|"Baptism of Christ" by Davezelenka|
What gets to define you?
Things you’ve done? Things that have happened to you? Things you’ve inherited? Your infamous parents? Your sketchty heritage? That one stupid decision? The chronic indecision? Health crises or financial limitations? The good opinions of others?
What gets to define you and say who you are?
How are you to be known and understood?
What gets to define Jesus?
Our opinions of him? What we want for him to be? What people do in his name?
What defines Jesus? How is God incarnate to be known, understood?
Jesus becomes human – a specific human, an individual human, with a particular story. God takes on a heritage, a people, a history, claims it as his own. Embodies it. When Jesus is born into the arms of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, chased by Herod and lauded by Magi from a far off land, living in exile as a refugee, growing up in Galilee as the son of a carpenter, this is defining him, at least in part.
Until the thing the defines him completely.
The moment we have before us tonight.
We’ve been on a journey, noticing the ways the way of fear is contrasted with the way of God, in opposing narratives, two different scripts, all throughout the Old Testament and every day in the world around us. And as we venture into the story of Jesus through the eyes of Matthew, we encounter here a defining moment. The archetypical prophet standing in the legendary river. The fulfillment of the prophets of old embodied here in the waters that bookmarked the wilderness that was entered through the Red Sea, and exited here in the Jordan, on the threshold to the Promised Land.
Jan Richardson describes the Jordan River this way:
This is the river in which, generations before, priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood, stopping the waters so that the entire, long-journeying children of Israel could pass through to the other side. This is the river that Elijah struck with his mantle so that he and Elisha could cross, moments before Elijah’s dramatic ascension amid the blazing horses and chariots of fire. It is Jordan that Elisha tells the leprous Naaman to wash himself in and be cleansed, Jordan that King David crosses with all of Israel as he prepares to fight the Arameans, Jordan that traces a path through Israel’s history. It is a mythic river that Jesus wades into, and we watch him become drenched in its very real waters as he receives John’s baptism.
So tonight we see Jesus and John – not revealed to us together since they were held in the waters of their mothers wombs, foreshadowing this moment, when John jumped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, witnessing to the child she carried within her.
Here they are again, the Messiah of God’s people and the one sent to prepare the way, in the river of God’s people. The river that marked the way out of the wilderness into promise.
Jesus passes through these waters as he is about to go into the wilderness.
But first he must go from being God without us - God above and around us, God relentlessly for us, but entirely apart from us - to GOD WITH US.
And in becoming God with us, it is not enough to simply pass through the waters of birth into this world, Jesus must stand in the river too, the one that tells you who you are and opens up the future before you. He must be called beloved.
What does it mean to be loved by God?
God needs to know this first hand, as do we.
God loves humanity irrevocably – has reached out and will continue reaching out to humanity. But now, as God with us, God must know the experience not only of divine loving, but of human being loved. Being beloved. Child of God.
Baptism is the moment when what is real about us and real about God is pressed into us in water and touch, in promise and witness.
When we are baptized, that truth is poured onto us and we are lifted into it in by the hands of others. It is traced on our forehead in blessing and recognized by those around us witnessing the act. It says, we do not belong to the way of fear, but to the kingdom of God, in other words, we are never again forced to struggle with wondering if we’ve earned God’s acceptance, or punishing ourselves for the ways we hurt others or ourselves when we believe the way of fear instead of trusting the way of God. That what gets to define us is not our worst or best moments, our most or least productive or good selves. It says THIS is what gets to tell us who we are. Beloved. Child of God.
We need baptism not because it saves us, but because in the times when we feel certain there is nothing worth saving, that moment tells us otherwise.
When we are convinced the way of fear is reality, words or belief are not enough to help us remember. We need to know that something happened to us. Something not unlike birth, new birth, something others saw and can testify to, something we could not do to ourselves, something people captured in photos or wrote down on paper, that somehow made us part of this whole community of people saying there is something more real than the way of fear and committed to reminding each other of that.
Remember your baptism and be grateful, we say.
Some of us can, but many of us can’t, we can't remember our own baptism – but we can remember the baptism of others here. And we know that when it happens to anyone, we altogether say THIS, THIS is what defines you now. THIS is what says who you are and whose you are.
Jesus must be plunged under the waters alongside us.
He’s going to need to remember, out there in the wilderness, who he is and whose he is. And words wont be enough. There need to be witnesses, and something irreversible that has happened to that he can point back to and say, THAT. THAT is what defines me now.
