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The Waters of Home
January 09, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 43:1-7 Luke 3:15-17, 20-22 Acts 8:14-17
Do any of you enjoy admiring architecture? Although it isn’t something that I ever aspired to, over the years as I’ve toured castles in Europe, taken an art class in college, read books and magazines about Frank Lloyd Wright, studied engineering, traveled, and just been generally observant of the places where I have found myself, I’ve come to appreciate some aspects of the art of architecture and the unique, and sometimes eccentric, design elements that you find in particular eras and geographic locations. In the south, it isn’t uncommon to build houses that are in contact with the ground while in the north, because of the way that freezing earth can break a house in half, we almost always anchor a house underground below the frost line. In the East we think nothing of building homes and chimneys with brick, but in the West, where earthquakes are common, they wouldn’t dream of building such rigid structures.
But, as I considered the scripture lessons for today, the design element that stood out in my memory was the widow’s walk. If you aren’t familiar with it, the widow’s walk is a design element that can still be found in homes on the East Coast that were built in the era of sailing ships. When men went to sea, they would often be away from home for months, and even years. And the homes of some of these men faced the sea where their wives and families could keep watch for their return. On these homes, three stories up, along the highest ridgeline of the roof, would be a catwalk where wives would climb to look as far out to sea as they possibly could, in hopes that they might spy their husband’s ship returning home. Of course, not all of them did, and thus the name, Widow’s walk.
But on the other end of those longing looks to the sea, were the men who sailed the world in search of adventure, treasure, or just a way to make a living. For weeks, months, or years, they would be crammed into close quarters, fed a poor diet that often lacked in critical vitamins and minerals, were exposed to harsh weather conditions, and in all the time that they were there, they longed for home and hearth. And just as wives and families celebrated when ships were sighted returning home, those sailors were no different. They knew from their charts and navigation where they were, but you can be sure that their blood flowed warmer, smiles grew, and joy spread through them all when they began to recognize the familiar currents, smell the remembered fragrances, and hear the call of the sea birds with whom they had grown up. It was a wonderful and joyful time when sailors returned to the waters of home.
And although none of us love on the coast, and none of us earn our living by putting out to sea on those great sailing vessels of the past, today’s scriptures still have a story for each one of us about the waters of home. We begin this morning by reading from Isaiah 43:1-7, where we hear these words:
43:1 But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush and Seba in your stead.
4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight,
and because I love you,
I will give people in exchange for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you;
I will bring your children from the east
and gather you from the west.
6 I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’
and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’
Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
First, it’s important to make note of what Isaiah does not say. Isaiah does not say that the followers of God get a free pass, that we never have trouble, never get rained on, never have storms in our lives, never get swept downriver in the raging rapids, and never pass-through times that feel like our entire lives are on fire. In fact, Isaiah says quite the opposite saying that we will have difficult times in our lives, but when we do, God will be with us. When we have storms in our lives, God is there. When we pass through raging river rapids we won’t drown. When our lives seem to be on fire, we will not catch fire and we will not be burned because God will be with us before, during, and after those difficult times of trial.
Isaiah goes on to say that when God’s people, you, have been taken captive by other nations, God will negotiate for your ransom so that you can return home, and that his people should not be afraid, once again, because God is with us. There will be a day, God says, when all his children will be brought home from the places to which they have traveled both willingly and by force.
The people of Israel knew all those stories, they had heard all of God’s promises in their synagogues and the schools where they studied for their bar mitzvahs. And you can be sure that during their civil war, and the resulting Roman occupation, the promises of God found in Isaiah were especially close to their hearts. They wondered when God was going to redeem them, rescue them, and gather them together as the nation of God’s people. And it is that environment of expectancy that we hear about in Luke 3:15-17, 21-22. The people hear about the things that John the Baptizer is doing in the desert and about the things that he is preaching, and they begin to wonder if the time that Isaiah had prophesied had finally come.
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
John says that he is not the messiah. The water that he uses for baptism is symbolic of cleansing and purifying, but everyone understood that bathing only makes us clean for the moment and tomorrow we will be dirty again. But, John says, there is another person coming who is more powerful and that person will purify people through the power of the holy Spirit and fire. Washing with water temporarily makes us clean on the outside but when you put silver or gold in the fire, melt it, and drive out the impurities, that gold becomes pure inside and out and it stays that way.
Similarly, the purification of the messiah will be enduring rather than temporary. And to underscore John’s words, all three persons of the Trinity appear together. As Jesus is praying after his baptism, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and God the father speaks from heaven declaring that Jesus is his son. The prophecy of the time that Isaiah saw is beginning. The Messiah has come and the call to gather God’s people and return them home has begun but it doesn’t look quite like Isaiah, the Jews of Israel, and everyone else thought that it would. At least not yet. In Luke’s letter describing the acts of the apostles, we see even more of this prophecy unfold in Acts 8:14-17 when he says:
14 When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. 15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 17 Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
Samaria had been populated by the Persian Empire as a part of their system of pacification of new territories. The people that had been dropped there were ethnically Jewish but had intermarried with others in the Persian empire and so they were labeled as half-breeds and impure by the Jews of Israel. As a result, the Samaritans were forbidden to worship in the temple in Jerusalem and had formed their own church, built their own temple, and their own system of worship in Samaria. Samaria and Israel had been enemies, and at war with one another, for generations. If the Roman army hadn’t been there to keep the peace, Samaria and Israel would almost certainly still have been at war with one another during the time of the New Testament. But here, in the story of Acts, something changes. Suddenly, the message of the gospel, the story of Jesus, and his redemption and rescue is heard, spread, and accepted in Samaria, they come to faith in Jesus Christ, and the Jewish disciples, people who should have hated one another, accept these Samaritans as family, lay their hand on them, and the Samaritans receive the same baptism of the Holy Spirit that had come upon the disciples and the other followers of Jesus.
This short story in Acts reveals that the Messiah is already calling God’s children to come home. The time has not yet come for everyone to return and live together in the same country, but as they hear the call of Jesus Christ, God’s children are coming home. Today we still wait for God to call us to live together in the New Jerusalem or in his eternal home, but the followers of Jesus Christ all over the world, people of every tribe, every nation, every ethnicity, and every language, call one another family. No matter where we have come from, or where we find ourselves, every one of us can find a home in the family of Jesus Christ.
We are those sailors who traveled far from home. We are the wanderers.
Just as Isaiah foretold, the Messiah, Jesus, has come. And baptism is our invitation to be a part of God’s family… to finally… belong.
Through the waters of baptism, God is calling us to return to the waters…
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.