Saturday, January 8, 2011

Who and Whose--sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Why was I born? These are age-old questions that most of us have entertained at one time or another. Identity is something many of us may have struggled with. We may look for it in our work, in our position in our family, in how well we’ve done financially, how well others accept us. Who am I? Identity is an issue that comes out in today’s gospel reading as well.

            John knew who Jesus was, didn’t he? Earlier in this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, John proclaimed the difference between his baptism and the one which was to come, which the messiah would bring. Then Jesus arrives on the scene to be baptized. In baptism, normally it was the greater who baptized the lesser. This is why John tried to prevent Jesus from being baptized by him stating that rather Jesus should baptize him! John knew who he was and thought he knew who Jesus was, so why should John baptize Jesus?

            Our English translation that John “would have prevented him” from being baptized is rather weak. The Greek is much stronger, implying a continuous action in the past, in other words, “was preventing” him. It could have even been an extended argument as John says, "But I won't do it." Jesus says, “I’ve come to be baptized." "But I won't do it." "I've come to be baptized." "But I won't do it" (Stoffregen,

            Jesus’ baptism has always puzzled me. He was sinless; he didn’t need to be baptized for forgiveness of sins. Scholars have come up with a number of reasons why Jesus was needed to be baptized and they all have some merit. What really makes sense to me though is that it was part of Jesus’ identifying himself with sinful humanity even as he did later on the cross. Perhaps he needed the assurance of the Holy Spirit and the Father’s words to prepare him for his coming temptation in the wilderness and the ministry that followed.

            Jesus did not need to repent in the way we usually think of it, to have remorse and be sorry for our sins. He had none to be sorry for! In another way however, Jesus did need to repent. You see, to repent actually means to turn from going one way and start going in another. It was time to change direction.  It was time for Jesus’ ministry to begin.

            Who is this Jesus that John thought he knew? John did not really get it. He was expecting a messiah of judgment.  John didn’t expect a messiah who would identify with humanity as the servant in the reading from Isaiah. This is not the kind of Messiah John anticipated. John was right about the coming judgment. It would come, but just not now. It was not yet time.

            But now it was time for baptism, in order “to fulfill all righteousness.”  Such an odd phrase. How can that be done? A couple of other translations make this it a bit easier to understand. One says, “to do all that God requires” (TEV), while another translates it, “to do all that God wants us to do” (CEV). The Message reads, “But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God's work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.”

            Listen to the result of John’s and Jesus’ obedience…the heavens are opened. The Spirit comes. A voice speaks. Here is an epiphany, the revealing of just who this Jesus is-- “This is my beloved Son.” We don’t know who all heard this—just John and Jesus or maybe the crowd heard too. It doesn’t matter. Jesus’ baptism was a time of divine communion with the other members of the trinity—the Father and the Spirit. Jesus’ identity is made plain to himself and others who heard. Who Jesus is and Whose Jesus is was spelled out plainly.

            Baptism inaugurates Jesus’ ministry. The Holy Spirit was with him before, but now there is the assurance of that power. His identity and calling are revealed. Here is God’s servant, God’s beloved Son.  

            We heard similar words in the first reading, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa 42:1 NRS). And in Peter’s speech in Acts we heard, “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”(Act 10:38 NRS).

            Jesus was identified, assured, and empowered through his baptism. But it still seems so different than our own. Most of us can’t even remember our baptisms. We aren’t Jesus. He was God’s son. Does Jesus’ baptism even relate to our own? It was so other-worldly.

            Remember those questions of who we are and whose we are? This is how and where Jesus’ baptism intersects with our own baptism. As we hear and believe the good news that we too are God’s beloved children, we can live into our baptismal identity. We have God’s assurance. We can live into the mission God has for us. Just like Jesus, in baptism, we discover who we are by hearing whose we are. We can cling to this promise of being God’s children through our baptism. 

            Do you remember some bad names you may have been called during your life—hurtful, painful names that are hard to forget? I certainly can. Let’s take a moment to remember. They may still sting today as we think about them. We may still be angry at the ones who called us such names. Now think about what God says to us, “You are my beloved child-with you I am well pleased.”

            In baptism, God assures us that our sin is washed away and we are God’s own children. We are empowered with the Holy Spirit to do all that God wants us to do. 

Baptism was a powerful thing for Martin Luther. When he was tempted by the devil, he didn’t say, “I believe!” Instead he clung to the assurance of his baptism, shouting, “I am baptized!” 

            Baptism is not like a magic charm that we carry with us like a talisman against evil, but it is a powerful, wonderful gift of God whereby we become part of his family. Concerning baptism Luther said, “No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than baptism, for through it we become completely holy and blessed, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire” (The Large Catechism).

            As Jesus baptism identified who and whose he was and empowered him for service, so our baptism does for us. “Grace, Ruth, Larry, Steve…child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Let your light so shine before others that they may see you good works and glorify your father in heaven” (LBW, p. 124). Amen.

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