It is said that when the reformer Martin Luther was detained for months in Wartberg Castle, in particularly anxious moments he would remind himself, “I am baptized!” to battle back his despair. “I am baptized!” Just as Jesus himself was baptized, named and claimed by God as beloved and pleasing, so we too, when we take on his baptism, are named and claimed by God as beloved and pleasing. It occurred to me that I may need to take on that practice of “remembering my baptism” in these days and months and years to come. Perhaps we all should.
When the news gets more and more bizarre and worrisome, remember your baptism! You are beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold. In a world of fake news and overnight tweets, hold on to that truth. For those of us faced with the changing or declining health of loved ones–or ourselves– in these next weeks and months, reminding ourselves that “I am baptized” may help to reinforce the claim of Love upon us, even in the face of death and discouragement. As life’s challenges and surprises threaten to knock us off our feet, with job losses, relationship stresses, worries about kids or grandkids, aging parents, or nieces and nephews battling cancer, all those very real aspects of life that are often the furthest things from our minds when we come to baptism as infants or adults–when you are confronted with those challenges, remember your baptism.
Each of the gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized, and, as Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says, the fact of Jesus’ baptism was an enormous embarrassment to the early Christian community. Not because it was miraculous, but because it was so ordinary–”the Messiah placing himself under the tutelage of a rabble-rouser like John? A baptism of repentance? What was he doing in that murky water, aligning himself with the great unwashed?” (Cited by Debie Thomas in journeywithjesus, 1/1/17)
Here in Matthew’s account, this is the first time we hear Jesus speak, in this quiet, troubling conversation with John. It is, as one commentator described it, “a paradoxical blend of humility and magnificence.” (Troy Miller, cited by K. Matthews in sermonseeds, 1/8/17)
He wanted John to baptize him, Peterson translates. John objected, saying, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!” But Jesus insisted. “Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” So John did it. Humility and magnificence.
God’s righteousness is fulfilled in this baptism, Jesus says, God’s work of putting things right. It’s not a word we think of fondly–”righteousness.” We often think of it with “self, ” as in “self-righteousness,” that unbearable holier-than-thou attitude of some. Or “righteousness” makes us think of uptight, obsessive rule-followers, holding out a standard of living that none of us can ever hope to achieve. It’s got shame built into it. It’s a “church-y” kind of word, and not in a good way.
But listen to how both Isaiah and, from there, Jesus use it–here in Isaiah–
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.
God’s “righteousness” for Isaiah and for Jesus is “experienced as compassionate justice and care for those who are poor and/or marginalized…as healing the damage done to the relationship between God and humanity.” (K. Matthews, op cit.) The purpose of Jesus, one writer suggests, is revealed in his baptism–”to lay his healing hands upon a broken, alienated world to make it right with God again.” (F.D. Lueking, cited in Matthews, op cit.) That’s the “righteousness” that Jesus’ baptism fulfills.
And, in a way, that’s what the baptism of each one of us fulfills. It’s an expression of grace, of the unearned, generous love of God, an affirmation in sign and seal that we are infinitely, eternally loved. The name of each one of us is “Beloved.” Marilynne Robinson, author of the best-seller Gilead, among others, writes, “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 power in that.” (Cited by Matthews) Our baptism doesn’t make us more holy; it confirms that we already are. In moments when we feel anything but holy, when we feel soiled, or failed, or weak, or rotten, when we feel like a “dimly burning wick” or a “bruised reed,” it is especially then when we must “remember our baptism.”
Walt Whitman’s poem, which the choir sang earlier for us, speaks in the voice of one who is setting out on the road of life with all the optimism, energy, and enthusiasm of youth. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me….Going where I list, my own master, list’ning to others and consid’ring well what they say, pausing, searching, contemplating, with undeniable will, I inhale great drafts of space; I am much larger, better than I thought; I did not know I held so much goodness. All seems beautiful to me.”
Isn’t that what we hope for the children we bring to be baptized, their whole lives ahead of them? And for youth and adults who come to baptism, we affirm that they too “hold so much goodness.” But there is no pouring or stirring of the waters without “troubling” them, as the spiritual says–”God’s gonna trouble the waters.” You can’t dip into the font without breaking the surface, disturbing the calm. You certainly can’t fall back beneath the waters of a river or pool without splashing, roiling, upsetting the waters. Built into our baptism is the reality that life will include troubles, challenges, heartache, pain. We will fail. We will be disappointed and hurt. We and our loved ones will get sick. The world will frighten and worry us. We and our loved ones will die. Remember your baptism. Remember that you hold so much goodness, you are beloved, a precious child of God, beautiful to behold. These things happen to us not because we are bad or have done something wrong, but because that is what life includes. Baptism is for life.
There is no magic in baptism. And God’s light and grace and love are not limited to those who are baptized, though the sacrament is one sign among many. There is no magic in baptism or in finding “Epiphany moments,” glimpses of God’s light and grace and love, those “thin places,” as the Celts call them, where the door between heaven and earth opens. Remem-bering your baptism and perceiving Epiphany moments is a practice, as Debie Thomas puts it. We need to practice claiming our baptism every day–every time you step into the shower and feel the water streaming over you, remember your baptism. “I am beloved.” Or when you splash water on your face after you’ve exercised, or after you’ve shaved, remember your baptism. “I am beloved.”
The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg wrote, “Jesus himself is our thin place. He’s the one who opens the barrier and shows us the God we long for. He’s the one who stands in line with us at the water’s edge, willing to immerse himself in shame, scandal, repentance, and pain–all so that we might hear the only Voice that can tell us who we are and whose we are in this sacred season. Listen. We are God’s own. God’s children. God’s pleasure. Even in the deepest water, we are Beloved.” [cited by Thomas, op cit.]
This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and this is really good news. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark