Sermon Transcript Jan 10, 2021

Remembering Our Baptism

 Fear gripped my soul last Wednesday. I knew something was going on because when I went to check Facebook, there was nothing but posts about DC. So, I turned on an actual news station and watched as a group of people forced their way into our capitol building. Where was the law enforcement? The national guard? Would this coup succeed? What would happen to our country? 

     I was reminded of how fragile we are. We cannot and should not take our democracy for granted. I believe that the events of last week have led us to a vital crossroads as Christians and as citizens of the United States. Will we let this fire of hatred consume us or galvanize us? I do not believe that last week was the last we’ve witnessed. Maybe we’ll see more extremism in a couple of weeks or months; it’s even possible this could take years. Although that is a terrifying thought, let us take heart. Let us encourage one another. Let us come together as children of God. Together, with one another and with God, we can pass through the waters and fires of this world. 

     “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. 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…” At the time this passage was written, the Israelites found themselves in exile. The author of this text understood that this would be a difficult time. Not only does he speak an encouraging message, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” In doing so, reminding the Israelites that they are made by God in God’s image and that God was with them even then. The prophet Isaiah goes even further than speaking only an encouraging message; he connected that message to another time of distress for the Israelites. 

     The fire and water imagery would have been heard as symbolic to their ancestor’s escape from Egypt. The pillar of fire led them away by night and God divided the waters allowing their escape to the promised land. This message would have built a connection between the current Israelites in exile and their ancestors, generations before. By doing that the original audiences might have been encouraged that not only does God still call them but also this is the same God who delivered their ancestors out of slavery. If God could do that way back then, surely God could do the same for them.

     The fire and water imagery would have also connotated chaos. It was over the chaos of waters that God’s spirit hovered before the earth was formed. Yet, God was able to create life in the midst of that chaos. Fire can be chaotic and damaging as well. Left unchecked, a fire can ravish entire cities. It can also be used to temper. In other words, fire can destroy or strengthen. God’s promise to the Israelites in this passage is that neither the waters or the fire shall overwhelm or consume them. 

     The Israelites were familiar with the Creation account of Genesis. They knew how God was able to create nothing out of that chaos. Isaiah’s use of water here reflects back to the Exodus and their escape through water as well as the waters at creation. This passage could have evoked a sense of creation as well. Implying that creation not only happened eons ago but is also currently happening in the midst of their exile. God was not done with them, but could still create relationships with them. 

     One of the major themes throughout the prophetic books was turning away from God. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah and so on are all preaching to a group of people who apparently abandoned the faith of their ancestors. A coinciding theme, the flip side of that coin was the seeking of an answer to “why are things happening the way they are?” The prophets are framed around the Exile. The prophets preached either before, during or after. The Hebrew Scriptures, while being written over long periods of time, was finally canonized after the Exile. That means that the books were all put together in the order we are familiar with some time after the Exile and before Jesus’ time. One of the questions the editors had was, “Why were we in Exile to begin with?” The answer that the prophetic books offered was the idolatry of the Israelite people.

     We start to get into dangerous territory when we frame it this way. The Israelites did not hate God and they didn’t go on to crucify Jesus. The Church, world-wide, has done a lot of harm by painting the Israelites as the “bad guys” and the villains in Jesus’ crucifixion. They are people like you and me. As such, like you and me, are prone to lose their way from time to time…as are we all. What many of the prophets noticed was that the people they were preaching to, worshipped God by means of offerings and worship. HOWEVER!!!, they weren’t treating their neighbors well. The prophet Micah went so far as to describe the rich as eating the poor…cannibalistic imagery! I’ll never forget that because that was one of my first seminary papers, but I digress.

     Why were the Israelites forced into Exile? Why did the Northern Kingdom of Israel fall? According to the prophets, it’s because their people forgot God. They turned away. It was no longer a sincere relationship between God and God’s people but rather a habit. Going to church on Sundays and ignoring God the rest of the week if we were to put it in our context. When we read the book of Judges, we get this kind of vibe as well. Why were the Israelites under the thumb of foreign oppressors? Because they did what was right in their own eyes. That can be some dangerous theology, today we know that as the Prosperity Gospel: bad things happen because we fail God whereas good things happen because we are faithful to God. That’s just not how God operates. Bad things happen to faithful people all the time.

