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Sermon for Baptism of our Lord Sunday

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John the Baptist is back! John, whose job was to point to the One who was to come, which indeed he did well, even if he never fully understood the One he was pointing to.
We acknowledged this back in Advent, and we see it again today.
John is doing his job, proclaiming repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins. You can see him out at the Jordan River, with a line of people waiting their turn.
He’s probably gotten into a pretty good rhythm by the time Jesus turns up at the front of his line.
“And what’s your name, young man?” he might have asked, before his jaw dropped.
Wait. What?
What are YOU doing here?
And if YOU’RE here, than you should be the one doing the baptizing, not me! This makes no sense!
The text says John would have prevented him, so convinced was he that Jesus was on the wrong side of the line.
But like we said, John never did fully understand the one he was pointing to. Of course, I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing.
After all, isn’t baptism for sinners? And haven’t we been told all our lives that Jesus was without sin? Then what, indeed, is Jesus doing here?
Why does JESUS need to be baptized? Well, maybe he doesn’t. Or maybe “need” isn’t the right word. But Jesus shows up at the Jordan for baptism, and no doubt he does so for a reason.
So.
We have just finished the Christmas season where we hear again the beautiful good news that God is born and puts on skin.
And when God puts on skin, we begin to realize that our skin matters, too.
I think Jesus’ baptism might deliver a similar kind of message to God’s people.
When John baptizes, it implies a hierarchical relationship. The baptizer is senior to the baptizee. John himself recognizes this in the gospel when he says that Jesus should instead baptize him. He should be subordinate to Jesus.
It’s not that John is wrong; baptism was for sinners (3:6).
So John needs is to be baptized by Jesus--"with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (3:11)—as opposed to Jesus being baptized, "confessing (his) sins."
John is right about that, but it seems he misunderstands the nature of God's mission. He always has. God's reign will not be about John's fiery images of judgment for sinners, but rather God's "full immersion" into the trials and tribulations of his people.1 We call this Emmanuel, God with us.
In solidarity with the people, Jesus stands in line with sinners. Jesus' mission will not be punishment of sinners, but identification with sinners. So he shows up for baptism, just like they do. Emmanuel, God with us.
Your flesh matters, and your life matters, too. I am with you.
Your flesh matters, and your life matters, too. I am with you.
If Jesus had baptized John, it would have affirmed hierarchical relationships, the senior partner initiating the junior one. But hierarchical relationships are all upended in the new reign of God. "The last shall be first," after all, "and the first shall be last" (20:16). Jesus' solidarity with sinners is, in God's upside-down way, the superior position.
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1 Rev John Petty, www.progressiveinvolvement.com
So Jesus tells John to just “let it go for now” – his understanding of baptism, that is – and John is finally convinced when Jesus says, because "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." John can get on board with fulfilling all righteousness, but don’t miss the "for us" (it is proper for us in this way..).
Jesus sees John as a partner in this enterprise, neither a superior nor an inferior, and that’s the case whether John likes it or not.
All of this joining with John, coming along side us as God’s people, taking on our very flesh and joining us at the waters of baptism, it all confirms for us time and again that we are what God says only a few voices later: beloved of God. Our very selves have been made holy by the God who comes near and won’t leave us alone.
This naming of us is a very important part of our understanding of baptism. Here, God opens the heavens and traverses the abyss between heaven and earth to enter the muck and mire of our humanity. And when he does, he comes not with John’s fire but as a dove, with peace. And then he names Jesus his son and calls him Beloved.
This is where our baptism and Jesus’ baptism are similar: God names and calls Jesus. God names and calls us. God calls us his children and names us beloved. And remembering this identity can make all the difference as we live our lives in this world.
When I was a kid growing up in Kadoka, SD, I remember often being referred to by older adults in the community as “one of the Hogen kids.” My maiden name is Oyan, but my mom’s parents and grandparents, who had been in Kadoka for generations - they were Hogens. Their name was known, and it carried a certain weight. So I never minded being called a Hogen kid, because it meant that I was known. It may have even afforded me certain privileges I may not otherwise have enjoyed. My grandparents had some status, after all, at least by Kadoka standards.
Names have power.
Names have power.
The truth is, if the Hogens had had a bad reputation in Kadoka, being referred to as “one of the Hogen kids” would have been an insult and may have prevented me from ever being seen in a positive light. Names have power.
Which why it is so important to remember our baptisms this day and every day, because in baptism we receive a name that will forever define who we really are, no matter what the world says – or what the people in your family or community might say – and that can make all the difference for our ability to live our lives in this world.
I’m a first-born child, and I have spent a great deal of my life trying to fulfill certain roles, meet certain expectations, and be responsible not only for myself but others. I probably won’t ever fully be able to turn “off” the switch of trying to be what I’m “supposed” to be. But I can tell you this: It is the greatest relief and the best news every single time I’m reminded, Inga, you already are exactly who you are supposed to be: Beloved of God, Child of God. And that is more than enough. And in those moments I am set free by the love of God again.
Perhaps we all have our own version of this story. Right now, the world would like to define us by many, many names: Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, American or foreigner, gay or straight, rich or poor, Black or White, beautiful or plain, and the list goes on. These oversimplifications, I am more and more convinced, are not only NEVER accurate, they only serve to damage the already fragile connections we have with each other in this broken world.
Not to mention we hear this gospel text at the beginning of a New Year, when the culture invites us to make New Year’s resolutions and “fix” all our imperfections. I’m going to change this year!
What if we instead vowed to remind ourselves daily of who we already are: Beloved Children of God, perfection not necessary
AMEN?
It matters – so much – for us to return to our baptisms and remember again and again our primary identity as “child of God” and how in Baptism God named – and continues to name us – as “beloved.”
Our other names aren’t worthless. They may have great value. But while these other names and identifications may describe us, they dare not define us, because only the name we receive in Holy Baptism grants us the life we enjoy in Christ.
Yes, Baptism washes away sin. Beyond that, Holy Baptism promises ongoing forgiveness of sin and relationship with God. And this is both important and central to our understanding. But baptism also provides something more: a name – Beloved child of God, one to whom God is unfailingly committed.
(It’s a pretty important name.)
May it – again today – set us free to live these precious lives we been given – for the sake of Christ and each other.
AMEN
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