Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism of Jesus

Luke 3
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

It certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity.

In their heart of hearts, people were wondering if this intriguing figure in the desert was the Chosen One. And John the Baptist would be quick to correct them, setting them straight. But it certainly wasn’t the first case of mistaken identity in the Bible.

In Genesis 18 the Lord appears to Abraham and Sarah in the form of three visitors. The couple are gracious hosts, and the anonymous encounter is going extremely well until Sarah laughs at the suggestion that he will have a child in old age. But God (in disguise) is very patient, saying only “is anything too hard for the Lord?”

In Exodus 2 it’s the daughters of the priest of Midian who mistakenly assume that Moses is an Egyptian, based perhaps on his dress of the way he carries himself. And of course, much of Moses’ early life is a case of mistaken identity: raised by the daughter of Pharaoh—a Prince of Egypt with a secret—even to himself.

Joshua 5 gives us one of the strangest examples, with Joshua meeting an unknown soldier on the road to Jericho, sword drawn, ready for battle. “Are you one of us, or one of our adversaries?” Joshua asks. The mysterious soldier says “Neither; but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” It’s the other passage where someone is commanded to take off their sandals, standing on holy ground, but we don’t talk about it much, God as an heavily armed soldier and all.

Mary in the garden (John 20) is another obvious example, through her tears asking where this unknown gardener has hidden the body of her Lord, but we know who he really is, and soon she will too, along with everyone who believes.

And before we get to Luke 3, there is one more example of mistaken identity relating to John the Baptist, this one from Mark 6. Jesus’ fame is spreading and old Herod hears about the miraculous things that are happening. Those around him say “maybe it’s Elijah returned,” or maybe some other prophet of old. “No,” Herod said, “it’s John the Baptist all right, raised from the dead!” But we know it’s not, although it’s a comfort to see Herod losing sleep over the John the Baptist and the terrible events at court that led to John’s death.

But that’s leaping ahead. The earlier case of mistaken identity is by the riverside, people seeking the Chosen One. They are anxious to accept this baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the hope that their wish will be fulfilled. And John, of course, understands this mistaken hope and clears things up:

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire.”

But just when we thought this passage exhausted the last bits of mistaken identity, there is one more. There, among the seekers and the pilgrims is the son of a carpenter, in the crowd, God in disguise. For now he is content to get in line, to accept John’s baptism and begin his ministry. God, however, gets the last word, clearing up (once and for all) this case of mistaken identity:

21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

And even without God speaking to interpret what’s happening, we can find various ways to understand our baptism. Wise people tell us that baptism, like communion, is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It’s like that hand stamp that only shows up under a certain type of light—it’s there, but it’s not immediately obvious.

And it’s something we do together, a point I try to remember to make from time to time. The church authorizes me to baptize, but I’m just a stand in for you, the people of God, who are doing God’s work of baptism while I’m busy up here with the baby, or child, or occasional adult. This body, the body of Christ found in the church, is also a visible sign of grace, grace upon grace as the church baptizes the next generation of believers.

And in the United Church, perhaps uniquely, we have this conversation every few years about the place of baptism in our denomination. It always begins around the question of membership, and what it means to belong, and the extent to which the non-baptized are excluded from certain aspects of our common life. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, our enhanced sense of fairness and our desire to include everyone, or maybe it’s just our unique brand of Christianity, our focus on justice (another word for fairness) that leads us to have this conversation.

Whatever the reason, our desire to remain within the Christian church usually marks the end of the conversation (until the next time). We remember that since the beginning of the church, baptism has been the only rite of initiation into the body of Christ, and that it’s always more than a ritual or a mark of entry—it’s a transformational moment, entering once-and-for-all into something much bigger than ourselves or even one denomination.

And when we step into these kinds of definitional conversations, asking who we are or where we belong, it can be helpful to ask the thinkers and sages to remind us what it all means, why we do what we do and why it still matters. Karl Barth, as an example, would remind us that baptism is a matter of life and death. ‘The person who emerges from the water,’ he says, ‘is not the same person who entered it. One person dies and another is born.’ (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 193)

And he’s just getting warmed up, because Barth says don’t listen to me, listen to Martin Luther: “Your baptism is nothing less than God clutching you by the throat,” Luther said, “a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order than you may remain under grace.” Maybe it’s good we don’t have a baptism today, since it’s starting to sound like a contact sport.

But then Barth takes us back to scripture, back to the source, to expand on this idea that at the moment of baptism we are utterly transformed, that a new person is born. He reminds us of Colossians 3: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

In other words, we exist within the life of God, we are folded in, hidden within the unfolding story of God in the world. We don’t simply walk in newness of life, we are hidden within life itself. In the ultimate case of mistaken identity, we may appear as our former selves, but we a new person altogether. Anyone in Christ is a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come. (2 Corinthians 5).

Baptism, of course, is not magic. It’s not a shield from trouble, or a spell that saves us from ourselves. Luther said our sin is submerged so that can remain under grace, but it’s still there. Baptized believers are not perfect, as anyone who reads the paper will tell you, or anyone with an ounce of self-awareness will know. Folded into the life of God, we retain our free will—we still live in the world, and we are live with others.

But there is one last layer of mistaken identity, the one that allows us to look at others and see God. Understanding the we have a secret life within God, we can appreciate that others do too. We can see Christ in others, in the vulnerable, in those who love and those who need love, in the very fabric of the earth itself.

In each case of mistaken identity we looked at a few moments ago, God was up to something: making promises, acting in human history, giving hope when hope was lost. At our baptism we became part of this unfolding story, something bigger than ourselves, hidden within life itself.

May God bless us and make us a blessing to others, as we remember our baptism and give thanks. Amen.


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