Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
In 1988, William Willimon of Duke University wrote: “Another stream of time has begun in our lives — the river of ’88. Tributaries of experience and circumstance will flow merrily along like a sparkling, babbling brook, dancing with happy occasions and pleasant happenings. But some of this year will be dammed — the smooth, steady flow of life will be blocked — the cancer that will suddenly become known; the child who will not do better; the marriage that cannot be saved. Dead ends . . . brick walls . . . cul de sacs . . . dams that will halt the flow of life and seemingly prevent life from going on.”
Willimon went on to write about God’s promise to pour His Spirit upon us. The Spirit that descended at Jesus’ Baptism to proclaim Him God’s Son is the same Spirit that, in our Baptisms, proclaims us to be daughters and sons of God.
In the lumber regions of the great Northwest, it is customary to place a mark of ownership on logs. The owner clears a small spot on a log and strikes it with the blunt end of a hatchet containing his initials. Then he sends the log adrift down the river with hundreds of other logs. The log will float many miles unguarded, but that mark is respected.
In Baptism, God marks us with His ownership. The Bible says we are “sealed with the Holy Spirit.” Because of that, the great reformer, Martin Luther, used to say, “There is no greater comfort to a Christian than Baptism.” We have a tendency to think of our relationship with God as mostly a matter of what we think, feel, believe or do.
Baptism is an ever-present reminder that our salvation, our nearness to God is the result of what God has done. In his own times of despair, depression and confusion, Luther would touch his forehead, reminding himself of water being placed there, and say, “Baptismatus sum. Baptismatus sum.” The Latin words mean, “I am Baptized. I am Baptized.”
The seal of the Holy Spirit marks us as God’s own dear children — forgiven, accepted and loved by God. We have been reconciled to God by the redeeming work of His Son. Christ’s life, death and resurrection were not isolated and unrelated events in past history; they were for us. Redeemed by grace, carrying with us the free gift of faith and salvation, we are on our way to eternal life. God has done that for us.
God also pushes us out into the stream of life. The seal of the Holy Spirit is not just some tattoo on our foot with God’s initials. The Holy Spirit joins us and empowers us as we head down the river. Another reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, once compared Baptism to a monk’s cowl, the robe that a monk wears. In the Middle Ages, when young boys entered a monastery, they would be given a cowl to wear. The robes were all one size, so a novice was swallowed up in one. In time, the young monk would grow into it. One day he would become both a man and a monk. He would act like a monk and look like a monk — his robe would fit.
Zwingli went on to say that, when we are baptized, we are given the gifts of the Spirit to make us disciples. At first, we may not look much like Christ’s disciples — the name Christian may be too big for us. Given time, and the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we grow up in our commitment until one day it fits. All the gifts, which were only incidentally ours, became ours in their fullness. We come to resemble that which we formerly only professed and hoped.
It is important to remember that these two things — our identity as God’s children and our maturity as God’s children — are intimately related. First of all, both are made possible by the Holy Spirit. Second, knowing who you are directly affects what you say and do and become.
For a long time, Walt Whitman had a difficult time getting anyone to appreciate anything he wrote. The brilliant light that overshadowed his discouragement came in the form of a very brief letter: “Dear Sir, I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass, I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” The letter was signed by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman grew more and more confident in his ability, and it showed in the words that flowed from his pen.
The greatest and mightiest rivers of the world — the Nile, the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Yangtze, the Congo, the Volga — all have small beginnings, just a few drops of water. The Christian life begins the same way. Along the way, those rivers are nourished and increased by springs, rain and melting snow. Along the way in , our Christian lives can be nourished and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. He comes to us not only in the water of Baptism, but also in wafer and wine, in the Word when it is preached and when it is taught and shared in Bible study.
Rivers are, in many ways, good illustrations of Christians’ lives. Some rivers that are at times quite large and powerful dry up every year. Many disappear twice a year. When the snow melts and the spring rains come, they look like the great rivers. Then summer comes and all that is left is the place where they used to run. In the fall, rain returns and so do the rivers. Then winter turns the rain to snow and they disappear again.
Rivers don’t have any choice about where they flow. If they come roaring down out of the mountains in the spring only to head for arid places, they will appear and disappear with the seasons. The great rivers flow where other rivers, springs, creeks and streams come together. They become even greater as they go.
In the year , as in every year, some things will just happen to us. At the top of the list is the fact that God will continue to be with us in Word and Sacrament. He has blessed us bountifully in the past and will keep on giving His abundant grace, love, power and all His gifts to us. Other things will happen that will drain our attention from Him and from His mission. It is important that we go regularly to where the “streams” flow together and are nourished and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Strive to grow stronger throughout the year. Some rivers may have no choice but to dry up every winter and summer, but we have choices! Churches do not have to be empty in January, February, June or July. It is my sincere prayer that all of you who receive these pages will grow in the grace, power and gifts of the Spirit throughout this year. I pray that those whose Christian lives have been only a trickle in the stream of God’s kingdom will flow greatly in the new year, and that those who are all but completely dried up will begin to flow again.
When people die, attempts are often made to preserve their bodies through embalming or even mummification. Only God can prepare us for eternity. In Baptism we are anointed for resurrection. God’s gift of faith and new life makes eternal life possible. Death can come so quickly and so unexpectedly. We must tell the Good News about Jesus to every person in every part of the world.
It’s the time of year when many say, “I’m gonna get back to church this year.” One of the big problems with New Year’s resolutions is that we are on our own to keep them. The great joy of a commitment to grow in Christ is that the Spirit is willing and able to help us keep it! If we are going to tap into God’s resources for our Christian lives in 2000, it can’t be done on our own. The trickle of our good intentions will dry up without the pouring in of the Spirit. As a parish pastor I used to regularly say that the best way to grow this year is to go this Sunday.