Remember Who You Are
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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. 17 His 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.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and 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.” (Luke 3:15-22)
In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, she tells the fictional story of small-town-Iowa Congregationalist minister John Ames. Reflecting back on his life, Reverend Ames retells a story from his childhood that captures his earliest inclinations to become a minister. In this story, he and other neighborhood children find a litter of kittens, and decide that the kittens should be baptized. They take the kittens down to the creek where they are sprinkled and blessed with the full trinitarian formula, (He observes that they were lucky he was not a Baptist who did things by full immersion!)
As they are baptizing, Robinson writes, “their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal.”
After being reprimanded by his very pious father, this was the first and last animal baptism he ever performed. But years later, the fictional Reverend Ames wonders “what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them”
This Sunday is ‘Baptism of our Lord’ Sunday, and if I’m being honest, I have about as many questions about Jesus’ baptism as I do about these cats.
What does it mean for Jesus to be baptized? What did his baptism mean? How is it different from our baptism? What does John the Baptist mean when he says Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire??
If these are your questions too, then Luke will annoy you with his non-answers. The details of Jesus’ baptism do not seem terribly important to Luke in his Gospel. In fact, uniquely in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist isn’t even mentioned as the one who baptizes Jesus.
Instead, when it comes to baptism, what Luke cares about here is that Jesus was baptized not in a special or different way, but with and among all the common people - baptized with the same kind of baptism as the ragtag group of humans who came down to the shores of the Jordan River full of wonder and expectation and questions . As Luke does throughout his Gospel, we see Jesus incarnated truly as one with all the people, from the very beginning.
Of course, it’s what happens next that makes his baptism story unique: while Jesus is faithfully praying, the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily, tangible form accompanied by a voice which names him as God’s beloved. It’s this voice that affirms for Jesus his identity and sends him on his way - this is truly the starting point of Jesus’ ministry.
On this Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, when we wonder about Jesus’ baptism, we are also invited to reflect upon our own baptism.
Martin Luther famously insisted on the frequent practice of remembering your baptism – for him, this remembrance served to reassure the baptized of salvation and relieve anxiety about the afterlife – which was famously, a particular anxiety of Luther’s.
But remembering our baptism is about much more than assuaging our fears about the afterlife and has everything to do with how we live our lives right now - with how we understand ourselves and who we know ourselves to be, and with how we relate to and love the world around us.
Just as the heavens were peeled back to reveal God’s love for Jesus, baptism reveals our own belonging within this love.
Going back to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, the Reverend Ames, reflecting upon his kitten baptism says,“there is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that” (23)
Surely Jesus was loved before the voice from heaven affirmed it was so. Jesus knew who he was before the voice declared it – just a couple weeks ago we heard the story of Mary and Joseph losing 12 year old Jesus in Jerusalem, and when they found him in the temple, Jesus was baffled why they didn’t know where he would be – because of course he would be in his Father’s house. Jesus already knew who he was.
Baptism did not change Jesus’ relationship to God, but it did acknowledge it, and as Reverend Ames says – there is power in that!
Because apparently I’m into cat baptism stories, let us revisit the baptism scene from Lion King – do you remember it??
The young lion cub Simba had attempted to run away from all his troubles after his father’s death, and for years, indulged in a life free of commitments and responsibilities with his meercat and warthog buddies. But one night, the wise baboon Rafiki finds Simba, and after promising to show him his father, commences a wild chase that ends at the water’s edge.
And in a scene that might be described as baptismal, Rafiki tells him to look in the water and see his father. Of course, it’s just his own reflection, but the resemblance is there and it’s the relationship that Rafiki is pointing out in the water. In the water Simba recognizes himself and his father – and THEN, the heavens are peeled back and a voice comes from heaven, basically saying ‘you are my son” …sound familiar? The voice continues, telling Simba to “Remember who you are”
And there is great power in this remembrance. After Simba is reminded of his identity as the King’s son, his life again flows out of that identity - returning him to himself, returning him to his home, and returning him to his calling.
The voice from heaven in Luke’s Gospel, in the same way is a reminder of identity. The voice does not tell Jesus what to do, it does not send him on a specific mission, the voice does not give him instructions.
The voice acknowledges identity and love, because everything else flows out of that. The voice simply says “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”
Author and theologian Rachel Held Evans, in her reflections on baptism, says that “ultimately, baptism is a naming.”
The world will try to give all kinds of names to children of God: failure, addict, homeless, illegal, poor, different, stupid, useless, hopeless, all kinds of names that threaten to claim our identity.
But in baptism, you are named ‘Beloved’ and that is always enough. Because in baptism we know that we are washed clean, made new, set free. As Rachel Held Evans goes on to observe – remembering our baptism is defiant because when we do, we refuse to allow the world to name us.
Remembering our baptism means remembering that we have been named as a child of God, that we need not strive after love and acceptance and belonging - because we already have it. Remembering our Baptism means remembering the promise we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. (Isaiah 43:1-2)
There is great power in acknowledging our identity and remembering the love that has been ours in Jesus Christ from the very beginning. Because when we know it to be true, then, like Jesus, our real work can begin.
When we know who we are, we begin to see others as they truly are.
When we remember our baptism, we remember how loved our neighbor is too.
When we are set free from having to strive for love and acceptance, we are set free to work for the love and well-being of others.
So this morning, no matter how your 2019 has started, no matter what resolutions you have made, not-made, kept, or already failed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, may you be grounded in the love that knows you and calls you by name. May you be compelled by this love to help others know it too. May you remember who you are, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.