When our son – our first-born - was baptized the service was beautiful, many of our family and friends were gathered, along with the family of another child; he didn’t cry, there were no family squabbles (at least that I can remember); everything was serene, picture perfect. When our next child – our daughter – was baptized some things were very similar – the same christening gown, the same family members, the same Sunday of the year (Advent 1); the church was different because we had moved from Manhattan to Bergen County, but that didn’t affect things too much.
What was really different was that we had a three-year-old, a very active little boy who did not want to be still and wasn’t too happy about sharing the limelight with his baby sister. And so he proceeded, during the baptism, to hang on the altar rail gate and swing back and forth on it – right there in front of God and everybody.
The parents and godparents were supposed to be saying our part of the baptismal vows on our daughter’s behalf, the rector was doing his best to ignore our son’s shenanigans, and my husband was attempting to get our son under control while being present to this wonderful event in our daughter’s life. It was certainly not the end of the world, but it was frustrating and embarrassing; needless to say, we were not well-pleased with our son’s behavior!
It’s a good thing, then, that baptism is not fundamentally about what we do or do not do; baptism is most fundamentally about being known and loved by God, receiving from God our true identity.
Our Gospel reading today, and the focus of our worship, is the baptism of Jesus as a manifestation of his true identity to the world. Jesus joined the crowds coming from all over the Judean countryside and from Jerusalem who came to the Jordan River in response to John the Baptist’s preaching. John had been preaching repentance, and baptism for cleansing from sin as a way to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
That was John’s job, his ministry; to tell people to get ready for the big new thing that God was going to do. And people responded to him; they came out in droves; and Jesus came, too. John was confused by this; he felt his own sinfulness and unworthiness before the Messiah, but Jesus assured him that it was good and right for him to be baptized just like everyone else.
So down he went – into the muddy, murky water of the Jordan River…just like us. Jesus took on our humanity, our condition and identity – as if he had sins that needed washing away. And when he came up out of the water he had an experience of seeing the Holy Spirit descend on him in the shape of a dove, and he heard God’s voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
The reality of Jesus’ nature and identity had been revealed so clearly – God’s Son, the Beloved, the One with whom God is well-pleased. Jesus took on our human identity – and acted upon it by being baptized – so that we might not only recognize his divine nature, but receive some of that for ourselves.
Because when we are baptized, God says the same thing to us: “You are my Child, my Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.”
Before anything we do or fail to do, that is the most fundamental truth about us – we are God’s beloved, and well-pleasing to Him.
Now that doesn’t mean we always behave well, in fact we can behave spectacularly badly and harm ourselves and others in doing so. We can find all kinds of ways to separate ourselves from God and others and our best selves – for that is what sin means: being separate from, a-sunder. We can wander far off the path, we can get ourselves into some pretty dark and tight places, we can – frankly – make a mess of our lives, and yet…. that is not the most fundamental truth about us. The more important thing about God and us is God’s love for us as his beloved children.
And that changes everything.
When we know we are loved completely and without reservation, when we know that God delights in us, when we know that we – like Jesus – can have the Holy Spirit poured out upon us to empower us to serve God in the world – that changes everything.
Our short-comings and failures cease being road-blocks and become opportunities to learn and grow to be more Christ-like.
The calamities that befall us cease to be punishments and instead give us a chance to deepen our faith and trust. The messages that world gives us about not measuring up because we are not enough – not attractive enough, or thin enough, or well-dressed enough, or whatever “enoughs” might be on sale this season – those messages are revealed as the lies they are when we know that God is well-pleased with us.
How wonderful to understand our true identity and to live and act out of that reality. When we know we are God’s Beloved we can open our hearts and hands to others who need to know the love and grace of God in ways large and small, tangible and spiritual.
Thank God that the grace, the gift, of baptism doesn’t depend on what we do, but rather on what God does, and on who Jesus is – the one who stands with us and among us at the riverbank, waiting to take the plunge into the murky deep, with all the rivers currents and eddies and unpredictable bottom. We go down into the water with Jesus and come up again with him, dying to sin and rising to new life, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and hearing God’s voice ringing in our ears: You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well-pleased. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Baptism of our Lord: First Sunday after Epiphany
January 12, 2014