Contact us LOGIN
Gathering service Banner
Worship and Sermons
January 10, 2021

“Light to See” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, January 10, 2021, Year B / Baptism of the Lord –  Genesis 1:1-5  •  Psalm 29  •  Acts 19:1-7  •  Mark 1:4-11

The big idea:  In baptism, we receive our true identity in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to illuminate our path.

Application:  Stay plugged in to our baptismal identity in Christ.

Like most of you, I was shocked and horrified by the mob violence we saw this week at our nation’s capitol.  Let’s be clear:  no one in their right mind is happy about what happened. 

That such violence was incited and encouraged by our own President was jaw-dropping.  For the good of the country, he should resign immediately and face the consequences of subverting the very constitution he swore to uphold and protect, and for attacking the very country he was elected to lead.

The spotlight, of course, has been on him.  But this week I have been wondering more and more about those crowds who willingly followed his lead.  We all know about the lies and disinformation they apparently take seriously, and the bogus conspiracy theories to which they have fallen prey. 

But there is something more, something deeper that caused them to do the unimaginable.  On Wednesday afternoon, you could see it in the flags they flew. 

There were large election banners promoting the President.  There were Civil war battle colors, co-opted by white supremacists.  There were neo-Nazi flags and militia flags.  There was a smattering of national and state flags, too. 

I’ve been wondering this week, why so many flags?

Flags are powerful symbols.  As one expert on flag history and design has said, “Flags are the most powerful artifact ever designed.  They are powerful because they are visible symbols of our identity.”

I imagine that many, if not most of those who stormed the capitol building were Christians.  But you wouldn’t know that by the flags they were flying.  And, like other violent mobs we’ve seen, you certainly would not know it by their actions.

Whether their identity is rooted in a politician, a political party or an ideology, or some combination of these, it’s a fresh warning to all of us.  No matter what our political affiliation or ideological orientation, we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves where does our true identity lie?  And what do our actions say about that?

This morning’s gospel passage is a timely reminder of what our identity should be.  Jesus is among the curious crowds who stream out to the wilderness where his cousin John the Baptist is baptizing.  

As Jesus rises from the chilly waters of the Jordan River, something dramatic happens.  The Holy Spirit descends upon him.  Suddenly God’s voice declares, “You are my son, the Beloved.  In you, I am well pleased.” 

That is Jesus’ identity:  God’s son, guided and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to do God’s will.

His baptism is the prototype and the pattern for yours and mine, and that of every other Christian.  In baptism, we claim our identity in Christ, the light of the world. 

We should really say that Christ claims us.  Like him, we, too, receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit in baptism.  Through means that surpass all understanding, the Spirit inhabits us, guides us and empowers us.

That sounds strange doesn’t it?  When I explain this to young couples who are hoping to have their child baptized, I often get a quizzical look in return.  And I can’t blame them.

To our 21st century, hyper-rational, proof-seeking, logic-demanding ears, the promise of the Holy Spirit seems nebulous, no more credible than, say, the claim that voodoo works, or karma exists, or ghosts walk the face of the earth. 

Yet the Spirit is real.  And we know it’s real in the same way we know the wind is real:  we cannot see it, but we know when it’s blowing.

It was blowing across the waters when God first began creation.  It was the means by which God created light. 

And it was the essence of God that became the living light in Jesus Christ.  And the Spirit is the source of light that shows us the path God wants us to walk, that empowers us to walk it and guides us along it.

500 years ago, our theological ancestor, John Calvin, came to the conclusion that God’s Spirit is the fountain of life.  He famously wrote, “Not one drop of wisdom and light, or justice, or power, or uprightness, or genuine truth, will be found that does not flow” from God’s Spirit.

If we allow anything else to become the basis of our identity, we will have discarded the Spirit.  When that happens, we become like ships lost at sea on a dark, still, overcast night.

