Sunday Sermon for 12 December 2021: “Beyond Water”

Today’s message from Luke 3: 7-18 reveals a dramatic encounter with John the Baptist, a contemporary of Jesus and a stern prophet. John warned people about how following God requires a change of behavior from the inside-out rather than simply performing the ritual of baptism.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3: 7b – 8a). John’s exclamation represents the manner in which he warned 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 or alternative to the much harder work of cleansing themselves from sin. John warned everyone that baptism was not magic but was instead the outward act 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 Sprit 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 claiming that true believers must demonstrate miraculous signs of spiritual power through, for instance, speaking in tongues (often described as ecstatic babble).

There seems to be a deep-seated psychological need for some people to validate and affirm themselves by personal drama, forms of performance art dressed-up in religious language and referred to as “speaking in tongues,” “prophesying,” “faith healing,” etc. John the Baptist’s point is that such excitable energy misses the point. The gist is that no trumped-up emotional expression substitutes for a lifestyle of proper thinking and acting. Speaking in tongues and similar theatrics denigrate true spirituality into a sideshow spectacle. The remedy is to follow John’s wisdom: authenticity means transformed attitudes and behaviors in everyday life.

It’s helpful to perceive yourself as God’s worthy child, someone privileged to experience restoration. 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 alternative to an otherwise dreary existence. As always, baptism and other rituals 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 superficially emotional for the inward miracle of God’s spirit.

In the joy of Advent, welcome the Christ child and joyfully renew 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. Claim God’s promises and possibilities this season as you strive for the inward transformation that John preached. Blessings of joy as you embrace a marvelous baptism by God’s spirit.  –Reverend Larry Hoxey

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