Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a kid, the social studies curriculum for sixth grade was the state of Minnesota. We spent a whole year learning about the geography, government, and history of our fine state. We made maps, we memorized county seats, and we learned about the Native Americans who were there when our ancestors arrived.
In the spring of the year, our class got to go on a field trip to Minneapolis and St. Paul. It was a big deal. We lived three hours away, so it was not a frequent occurrence for any of us to go the Cities. We planned, we did fundraisers, and we crossed our fingers that our tour of the State Capitol might allow us to go all the way up to the balcony where the golden horses reside so we might peer at them from behind.
On the designated day, we got up long before day break, and in the early morning hours, the 39 kids in my class got dropped off by our parents, and we boarded a school bus. In the dim light, I walked down the aisle and greeted my friends, looking for a solo girl who might want a seatmate. Alas, there were none, so I found an empty seat, settled in and took account the situation. Did you two have a sleepover? And you two had a sleepover?…Those two had a sleepover…. It turned out all of the girls in my class except me had a sleepover! And, of course, that meant they each had a friend for the day, and I did not.
Well, all went well; everybody talked on the bus, and we went places in groups. We saw the capitol, (even though the visit to the horses was not to be). We drove through downtown Minneapolis, and when we turned onto Nicollet Avenue, all 39 of us pressed up against the windows to get a look at the Foshay Tower and the IDS Center, the only two skyscrapers at the time. Our teacher, Miss Bebensee, said, “Boys and girls, sit down! You act like you’ve never seen a tall building before!” Of course, it was true, we hadn’t. We headed home and stopped for dinner at Wampach’s in Shakopee on the way.
As the sun went down, I settled into my cold, lonely seat and felt sorry for myself. The nagging feeling that had been there all day expressed itself in fully formed thoughts in the dark. “Loser,” my mind said. “Sixteen girls in the class, and not one of them thought about having a sleepover with you. Every one of them had found someone to spend the day with, but I was not chosen.” Jealousy reared its ugly head.
Junior high ensued, along with the inevitable nastiness. We took turns being mad at each other. We kept track of who had what and who was with whom. One day, I discovered some news about Susan that I thought would make juicy gossip so I rehearsed it in my mind and then relished telling my friend Karen. As the words came out of my mouth, they left a bad taste. I realized that once you’ve uttered a vicious tales, you can’t take it back, so now I had a new name for myself, “Mean Girl.” In all likelihood, it would get back to Susan, and my name would be attached to it. I was in a tight spot; I had painted myself into a corner, and I didn’t know how to get out.
Do you know the feeling – the tight spot? We find ourselves in constricting situations for a variety of reasons: relationships that aren’t going well, financial stress, problems with health, prejudice and hatred, poverty. We feel hemmed in, enclosed, stuck – and we want room to breathe.
What would the opposite of this situation be? If you’re like me, you don’t really think about it until you get into the tight spot, and then you just want to go back to normal. The opposite of being constricted is to be at ease. It’s a spaciousness that is liberating.
Today we are beginning a new sermon series called, “The Salvation Project.” We’re in the midst of reading the Gospel of Luke, and it so happens that salvation is one of the main themes in the Gospel of Luke. Of course, one can argue that salvation is the core theme of the whole Bible, and it is, but Luke takes special care to show us how Jesus is the redeemer sent by God to bring salvation to all people. Five times in the first three chapters Luke tells us that we will know salvation through Jesus.
So what is salvation anyway? I’ll admit that I haven’t always been fond of the term. It seems like a theological word that you’re just supposed to know. It’s related to the afterlife, I think, but why does that concern me now? Life is pretty good; why should I worry about that?
In the Old Testament, the most common word in Hebrew for salvation is yasha. It turns out that the root meaning of the word yasha implies space and breath. It’s the opposite of being constricted. It also turns out that God is most often the subject of the sentences that contain yasha. There are names that are derived from this word – Joshua, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jesus – all of them meaning, “God saves.”
