. God’s essence is spirit, and so is yours. When you relate to God you are therefore connecting on the deepest possible level, which is spirit-to-spirit with God. You are made in the image of God, and this wonderful fact transcends any superficial physical resemblance between humans and the Almighty. Claim God’s promises and possibilities this season as you strive for the inward transformation that John preached. God bless you as you consider a marvelous baptism by God’s spirit.

-–Reverend Hoxey