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1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 7, 2001
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Preaching the texts
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
After the introductory material of Jesus' birth and surrounding events in the first two chapters of Luke, chapter three begins the story proper of the ministry of Jesus, beginning with the character of John the Baptist. The first event in the story is the baptism of Jesus. At the beginning of the gospel story, the Baptism of Jesus is the defining event that sets Jesus on a narrative trajectory that will bring him to the conclusion of the story: death and resurrection. The central image of the assigned text is baptism. In a similar way that the author of the Gospel of John sets the tone with the defining story of the Wedding at Cana as the lead story of the gospel, Luke uses the baptism as an event that sets the theme of the rest of the gospel. If we understand how Luke uses baptism as a metaphor, then we will understand the basic theological point of the Gospel of Luke, which is identifying and naming the transforming power of God.
The movement of Baptism is to go down and then to come up. This is the basic rhythm of the way that God's power operates in the world. In order to go up, we must first go down. In order to experience life, we must go through death. Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, there will be no fruit. Death is the portal, the window, the door to transformation, and the act of baptism dramatizes this basic movement. The act of baptism is the defining movement of God's transforming power in the world. The way baptism functions in the narrative is to be the defining theological movement. Purification does not seem to be an important aspect to Jesus' baptism. That's why it would be nonproductive to discuss the quandary of Jesus' sinlessness and the contradictory act of baptism for purification of sin.
This poem is a clear call to correctly name the creative power of the world "God." All transforming power is ascribed to God, and the call is to worship and ultimately to trust that power. This is the power that is exemplified in the baptism of Jesus.
In a similar way that the Psalm above is a call to trust the power of God, Isaiah assures us that God's power takes the form of love and can be trusted. Fear not: God is the Creator; God loves and highly values those God has created; God's love can be trusted.
Preaching the texts
This being the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the theme of the sermon can be how God manifests God's power in and through Jesus Christ. By looking at baptism, we can see how God's power works.
A sermon can begin with all the different ways we experience death, not only the death of our bodies at the end of our lives. There are many faces to death: lose of dreams, youth, job, loved ones, etc. Even being expelled from the womb, though we don't remember it, is our first experience of loss. Birth sometimes feels like death. Yet, as comfortable and secure as the womb is, who would want to stay there? The same principle applies to all aspects of our lives. Life moves along and cannot be stopped. And this movement is the rhythm of death and new life, from the most trivial aspects of our experience of each moment that comes to us, to the dramatic experiences of transformation. Once death is seen as an integral part of life, we can see how life comes out of death. The sermon can name that power the power of God, and that transforming power can be trusted. Each moment of transformation from death to new life is a resurrection. The Holy Spirit can be interpreted as the way we experience the transforming power of God
The point can be made that our culture is interested only in going up. It does not want to go down. Going down is failure. All attempts to go down are avoided at all cost. We organize our lives in order to protect us from going down. The preacher can point this out in our common use of language. When the stock market goes down, it's bad; when an airplane crashes, it goes down. When someone is depressed, he or she is down. The use of such language can be elaborated. Yet, it is impossible to continually go up. Recognizing the need to go down in order to go up is to identify the basic rhythm of the gospel.
The preacher can draw on his or her own experiences, or those experiences of the congregation to demonstrate this rhythm. We see it in nature, in the cycles of the seasons. We see in our own bodies as they grow old. We see it in our relationships. Every aspect of life and the way we experience it is tuned to this rhythm. When we deny this reality or avoid it, we twist our lives out of balance. To trust this rhythm and the power behind it, we experience true peace.
The point of the sermon is to dramatize the rhythm of the gospel: going down in order to come up.
Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.