Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Do you remember the last time you heard the passage from Isaiah that we heard today? “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.” Do you remember the last time you heard these words?
But all of us come here guided somehow by God, through perils and deserts and floods and dangers, known and unknown. It’s a shame that it took the dramatic story of Jefferson to remind me of that. Nevertheless it is true. Each of us has walked through our own fire to get here. It may not have been the biggest or worst fire, but we had to walk through nevertheless. Some of us still feel trapped by life’s deep waters, and are doing our best to swim along. But God is your lifeguard, who will lead you to shore. Like a drowning man, you might fight and resist God’s help, but God is there, and God has a hold on you, whether you know and recognize God or not. God’s promise isn’t for us to feel or to experience—God’s promise is to be there for us, wherever we are. Sometimes we are so aware of God’s presence, the whole creation hums in our breast. Sometimes we feel so far from God, the world seems to crumble into dust before our eyes. But God is no less present when we despair than when we rejoice. When we pass through fire, God will not the flame consume us.
This past summer, before Jefferson came to stay with us, we voted to become a Sanctuary congregation. For many of you this was a no-brainer. How could OSA be anything other than a sanctuary? Still our historical moment makes such a vote necessary, and therefore in some ways risky. Churches don’t become sanctuaries if there is no need to flee, or no need of safety. And, of course, having voted that way, we would err if we though that we, the congregation of Our Saviour’s Atonement, were the ones providing sanctuary, and not God, who has succored all of us here, fed all of us here, called all of us here.
God is our sanctuary. Voting to become a Sanctuary congregation is voting, in a sense, for God. It is a way of lifting the veil before our eyes to see God’s presence, even when we didn’t know it was there. Or, perhaps, a better way to say it, is that we know God is here. We know that God is our sanctuary. So we do not fear—God is with us, whether we feel God or not. God’s presence doesn’t depend on us. It’s real. It’s there.
The strongest mark of this love is the cross of Christ, upon which hung the savior of the World, God’s beloved Son, in whom God is well-pleased. Even there, Christ did not feel the presence of God—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried. Perhaps that was a moment when God withdrew, and God wasn’t present at all. Yet, like the waves when the tide comes it, God’s presence withdrew so it could come in greater force with the resurrection. St. Paul says that if we die a death like Christ’s, we will certainly be resurrected like he was. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” God is our sanctuary in life and death—and surrounds us in life and death.
Today as we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, we celebrate also our own baptisms, the moment when God our sanctuary made his own promise to us. In ancient times, in some places, these days in early January were known as the festival of lights—from the illumination the faithful received in Baptism, the revelation of the presence of the unknown God. Many would come to be baptized, led by night into the baptistery of the church by torches and lamps. There, with the light winking off the walls and the pools, they would disrobe, and climb down into the water three times. Then they would be covered in oil and given a white baptismal garment. It was an awe-inspiring moment, a moment of passage from the loneliness of death to into the life of the sanctuary of God’s love.
One of the early teachers of the faith, Gregory of Nanzanius, said there were five baptisms in scripture:
- Baptism of Moses—Leviticus xi and the cloud and the Red Sea—through which the people of the promise passed through the waters, out of slavery into freedom.
- John’s Baptism—the baptism of repentance that prepared the way for Jesus, which Jesus underwent to prepare the way of baptism for us.
- Jesus’s Baptism—which is the baptism we practice now, with water and the Holy Spirit, that unites us to the death and resurrection of Christ.
- Baptism of Martyrdom—which is following Jesus on the cross.
- Baptism of tears—which we all undergo and know—the baptism of repentance, the sorrow over what we have done and left undone.
Today, in our Eucharistic prayer, listen for these elements of presence. I know it’s a long one, but there’s a lot for us to remember. In this prayer, we name the ways God surrounds us beyond our knowing, the ways we can only see God with the eyes of faith. We come to surround this table in a circle, knowing that Christ himself is present in the bread and wine, his body and his blood. We know, further, that we are also his body in the world, wounded and marked as he himself appeared to his disciples. And yet all of us, having risen from the baptismal waters, and having been fed with the food of life, can know that we, like Jesus, are God’s beloved children. We have come to be surrounded by prayer and holiness, God’s own presence. God makes us a sanctuary. That’s why we’re here. That’s the good we receive, and the good we give. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack