Epiphany 1C Sermon (2001)

The Baptism of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22;
Isa. 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17

CHOSEN . . . TO BE ON FIRE

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Chosen. A very important biblical idea. The People of Israel, from the time of Abraham and Sarah, are God’s chosen people. St. Paul, in Romans 9-11, goes to great lengths to say that the Jews are still God’s chosen people, despite the fact that the majority have rejected Jesus as the Messiah — perhaps, in the mystery of God’s plan part of their chosenness even lies in the fact that they were the ones to reject God’s Messiah, at least for now. And the word MessiahChrist in the Greek — is a title which basically means “Chosen One.” The Christ is God’s Chosen One, and Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism and with a voice from heaven calling down, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Yes, being chosen is a very important biblical idea.

But what does it mean? What does it mean to be God’s Chosen One? And chosen for what? Here’s the promise from God to Abraham and Sarah, right from the beginning in Genesis 12:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3)

A blessing for all the families of the earth! Well, this sounds like such a positive privilege. It became, however, a great mystery when the nation of Israel, which had become great under Kings David and Solomon, began to be instead the doormat for every other nation that came through Palestine: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome, which finished the job for good about thirty years after Jesus died on the cross, when they smashed the Temple in Jerusalem for the last time and began the process of scattering God’s chosen people throughout the world. That process has continued for almost two thousand years, with the Jewish people continuing to be a favorite scapegoat for other peoples, until that fated, horrific time when Hitler made them the “Final Solution” for his German people. After the Holocaust, many a Jewish person has understandably voiced their reaction to chosenness something like this: “If the Holocaust is what it means to be God’s Chosen People, then maybe God should choose someone else.” Can you blame them? What does it mean to be God’s Chosen? What happen to those promises to Abraham and Sarah? How can a people, who for more than 2500 years have been a favorite scapegoat for other peoples, possibly be a blessing for all the families of the earth?

And do these questions become any easier with Jesus of Nazareth, the one we Christians proclaim as the Christ, God’s Chosen One, the one whom God proclaimed at his baptism as his Beloved Son? Jesus’ disciples came to believe that he was the Christ, God’s Chosen One. And they continued to want to believe that that would mean some positive privilege, some power over their enemies. Luke’s gospel gives us a great example. Luke marks for us the precise moment when Jesus knows what his mission as the Chosen One of God will entail: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). “Taken up.” Jesus knows he will be arrested and killed on the cross. But at this moment, they were about to go into a Samaritan village. Jesus changes his mind and instead heads for Jerusalem, and so what do his disciples assume about this change in itinerary? They assume it’s because Jews hate Samaritans. Listen to what happens next:

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:54-55)

Do you see what’s happening here? The disciples think that being chosen ones of God means power over one’s enemies; God can rain down fire on them. But Jesus knows it’s something different. In fact, he knows from what will happen to him that being God’s Chosen One will look like the exact opposite! If anyone is to have fire rained down on the them, it will be him. He himself will be the Lamb of God, the one sacrificed in such fires of violence.

This misunderstanding carries on right through to the end of the Gospel. Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Peter answers, “The Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20). The Chosen One of God. To which Jesus’ response is:

He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, saying, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:21-22)

Peter tries to rebuke Jesus and say, ‘No, that can’t be right.’ But Jesus rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33). Do you see? The divine and human understandings of what it means to be chosen by God appear to be completely different.

Our Epiphany season, which begins today, will end in eight weeks with the voice from Heaven once again saying, “This is my Beloved Son.” Again, the disciples will misunderstand. On the mountain of transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), where Jesus’ appearance changed to this dramatic glowing and the disciples saw the great prophets Elijah and Moses, Peter wants to start building churches right there. This time Jesus’ Father in heaven is the one who responds:

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

Yes, the voice from heaven echoes the same words of chosenness as we hear this morning at Jesus’ baptism, but the meaning of that chosenness is eluding the disciples. Jesus’ Father in heaven knows their denseness and seems to add, almost out of frustration, “Listen to him!