     What we need to take away from all this is: God loves us. God remains with us always even in the most difficult times. Also, God demands authentic worship. It’s not enough praise God and in the next action do something so outrageously against the nature of God that we leave people wondering, “Is that person really a Christian?”

     The riots on Wednesday broke my heart and scared me for many reasons. Foremost among them was the blatant sacrilege of “Christian flags” and “Jesus 2020” flags proudly waving with their bearers as they attacked our capitol building. That is Christian nationalism. It is wrong. It is idolatrous. I don’t know how we got here but somehow, we, as a nation, equated “Christian” with “American”. It is long overdue for us to move past that. We are Christians first and foremost. We can still be proud to be American. One can be a Christian without being American and one can be American without being Christian. 

     “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” The flames of insurrection might consume us but if we work together, those flames can refine us. We are on a delicate edge right now. We could end up going either way. Jesus warned his disciples long ago as well as us who read his words, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.” We are undoubtedly living in such a time that even us, the elect, can be led astray. We do not need to fear this, but we should be aware of it. God told us through the prophet Isaiah, “When we pass through the waters, I will be with you and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.”

     We are at a crossroads as a people of faith: will we continue to condone or ignore these dangerous ideals or will we remember our baptismal vows? Fight evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves…YES but also to claim Christ as our King! We cannot serve both Christ and nationalistic ideals. We can be patriotic without a doubt…but when our patriotism becomes blind loyalty to a single party or leader, it becomes idolatrous. 

     Wednesday afternoon was terrifying. I was revolted by the blatant disregard for the sanctity of our government. I was appalled at the “Christian” symbols waved about so blatantly as their bearers rushed our capitol building in an act that has not been done since the British burned our capital to the ground in the War of 1812. Even during the Civil War, when the Confederate army was only 5 miles away, the Union Army rallied to prevent them from taking the Confederate flag into our capitol. Yet, a group of rioters were able to accomplish that easily last week.

     I admit that I have been complicit in this sin. No, I have not invaded our capitol building. I have not spread conspiracy theories with the hopes of shifting blame away from the perpetrators. However, I have remained in the background for too long. I have spoken of my faithful ideals so long as they have been convenient for me. I have taken no risks to ensure that Christ be known by all around me. Like the people of Amos’ time, I have surrounded myself with comforts, “you have built houses of hewn stone…”  

     I talk a big game but I do what I can to “stay neutral.” Pastors are caught in a tricky situation. We need to be pastors to everyone, that is our call. By trying to be a pastor to everyone, I need to be careful with what I say and how I say it. I don’t wish to alienate anyone. There are “prophetic” pastors who call vigorously call out the sins they see in the world and encourage their congregations to be better. There are “chaplain” pastors who try to not rock the boat. They care for their people and give good sermons but not fiery ones. The trick is to walk that fine line of stirring people to action while still caring for them. In my experience, in trying not to upset anyone, I’ve opted more for the “chaplain” route, at least in recent weeks. 

     If this week has taught us anything, it is no longer ok to simply sit on the sidelines. We cannot sit calmly by and just pray about our concerns. Prayer is an excellent thing…keep praying. Prayer without actions is simply treating God as a vending machine.

     “Dear God, please keep us safe and protect our democracy. Amen” And then we continue as if there is nothing more we can do. I’ll admit, it is easy to get bogged down in anxiety about it all. Wednesday afternoon, I witnessed an attack on our democracy. I can’t say that I was overly surprised given the warning signs but I was shocked nonetheless. I went home. Anything I thought about saying seemed reactionary and inflammatory. So, I prayed. 

     I followed up the next morning with what I hoped were words of comfort for all of you on our email chain. It’s not much. It’s a start. I don’t have all the answers. Together, we can figure this out. Let us not get caught up in the trappings of this world. There are Christians who are Democrats, Republicans and everywhere in-between. Our fight is not against politics and parties but against spiritual forces and cosmic powers of this present darkness. Let us not go at each other’s throats but rather, let us gather together. Let us unite as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

     We can start today by remembering out baptismal vows…

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