Sermon Given January 9, 2022
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
One thing that I love about the Holy Spirit is that you can never quite pin it down. If you try to make an orderly account of how the Holy Spirit works in the Bible, you will find that it evades rules, crosses boundaries, and is definitely not something that can be studied systematically. The wind blows as it will. The Spirit moves without human rules to hold it back. To me, this is both comforting and perplexing.
Our reading from Acts is a case in point. Why didn’t the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit right away when they were baptized in the name of Jesus? This text, which is often used to help explain the sacrament of confirmation, is kind of bizarre when taken on its own. It’s only in context that we see a clearer picture of why the laying on of hands was necessary. A great number of people in Samaria had been baptized, but their manner of life hadn’t changed. They weren’t sure how to live in the world as Christ followers, not sure where to turn.
This is exemplified in Simon, a great sorcerer in the region. This portion of Acts that we read is in the center of Simon’s story. He told fortunes and practiced works of healing. His actions were somewhat similar to what the Magi practiced. He looked for signs within and throughout the natural world and he found something in Jesus, so he came to believe. But unlike the Magi, who humbled themselves before God and lived reverent lives, Simon was a bit of a narcissist. He watched everyone receiving the Holy Spirit by the hands of Peter and John and he said, “This is great. I can make money off this.” So he tried to buy their power. He was swiftly rebuked, called to transformation of heart and life. The Holy Spirit actually did work with him. He repented, saying, “All of you, please, plead to the Lord for me…” Even this person, this charlatan, was completely overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Spirit, something the Samaritans had never experienced before.
Once Peter and John came through, laying on hands and calling people out, the Samaritan believers were deeply changed. They weren’t just fascinated by Jesus, they weren’t just interested in living like him, they were completely overwhelmed with the power and ability to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Why hadn’t this happened at their baptism before? Only God knows. But it did happen. And they fell to their knees glorifying God.
Jesus promises a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. A deep cleansing of our lives, an overwhelming dose of God’s glory. We come face to face with God and are given the ability to stand strong and firm in the faith. It’s really not unlike a vaccine. We are given the ability to stare sin, death, greed, and corruption in the face and say, “I rebuke you.” We’re able to not fall into despair, but rather see God’s vision for the world and work towards that reality. And all along the way, there are booster shots of the Spirit. We are constantly and consistently infused with the ability to stand for God. We are promised that everything holding us back can be burned away, and we can become the bread of Christ for the world to receive.
Life’s also really hard. We don’t always see the Holy Spirit at work. We don’t always feel God, even when we desperately want to. Sometimes there’s this feeling of absence, of distance, of incompleteness. It can last days, months or years. Mother Theresa wrote about it in her journals. St. John of the Cross called it the Dark Night of the Soul. I wonder too if that isn’t part of the Samaritan church’s story. They fell in love with Jesus, they were baptized into Christ’s family and called God’s own forever. But the feeling they were supposed to have, they didn’t have. The glory they were supposed to exhibit didn’t seem to come. So they waited, and they prayed and they wondered. Is this it? Is this all there is?
It’s like the moments after getting your diploma or starting a good job. There is a let down, a fallow period where it’s still good, but a bit disappointing. I remember very clearly riding the bus back to our cars after my seminary graduation. I had this diploma in my hands, I was planning my marriage blessing, we were getting ready to move back to Iowa, I had goals and dreams and vision, but I had this overwhelming amount of grief. One life was gone forever. Three years of hard work, of late night papers, of bonding over the routines and rituals of college life were gone. I was done with school. I had gone to seminary directly after undergrad, so my whole life had been for the most part lived as a student. But this was my terminal degree. A new life lay before me. My old life, the things I had learned how to do so well, the studying and test taking and class schedules disappeared. I didn’t know what to do with that or where to go from there. So I stared at this folder in my hands and the hands of so many others on the bus, and wondered, “Is this it?”
I wonder if that had been the feeling of so many Samaritans after their baptism. They had come with so much expectation, they had learned about Jesus, studied with Philip the Evangelist, were eager and ready to have God take over their lives, and after they came through the waters they asked, “Is this it?”
So God sent Peter and John, who could say, “No, there’s plenty more.” A new infusion of the Spirit was poured upon them. They were able to see and believe again. Their old life had ended. Their new life was beginning. While it wasn’t filled with joy every day, it was filled with the goodness of God. The baptismal promise was kept. They were sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
In our Gospel story, we come to find Jesus praying after his baptism. He had gone through the waters of baptism like everyone else, taking on the human search for new life, for new beginnings, for a fresh start. He was already part of God, but he declared his kinship with God just as others had done. We find him praying, connecting with God in this most intimate moment. We aren’t told where Jesus was while he was praying. Luke seems to imply that the baptism was finished, so I’d like to imagine that he is nearby, praying by a rock, looking out upon the waters. Suddenly the heavens break open. The Holy Spirit comes like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Other Gospels have God saying, “Listen to him”, directing the voice to those around Jesus, but Luke creates this intimate, beautiful scene. God’s saying I love you to Jesus. There are no commands, no demands, just simply, “I love you, Son.”
No matter where we are on our journeys, whether in the peaks of excitement or the depths of despair, we are promised that we too can find God’s simple words in our lives, “I love you.” Our prayers can help us build that relationship. Our relationships with others and with nature can help us find God’s expressions to us. Even in the “Now what?” moments, there the voice comes, softly, subtly, “I love you.”
Even when God’s presence is neither felt or assured, we can put oxygen in our lungs, breathe out carbon dioxide for the trees, and trust that in our very act of breathing, even done behind masks, God is saying, “I love you.”
I invite you to try an exercise in your life. It’s something I did in a discipleship class a long time ago. Take God’s words to Jesus and make them God’s word to yourself. In our class, we had one person sit in the middle of the circle and everyone declared these words to them. “Rose, you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” “Elliot, you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”…And so on, each one voicing God’s voice in a chorus of friends. Each one of us here can say that to ourselves and each other. When you say it, allow yourself to feel it, to believe it. We can repeat it to ourselves and say it to our loved ones as the water once again falls upon us and we remember our baptisms today. It can be said every day, in every place, in all facets of our lives. “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Watch and wait for that Holy Spirit to come, in the ordinary and extraordinary places of life. Believe it and claim it. This is your promise in baptism. The Holy Spirit is mysterious. It comes and goes as it will, but it always does come. It does not abandon. You are God’s child. In you, God is well pleased. Even in the highs and lows, even when you mess up, when you repent, when you have to begin again. God is there. The Holy Spirit can come and fill you up, readying you to face the world again. New life is possible. You are beloved.