The Baptism of the Lord
The Rev. Ryan Slifka
This sermon was preached in celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, where those who are baptized were invited to come to the baptismal font and be marked in the sign of the cross in water in remembrance of their baptism.
Who do you think you are?
It’s a serious question. If someone were to put together a dictionary entry of, or a Wikipedia page about all the people here this morning, what would your entry look like? What would it say?
Would you lead off with a relationship? Father of three. Grandma of four. Single. Husband, wife, beloved Aunt?
Would you lead off with what you do or did for a living? Teacher, mechanic, customer service representative. Stay-at-home Mom (or Dad), retired executive? Or with the fact that you can’t do anything for a living? Unemployed, out of work, on permanent disability?
Would you lead off with a social identity? Your race, your gender. Sexual orientation. Culturally Polish or recently-discovered Metis? Progressive, or conservative. Citizen of the USA?
Would you lead with your successes? Grew up with nothing retired handsomely. PhD in Astrophysics. Beloved nurse practitioner, life-long volunteer, all the grandkids in university. Distinguished service medal.
Would you lead with your struggles? Homeless. Depressed. On and off the wagon. Perpetual victim. Nobody ever gave you a good chance.
Or would you lead with your failures? Broken marriage, never see the kids. Wanted it, but never found love in the first place. Prison sentence, or never lived up to expectations. Never made much of yourself.
Where would you lead off?
We tend to define ourselves by one or two things about us. The bad stuff leaves it mark. It’s less that that these things have happened to us, or we struggle with them. But more the fact that we become what’s happened to us. We start defining ourselves by the ways we’ve fallen short or been victimized. While the good stuff always has its shadow side. Success becomes addictive. Careers cannibalize families. And when these things are gone or we can’t do them anymore we’re left empty.
Some are sources of deep pride, joy, and encouragement. While others are sources of shame, pain, and ongoing suffering. Either way. We all live with some kind of a running definition of ourselves. Of who we are, who we were. Who we’re supposed to be.
So, short little entry, tiny photo of you. What would it say? Who do you think you are?
Today’s passage scripture passage begins with people like you and I. People who are sure of who they are. And who they has gotta change.
It begins with John the Baptist dunking people at the side of the Jordan River. According to Luke, John’s in prison by the time Jesus makes his way. But earlier in the chapter, Luke tells us that the Baptism John performed was “for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance, meaning turning away from those things that you’ve done or left undone that have tainted your life. And in committing yourself, and undergoing this act, you were to be washed. Made clean, made new. These are people living with all sorts of crushing definitions as to who they are. Whether internal—guilt and failure; or external—shame, disgrace, humiliation.
And so it’s easy to see why people made their way to John. Here he’s offering a new start, the promise of a spiritual reboot. Freedom from that all the soul stifling stuff that their dictionary entries led with. Wash it away. Start over.
But by the time Jesus puts a toe in the current, something entirely different happens. Jesus goes down to the water to wash like anyone else. But after that, it’s not your average baptism.
After his head goes under, Jesus prays. And as he prays, it says, “the heaven was opened.” I don’t know what that looks like, exactly. But it means that the boundary that divides the earthly—everything we can see, touch, taste—and the heavenly, the unseen hidden reality of things—is pulled back. And it says as the heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus. The creative power of God falls on him, it says, “in bodily form.” And finally, after the Holy Spirit falls, a voice comes from the split sky. “You are my Son,” it says. “You are my Son, the Beloved; and with you I am well-pleased.”
“You are my Son,” says the divine voice. “And with you, I am well pleased.” There very simple words are a combo of Old Testament passages. Combining the seventh verse of the second Psalm, used at the coronation of Israel’s King as Son of God. As well as the first verse of the forty-second chapter of Isaiah, a description of the servant of God. In his baptism, its Jesus identity as God’s beloved, God’s chosen one, one hand. And point towards his servant mission of healing humanity, reconciling us to God and each other.
What was a ritual of repentance, a commitment, a chance at a new start, becomes for Jesus instead a moment of revelation, a divine unveiling of his true identity, a gift that was given. Even though the world will pelt names at him like “sinner,” “fool,” “fake,” and “liar.” This is the identity the One who Jesus called Father gives him. Here God claims Jesus as his own. “You are my Son,” says the voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; and with you I am well-pleased.” It’s who God says he is. And this is who Jesus will be. To death and beyond.
If we were to ask Jesus who he is. If we were to include Jesus in our little dictionary or Wikipedia page, that’s what it would say. And the difference is that God’s the author. It leads with who God says he is. And that no one, not even hatred, shame, sin or death can ever take away.
That’s what Jesus’ Baptism means. And what our Baptism means, too, through him.
Baptism for us isn’t like John’s Baptism. It’s not a Baptism that begins with our repentance. About our getting right with God, so we can be forgiven and made new. Or even becoming the part of an organization. Our Baptism is Jesus’ Baptism. Which is, first and foremost about the identity given to us by God. How God sees us.
Where we define who we are by leading with our relationships, our fleeting successes, our limited social identities and our soul crushing, life-stunting failures. Who we are according to our Baptism leads with our election—God’s unconditional, unmerited, unilateral love and favour for us. All that other stuff defines us is washed off, revealing our true selves, the self unmarred by sin. Nothing we have to do, nothing we have to earn. Nothing we have to accomplish. Nothing we have to fix that we’ve screwed up.
And the truth is that it’s true about us even before we’re baptized. Because Baptism isn’t a whole new identity. Like with Jesus, Baptism is an affirmation. It’s what we call a sign, a seal in space and time of a promise that’s already been made. Something that’s already true, always been true. That’s why we can baptize babies with as much joy as adults. Because baptism is our little “yes” to God’s big “yes” to us, made flesh in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s about who we are, first. Not what we do.
That may seem strange. Because religion is supposed to be about morals. Christianity’s about doing what’s required, about being a good person—isn’t it? “But what do I have to do?” But that’s not the good news. The good news is always first about what God has done. What we do is always the life lived in response. In baptism, we are claimed as Christ’s forever. And that’s the good news we live out of. It’s the touchstone we refer to again and again and again. Not the other way around. As the great South African Bishop Desmond Tutu once said, “we are not loved because we are good. But we are good because we are loved.” That’s who we are, who we’re created to be. Because God says so in Jesus Christ. From day one. God said so before we were born. And God says so into death, into eternity and beyond.
So, the question again: who are you?
Baptism means that you’re not your past. It means you’re not measured by your great victories, nor are you forever tainted by the sin of your petty defeats. It means that before anything else, before everything else, God gets to say who you are, and what you’re destined to become. Because according to your baptism (past or future), God’s definition of who you are leads with grace. You’re loved. You’re forgiven. Your life is a seedbed for God’s new creation. And that’s the only measure that will ever count. Before all else “You are my beloved daughter. You’re my beloved son. And with you I am well pleased.” Before all else, you are the child of the Living God. And no one can take that away. Nobody. Not even you.
So if you have been baptized—whether as a squirming, clueless child, or as a full-grown, relatively clueless adult. Today, remember who you are Remember your baptism, and be thankful.
And if you have yet to be baptized—maybe it’s time to start thinking about it. Maybe it’s time to update your cosmic Wikipedia page. Because this is who you are, too. Loved by Christ, bought with a price, forgiven, freed, made new. In the grip of grace you can’t shake. Since the beginning of time.
This is who we are. This is who you are, too. So come on in, the water’s fine.