The One Thing That Can Never Be Taken From Us

baptism-image

(Sermon for The Baptism of Our Lord A 2017, based on Matthew 3:13-17)

     On Tuesday evening I was in the grocery store when my phone rang. I looked down at the screen to see who was calling and saw that it was Kim, Creator’s bookkeeper. I thought maybe she was calling to let me know when she would be in the office, but when I answered, she said, “We were just told that my mom will probably pass sometime in the next 48 hours, and I was wondering whether you might be able to come out to my brother’s place in Sandy and give her a blessing tomorrow morning….” “Of course!,” I said. “Just text me the address, and I’ll be there….” So, on Wednesday morning, I had the privilege of offering a blessing for Marietta and praying with the family around her bedside. At first Marietta seemed anxious, and her upper body shook a little. But after I anointed her with oil and assured her that she is a beloved child of God, who holds all of us in life and in death, she seemed to be more at peace…. Then the family and I prayed together, and I exchanged many warm hugs with Kim, as well as with her brother, Nicky, and her father, Ray–even though I’d never met them before!… It was a holy moment, because in the very midst of deep grief, God was palpably present…. Amazingly, wonderfully, God was present in the love shared by strangers, who somehow recognized each other as sisters and brothers: as children of the same Creator God, bound together by our common need to love and be loved…. After we prayed together, Kim’s dad, Ray, said, “You know, I didn’t even know this piece was missing, but Kimmy did, and she made it happen!…” That, too, was a moment of pure grace and gratitude for the presence of God, who holds all of us as beloved children in life and in death….

     My friends, when I dipped my thumb in olive oil and traced the sign of the cross on Marietta’s forehead, it was an echo of the identity God gives us and the promise God makes to each of us in our baptism: “You are my beloved child, and I am with you always….” No matter how young or old we are, no matter how wealthy or poor, “Child of God” is our chief identity: You and I belong to God forever, and that’s the one thing no one can ever take away from us!… There’s a really great “Lutheran anthem”—maybe you’ve heard of it (wink, wink!): “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The lyrics were written some 500 years ago by a fellow named Martin Luther, from whom we get our distinctly “Lutheran flavor” of Christianity. Anyway, there’s a verse in “A Mighty Fortress” that pretty well sums up what it means for us to claim our identity as children of God. It goes like this:

Though hordes of devils fill the land,
all threatening to devour us,
we tremble not–unmoved we stand;
they cannot overpower us!
Though they should take our house,
goods, honor, child, or spouse;
though life be wrenched away,
they cannot win the day:
The Kingdom’s ours forever!…[1]

Many people don’t know this, but in addition to being a fiery theologian and a prolific writer, Luther was also a caring pastor, and he because he cared deeply about God’s people, he seized every opportunity to remind them over and over about the promise of baptism. It’s well documented that whenever Luther himself felt tempted or tormented by people or forces working against God’s purposes, he would often shout in defiance, “I am baptized!” It’s like he was trying to remind himself and encourage himself in the face of great challenges: “I belong to God. Period. So, in the big picture, nothing and no one can ever truly hurt me!…” My friends, that strikes me as a relevant message in our day, too: Like Luther, we certainly have our own “hordes” of greedy devils “threatening to devour us” by taking whatever they think they can grab for themselves: Some of those devils can’t wait to foreclose on people’s houses. Others are gleefully rubbing their hands together as they anticipate taking away our healthcare coverage. Closer to home, there are some who try to tarnish our reputation by telling lies about us. And there are also some who seek to seduce and lure our loved ones away from us…. My friends, these are terrible things, and they happen. All. The. Time…. Indeed, Scripture, history, and our own experience tell us this is nothing new. It was true in Jesus’ time, it was true in Luther’s time, and it’s true in our time. “Hordes of devils” have harassed God’s people in every age, and yet the Good News for you and me is that God gets the last word, and God says to those devils, “You may think you’re winning now, but in the end, my self-giving love will prevail over your self-serving greed!…”

