Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22.
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Being young is hard. Maybe you remember. You’ve got this idea of who you are, and who you’re supposed to be. And pretty much everyone tells you what to do. You know, I’ve got these fragmented memories of all of that… my dad used to have me trained that whenever someone asked, “How’d you get so smart?!” I’d answer—“it’s in my genes!” I had no idea what I was saying. My perception of who I was centered around my family. They were constantly affirming me, telling me I was loved, cared for, and in the right place. (Or wrong place, if I was in trouble).
Or being a teenager, when you know everything, and that you’re right, and no one can contradict you—or at least think you put that face on in public. In private, especially in this era of social networking and constant communication, it’s just SO HARD to be a teen. It’s not that everyone’s withdrawn and depressed, or practically perfect in every way, it’s more… there’s pressure from everything, and it doesn’t go away.
And sometimes, it’s just the hug from a friend, or the offhand heartfelt compliment that makes the day a little better. It’s those tiny things that make you feel like you’re doing the right thing. It’s an affirmation of who you are, and how much you’re loved, cared for, and in the right place. That your calling, your path thus far, is legitimate and worth your time. Even as adults, we need that kind of affirmation, to feel like we’re doing something worthwhile, and making an impact on the world, one way or another.
Jesus’ baptism is the affirmation of his calling: of who he is and who he is meant to be. We’re all searching for that call, a way to know that we belong. We’ve got that—longing—to know that in God’s eyes, we are beautiful and perfect, beloved. Remember, though, before his baptism, Jesus knew deep within himself who he was, and what he was here on earth to do. He believed he belonged to God. He tried to tell his family, “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house!?” and while Mary treasured these things in her heart—Jesus had no recorded verbal divine affirmation at all. Not until his baptism does the Lord publicly proclaim Jesus as His own.
Jesus’ job here on earth is much harder than the average—he knew intimately the path he was to take, and throughout his ministry, he often foreshadowed the destination. Because the weight of the world was upon his shoulders, there can be no question that He is God’s! The moment recorded in the gospel IS this divine affirmation; God’s public declaration: YOU are MY BELOVED SON. The acknowledgement of his calling and his path must be one through which any uncertainty dissipates.
When Jesus went to the Jordon River, he probably wasn’t expecting that kind of reaction. Likely, he was following the path he truly felt called to follow, and as he was baptized –miracle!—the Holy Spirit came upon him, reassuring him of his call. I can imagine there must have been such love and comfort in those words! It’s reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible text we heard earlier, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” The Lord knew of Jesus’ existence and his name long before he was born, just as the Lord your God knew of your existence and your name long before you were born. There’s a communal piece here, too. Without the community, those who had also come out to see John the Baptist, the event wouldn’t have been remembered and recorded. Baptism is a communal celebration.
We’re trying to recreate that love and comfort as a community, because we may not recognize Holy Spirit in our midst as the form of the dove swooping down. Such a declaration of divinity is prrrooobbably not going to happen to you or me, or for those who were baptized today. The miracle and holiness of it, the reaction of our Christ in the world—none of that would happen for us individually. Instead, the kind of affirmations we get for what we are called to do are small ones, and often such that we do for each other without even realizing. It can be the support of a friend in a hard situation, the little signs leading up to help make a decision, sometimes even the breath-taking wonder of everything which gives that gut feeling that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to do. It may not be a swooping dove and an echoing voice, but it can be just as powerful, leaving the feeling of God’s love and comfort.
Searching for communal affirmation can be as simple as a well-loved children’s story: “I’m running away!” says the little bunny. “If you run away, I will follow you,” says his mother, “For you are my bunny.” The little bunny tries to hide, becoming whatever he can: a stream, a mountain, even a sailboat and trapeze artist. Everywhere, though, his mother, and her love for him, follow and meet him on the journey; becoming a fish in that stream, or a climber upon that mountain, and the wind of the sails, or the tightrope walker to the trapeze artist. She meets him and continues to love him, until he decides, “Shucks. I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.”
At each step of the way, the mommy bunny refuses to let the little bunny forget that she loves him and he is worthy of love. Her constant reminder of love and encouragement for him, to the point of going with him on their imagined journey is an affirmation of the very loveable core of who he is. Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny is reassured, affirmed, along his path.
Like the bunny, and like Jesus, each one of us has God-given worth, and a call. There’s such a comfort here. I just spent a week with my brand new nephew Jazz— and like all the babies— he’s… the miracle of creation and God’s grace for us shining through those smiles or even tears. We, as a community, affirm God’s divine fingerprints all over our very selves through this sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is a recognition of the already formed covenant between the Lord and person. The Lord knows you, and calls you by name, and calls us to be God’s people! We baptize babies… but does that mean that the Lord didn’t already know who they are? No! God knows this child in all of (his) perfection, as (he) is! The baptism is our community’s way, the church’s way, of acknowledging the precious bond God already has with God’s creation. God deeply, intimately, knows the inner core of me, of you, of all of those baptized today! As a congregation, we acknowledge the personal relationship between the created and the Creator, and together, join in worship and adoration.
Life is precious, and precarious. For some of us, the scary part here is letting go a little. God’s in control; not me or you. Ultimately we are not our own. It’s really difficult to let that sink in: I am not my own. I am God’s. Especially in the second decade of the twenty first century, we’re used to self-obtained instant gratification. We’re all about free will and getting what we want, when we want, because we want… when really, we’re not in control of any of that at all. God is. Heather Murray Elkins, a professor of worship, is quoted as saying, “Baptism is an enactment of liberation, effected by water and the spirit. We are freed of our damaging debt to a market mind-set, liberated from the tyranny of social location and inherited roles. In place of constricting labels, the community announces us as a beloved of God, and pronounces our name.”
It’s exactly what we’re talking about—Baptism goes beyond this world, to the Christian community’s recognition of the beauty and inherent holiness within the baptized. God has known you, known who you were, and who you will become, and God has loved you. It’s so personal! In Isaiah, the Lord proclaims, “…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you!”
I love you! It’s right there in the scripture; the love of the Creator for the created. And I’m here to affirm to you, to remind you little bunnies, that God loves you, wherever you may go adventuring, God’s right there too.
As a community we affirm the love of God across every boundary through the sacrament of baptism. Sometimes, we’ve got to remind each other, be in community with one another, celebrating that love. And hey, you’re here, right? Sitting here today, one way or another, and God loves you. God has loved you always, who you were, who you are, and who you will be. You are worthy. You were baptized in recognition of that love, but the baptism itself is only the Christian community’s way of understanding the love that will remain forever.
Brown, Margaret Wise. The Runaway Bunny. Illustrated by Clement Hurd. New York: Harper and Row, 1942.