Saturday, January 8, 2011

Baptism and Affirmation

Matthew 3:13-17
This brief passage relating Jesus’ baptism makes us wonder why Jesus needed to be baptized. Indeed, even the Gospel writers struggled with this question, as we can see when we compare the various ways they tell this story. Over the centuries, scholars and preachers and lay readers have struggled with it, too. Here’s how it strikes me today.

People came to John because he preached a message they wanted and needed to hear. His baptism was a symbolic act for people who wanted to turn their lives in a new direction. They came confessing their sins, and promising to do better in the future.  It was like getting a fresh start on life and committing themselves to a better relationship with God.
So when Jesus shows up, John knows about him. At least, John knows that Jesus is the one about whom John has been prophesying. John actually asks the question, “Shouldn’t you be baptizing me?” And Jesus responds by saying, “It will please God that we do this.” God’s voice, heard perhaps just by John and Jesus, or perhaps by the whole crowd, affirms this. “He is my son. I love him, and I am proud of him.”
This baptism and affirmation occurs at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Before he has done anything to make God proud of him; before he has gathered any disciples; before he has taught them new ways of understanding God’s relationship with us; before he has healed sick and disabled people; before he has fed thousands; before he is arrested, tried, and crucified; before Jesus has done anything to please God, God already has affirmed him.
Near the end of his life God affirms Jesus in a similar way, in the event we call the Transfiguration. Up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, the three closest disciples, Jesus shines brightly; Moses and Elijah appear with him; and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Peter, James, and John are the witnesses of this mysterious event, and they hear the voice of God declaring God’s approval of Jesus.
I find myself wondering if these affirmations came just when Jesus needed to hear them, first as he began his ministry and wondered if he was doing the right thing, and then as he began the last stretch of ministry and set his face for Jerusalem for the last time. Perhaps  he remembered these affirmations as people rejected him; perhaps he remembered these affirmations in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prayed for a “Plan B;” perhaps he remembered these affirmations as he was beaten; perhaps he remembered these affirmations as he hung dying on the cross.
And, perhaps, these affirmations were made so that a few select listeners could hear them. John the Baptist heard it at the beginning, so John could know he had also been faithful and done what God had asked of him. Peter, James, and John heard it at the beginning of the end, so they would be prepared to tell others when the time came.
… Christian baptism is different from John’s baptism. It’s similar in that we receive forgiveness of sins in baptism, as was true for John’s baptism.  But Christian baptism goes farther.
·         In baptism, we receive salvation from the punishment we should receive, because we all sin, even if it’s only in thinking we know more than God does about how to run our lives.
·         In baptism, we acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and throughout our lives.
·         In baptism, we acknowledge that we belong to Jesus, as part of his family.
·         In baptism, we also receive one another as members of the same Christian family.
Whether we’re Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal, we are all one family in Christ Jesus. We may need to be reminded of this once in a while, but the Apostle Paul wrote that there is only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” That is still true today.
… While John was the actor at the Jordan River, God is the actor in human baptism. Pastors may say the words and splash the water and make the sign of the cross, but God is the one who makes baptism effective. God is the one who affirms us, who says to us, “You are my child. I love you, and I am proud of you.”
Amazingly, God says this before we can do it for ourselves. Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and many others baptize infants, precisely because we want to acknowledge that baptism is God’s action.
I remember watching the TV show Touched by an Angel. Each week, there was a person who had once known God’s love, but no longer felt loved by God. It may have been an event like the death of a family member; it may have been an injustice which had made them angry at God; or it may have been something they did that they shouldn’t have done. The story related the pain they felt, the anger they couldn’t let go of, the guilt their deeds caused.
But, always at the end of the show, Monica glowed with angelic light and assured them of God’s love for them. She affirmed what they needed to hear: they were God’s children, God loved them, and God wanted to be in their lives again.
… We all need to hear, over and over again, God’s promises and God’s affirmations. We need to hear, “We are God’s children, God loves us, and God is proud of us.” As we remember we are baptized children of God, we stand a little taller, feel a little better about ourselves, and are more empowered to face whatever comes next in life, knowing we have God with us, and within us.
Each week, as we begin worship, we confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness. We face the font and the processional cross as visible signs of the invisible presence of God. We may make the sign of the cross on our bodies as we remember that we are baptized children of God, who loves us and is proud of us.
This week, I invite you to remember each day that you are baptized.
·         When you stand in the shower, let the water pour over you and remind you that God loves you and is proud of you.
·         As you connect with others, remember that they are also baptized children of God, and God loves them and is proud of them, too.
·         If you know people who are having trouble in their relationships with God, share with them the Good News that Jesus brings – they are God’s children, and God loves them and is proud of them.

Please pray with me: Jesus, as you went to John to be baptized, you took our place in line. Help us each day to remember God’s love for us, even when we aren’t so sure we’re lovable. Help us to share with others that same divine love, especially with those who aren’t so sure they’re lovable. Amen