Sermon for Epiphany I 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7 Psalms 29 Acts 8:14-17 Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
My favorite baptism story, forgive me if you have heard it before. Early one Sunday morning a man was walking home after spending way too much time at a bar. He was still feeling the effects of his drinking. He wanders up to the river where the local church is baptizing people. The preacher said, “Do you want to find Jesus?” The man said “Sure.” The preacher grabbed him and pushed him under the water. He pulled the man up spewing water and said, “Have you found Jesus?” The man slowly said, “No, no I haven’t.” Surprised, the preacher grabbed the man again and pushed him under the water, this time for a little bit longer. Again, as he pulled him up, he asked, “Have you found Jesus?” The man gasping for air, water running out of his nose, mouth and ears said, “No, I haven’t. Are you sure this is where he fell in?”
Have we found Jesus? We are hearing about Jesus’ baptism today. All four Gospels record the baptism of Jesus. John the Baptizer is a heralder. Important Roman officials of his day were always preceded by an announcer or a heralder. When the heralder arrived in a town, the people knew that someone of importance was coming.
“You are my beloved Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Those are the words spoken to Jesus by the voice from heaven at his baptism. For many years, this story made me uncomfortable. When I heard other Bible stories, I had no trouble imagining myself in the scene, even sometimes as one of the characters in the story. But when the account of Jesus’ baptism was read, it was as if I was standing on the edge of the crowd, in the margins, far away from the action. When I heard the story, I felt heavy and lonely.
Then one day, I realized why. It was because of those words spoken by the voice from heaven. The words were right, but they were spoken to the wrong person – those were the words I wanted spoken to me! But then I realized the voice from heaven wasn’t just speaking to Jesus. Millions and millions of unworthy souls splashed in the Jordan with Jesus that day, and I was one of them. When he plunged into the water, Jesus took me and you and you in his arms and dunked us with him. That was my baptism and your baptism, too. Together with Christians throughout the years, we have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, and with them, we live in the power of his resurrection. Our sins have been forgiven, and we have been raised to a new life of grace. Because we are companions of Jesus in the Jordan that day, we too are to be called God’s beloved – I am a beloved daughter and my heavenly Father is well pleased with me. The voice that ripped heaven open was speaking to all of us too. “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This new relationship with God is called a covenant. A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Our part of the agreement is to promise, with God’s help, to live a Christian life. But the covenant was initiated by God. As part of the covenant, God promises to accept us in something like the way human parents accept their children. Parents love their children, not because they are good, but because they are theirs. Our baptism is God’s signature on our adoption papers. We are God’s beloved! We belong to God, not because of what we do, but because of who we are.
In Luke’s Gospel, the baptism of Jesus itself gets little attention – just a few sentences leading up to the big event: “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended…like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Luke does not tell us that Jesus was baptized with a lot of people. Clearly, Jesus was not baptized as a sign of repentance. His baptism is fundamentally different from ours. Jesus does not need forgiveness. His baptism is, rather an epiphany – a manifestation of who Jesus is and what he has come to do. And the baptismal revelation about Jesus is that he walks into the water with us. In Jesus, God enters deeply into human life, identifying with us even in the depths. Jesus’ ministry will continue to reveal such a God – walking with sinners, eating with the marginalized, inviting outcasts in to join him at God’s table of grace.
Jesus’ baptism reveals a God who identifies with people who are sinful, broken, and overwhelmed – with people like us. And the epiphany continues. A voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” This is one of only two times when God speaks in the Gospel of Luke. Weaving the words together of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, God proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” announcing Jesus as God’s anointed one. “With whom I am well pleased” is taken from Isaiah 42. God proclaims Jesus as both king and servant: divine ruler and the one who offers his life for sinners. God is pleased with this Son, this one who enters the waters with God’s sinful people.
A voice for heaven – what would we give to have such an experience? If we could just hear God’s voice – then we would truly know our calling, we would know what to do, how to live, what decisions to make. A voice from heaven could tell us…what to do with our despair…which job to take….what to do with an aging parent…..what to do with our financial woes….what to do next. It could guide us in our interactions with family and friends – when to be silent and when to confront. If God would just open up the heavens and speak to us, then we would know everything - when to volunteer, when to retire, when to say yes and when to say no.
If God would speak to us, life would be simpler. But most of us are not so blessed. Oh, that isn’t to say that we don’t hear voices. Truly, most days there are more voices than we can handle. Ours is a culture that calls out to us from every corner – voices from our work, our family, our friendships, our church – from the TV, smart phones, ipads, radios, Alexa, the Internet. Sometimes, there are so many voices we just want to shut all of them out.
Sometimes, we wonder if we would even hear God if God did try to speak to us. Yet, because of Jesus’ ministry, his death and resurrection, a voice is spoken over us. It is the first and last voice we hear in our lives. It is the voice first spoken over the waters of baptism. It is the voice heard each day when we return to that baptismal covenant. In baptism, God calls us by name: “You are my daughter, you are my son.” Our first calling, the baptismal call, is one that simply loves and names: “You are my beloved child.” And it is this voice that abides.
This is the fixed melody of our lives. It runs through everything. There are other voices, other distractions that we must shut out, but it is this sweet melody that we must abide – that voice from God, that voice of grace, calling us again and again, “You are my child, whom I love.”
Baptism is the beginning of our committed life – life born out of the commitment God has made to us as beloved, the children in whom God delights. That is our identity. Before we are teachers or nurses or doctors or lawyers or business people or bankers or students or anything else, we are God’s children. And after all the titles placed on us by society, wife, mother, husband, father, son, brother, sister, daughter, aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, after these titles fade away, we remain the dearly beloved of God.
We are raised to secure our sense of self through a whole lot of things: achievements, relationships, income, success, recognition. Some call that our false self. We look in a whole lot of places to find a voice that will tell us, “You’re somebody, you have worth, you have value.” We want to be noticed for all the right reasons and we want to be loved. God provides family members, friends, and a community of faith who speak that love to us. However, people can let us down, people do not always live up to our expectations for them. And at times, we are tempted to despair. Without a sense of unconditional love, we continue to be tempted to make our lives worthy, noticeable, secure. Only the Word from heaven can give us our true identity – our true self, our God-given self. And, God’s Word comes: “I am so in love with the world, so in love with you, that I have sent my beloved Son to die and rise again, so that you might know my love in the depths of your souls.”
This is God’s Word to us. If we listen, it can be found among the voices in weekly worship, for it is in worship that the voice of God’s unconditional love for us is proclaimed most clearly. As the community gathers, some of the voices of culture are quieted. Through Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit sings God’s grace so we might hear anew the abiding melody. We leave this place secure in that message of unconditional love, and we can live freely and faithfully until we gather again. We are God’s beloved…we are God’s children…we are united in that love and that voice abides. Have you found Jesus? Amen.