Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
January 12, 2020
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In his biography of actor Peter Sellers, author Peter Evans says that Sellers played so many different characters in his career that sometimes he was not so certain of his own identity. One day he was approached by a fan who asked him, “Are you really Peter Sellers?” Sellers answered rather briskly, “Not today.” And then he walked on.
There is a story of renowned 19th century French illustrator and cartoonist Paul Gustave Dore. While traveling through Europe Dore had lost his passport. When he came to a border crossing he was asked for his identification papers and had to explain his predicament to one of the border guards. Giving his name to the guard, he hoped that he would be recognized for his well-known work in Bibles and books and journals and be allowed to pass. The guard however said that many people had attempted to cross the border by claiming to be persons they were not. He would not permit Dore to pass. The artist continued to insist that he was indeed the man he claimed to be. “All right,” said the official, “we’ll give you a test, and if you pass the test we will allow you to go through.” Handing Dore a pencil and a sheet of paper, the guard told the artist to sketch several peasants standing nearby. Dore did it so quickly and so skillfully that the guard was convinced that he was indeed who he claimed to be. Dore’s work confirmed his word and thus his identity.
On the second Sunday of Epiphany, the church traditionally hears the words of the gospel writers which describe the baptism of Jesus. This year it is Matthew’s turn. In the third chapter of the gospel, Matthew tells about Jesus appearance before John the Baptist, asking for baptism himself. John was a bit taken aback, recognizing Jesus and saying that perhaps he was the one who needed to be baptized by Jesus. In his commentary on this story, Troy Miller describes it as a “paradoxical blend of magnificence and humility.” Jesus comes, announcing that he is the one promised by God through John yet Jesus stands there much as the rest of those who had come seeking the baptism for the repentance of sins. Perhaps John was a bit disappointed that someone in whom he had placed a great deal of hope and expectations was asking for such a simple, ordinary, human thing. Maybe John hoped that Jesus would at that point, take over the role as main prophet and chief baptizer. Maybe John was caught off guard because Jesus was standing in line with all of the other common sinners, waiting his turn in the waters of the river. Jesus stood there quietly with the others, humble and vulnerable just like the rest, recognizing that he too was called to face the waters of chaos and death, called to be one of us.
Scott Hoezee writes, “Perhaps no one noticed anything unusual about that particular baptism. Isn’t that how we view all the baptisms we witness? The parents bring the baby to the font and we’ve seen this sight scores of times before. We don’t expect anything unusual to happen, and to our watching eyes and listening ears, nothing does happen, either- nothing beyond what we expected anyway.”
Yet on that day, and perhaps in the silence of every sacrament, God was present. The heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended as a dove of peace and wholeness. The voice of God cried out, announcing authenticity and identity. “This my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.” Beloved. Loved by God. Beloved. Knowing that God sees worth and value in each person. Beloved. A blessing that reminds us that his purpose was to serve God and to find God’s Spirit working in us, moving through us, and speaking to us. It was a powerful moment, a moment that fueled Jesus as he prepared to go directly into the wilderness for testing. It was a powerful moment that must have stayed with Jesus throughout his ministry.
On the day in which we hear once again the story of Jesus’ baptism, we are called to remember the purpose of our own baptism. On that day God spoke to Jesus saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am pleased.” That was Jesus’ identity, confirmed in the waters of the Jordan. His true self was declared as good by God. He was given legitimacy. And he was sent forth to live his life based on the knowledge that he was beloved. Secure in that knowledge he was called forth to witness to a greater power than himself, a witness of joy and peace in a cold and cruel world, and a witness of hope in a world caught up in despair. Jesus’ work and his ministry were never separated from his identity as God’s beloved.
This week I noticed a popular meme on Facebook, attributed to John Pavlovitz. Pavlovitz is a former United Methodist Church pastor, turned writer. The main point of the meme was Pavolvitz’ frustration with many modern Christians. Too many Christians today he said, define themselves by the beliefs that they possess, or the policies that they support, or the values they claim to hold. Too many Christians today claim to be followers of Jesus but are more concerned with political positions and public prayer and memorized Scripture and a free pass to heaven. We have forgotten what the true identity of a Christ follower truly is, something conveyed at our baptism: we are loved by God thus we are to truly love others. We don’t have to agree with them or believe what they believe or even like them- but as God’s beloved we are aware of God’s unconditional love for us and we are to see in one another specific and unique image-bearers of God, and to want and to work for shalom for them: wholeness, happiness, peace, safety, and rest.
There is an old story about Martin Luther. It is said that every single morning of his life, Luther would splash water on his face three times, while speaking the same words that were said at his baptism, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Luther said he did this because the feeling of the cold, cleansing water reminded him of who he was. The water was a visible means of Luther’s identity as a child of God. There are many days in our difficult and complex world where such a reminder is truly needed. We need to splash our face and remind ourselves of our baptism. In that baptism we carry our identity as God’s chosen and treasured one. In that baptism we carry our calling to be God’s love in the world.
In 1992 theologian and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen gave a sermon series entitled, “Life of the Beloved.” He gave the sermon at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, an unlikely place for such a simple man as Nouwen to speak. He used this baptismal passage from Matthew as the text for his message. Nouwen began the sermon by giving the main theme, that we are to live our lives based on the knowledge that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. That in itself can propel us through the ups and downs of life. It can keep us on the path of God when we are threatened by other claims that seek to define us against what God has done. Nouwen went on to define three worldly claims that seek to define us and turn us away from the promise of our baptisms. We tend to use these claims to measure our success. Nouwen said that we try to survive by staying above the approval line in every claim. The first claim is I am what I do. I am what I work for. What I am is what I have or can achieve. The second claim is that I am what others say about me. Sometimes this can be the most important thing in our lives, since it is fueled by our status in relationships and our vocation. When people like us or need us- we are fine. When people speak ill of us or are critical of us- we are cut to the core. Finally, the third claim is I am what I have. The materialism of our world defines us. I am what I possess. I am defined by what I own. But I also construct my identity upon my nationality, who I am related to, my sexuality, and my political choices.
Nouwen reminds us that these worldly claims are all a lie. They may seem important to us but they neglect one important concept- love. There is no place for love to work and grow in such worldly claims. There is no place for us to hear God’s voice. Jesus proved this during his time in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan to place his allegiance to each of the three. He remembered the promise of his baptism. He heard the claim of God. He found his identity in living out the love of God.
We are to remember the identity given to us as our baptisms, to hear that voice as it speaks to us again. We are to learn that our baptism is more powerful than the labels and self-imposed identity we tend to value. We are beloved. This is how God sees us. This is what God says about us.