Sermon 1/13/13, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Clean Slate: Refresh
You often hear people comment on how quickly children grow up. Blink, and you’ve missed it, and your baby is a teenager, or suddenly an adult. I feel a little that way when reading the accounts of Jesus’s life: just last week, we were talking about the Christ-child, maybe a toddler when the Magi visited him. And suddenly, we’re meeting the adult Jesus. The Bible only gives one account of Jesus between birth and adulthood: Jesus at age twelve, in the Temple, in one brief scene. It is left to our imaginations to picture Jesus at 7, or 16, or 25. Today, though, we find ourselves turning back to another character we haven’t seen since his birth, as our scene opens on John the Baptist. People are gathering before John, 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, which apparently did not offend them enough to make them leave, but instead prompted them to ask John what they should be doing, and so he instructed them in ways of living that would prepare them to be good fruit. He baptizes them as a sign of their repentance. 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 . . .” Again, it seems like we’ve missed something while we blinked. 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.” 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? What is this scene all about?
In our United Methodist traditions, we practice infant baptism. In fact, we will celebrate today the baptism of an infant, James Ethan McGuire. As long as churches have existed, though, those within the church have disagreed on whether or not infants and children should be baptized, or whether individuals should wait until they are old enough to be baptized at their own request before receiving the sacrament. Our United Methodist understanding 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. We call that prevenient grace, something you’ll be hearing more about next month. 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? Obviously, he doesn’t need to repent in the same way we do, but “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. Before he calls disciples, before he reads from the scroll in the temple, before the crowds start following him, he comes to be baptized. Now he shifts 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. 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.
Today’s theme word in our Clean Slate Series is refresh. Fresh means literally “having its original qualities unimpaired.” In other words, “still in original condition.” So, to refresh is to return something to original, unimpaired condition. Maybe, there are a lot of things about our lives that we can never “return to original condition.” Maybe I won’t ever make it back into the dress I wore for my senior pictures in high-school. Maybe you will never come close to the record you set for the track team when you were a teenager. Maybe your reflexes aren’t as good, and maybe your vision will never be 20/20 again. But baptism – baptism is God’s promise that God’s love for us is still in original condition! Always! That’s why instead of “re-baptizing,” we simply renew our baptismal covenants, remind ourselves of the promises of baptism. Because God’s promise to us of unconditional love is still in mint condition – no do-over required. You are already God’s beloved, a child of God, made in God’s image. And with you, God is well-pleased.
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.