Baptism Of Our Lord
And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
–Matthew 3:17, NRSV
Two weeks ago we were at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia with our grandson. And since it was the week between Christmas and New Years, there were tons of kids and parents around. Some of the activity centers allow parent and kiddo involvement, so we were playing in play area with giant foam shapes that you could use to build walls, and ramps and odd looking humanoids, if you chose to. As I was searching for a couple of pieces I thought our Sam might need, a little kid came up to me and asked me “Whose dad are you?” I pointed to Sam, figuring that the biological details of a 60 year old giving birth to a 4 year old might not be of great interest to this little boy who was probably also four or five. What he was trying to do, of course, was make a connection between me and one of the kiddos he was playing with.
When I go to a place like that, I’m not looking to connect with anyone. I’m there to play with my grandson. But it reminded me that everywhere I go, I am regularly confronted with the need to define who I am in relation to others around me. Sometimes I describe myself as a pastor of St. Peter’s and connect myself to all of you. Sometimes I refer to my family as my place of identification. Occasionally, I am in a situation where I can define myself simply as a Lutheran, when I am with people for whom denominational loyalties matter greatly. Often, I will tell people that I am a native New Yorker, which seems to always solve the problem people sometimes have with my somewhat irreverent attitude towards life. These days, given the significant popularity of a particular Sunday night 9:00 television series (which is about the only time of the week that I can reasonably expect to follow a TV series), I will often describe myself as a “Walking Dead” fan.
We identify ourselves in some way or another dozens of times every day, in just as many settings in which we find ourselves. But no matter how many times we define ourselves in the course of a day or week, how we respond is typically at best a partial answer to the question “Who are you?” My identity is always more than the membership ID’s that are stuffed in my wallet … or the frequent shopper cards that hang on my keychain … or the organizations to which I direct some of my benevolent gifts … or my responses to little kids who want to know whose dad I am.
I am regularly reminded of this call to identify myself at this time of the year, because I am called to write a summary of my year in the parish for Bishop James Dunlop of our Lower Susquehanna Synod. I also have to prepare a one page supervisor’s auto-biography for our intern application that is due in a few weeks. And it is also the time of the year when staff members are thinking about goals for the year that is ahead, and our participation in those goals speaks to who we are as parish leaders.
We have a somewhat similar challenge when we consider the life of Jesus from the perspective St. Matthew’s Gospel from which we read today’s Gospel Lesson. Today’s lesson about Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, is found in the 3rd chapter of the 28 chapters that comprise this Gospel. And even in this early stage of the Gospel, we have heard Jesus referred to as “Son of David”, “Savior”, “Emmanuel”, “Ruler”, and “a Nazarene.” The magi call him the “King of the Jews” while a few of the Jews themselves call him “Messiah.” And of course, immediately prior to today’s lesson in chapter 3, we hear the Baptist describe Jesus with these words that would never fit on the vanity license plate on Jesus’ pick-up truck … “the one who is more powerful than I, who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, his winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” All this … and we are only 10% of the way into Matthew’s Gospel.
But as people of the book … people who admittedly do find meaning in calling upon Jesus using many of these titles … as people who have read the close of our biblical story along with its beginning … we know at the end of the day, there is one response to the question “Who is Jesus?” that matters today. That response spoken by God the Father, as the dove alights upon Jesus … “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This identification of Jesus as one with whom God is pleased, dares us to believe that God is pleased with us, also … or dares us to answer today’s preaching question “Are You Alright?” with a resounding “YES!” Because much of Jesus’ ministry sought to remind us that as our spiritual brother, Jesus invites us into a similarly pleasing relationship with the Creator God who has given us life. You could say, that this designation of Jesus as God’s “beloved son with whom God is pleased” makes clear for us ALL the other titles we have for Jesus. That may be the key message of today’s baptism story. Because we know Jesus is not baptized so as to forgive his sins … Jesus is sinless. And we know that Jesus is not baptized so that John’s baptism of repentance is replaced by a baptism of salvation … because repentance and salvation walk hand in hand as our two-step dance of faith on this side of the kingdom of God. Jesus is not even baptized in order to offer us a new way of seeing the gift of renewal and cleansing, because we know that most ancient cultures had some type of washing rite that characterized initiation into the faith community. No, Jesus is baptized so that God can clearly identify him as the Son of God – the one with whom God is pleased … thus allowing God’s children, like you and me, to hear those same words of blessing … those same words of love … those same words that remind us that God delight’s in our being a part of God’s family.
Imagine the entirety of the human race asking Jesus the question, “Who are you?” This would be God’s answer. The implications for us are clear. For anyone who defines their life through the life of this one we call Jesus … baptism is the key part of that definition. Not because of the silly belief that without baptism we will go to hell when we die. God is not so childish, nor so one-dimensional. No … baptism is an essential part of the Christian life, because it is through the water of the font, that you find your identity as a child of God. It may be this font …. Or any other font like it throughout the world …. Or in rivers, ponds, and lakes that serve as sites of living baptismal water …. Or in the plastic cup of water used under emergency circumstances at the neo-natal unit of a hospital …. Or in the salad bowl that has been commandeered for use by the itinerant preacher saving souls in someone’s living room …. Or in the chaplain’s helmet into which canteen water has been poured at the site of a foxhole baptism …. Or even in the palm of a paramedic’s hand at the site of a fatal car accident. In these waters you are given the only name that matters – no matter what the vessel is that holds those waters.Because as Martin Luther reminds us in his discussion of Holy Baptism in his Small Catechism …. “How can water do such great things?” … Answer. It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water.
In a world where far too many people despair, because they lack a sense of purpose for their lives …. In a world where we are flooded with so many names and titles and identities and labels, that we sometimes forget who we are …. In a world where we struggle through the wilderness listening for a name that is familiar to us, and which promises us the blessing of family or security or homeland …. In all of these circumstances and more and more …. We would do well to emulate Brother Martin, who in the face of despair and uncertainty would cry out to the world … and to himself, :”I am baptized.” We need look no further that these life giving waters for our identity. They offer us a name …. They give us a purpose in this world …. They remind us of our calling to be God’s children and God’s servants …. And they promise us that in the end, God is pleased with us. Amen.