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The First Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2017

Beloved.

What a wonderful word to hear.

What a warm feeling it brings us.

How good it makes us feel to receive this message and have it be for real, not just empty words.

How much it helps someone feel welcome for themselves.

Are you beloved now? Have you ever been beloved? Have you ever felt its absence?

Jesus came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. When Jesus comes up out of the water, two things happen to him. The Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and God says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased”.

Jesus needs to hear that. He knows he is special and has a particular purpose on earth, but he needs to hear God claim him as God’s own. Beloved means unconditional love and acceptance. God is acknowledging Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. That is who Jesus is and what God intended him to be. God is acknowledging Jesus as the Incarnate Word, the One who was with God in creation. God is acknowledging Jesus in his humanity, in his sharing an identity with all the people that were there to be baptized and in solidarity with the whole world. In using the word Son, God is acknowledging Jesus as God’s representative on earth. And God is doing this before Jesus does anything, before he heals one person or makes one speech or calms the waters or performs a miracle. Jesus is accepted for his very self – not because of something Jesus has done or in spite of something Jesus has done, but because Jesus is – well – Jesus.

God gives a visible sign of who Jesus is by sending the Holy Spirit to touch him in the form of a dove, to anoint him and to prepare him for his mission of bringing in the kingdom.

God calls Jesus to be a humble obedient servant, following the will of God. Many wonder why Jesus came to be baptized. John had already said he wasn’t worthy to be even a servant to Jesus, yet Jesus comes purposefully to the Jordan to be baptized by John. John was baptizing for repentance, which means to turn around and live your life according to God’s way. Matthew doesn’t include forgiveness of sins in John’s proclamation, but for the people there, to be God’s person meant you had to seek forgiveness for your sins and bear the good fruit of the kingdom. Not for Jesus though. He doesn’t have any sin. It was his pledge to do everything according to God’s will. When John asks Jesus about the baptism, Jesus says it is necessary for all righteousness. Since righteousness is about right relationship with God, Jesus seeks baptism because it is the will of God that he do so. Because Jesus has no sin, Jesus is the model that human beings are supposed to follow.

Jesus’ call is about justice. Jesus is supposed to bring justice to the world in his teachings and in his actions. He is supposed to be with the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the sinners and the tax collectors to show them that they are loved and valued just as much as others in society who are more successful or appear more holy. Jesus is to promote God’s agenda of equality for all in having enough to meet their needs, in being equal to those who consider themselves “their betters” on the social ladder and in status before God. Jesus is not to promote justice in a violent way, but in a gentle way, in congruence with his message of God’s love for everyone. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick. He will give everyone the opportunity to hear and respond to his message in a positive manner, knowing that some will not do that.

Jesus’ call is about doing new things. The world is broken, separated from God, and Jesus is there to reconcile the world to the Father. The people that are blind, the people who are oppressed and in dungeons, the people who are in darkness will have a light shine on them in Jesus’ work. Jesus will give those who cannot see the light they need to perceive God’s love for them. Sometimes that bright light will be just what is needed, and sometimes people will be so startled by the brightness that they will want to continue in the dark. Jesus’ mission is to keep doing new things until everyone is able to see the good God intends for the world.

Even the crucifixion is a new thing. Whoever heard of a king being crucified? Of a king who did not use the power he had to save himself? But Jesus made a choice. The world needed a new thing – a new revelation of God to become healed and whole. Jesus could only do that by dying for what he believed in – the kingdom of God. And the resurrection! How much newer can you get. A human body changed from a temporal thing into an eternal thing. Human beings living beyond death in an eternal relationship with God.

In God’s call to Jesus, God promises Jesus some things. A call from God can’t be followed on one’s own, so implicit in God’s call is God’s direction. God will show Jesus what he is to do and how he is to do it. God will give him the power to work the miracles of healing and feeding and calming nature that he needs so that he can attract the attention of people to hear his message of love and liberation from all that keeps one from living fully. Jesus goes to God in prayer frequently to get this direction and wonderful things happen as a result.

In God’s call to Jesus, God promises not only to give him direction but to walk beside him. God tells the Israelites that he has taken them by the hand and kept them and that is what he will do for Jesus. The Pharisees and the Sadducees are irritated and frightened by Jesus and look for a way early on to kill him, but God will help Jesus finish his mission on earth before he is taken by the authorities.

Our baptism is like Jesus’ baptism. We are claimed as sons and daughters of God. We are loved unconditionally because of who we are, and not what we’ve done to earn brownie points. That’s why baptizing babies is so poignant. We know what it means as parents and relatives and friends to love the babies we do. They do not have any accomplishments. They only have themselves to offer.

Sometimes as we grow, we can forget that loving voice because negative judgments that the world makes about us drown out God’s voice. Sometimes, even, we can drown out God’s voice by our judgment of another. If we find ourselves forgetting how loved we are, we need to do everything we can to hear that voice we first heard at our baptism that spoke of God’s love for us. (Patricia J. Callahan)

Our baptism is also about call. We are anointed with oil to mark us as Christ’s own and send us into the world to follow Christ’s mission to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God on earth. Each one of us is called to do that in a different way and we may experience many different calls throughout our lives. Listening to the God who walks with us for direction is crucial. God gives us what we need to do to be brothers and sisters of Jesus. God will also give us the power to do what we are meant to do if we are willing to be humble and teachable and acknowledge that we can’t do it on our own. God needs our emptiness to fill with God’s love and power; a point of view that we can take care of things in our own strength limits God’s effectiveness in us.

In baptism God chooses us – us! – to be God’s partners in renewing creation. In our baptismal vows we promise to follow God’s will by worshipping and learning together so we can be sent out to work for justice, freedom and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being.

We are God’s beloved!

You are chosen and blessed!

We are called to good purpose and meaning!

You are called to love others as God loves you!

We are called to life!

As the waters of baptism give us new life in Christ, may we pass along that love to others so that they too may know that they are beloved and called.

 Amen

     -- Rev. Ann Barker

Works cited:
Patricia J. Callahan, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, ch. 1-13, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press 2013), 46