God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Every year, on the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. John the Baptist knows who Jesus is and he is surprised that Jesus is asking John to baptize him. "I need to be baptized by you," John says to Jesus. But Jesus replies, "Let is be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." In other words, Jesus is being obedient to God, to fulfill God's call. It is in Jesus that God restores the relationship that humankind has broken and this restoration is God's promise of salvation. Jesus' baptism is a public pronouncement of who Jesus is as he begins his earthly ministry.
But why does Jesus, who is without sin, come to John the Baptist to be baptized? Jesus comes to be baptized in order to be one of us, to be one with us, to identify with our sin and pain. If Jesus wanted to identify with humanity, he had to share the burden of humanity. Jesus entered the water to offer himself as the answer to John's call for all people to repent.
Jesus' baptism establishes his identity and his purpose. As he comes up out of the water, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven proclaims, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Jesus is just starting his ministry. As far as we know, Jesus hasn't DONE anything yet. Yet God proclaims Jesus as God's Son and is pleased with him. God loves Jesus for who he is, not for what he has done or hasn't done. Jesus is God's Son and that is all that matters. And that is the same way that God sees us. God loves us because we belong to God, not because of what we have done or haven't done. God loves us because we are his children.
God tells Jesus at his baptism who he is - the Son of God. That is his identity. Our baptism defines who we are as well - children of God. Through God's grace we are loved unconditionally by God. And that is what gives us our identity.
God continues to tell us how much we are loved by God, but God's voice has to compete with other voices that we hear so that sometimes the voice of God is drowned out. Perhaps we heard voices when we were children that the report cards we brought home said we were not smart enough. As teenagers, we often heard voices through the cruelty of other teenagers that said we were not cool enough. As adults we hear voices from our culture that says we are not successful enough or rich enough. We hear voices through the media that says we are not attractive enough and that we must defy the effects of aging at all costs. With all these competing voices, the voice of God often gets drowned out. When we listen to these other voices, it is easy to forget who and whose we are. We are the beloved children of God.
When we hear others judge us in unkind ways or say hurtful things, we need to remember that God's voice is also within us, telling us that we are loved and valued as children of God. When we are tempted to judge others or say hurtful things, we need to listen to that still, small voice within us that reminds us of God's love for all people, whether we agree with them or not, whether we like them or not.
Each year, on the Sunday following Epiphany, the church gives us this celebration of Jesus' baptism, perhaps in the hopes that it will remind us of our own baptism. Most of us, who were baptized as infants, don't remember the day of our baptism or perhaps even where we were baptized. But we know that we were baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit, the same baptism that Jesus had. Our baptisms were not as dramatic as Jesus' was with a voice from heaven proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God, and the dove alighting upon him. But it is the same power of the Holy Spirit. And that is the same Holy Spirit that can set us on fire to do the work that God has given us to do.
Baptism should be life changing. Imagine what the church would look like if each baptized member used the power that is given to us by God in our baptism. In the Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah, we heard these words from God: "I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as 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." These words are for us as well as the people Isaiah was talking to. Jesus repeatedly told his followers that they, and us, must continue Jesus' ministry and spread the gospel - to care for the poor, the homeless, the hungry, those who are in prison, those who are sick, and to work for peace. If each and every one of us, and each and every person in Christian churches throughout the world did this, really followed the promises made at our baptism, we could change the world. (1)
Baptism with the power of the Holy Spirit ignites a fire in our souls. If we let that fire burn in us and through us, just think what could happen. It's so easy for us to give up in despair that we can change the world, especially when we have instant access to seeing all the wars and droughts and fires and people dying from starvation and refugees held in camps, and horrible things we do to each other that it all seems so overwhelming. But we can't give up. God is depending on us to do God's work in this world. Maybe we can do something to change our little corner of the world. And then this other group does something to change their little corner of the world. And then eventually God's work is ruling the world.
I invite and encourage you all to come next Sunday when we will have the baptism of the Athing's grandchils and we will renew our own baptismal covenant.
Imagine what our church would look like if we all let our fire burn with intensity. We are created in the image of God. We are loved by God beyond anything we can contemplate. Imagine the church on fire with the power of the Holy Spirit. Imagine the explosion of peace and joy that could be ours. Imagine, just imagine. Amen.
(1)Some ideas are from "Sermons that Work", Epiphany 1A, 2011 "Jesus Joins the Crowd"
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