There is no wind to drive us, and no light to guide us.  And slowly but surely, we become captive to the currents which carry us toward a violent end on some rocky reef.

I think that’s what happened to those mobs.  They lost their identity.  They traded it in for one that promised political power.  In the process, they gave up the greatest source of power this world has ever known:  the power of the Holy Spirit.

 They aren’t the first; not by a long shot.  Just think of the long list of televangelists and prominent pastors who have done the same.  It makes for sobering reading.

You don’t have to be a prominent Christian to fall into this trap of trading away your baptismal identity.  Sooner or later, it’s a temptation we all face.

For some it’s wealth.  For others it’s their career, the job title they hold or the power they wield.  For some, it’s who they marry or who they’re dating, or where they live or go to school.  For others it’s their politics.

All of us are tempted to do this.  But swapping our baptismal identity for anything else is like assuming a false identity.  We can fake it for awhile, but it’s not who we really are.  And, ultimately it shows in our actions.

Thomas Merton, one of the 20th century’s greatest Christian thinkers, called this other identity the false self. 

He said, “We have the choice of two identities: the external mask which seems to be real...and the hidden, inner person who seems to us to be nothing, but who can give himself eternally to the truth in whom he subsists.”

For years, I made the wrong choice.  After I graduated from college, like a lot of young adults I knew, I gradually let my childhood faith slip away as I began my career.  Like so many of my friends, I thought my job was my true identity.

It took 20 years, but eventually I realized I was trying to be someone I really wasn’t.  That’s when I began to walk the slow, sometimes painful path back to the identity I was given at my baptism.

It was hard – sometimes very hard – but in the end, I realized there is nothing else I could be, because nothing else is true.  And no other identity has the power the Spirit brings.

I am not suggesting that your career or your spouse or your political views are unimportant.  But they are not your true identity.  The trouble comes when we pretend that they are. 

Inevitably, we act in ways that are contrary to what God intends and what Jesus taught.  That is what we saw on Wednesday.  That’s what we have seen in other riots, and marches and protests elsewhere that also turned violent. 

On the other hand, when you and I act out of the conviction that somewhere within us, there is the Holy Spirit, the divine image and the basis of our true self, we will seek what makes us whole, and we will do what helps others become whole.

It’s the light that shines a path in the darkness, highlighting our next steps, informing our decisions and inspiring our actions.

It’s like walking through a dark room at night. It’s hard to know where you’re going, because there isn’t enough light to see.  Sooner or later, we will hit something and stumble.  And it will hurt.

But there’s a light switch on the wall.  It’s up to us  turn on the light.  It doesn’t mean we won’t stumble again, but we will know where we’re going and we will get there a lot faster and safer.  When you’ve been walking in the dark, there’s nothing like the walking in the light.

I want to close with a story that illustrates that.  On December 31st, 1879, New Year’s Eve, Thomas Edison held the first public demonstration of his greatest invention:  a new electric light.

A week and a half earlier, a full-page article appeared in the New York Herald hailing “the great inventor’s triumph in electric illumination.”  The soft quality of his light was compared to “the mellow sunset of an Italian autumn.”

Such was the excitement this caused, that even before the unveiling itself, hordes of curious visitors arrived at Edison’s lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey.  They were all hoping to get a glimpse of this amazing new light source.

When New Year’s Eve finally arrived, Edison threw open his doors and invited the throng of visitors into his lab.  They were amazed and enthralled by 25 brilliant electric lightbulbs everywhere on the walls and shelves.  There was even a lightbulb strung up on the pipes of the old organ Edison liked to play.

Inside each bulb was a 2-inch-long, U-shaped thread of carbonized cardboard.  It could glow for hours on end, even under water, as long as an electric current ran through it.  

Friends, we are like those light bulbs.  The electric current is the Holy Spirit.  The possibility is there for us to shine with the light of Christ.

The question is, are we plugged in?

Last Published: January 11, 2021 11:12 AM
Gathering service Banner