“Beloved”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

January 12, 2014 – Baptism of Jesus Sunday

Scripture:  Matthew 3:1-6, 13-17

 

It’s been three weeks now since Christmas.  Three weeks since the story of the angels and the shepherds, Mary and Joseph, Quirinius and Herod and Caesar Augustus.  Three weeks since the long donkey ride and the long camel journey, the stable and the manger and no room at the inn.  Three weeks since Gloria in excelsis deo and Heaven and nature sing and Silent night, holy night.

Three weeks in our calendar; three paragraphs in your Bibles; thirty years in Jesus’ life.  Once Jesus is born, the gospels skip right over his childhood and adolescence, for the most part.  We don’t know much about what happened in those intervening years—the gospel writers either didn’t know or didn’t care to say.  So today we plunge (quite literally) into his baptism, the beginning of his public ministry.  At the approximate age of 30, according to scholars’ best estimates, Jesus began his public ministry of healing the sick, and feeding the hungry, and preaching the good news of God’s love—and he began it as we heard it this morning’s scripture, by being baptized in the River Jordan by his cousin John.

 

Over the two millennia that have passed since that moment, much ink has been spilt over this passage.  Many arguments have been advanced.  Many challenges have been confronted.  Many questions have been wrestled with.  Many people have wondered, for instance, why Jesus was baptized by John, instead of the other way around.  Clearly, the author of Matthew’s gospel shared this concern, for he made sure to have John wonder this out loud:  “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  Followers of Jesus have wondered over the years why the one we follow, the one we call Messiah, Savior, Son of God, had to turn to someone else.  And not just anyone else—someone who, by his own proclamation, was not worthy to untie the thongs of Jesus’ sandals, let alone to baptize him.

Others have wondered, over the years, why Jesus needed to be baptized at all.  If Jesus had a spotless record, as much of our tradition claims, why did he need to be cleansed?  If Jesus was without sin, as much of our tradition claims, why did he need to be forgiven?  If Jesus followed God’s will, as much of our tradition claims, why did he need to repent?

 

Over the two millennia that have passed since the moment today’s scripture describes, much ink has been spilt over this passage.  Many arguments have been advanced.  Many challenges have been confronted.  Many questions have been wrestled with.

But here’s the thing about this story, and here’s the thing about baptism.

This story isn’t about—baptism isn’t about—which human person does the baptizing.  This story isn’t about—baptism isn’t about—whether it was John or Jesus or Jocelyn or anyone else who did the dunking or pouring or sprinkling.  This story is about—baptism is about—God.  It’s about the action of God in baptism, the presence of the Holy Spirit pouring out upon God’s beloved child.

And here’s another thing about this story.  Here’s another thing about baptism.

This story isn’t about—baptism isn’t about—cleansing alone.  This story isn’t about—baptism isn’t about—forgiveness alone.  This story isn’t about—baptism isn’t about—repentance alone.  This story is about—baptism is about—identity.  It’s about the true name God gives us, the essential identity God plants in us, the powerful purpose to which God calls us.  It’s about knowing that we are known to God, that we are cherished by God, that we are equipped by God.

For Jesus, and for us, baptism is about being, at our very core, God’s beloved children, in whom God is well pleased—and living out of that foundation in all our days.

 

Whether he knew it as it was happening or not, I think this moment of baptism was a defining moment for Jesus, a moment that had a long-lasting, life-changing impact.  This was a moment he could not have lived without.

Think of all the other moments Jesus faced—all the times when his faith was challenged, all the times when his courage was tested, all the times when his life was threatened.  How could he have survived all that intact if not for the unshakable foundation of God’s love, made known undeniably in his baptism?

Think of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  He spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.  He burned under the sun’s hot rays and shivered under the moon’s cold glow.  Food was scarce, and water was scarcer, and his insides roiled for lack of nourishment.  And then the tempter showed up and offered him unlimited food, and unfathomable riches, and unimaginable power, if only he would shift his allegiance.  Yet somehow, Jesus said no.  Don’t you think he must have remembered the cool depths of the Jordan River, the feeling of that water cascading over his head, reminding him again to whom he really belonged?

Think of Jesus’ return to Nazareth, when he went back to his hometown and preached in the synagogue.  He was fired up and full of inspiration, but his message was not appreciated by his listeners.  First they challenged him, then they shouted him down, then they kicked him out of the temple, then they ran him out of town and almost over a cliff.  He managed to escape with his body intact, but his heart must have ached with the rejection, and he must have been tempted to give it all up.  Yet somehow, Jesus pulled it together and kept on preaching and teaching and carrying out his mission.  Don’t you think he must have remembered the sound of the voice of God echoing in the clouds, calling him Beloved, reminding him again of who he really was?

Think of the time when some Pharisees came to warn him.  They told him to flee, for Herod disliked his rabble-rousing ways and wanted to kill him.  The opposition mounted and the threats accumulated, and Jesus must have felt afraid, must have known the immense might of the imperial forces that lined up against him.  Yet somehow, Jesus said no.  Somehow he was not dissuaded.  Don’t you think he must have remembered the sight of the dove alighting on him, that sign of hope and peace and power, reminding him again of the power of God’s promises?

Think of the end of Jesus’ life.  The guards mocked him and beat him; they struck him and spat upon him and nailed him to a cross.  Yet the worst that they could do, all that excruciating pain and humiliation, couldn’t break his spirit.  Don’t you think he must have remembered the gentle hands of his cousin John lifting him up out of the waters, reminding him again of the resilient strength of God’s love?

Whether he knew it as it was happening or not, that moment of baptism was a defining moment for Jesus, a moment that had a long-lasting, life-changing impact.  It was a moment he could not have lived without.

Remembering his baptism equipped Jesus to live through everything that came after it, all the ups and downs of his extraordinary life.  It was his firm grounding, his deep taproot, his essential foundation.  It was the thing he could hold on to, come what may, no matter what.

 

So if you’ve ever been tempted to forget to whom you truly belong… if you’ve ever been rejected by the ones you love, the ones who shaped you, the ones you thought you could trust, the ones whose opinion means the world to you… if you’ve ever been afraid of what might become of you, threatened by the power of those who oppose you… if you’ve ever been in pain, physical or emotional or spiritual… then today, Baptism of Jesus Sunday, is a day for you.  For today we remember our baptisms and claim anew that true name God gives us, that essential identity God plants in us, that powerful purpose to which God calls us.

Of course, remembering the day of your baptism is easier if you, like Jesus, were an adult when it took place.  But whether you were an adult or a youth, a child or an infant—whether you remember the day of your baptism or not—you can be reminded that you are baptized, that God has named you, and claimed you, and called you Beloved.

 

I’ll invite you in a moment to come forward to the font.  Just like when we have communion by intinction, please come forward by the side aisles and return by the center aisle to avoid traffic jams.  When you come, I will make the sign of the cross on your forehead with this water and remind you of who you truly are and to whom you truly belong.  This is not a baptism, so if you are already baptized, you need not fear double-dipping, and if you are not yet baptized, you need not fear a sly and underhanded attempt to get you when you’re not expecting it.  This is a reminder of the name God gives to you and the claim God makes on your life.  This is a reminder of the love that changes everything.

So come now to the waters.  Come now to the font.  Come now, and be reminded.  Come now, and remember your baptism.