Some years ago, I read a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called, “Leaving Church,” and discovered a definition of salvation that I found so helpful that I typed it up and made copies to hand out to people when I thought they would hear it as good news.
“Salvation is a word for the divine spaciousness that comes to human beings in all the tight places where their lives are at risk, regardless of how they got there or whether they know God’s name. Sometimes it comes as an extended human hand and sometimes as a bolt from the blue, but either way, it opens a door in what looked for all the world like a wall. This is the way of life, and God alone knows how it works.”1
It turns out that salvation is not just related to the afterlife, but concerns this life, too.
In our reading today, John is in the wilderness when the word of God comes to him. Like others who had come before him, he was given a word of truth to speak. He was a prophet whose task was to prepare the way of the one who was to come. Through the one who was coming, all people would see the salvation of God.
We’re not quite sure what to make of John; he’s rough around the edges, a salty character who calls the people a “brood of vipers.” It sounds insulting. And yet, they come and listen to him, and they hear what he has to say as “good news.” “Turn your life in another direction, be baptized, receive forgiveness.”
“What should we do?” they ask, and he says, “This is what it means to repent, to reorient yourself. If you have more than you need, be generous. Do you have food on the table and clothes on your back? Then share with others who don’t have enough. Do your work with honor; don’t be greedy. Don’t acquire things dishonestly; do your job justly.” That’s what it looks like when God’s salvation comes: there’s a divine spaciousness that allows all people and all of creation to thrive.
They wondered, “Could John be the one for whom we’re waiting?” But John said, “No, I baptize you with water; the one who is coming will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the very presence of God.” And then John receded.
Without fanfare, Jesus came in their midst and was baptized, just as they were. The heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus. A voice from heaven came and said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you, I am well pleased.” Did you hear that? In baptism, Jesus received his identity – child of God – and a name – Beloved. This was the work of God.
In our baptism, we, too, are given an identity. We, too, are called “child of God,” and we are named “Beloved.” It is not dependent on us. It is a gift of God, given at God’s initiative.
Many of us don’t remember our baptisms. If we were raised Lutheran, we were likely baptized as infants. Martin Luther stressed that baptism was about what God does for us and is not dependent on us in any way so we might as well bathe infants in that grace as soon as possible; why not give them the benefits of baptism from the beginning? So our best recollections are the stories we’ve heard and photos we’ve seen. We might be tempted to think of our baptisms as quaint rituals, static events that happened in the past and were once and for all. But baptism is life-giving, and we need to be reminded of the identity that we were given in baptism because we forget. We hear so many other messages and names that cover up the identity given to us by God. Sometimes the messages and names come because of us. We still live in tight places. Sin takes hold and constricts us.
Another one of my favorite authors, Rachel Held Evans, talks about how jealousy, fear, greed, lust, hate, materialism, and pride “join in a chorus…of voices locked in an ongoing battle with God to lay claim over our identity, to convince us we belong to them, that they have the right to name us.
Where God calls the baptized beloved,” she says, “demons (come up with other names like loser, mean girl), sinner, failure, fat, worthless, faker, screwup.
And where God calls us child, the demons (try to seduce us) with (words like) rich, powerful, pretty, important, religious, esteemed, accomplished, right….
The great struggle of the Christian life is to take God’s name for us, to believe we are beloved and to believe that (that) is enough.”
Baptism is not dependent on us, but it includes us. Like Jesus, we get sent out to live in the world as beloved children, bearing witness to and being agents of God’s salvation. We get to be part of it – part of God’s salvation project.
In just a few minutes, we are going to affirm our baptisms. After we sing the hymn of the day, you will be invited to confess your faith and to affirm the baptism with which you were welcomed into the church. And because baptism is not static and a quaint artifact from the past, you are invited to re-commit to the promises made in baptism, promises that may have been made for you, to say ‘yes’ again to the covenant that God has made with you, and to promise to continue growing in that covenant.
God has invited us to join him in the “salvation project.” Won’t you come along?
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church
2Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday