“Baptism, God’s Glory, and Prisoner 24601”
Sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
January 13, 2013
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-22
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the Sunday of the church year we focus on the fact that Jesus himself was baptized. So it’s not a bad time to think about the meaning of baptism for each of us, particularly in light of the fact that we have eighth-graders and their mentors who are beginning the journey toward confirming the vows made for them at their baptism. We commission their mentors today and we present the confirmands with their own Bibles.
One of the lectionary passages assigned for today is from the book of the prophet Isaiah, the 43rd chapter, beginning with the first verse. You need to know that this passage falls within a larger section of Isaiah addressed to the people of Israel in exile, after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. They’ve seen their capital city ransacked. They’ve been carried away into captivity. They’ve been mocked by their captors. They are far from the land they love. And they’ve been told that this hell on earth is a consequence of their misdeeds. If you take the prophets seriously, it is. It is a consequence of their own failure. You might take a moment just to imagine their despair. Into this sense of failure and despair, Isaiah speaks a word of hope. Note how this passage begins with the words, “But now…” And listen for what the Lord says to those exiles about their identity, their value in God’s eyes.
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.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, ‘Give them up’,
and to the south, ‘Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth –
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.’
Our second passage is the Gospel of Luke’s account of Jesus baptism. Listen for what the voice from heaven says, after Jesus’ baptism, about his identity and value. I’ll just read the 21st and 22nd verses of Luke 3, after John, out in the wilderness of Judea, has baptized all the people who have come out to him and now Jesus, too. And then I want you to imagine with me after we read verses 21 and 22 a verse we might call 22b, which would be Jesus saying (as Jen Dunfee suggested he might have in our Moment for Young Disciples), “Oh…now I get it.” Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.’
At the beginning of the musical Les Miserables, the viewer gets a glimpse into a theme that will drive the rest of the story: the question of strict and dogged legalism versus a persistent and redeeming mercy that sees the possibility in people, that refuses to give up on seeing each person as someone who matters, someone who is important, someone who is worthy of love and chance after chance (“seventy times seven”, John Nields said, quoting Jesus earlier in this service): the convict, the thief, the orphan, the idealistic revolutionary, even the relentless legalist who would not and will not show mercy to others. They all matter.
The movie, the play, and the book for that matter, like all good works of art, raise the question of what finally matters in life. They also raise the question of identity. Who we are, and to what and whom we belong. Of course, so does scripture.
When I watched Les Miserables this past Monday (by the way, I do need to say that I sort of agree with the reviewer who said that it was the first movie he had seen where twenty years passed in real time – it’s a long movie!), I had a particular passage of scripture, the words of Isaiah 43, first addressed to the people of Israel in exile, floating in my head. I understand why. I was getting ready to preach on it a week hence but it was there, right at the forefront of my consciousness: Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.
Those words hung there as I watched the very first encounter between the soon to be released convict Jean Valjean and his parole officer Javert (who, in the opening scene continually refers to the parolee not by a name, but by a number – Prisoner 24601.) Even after the convict hisses back, “My name is Jean Valjean.” Javert, who will pursue Valjean relentlessly for later breaking parole, persists on calling him 24601. Not a name, but a number. Not a person, but a problem. It made me think of how often in our society people get treated as numbers – and how important it is to call them by name whenever we can. Every hospital census, every body count, every death toll, is made up of real people with real names and real stories. None of them is 24601.
What a contrast Javert calling Valjean 24601 is to Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. And what a contrast Javert is to the Bishop who welcomes and provides hospitality to the hungry Valjean – offering him wine to revive him and bread to make him strong, a bed to rest, a rest from pain and wrong. But the Bishop doesn’t stop there. After Valjean steals his silver, and is caught redhanded with it, the bishop tells the men who arrest him that there must be some mistake, that he, the bishop, had given Valjean the silver, and that he had meant to include candlesticks as well.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. To redeem something is to literally buy it back… The Bishop’s willingness to let the silver go, to forgo pressing charges and to act as if he’d given it to his guest quite literally buys Valjean’s freedom ensuring that he will not have to return to prison. The clergyman goes on to sing:
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God![i]
He may as well have said, on God’s behalf, Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.
That’s all well and good for Jean Valjean, and for the people of Israel in exile, but how does that apply to you and me? I think it all goes back to baptism and what baptism is intended to mean. First, baptism is a sign and seal of our redemption. It is a sign that a price has been paid, that we have been redeemed.
I confess that I am more and more uncomfortable with the notion of substitutionary atonement: the idea that Jesus suffered the wrath of a vengeful God, whose anger at sin wouldn’t be satisfied without someone being sacrificed, some blood being shed by someone somewhere, which meant God had to send Jesus to “die in our place.” I don’t like subsitutionary atonement. I need to be up front with that. And yet, and yet, I do believe that all love comes at some cost to the one who loves. For Jesus, the cost came in living out the Love he was sent to show us. He redeemed and redeems us not by completing some kind of sick equation to meet the needs of God’s vengeance.
Jesus redeemed and redeems us by living the sort of life that cared enough about the whole world that it cost him something. It led him to face the wrath and violence not of God, not of a loving God, but of other threatened human beings. Jesus was able to do that because he knew he was a child of God and that they were too. All of them: the people on the margins and the ones who put them there, the outsiders and the insiders, the threatened and the threatening. And in so doing, in loving them all, he modeled a way to live that was centered not in fear but in love – a love that was and is and will continue to be, time without end, stronger than death. When we baptize in Jesus’ name, we are saying not just that the price of living a life for others has been paid. We are saying that the price is worth paying, again and again, and that we need not be ruled by hatred, vengeance, fear and death. Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name.
Which brings us to the second point. Baptism means we are called by name. When I lift an infant in my arms, after having baptized him or her, and say, “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God, and that friends is exactly what we are.” That is meant to echo what Jesus himself heard at the Jordan. You are my beloved child. I delight in you.
We too are God’s beloved children. More than that, we become part of a community where people who aren’t our biological family care enough to learn our names – which is a challenge I’d hold out for all of us in 2013. Learn the names of at least five adults in this congregation. Learn the names of at least five more children and youth in this congregation. Learn the names of at least five people who are way on the outskirts of society. The guy who stands at the corner with the sign that says, “Will work for food.” Learn his name.
Speaking of being called by name, it’s been said that Martin Luther said that Christians were called to be little Christs. I haven’t found that reference. But I do know that C.S. Lewis wrote once of the purpose of the church, that, “It exists for nothing else than to draw people into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became human for no other purpose (than to make humans little Christs.)”[ii]
Third, baptism means that we are charged to live out what it means that we belong to God. In other words – Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine. Our passage from Isaiah closes with God saying that people will come from east and west and north and south – sons and daughters, and they’ll all be welcomed back from Exile, and God says, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
It was that part of the passage – everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory – that brought some of us up short at the Men’s Bible Study this past Tuesday. “Created for my glory? Doesn’t that sound like God has a bit of an ego problem?” somebody said. And then Dan Thomas helped us all out by saying, “Remember, this passage is not meant to boost God’s self-image! It is written to boost the self-image of the people in exile, people who had grown weary and discouraged – filled with doubt that they were even God’s people at all.”
To be told that you are created for God’s glory, confirmands… To be told that you are created for God’s glory, mentors….To be told that you are created for God’s glory, any of us, is to be reminded that you have an important role to play, that you matter.
The Hebrew word translated glory (kavoth) has an interesting meaning. It literally means weight – W E I G H T. To speak of God’s glory was to speak of the weight of God’s presence. To bring God glory was to show with one’s life that God mattered. When glory shone all around them, the weight of God’s presence was there in Bethlehem. This, of course, was what Jesus did with his life. His life was a living example of the weight of God. His life was a living example of God’s presence and purpose and priorities. He showed that compassion mattered more than adherence to existing purity laws. He showed that people on the margins of society mattered just as much as the insiders. He showed that a commitment to not returning evil for evil mattered enough that he was willing to die for it.
When the Bishop redeemed Valjean’s life in Les Miserables by not handing him over to certain imprisonment over a poor convict’s theft of some silver, he was showing with his life that mercy really mattered, that what he taught in the church and how he lived really matched up. And from that moment on, Valjean, too, was claimed for God’s glory. Which meant that he lived differently, he treated people differently than he might have. Like the bishop, Valjean himself went into the redemption business: keeping a promise to a dying prostitute, literally buying the freedom of her daughter Cosette (whose name the innkeeper, her ward, can’t ever seem to get right) and then caring for that waif as if he were her father; then praying for and going to rescue Cosette’s love interest Marius; and even setting free his own nemesis Javert. Time and again, Valjean shows with his life that what matters is mercy and love. What matters is people. And God gets the glory.
And as Valjean crosses over from this life to the next, with Marius and Cosette at his side, and Cosette’s mother Fantine and the innkeeper’s daughter Eponine there to welcome him, he sings with them:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation
Take my love
For love is everlasting
The truth that once was spoken
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
Do you know what that is? That’s the song of someone who has heard and understood the truth of God’s words through the prophet Isaiah: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name. You are mine.” Amen.
[i] Les Misérables is a 2012 British musical drama film produced by Working Title Films and distributed by Universal Pictures. The film is based on the musical of the same name by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg which is in turn based on Les Misérables, the 1862 French novel by Victor Hugo. The film is directed by Tom Hooper, scripted by William Nicholson, Boublil, Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, and stars an ensemble cast led by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.
[ii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity: a revised and amplified edition, with a new introduction, of the three books Broadcast Talks, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001), p. 199. The book was originally published in 1952.http://http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMtQLGCY7Vc