     You know, when we hear the story of Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River by his cousin, John the Baptist, I think our first reaction is often a lot like John’s: “Wait. What?!… Jesus wants John to baptize him? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?!…” Hmm…I wonder if we should take another look and approach this from a different perspective. As I said in last week’s sermon, it seems that over the centuries the church has layered Jesus with so much divinity that sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that he was really, truly, fully human—flesh and blood, just as you and I are…. So, let’s try something right here, right now: Let’s try peeling off some of the layers of divinity that separate us from Jesus. Let’s imagine wading into the waters of baptism with our brother, Jesus. What was he thinking when he asked John to baptize him? And what did he mean with his cryptic answer to his cousin’s incredulous question about their apparent role reversal, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness?…” I don’t know about you, but I can totally picture John’s thought process going something like this: “Um, I really don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, Jesus, but I’ve been around you long enough to know it’s probably not a good idea to ask questions, so let’s just do this now!…” You know, I can’t help wondering whether even Jesus himself at this point fully understood what God would later call him to do…. Since Jesus was fully human, it seems reasonable to assume that his spiritual path would be revealed to him much as ours is: one step at a time, with each step providing just enough light to see the next step on the path….. It’s interesting that the gospels don’t tell us much about Jesus’ life between his birth and his baptism around the age of 30, but reading between the lines, we can tell that he had cultivated a deep prayer relationship with God. Through this relationship he came to discern that for now the right—aka the “righteous”—thing to do was to obey God’s immediate call by asking John to baptize him…. By the end of today’s gospel reading, you and I, who have the advantage of looking at this story through the lens of the resurrection, can begin to see the reason for Jesus’ baptism: The Baptism of Our Lord is the public inauguration of Jesus as the Son of God, the One sent to reveal God’s reconciling love for the life of the world…. Matthew the Evangelist tells us that just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he had a vision of the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then the voice of God was heard declaring, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased….” Here I want to point out a couple of things you might not have noticed before: First, in contrast to Luke’s gospel, where the voice from heaven seems to speak only to Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased,”[2] in Matthew’s version, the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased….” The use of the third person here would seem to indicate that the revelation is made for the sake of John and others who witnessed Jesus’ baptism. (You may recall from the gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Advent that many people were coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John….) The second thing I want you to notice is that before Jesus even does anything—before he begins his public ministry–God declares him “beloved” and is “well pleased” with him….. Let that sink in for a moment, because the very same thing is true for you and me!

     Dear friends in Christ, whether you remember your baptism or not, it was an occasion when God publicly named YOU and declared to you and to everyone present, “This is my son,” or “This is my daughter, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased….” My friends, this is so important and such amazing Good News that I have to say it again: Before you and I even do anything, our God loves us and wants to tell everyone how much God loves us! Wow!… As I grow older, I think I’m finally beginning to understand that before you and I can live the compassionate, courageous, abundant life God desires for us, we first have to know that we belong to God, and we have to accept the gift of knowing that we are deeply loved…. Just. As. We. Are….  Of course, our God loved us even before we were baptized; after all, God is the One who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs,[3] creating each of us out of love and for love. But it’s through our baptism that you and I, along with our Lord Jesus, are given the incredible gift of assurance that God’s living, loving Spirit has been poured out in our hearts and is with us ALWAYS, wherever we go and whatever we do…. Sisters and brothers, I don’t know about you, but I’m completely blown away by the gift God has given us in baptism: I’m completely blown away when I realize that the very same Spirit poured out on Jesus at his baptism has been poured out on us and that our God has given us this gift because God knows that living in this world isn’t always easy…. We see this in the life of our Lord Jesus himself, who, immediately after his baptism was led out into the wilderness, where he was forced to confront many hardships, including the very real temptation to sell out his ministry and give up on God….[4] Only the assurance of God’s never-ending love that was poured on upon Jesus at his baptism could sustain him through his time of trial…and the same is true for you and me. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Holy Baptism is the invisible, yet impenetrable armor that equips us for those times when we find ourselves in the wilderness, crushed between the rocks and the hard places of life…. My friends, in this hard and uncertain wilderness in which you and I find ourselves, let’s cling fiercely to the gift of our baptism, because our identity as beloved children of God is the one thing that can never be taken from us and it’s the only thing that can give us the compassion and courage we need in order to live the abundant life our God desires for us. Amen.

[1] “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, hymn #504.

[2] Luke 3:22.

[3] Cf. Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 139:13.

[4] See Matthew 4:1-11.


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