Scriptures for Sunday, January 13:
Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22
If I ask you to name a symbol – any symbol – what do you think of immediately?
A symbol can bring to mind something we all understand – like the symbol of a cross, a wedding ring, the sign of the fish – or it can be unique to ourselves. For example, you probably wouldn’t guess a personal symbol that represents something memorable to me: a cold baked potato! For me, that potato symbolizes amazing generosity because of something that happened years ago.
When I was growing up, my family lived on the top of a hill in a very nice but modest house. Running perpendicular to our street, another road ended in an unpaved path that trailed off into an overgrown, unkempt wooded area where small, weathered cabins were scattered here and there. For some reason, people called the place “Kinney Town.” And, every so often, one or two girls would come up the hill, knock on our front door, and ask Mother is she had any shoes or clothes that my sisters and I had outgrown. Somehow, Mother always had something to give.
One day, when I followed my mother to the door, one of the girls asked if I wanted to come to her house. Our of curiosity, I did, and Mother said yes. So I went down to Kinney Town and into an unlit one-room shack with no furniture that I can remember, except for a pot-bellied wood-stove that stood, black and cold, in the dark room. Atop that stove was – you guessed it – a cold baked potato, which the girls offered me and which, decades later became to me a symbol of incredible generosity and the impetus for this short poem:
Down Kinney Town
Feet bare, the girls came up today,
and Mama gave them ouch-grown shoes
that once belonged to me or Kay,
but, oh, I longed to give them too.
Two girls they were: soiled blonde, unkempt –
not like Mama’s girls who shone
in new sewn clothes and often dreamt
of finer galaxies than home.
With clean hands bare, could I, a child,
share much with girls from a small shack, wild?
But one said, “Come,” so I went down –
down the tangled path to Kinney Town.
Theirs was adventure I could play.
A cold potato rationed me –
eyeless, grown in soil, unbent. They
gave that last leftover. Free.
Then home I went with backward look.
Mary Harwell Sayler, (c) 1985, 2019, all rights reserved.
Over a half-century later, I still like cold baked potatoes, but I wish I knew what happened to those girls after we moved away. I pray God rewarded their sweet, giving spirits. And I pray God gives each of you equally memorable symbols to remind you of important mile-stones and character-building, life-changing moments in your lives.
God started this, you know! God invented and initiated the use of symbol – probably because God knows how easily we forget! So, the Bible offers a variety of symbols to remind us of those spirit-building moments in our lives and other matters of faith.
The scripture readings today included two symbols often used in the Bible – water and fire. Normally, when we think of fire and water, we don’t think of them as symbols, but as unique substances with distinctive characteristics and accomplishments.
For instance, we know that water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, and that H2O has the ability to refresh, purify, and cleanse. Water quenches our thirst and replenishes a vital element in our bodies without which we would die! Water washes our clothes, our cars, our hair, our houses, and water puts out fires.
Fire! This other symbol in today’s readings also has substance and practical purposes. For example, fire purifies and purges. It warms us, comforts us, and heats our water for a nice cup of tea.
Fire also burns. Sears. Scorches. Torches. It can grill a hamburger or set a forest ablaze. Fire ignites, but it also lights. Candles, the glow of a fireplace, a lit lantern help us to see.
But how do these symbols relate to our lives – or more specifically, our lives in God? What does the Bible show us in the scriptures?
In Isaiah 43, we glimpsed the possibility of suffering – of drowning, of being overwhelmed, of being burnt. But immediately God makes a promise! God’s Word says, “Do not fear! I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name for you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and the rivers will not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you won’t be burned. The flames will not consume you.”
Is God asking us to remember the example of the “Burning Bush” Moses saw – the bush that kept throwing off light, warmth and power but never got burned up or burnt out? Are fire and the burning bush symbols God uses to help us remember who we are as the light of Christ, the light on the hill?
Our Gospel reading from the third chapter of Luke bring fire and water together as we listen to the word John the Baptist gave people who came to hear his message. As John said, “One more powerful than I is coming, and I’m not worthy to even loosen His sandals! I’ll baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The Gospel reading goes on to tell us that Jesus did indeed come to be baptized by John in the Jordan River – not because He needed to repent and have His sins washed away by baptism as we do, but because He set an example for us to follow.
Why? Maybe it’s because baptism gives us a symbol – an icon, a picture – of a precise moment in time we remember as having committed ourselves to God while making a public declaration that lets others know what we believe and where we stand.
Baptism acts as a personal symbol and a communal one as we gather in worship with others who have confessed their belief in Jesus Christ and been baptized too. Baptism also connects us with Bible people and our biblical heritage as it symbolizes Noah’s protection from the flood and reminds us that, like God’s people in the Exodus from Egypt, our Almighty God and Father will part the Red Sea for us and will do all that’s needed to redeem us and free us from whatever enslaves.
As Luke 3:21-22 tells us, the heavens opened as Jesus was praying on His baptismal day, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove – another symbol. And The Voice said, “This is My beloved Son in Whom I Am well-pleased.”
Through the water of baptism, God also proclaim us as His beloved children! As we enter those waters, God refreshes us spiritually, mentally, and physically, bringing us forgiveness, healing, and a new life in Christ.
For some of you, however, baptism might have been initiated by your parents, who believed in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and wanted to give you a head-start, spiritually. If so, your personal profession of faith most likely came later, perhaps at your confirmation or your decision to go forward one Sunday and pledge your life to Christ as people prayed for you.
Regardless, the water of baptism symbolizes cleansing, purification, and a new start. But what about the symbol of fire? How does that affect us, spiritually?
Are we all fired up for God?
Do we feel like we – along with other Christians – have come under fire from others?
Shall we suspect that the fiery trials in our lives might be a purifying test from God?
One or more of those experiences or concerns could be true for us, but no matter what, those of us who have given our lives to Christ need to worry about being thrown into the everlasting fires of hell.
Jesus Christ Himself sets us afire with His Holy Spirit, but it’s a controlled burn, for Jesus Christ is the Living Water – the vital, life-giving, spiritually refreshing, purifying, healing waters of our lives.
Dear Heavenly Father, we praise You for Your gifts of water, fire, and an ongoing life of forgiving love in Your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to be vessels for You, Lord. Fill our cup with You, and give us the opportunities this coming week to offer a cool cup of water to everyone You bring to us in Jesus’ Name.