Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Do not fear. I have called you by name. You are mine. All the people were filled with expectation. Heaven opened. The Holy Spirit descended. God spoke.
Would that all Sundays were as jam packed with divine super powers as Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Water, fire, Spirit, dove, Godly proclamation and affirmation. All those gathered that day around the river Jordan witnessed these supernatural phenomena. Would that all our worship services were so undeniably infused with the presence of the Triune God.
If I surveyed those in the pews of congregations like the ones I know best – those mainline, now dubbed oldline, Protestant congregations located up and down main streets of towns and cities across American – and asked for one word to describe worship, what would it be? Take moment and answer for yourself. What’s the first word that comes to mind? Be honest. Was it “boring”? Maybe “cerebral”? Please don’t get me wrong. I love much about the worship I know best. I love the thoughtfulness. I am a vocal fan of Reformed theology. Nothing makes me happier than to sing familiar hymns like “A Mighty Fortress” or “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.” Bring on the Apostles’ Creed. Yes to the Lord’s Prayer (debtors version, please). Heck, I even relish the 10-minute warm-up of sharing announcements already printed in the bulletin. A too long and/or too vigorous passing of the peace makes me anxious, let’s keep it decent and orderly, friends. I sympathize with those who consider clapping utterly inappropriate in worship, but I can get past it… sometimes. I like to know what’s coming, how long it will take and who has the job of reigning things in should something go awry in any given service.
Then I read the passages appointed for the Baptism of the Lord Sunday and I question my deeply held religious sensibilities. I begin to think perhaps I might be trying to squelch the Spirit, rob God of sloppy displays of emotion clearly present in Isaiah and, oh yes, the Psalms. “The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” Flashing flames. Whirling oaks. Whoa, there, God, don’t you think that’s a bit much? We are just now feeling comfortable going to the front of the sanctuary to receive communion… sometimes.
But the texts for this week reveal the truth that worship, that knowing God and being claimed by God, is nothing short of a full-body experience: every sense engaged, every feeling evoked, every cell of ourselves swept up in the waters of baptism and held in the arms of our Lord. Imagine if all the people coming into our churches this Sunday were filled with that expectation, anticipating that God would call them by name, rescue them from the floods threatening to overtake them, shield them from the fires that would consume them and fill them with the flames that reveal the Word of God. Imagine if they heard the voice of God tell them publicly: You are mine. You are beloved. I am so pleased with you. Nothing boring or cerebral about it
Once, and only once, I have experienced worship in which people were “slain in the Spirit” and spoke in tongues. I’d been invited to a prayer service by a friend I admired and even though I was skeptical and very anxious, I went. She told me in advance that this was a group with many charismatic gifts. I figured I would go more as a religious sociologist than an eager participant. I would observe, respectfully, politely, from as far a distance as I could respectfully, politely and subtly get away with. Most of the group gathered in a circle in the chancel of the sanctuary. I think they sat on the floor, but I may be misremembering that. I sat on a pew about three or four rows back. A few others dotted the pews in front of me.
At first there was only silence. Then a few people voiced prayers. Scripture verses were spoken, unscripted, no order of service, no appointed leader. The prayers got louder as members of the group spoke simultaneously. Still, nothing too out of the ordinary to me. But then it happened. A few people at the front were overcome with emotion. There was audible crying. Whoops and shouts. Then others began speaking in tongues, using sounds and utterances that I did not understand in a language that was not recognizable to me. The prayers in English continued and I could not tell if the two occurrences were connected. Was someone interpreting? I think so. Honestly, at this point it was taking every bit of my Presbyterian energy to remain in the room, unsure what might happen next. I needed a bulletin. I needed some person to be in charge. I decided my best option was to bow my head and pray, focus solely on God the best I could, muster up my spiritual discipline and consider the lilies of the field or some other familiar passage of Scripture.
I began to pray and as I did the loud sounds, the odd syllables, the myriad of voices and vocalizations began to feel not frightening but comforting. I felt a sense of the Holy Spirit in that place. How about that? Perhaps someone was in charge and that someone was God. I do not recall exactly what I prayed that day, but I do know it was during a season when my children were very young and stress was very high. I do know I prayed for peace and discernment and a sense that God was working through what often felt like sleep deprived chaos. I know I lost track of time and was startled when a woman who’d been in the front came and sat beside me. “God gave me a word for you,” she said. Then she proceeded to reiterate to me much of what I had prayed about — not word for word, not exactly, but strikingly spot on. Then she said: “God wants you to know you are where you are supposed to be. God is with you.” Not a burning bush with explicit instruction, but that morning it felt undeniably like a word straight from heaven, a reassurance that God knew me, loved me and had not abandoned me.
I went to that service determined to be a detached observer but left knowing I had been immersed in the Spirit of the living God. It was a total body experience. Nothing boring or cerebral about it.
On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday all of God’s power and tenderness is offered to us. Do not fear. Be filled with expectation. Heaven has opened. Jesus is here. God speaks. Anticipate the coming of the Spirit and know that you are God’s beloved with whom God is pleased.
- Have you ever experienced of the power of the Holy Spirit? Heard the voice of God? What happened? What was it like? Did you share the experience with anyone?
- What one word would you use to describe worship? What one word do you wish described worship?
- What does it mean to you that you are baptized?
- What difference does it make that Jesus was baptized?
- How can our worship be more of a full body experience? Engage all our senses?
- Take to heart the words from Isaiah: Do not fear. What fears do you need to set aside and give to God this week?
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