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Sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, "Filled: With Expectation"

Sermon 1/10/10, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Filled: With Expectation

Today, we find ourselves turning back to a part of a text we studied during Advent – a scene with the people gathering before John the Baptist, preparing to be baptized. Earlier in this chapter, John preached to the crowds about bearing fruits worthy of repentance. He called them a brood of vipers, and instructed them in ways of living that would prepare them to be good fruit. And today, we pick up with the tail end of his comments. We read that the people are filled with expectation, and they are wondering if John is the Messiah. But John says, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then, suddenly, we read: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized . . .” Only, the passage doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus coming to be baptized. No verses of conversation with John. No explanation of why Jesus would need to be baptized. Just, “When Jesus also had been baptized . . .” Here in Luke we read that after the baptism, while Jesus was praying, heaven opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the other three gospels give us a little more detail, though all four accounts together are hardly ten frustratingly short verses total. This is an important scene – Jesus’ baptism is one of a few events recorded in all four gospels. But it raises for us some important questions. If John was urging people to be baptized as an act of repentance, if he meant people to come to him to receive a symbol of forgiveness for sins – why was Jesus there? Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all? Surely Jesus didn’t need repentance, or forgiveness, right? So what is this scene all about?

In our United Methodist and Presbyterian traditions, we practice infant baptism. As long as churches have existed, those within the church have disagreed on whether or not infants and children should be baptized, or if individuals should wait until they are old enough to be baptized at their own request before receiving the sacrament. Our belief, though, is that baptism is primarily a symbol of what God is doing for us, not what we are doing for God. Baptism, as we understand it, is an outward symbol of God’s grace working within us. So this grace is working in us before we are even aware of it. From day one and before day one, God is already working grace through our hearts and souls, calling us into a relationship with God. When we are ready to accept God’s grace on our own, with our own voice, we go through confirmation, our public acceptance of the grace that has been at work within us, our public declaration that we’re going to do our part in this relationship with God.

This understanding of baptism as a symbol of God’s grace helps answer our questions about why Jesus comes here to see John, to be baptized. Why does Jesus need to be baptized? He doesn’t need to repent in the same way we do, but as I’ve mentioned, “to repent,” in its literal meaning, means to turn around, to turn back, to go a new direction – God’s direction. Jesus doesn’t need to turn a new direction in the same way we do – he doesn’t need to get off a wayward course. But his baptism does mark a change in direction for him, in that now he begins his ministry of preaching and teaching. Now he changes his identity from Jesus, child of Mary and Joseph, to Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God.

I think that Jesus, like the crowds, was filled with expectation and anticipation. He was about to make a huge change in his life. For thirty years, we have virtually no accounts of what Jesus was doing, what his life was about, what he said, who he spoke with. Apparently the gospel writers did not consider any of this significant, because it seems that the tasks Jesus was about, the preaching and teaching he had to do, the road to Jerusalem he had to take – all of this was to happen in such a short period of time. His baptism represents the beginning, and Jesus himself seems to see it as the starting point. So I believe that when Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, though he may not have come to repent, he was certainly coming to mark a change in direction – a beginning. He was setting into motion a course of action for his life where there would be no turning back. No un-doing it. Here, Jesus was signaling he was fully ready to follow God’s call, God’s claim on his life. No doubt he was filled with expectation. And as he comes to the waters, as he makes this commitment through baptism, he hears God’s voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” There, at the start, Jesus has an affirmation, a reminder, a confirmation of what he knows – he is God’s beloved, and God is well-pleased with him. With this heaven-opening proof of God’s love for him, surely Jesus is ready to begin his ministry with all the certainty he needs that God is with him, in him, and working through him in everything he will face over the next three years.

What stands out to me when I hear God’s words to Jesus in this text is that God is already well-pleased with Jesus. It’s a pre-existing condition, you might say. Jesus is at the start of his ministry. He’s about to do a lot of wonderful things. But he hasn’t begun yet. But these words from God don’t come at the end of Jesus’ journey. They don’t come during Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion. They come at the beginning. At the start. Something that is already true. God is already well-pleased with Jesus, Jesus is already God’s beloved – just because. Because Jesus is the child of God.

And that is what we celebrate in our baptism. It’s symbol, a sign, a reminder, a way God speaks to us and says, “You are my child, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” Maybe our relationship with God, our parent-child relationship with God is different than how Jesus related to the one he calls Abba – but some things are just the same. God’s love for us is a pre-existing condition. It is an unshakable reality for us at the beginning of our days, not something God says to us only at the end, after determining whether we’ve measured up for not. We are God’s, beloved. With us, God is well-pleased, simply because of love for us. Simply because God created us. Already, God loves us.

We are just a few days in to a brand new year. Last week, I mentioned that I still like making resolutions, when many don’t, because I think resolutions are sign that we have hope that with God’s help, we can change, we can do new things, we can change behaviors, even change our world. I hope, ten days in, you are still filled with hope and expectation, anticipation, when you think about what 2010 will hold. I wonder, and have many hopes for my own life this year, and the ways I might deepen my discipleship, strengthen my response to God’s calling. And I definitely have hopes, expectations, anticipation when I think about our year ahead together as this small part of the body of Christ. I hope you do as well. And I hope you have, like I have, faith, that God can do in us what we can hardly imagine. But to believe that, to have that faith, to have expectations that are grounded in God, we have to get things in the right order. Don’t spend this year, or any time, trying to have the will-power, the strength, the energy to fulfill your expectations so that you can live up to God’s expectations of you and be showered in God’s love. Instead, remember – already God loves us. And from God’s love, we find the power and strength to exceed all our expectations, always living in God’s love.

Today, we will celebrate a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. Today, you have an opportunity to remember, if you’ve forgotten, the love that God has for you. You have an opportunity to remind yourself that you are God’s child, that God pours grace upon grace out into your life, and into your heart. You have an opportunity to commit yourself again to God’s plan for your life. You have an opportunity for a beginning, a change of direction, a parting of the heavens as God smiles upon you to remind you that you are Beloved. May God’s love bless you today, this year, and always. Amen.


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