And so it is that the last place in which Jesus’ chosenness is declared in the Gospels, the source is a quite strange one. It’s not God, or Jesus himself, or a disciple. No, this final declaration comes at the foot of the cross from a Gentile, from the Roman centurion in charge of executing Jesus as a state criminal:

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)

It is especially at the foot of the cross that we must begin to ponder the mystery of being a Chosen One of God.

I’d like to suggest the beginnings of an answer to this mystery posed by chosenness by asking another question raised by this morning’s Gospel Lesson. Folks are asking John the Baptist if he is the Chosen One, to which he responds,

“I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming…. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.”

The question is, “What sort of fire?” If the Chosen One of God comes with fire, then what kind of fire is this?” John calls to mind the image of wheat being separated from its chaff, with the chaff being burned up with “unquenchable fire.” We could also ask, then, what sort of fire is the unquenchable fire?

As we come to an answer to such questions, let’s keep in mind what the Gospel stories have already established for us regarding chosenness: God’s idea of chosenness would seem to be completely different than our idea of chosenness. I would be surprised, then, if this wasn’t also true for fire: God’s idea of unquenchable fire is completely different than our idea of unquenchable fire.

So what is our human idea of fire? We’ve already seen a good example of it: Jesus’ disciples, when they see Jesus skipping the town of their enemies, the Samaritans, ask him, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Our idea of fire so often involves the violent, consuming end we wish for those we hate. As expected, Jesus expresses God’s differing ideas about fire by rebuking his disciples for such wishes.

What about us? Do we modern disciples still cling to any notions of fire to consume our enemies? This might make us uncomfortable, but I’d like to such a notion: our popular idea of Hell as a place where God will consume our enemies in an unquenchable fire. Does such a notion of fire fit our ideas of fire or God’s? Aren’t we the ones who wish fire on our enemies like Jesus’ disciples? And isn’t Jesus the Chosen One of God who came to rebuke us for such notions? When we look to the cross of Jesus, what kind of fire do we see? Doesn’t it look much more like a fire of love and forgiveness to burn away the chaff of our hate? Jesus submitted himself to our kinds of fires, letting himself be consumed by it on the cross. How could we ever stand at the foot of the cross, with Jesus raining down forgiveness and love for his enemies, and believe in Hell as a place of God’s unquenchable fire? Doesn’t Hell much more resemble our places of fire?

And is our brand of fire the unquenchable fire? No!! God raised Jesus from the dead with the truly unquenchable fire, the fire of God’s loving forgiveness, which came first to Jesus’ disciples and began the process of separating away the chaff of our hatreds and burning them in that unquenchable fire.

Let’s be clear about this. As we look about our world even today and see the terrifying fires of our consuming violence everywhere, which kind of fire do we hope to be unquenchable, our fires of hate or God’s fire of love? We would rain down fires of violence on our enemies. Here, according to St. Paul, is what God does to enemies:

But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8, 10)

God showers us with love! And, yes, that us means that we also come to realize that we are included in the list of God’s enemies. So we had better hope that it is God’s brand of fire that is unquenchable and not ours. God’s loving forgiveness begins by burning away another kind of chaff from us: the kind of blindness that keeps us thinking someone else to be God’s enemy and not ourselves. Jesus, the Chosen One, came to unveil us from that blindness by himself becoming one of those we deem as an enemy of God, a blasphemer, one whom we are justified in consuming in the Holocaust of our fires of violence, the fires which we think to be of God. In being such a Chosen One, Jesus reveals the true fire from God, a fire of love that can burn away all the chaffs of our hatreds and make us anew.

When we look around us and come to more clearly see the fires of violence around us as our fires of violence, it can seem pretty overwhelming. We just came through the most fiery, violent, flesh-consuming century of human history yet. We can look at the carnage and despair that these fires of violence of ours are the unquenchable fires.

Or we can look upon the Chosen One who already passed through those fires of ours and has risen to new life through the fire of God’s love. We can choose to believe and hope that God’s fire of love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ is the unquenchable fire that will one day consume all our fires of hatred and vengeance. We can choose to believe that it is God’s fire of love that came upon the first disciples on Pentecost in the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit, and that this is the same fire of love that comes upon each of us in our baptisms, the Holy Spirit which claims each of us as God’s chosen and to set us on fire . . . with love. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, January 7, 2001

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