But there is something even bigger happening in this moment – beyond defining Jesus, beyond the pronouncement of promise, and we see it especially in Matthew’s way of telling the story. Mark and Luke just tell the story of Jesus’ baptism moment. But in Matthew, John has quite a few choice words for the Pharisees. And there is a lot of chatter about sin. All throughout Matthew, the way of God is being laid forth, but also, the way of fear is being exposed: Duplicity, striving, ranking, judging, desperately trying to earn God’s favor – it was all wrapped up in religion and relationship to God, and it gets called out.
With John, preparing the way for God’s coming, people were baptized for the repentance of sins, for forgiveness, either for themselves or for their people. In an effort to live into righteousness, right relationship with God, this was a thing that was done. So when Jesus, comes along and asks for baptism, John is horrified. The Messiah, God with us, doesn’t need forgiveness for sins. But Jesus answers, This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness. This is essential to complete all right relationship with God.
You and I are not baptized into John’s kind of baptism, for the forgiveness of sins. We are baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Jesus’ baptism was unique – the finale of something. It summed up all the efforts of righteousness that had preceded him. Centuries of faithful and unfaithful people of God, struggling to uphold their part of the covenant, repenting when they failed (sometimes faster and sometimes slower), in this unfolding, ongoing relationship between God and those made in God’s image.
But when God comes in, when God moves from God apart from us to God with us, all that had gone before is taken into Jesus. All righteousness and unrighteousness is absorbed into him as he is baptized in the waters of repentance, fulfilling every single effort to reach God that anyone had ever made prior to this moment. Because the old is gone and the new has come.
God is now here. In it. With us.
There is no more effort to reach God out there, beyond us, striving to get it right, seeking, longing, jumping through hoops, creating more hoops to jump through and then jumping through those.
Everything has shifted.
When Jesus comes up out of the waters the heavens rip open and God yells This one! This is my beloved. Child of God. in whom I delight!
And then, THEN, WE are brought in to THAT declaration, THAT baptism, THAT new life. Paul says that now “our life is hidden with God in Christ.” Now the relationship that defines Jesus defines us too. We are drawn into the intimate love of the Father to the Son; we are made sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ, and there is nothing that can overpower that. What gets to define us? What gets to say who we are?
Only this. Beloved. Child of God.
Claimed by God, loved by God, pulled out of fear and into God’s love for the world.
This is where we begin. Right here. At the Jordan. With Jesus. Baptized into his life. His death. His resurrection. Watching God with us become fully with us and for us, watching him come up out of the waters drawing all of us, and the human story, out of the way of fear and into the way of God is now embodied and dripping wet right before us. Get out your cameras and your scrapbooks, this is the moment to remember. And just as we are for one another, we all are witnesses to God speaking out and calling Jesus Beloved. Child of God. We are all witnesses to this astonishing moment where something happens to God that God cannot do to himself – baptism – that makes him one of us.
Luther calls it “the happy exchange” – that when Jesus is baptized he takes on our identity, and when we are baptized we take on his. When Jesus is baptized he takes on our story, the whole human story. When we are baptized we take on his story, the story of God’s persistent love and unrelenting redemption that will never let us go.
Jesus takes on our vulnerability, our longing for things to be made right within us and through us, and draws us into the right-making of all things, within us, and through us.
Over the next weeks and months, we will get to see Jesus embody and fulfill the story that has been unfolding since the beginning. And Matthew wont let us forget where he came from, and why he’s here, and how the way of God is in utter opposition to the way of fear- it will be exposed week after week as Jesus preaches over and over the same single sermon with different notes: the kingdom of God is here. The kingdom of God is here! You can live in the kingdom of God! Come to me, you weary ones. Come to me you heavy burdened ones. Come to me you who are trapped in shame or dependent on wealth, or struggling with illness, or longing for hope. Come to me you who think you’re so big, or so small, come and find your true self. Come to me and be part of the hungry being fed and the lame walking and the poor receiving good news; the kingdom of God is here!
What defines us beyond and beneath everything else, the only thing that truly gets to say who we are and whose we are, happens at baptism – Jesus’ and ours. A declaration of truth is made, an affirmation that we all stand and witness to – we saw it happen. To you and to you. We promised not to let you forget it. You promised not to let us forget that it has happened to us as well. And all together we will seek to live in the reality of which it speaks. Come wilderness and mountaintop, this fact remains, this identity holds fast: Beloved. Child of God. participant in God’s love.