God Stakes A Claim
The Rev. Amy Spagna
January 10, 2015 – The Baptism of Our Lord Isaiah 43:1 7; Luke 3:15 17, 21 22
Has anyone told you they loved you today?
I bet God has. If you listen closely enough, it’s not all that hard to hear it.
That we are on the receiving end of the most powerful force in the universe is PRECISELY what our words and actions today are meant to demonstrate. That force has called us by name, paid an enormous price to save us, and will continue to hold us as a thing more precious than the riches of Egypt, Ethopia, and Seba combined. This statement is old news. Not only did the exiled people of Jerusalem hear it through the words of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus himself heard them as well, as he sat on the banks of the Jordan after his own baptism. We will be continuing the long standing tradition repeating them in just a few minutes, and again at the 11:00 service, when we welcome four little children into the Body of Christ. In doing so, we will formally recognize the claim that God has already staked on their young lives.
No matter where, or how, we hear it, the phrase, “You are my beloved Son,” is a powerful one. When God speaks it, things are changed forever. Created order arises from chaos. Abraham leaves his home and goes to the land which God would show him. The Red Sea is parted for just long enough to allow Moses to lead the people to safety. I could go on, and on, and on, but you see the point: that God loves the world seems to have a way of changing the course of human history. That claim means we are valued, so much so that entire nations were the price of our ransom, and we are loved beyond the point of human understanding. Our belonging to God is the one thing which cannot fail us, even when it seems as if our lives have careened out of control.1 Although we we are told this from the time we can understand spoken language, it bears repeating: you belong to God, and you are beloved.
We receive the first hint of this message from the prophet Isaiah. This particular section of the book, often called “Second Isaiah,” is thought to have appeared toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. At that time, it seemed an end to this episode of suffering might be near. Some of the people had been allowed to return to Jerusalem to re establish a the worshipping community in the Temple. It gave the people reason to have hope again – hope that God had not totally abandoned them after all. This is a marked shift in tone from the previous chapter, which ends with a lengthy description of how God punished Israel for its sins. The people simply refused to listen; and so, Isaiah tells us, “[God] poured upon him the heat of his anger and the fury of his war; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him, but he did not take it to heart” (Isaiah 42:25, NRSV).
1 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1624.
But. That was yesterday. Today, God speaks a new word: Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. Just as it was with prior punishment, God is the only explanation for the sudden change in the people’s fortunes. This new word announces an end to judgment and proclaims the promise of life from captivity and death.2 This is NOT the language, or the work, of a distant God who could care less about the people S/He created! A distant God would not go to such great lengths to save the beloved people. Nor would She promise to be present in the midst of life’s trials. And a distant God would most certainly not willingly choose to become incarnate as a part of the world God created.
Isaiah’s announcement that God has paid Israel’s ransom takes on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus.3 This time, we meet him as a young man who has joined the crowd listening to his cousin John the Baptist. No matter which of the gospel accounts you happen to be reading, they all end with the affirmation of Jesus’ special status. Something which looks like a dove appears over his head, and a voice from heaven announces that, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” While John relies on John the Baptist to relay this information after the fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all describe the scene as it happened. Many people had gathered along the banks of the Jordan River to hear John’s sermon and to receive his baptism with water. This baptism was meant to do two things. One, it was an act of repentance and cleansing. Two, it was a key part of preparing for the One who would come to baptize the people with fire and the Holy Spirit. John is one of the few people who already knows Jesus’ true identity. So when Jesus shows up and asks John to baptize him, John is more than a little surprised. John isn’t entirely sure about it, though does it anyway. And as Jesus comes up out of the water, that voice from heaven rings out for all who would hear it.
What sets Luke’s version apart from the others is that it raises the issue of who applied the water. Matthew and Mark both are clear that John does it. The two verses from Luke which the editors of the lectionary chose to omit tell us that John has already been thrown into jail for speaking out against King Herod. Yet, his ministry is continued by SOMEONE, at least long enough to allow Jesus and some other, unnamed people, to be baptized. By failing to name a human agent here, Luke reinforces the idea that baptism – and most especially this baptism – is God’s work. What’s active here is the Holy Spirit – the very same one which baptizes us. Because of this, we can have confidence that no matter how often we fall short or fail, nothing we do can remove the mark identifying us as God’s beloved. What’s more, our relationship with God is the only one we can’t completely screw up. Sure, we can try to run away and hide from it. We can even neglect or outright ignore it, but the one thing we can’t do is to destroy it completely.4 God loves us too much to ever let us go. If you need proof, you don’t have to look any further than the words of Isaiah. Yes,
2 Anathea Portier Young, “Commentary on Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=494.
3 Howard Wallace, “Year C, Baptism of Jesus: January 13, 2013. Isaiah 43:1 7.” http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/web/OTComments/EpiphanyC/BaptismJesus.html. 4 David Lose, “Preaching a More Meaningful Baptism.”
God got angry and punished the people. In the end, however, it was God who deliberately chose to ransom them and bring them home.
God loves us. So what? What are we supposed to DO about that, and how are we supposed to live with that? Fortunately, there are plenty of road maps to choose from. They include the one titled “The Baptismal Covenant,” which is found on page 304 of the Prayer Book. There, we are given five basic tasks: one, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; two, to persevere against evil and return to the Lord when we need help with it; three, to preach the Gospel by word and example; four, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and five, to seek justice and peace, while respecting the dignity of every human being. It’s a tall order. Nor is any of these things particularly easy all of the time. Fortunately, we do not have to attempt them alone. Nor are we expected to. Baptism, like Eucharist, and all the other sacramental rites of the church, are fundamentally an action of the whole community. Clergy and people together are needed to make these promises come to life. When that happens, we are told, Christ will be in the midst of us –and we will see for ourselves what Isaiah meant when he quoted God as saying we are precious and honored in God’s sight.
If there is any nugget of wisdom I would give to Adeline, Kylie, Madison and Kennedy on the occasion of their baptism, this is it: we are precious and honored in God’s sight. There are no exceptions or conditions attached which can change that. What we do here today, through our prayers, a splash of water, and anointing with fragrant oil, is to begin whispering that awesome truth to them. The message that truth conveys also bears repeating for all of us who are promising to uphold them in their new life in Christ. When all else fails – when the world, or the people around us, let us down – that God loves us is what we can fall back on. With that, the legendary question bears repeating: has anyone told you that they loved you today?