By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
In his book, Remember Who You Are, United Methodist pastor, bishop and professor Will Willimon poses the question: “Who first told you… that you were a wretched offender, miserable sinner, no good? Was it your parents, when they first shook you and scolded you and told you to behave? [Was it a teacher or coach when they told you to go to the bottom of the class or the bottom of the batting order?] Or your boss, when he asked you to do it over and try to get it right this time? Or your children, who looked at you and judged you to be parentally inadequate? Or, did they all tell you [that y]ou are the over-drinking, over-spending, over-sexed, under-achieving, under-giving, under-loving, worm-like one…” A poor excuse for the “image and likeness of God.”[i]
[i] Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life by William H Willimon; The Upper Room; 1980; p. 24.
As I mentioned last Sunday in worship, we are now in the season of Epiphany, a word that means revelation or manifestation. Today, we begin an Epiphany sermon series titled The Power of Words. Words are a powerful thing. Truthful words, when chosen with care, are – themselves – an epiphany, revealing the character of the speaker and shaping the character of the hearer. Words define reality. But sadly, words are often weaponized; used to manipulate, even destroy. That old cliché “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”… well, that cliché is a dishonest use of words and a misrepresentation of their inherent power.
Today is Baptism of Our Lord Sunday and in this morning’s scripture we hear a word spoken over Jesus at the time of his baptism. The word is this: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[i] It is an epiphany, a revelatory word spoken by the heavenly voice. These are the last words Jesus hears as he heads into the wilderness for forty days to be put to the test and assaulted by the deceitful words of the devil. That Greek word diabolos means “slanderer” – someone who makes false statements, dishonest words, for the purpose of harming another. Put to the test in the wilderness, Jesus will need to decide if he will believe the diabolos, the slanderer, whose purpose it is to harm Jesus and corrupt his understanding of who he is; or, if Jesus will believe those revelatory words spoken from the heavens at his baptism: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Since we all know how the gospel story unfolds, it is clear which words Jesus chose to believe and the words that he chose set him on his life’s path of obedience and faithfulness to the heavenly Father and loving service to those he encountered.
In the United Methodist Church, we consider baptism a sacrament, an outward sign or symbol of grace that is working within us in unseen, mysterious ways. But baptism is more than a sign – the outward sign of water or the inward sign of the Spirit. Baptism is also a word, a powerful word, an epiphany spoken over us. It is a voice from the heavens that proclaims to us: “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Baptism is a word from the heavens that names us and claims us; a powerful word that reveals the character of the one who speaks and the one being spoken to. It defines God as our heavenly parent who – despite what others might think or say – truly wants us and claims us as his own. It defines our character as one beloved by God; as one who brings God pleasure. And when we choose to believe that heavenly voice it also sets us on our life’s path of obedience to God and loving serving to others.
Now, United Methodist pastors can tell you that two distinctive aspects of our understanding of baptism elicit the most frequent questions and challenges from the faithful and skeptics.
One is our practice of infant baptism. I have heard parents say that making such a decision on behalf of their child seems to rob them of their own rights and free choice. It imposes something upon them. I had a friend up in the region. Sarah and her husband had an interesting practice. When they had a child they refused to share the child’s name with anyone – even the grandparents and siblings – until the time of the child’s baptism. Baptism was the first time anyone heard the child’s name spoken aloud. What a powerful symbol because baptism is a naming ceremony that names and defines us as God’s beloved children; those with whom God is well-pleased. In baptism, that heavenly voice affirms name and identity: “beloved child of God.” Can you even begin to imagine raising a child to – say the age of 12 – without giving that child a name? Perhaps identifying them by their birth sequence (child 1 or child 2) or even just “hey you?” Who would do that? The names we confer upon our children often have significance to us. Children receive names of parents or grandparents or other favorite relatives or mentors. They may even receive the name of an honorable or heroic character in a well-loved story or movie. We choose names carefully because names so often define us. And would we ever want our children to be defined as anything other than “beloved child of God?” Again, as Willimon writes, “We do not baptize people to protect them from hell. We baptize them because of the Good News that they should know they belong to God.”[ii] Baptism is a powerful, affirming word of truth; defining the speaker and the one spoken to: “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Another United Methodist baptism practice often questioned is our commitment to only baptize once. In some faith traditions, baptism may be repeated numerous times throughout a person’s life for a variety of reasons – a new church, a new denomination, a dramatic life event or moment of repentance. But our commitment to not re-baptize is a reminder to us that the primary actor in baptism is God. Baptism is not about relying upon our own good deeds or even good intentions. Baptism proclaims our reliance on, and trust in, the powerful sanctifying grace of God. In baptism God names us and claims us and our God, scripture reveals, is a jealous God who holds tightly to his children. God does not toss us aside at the first sign of trouble. Our God never abandons his commitment to us; God sticks with us through thick and thin. As the apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Rome, “When we cry out ‘Abba! Father!’” it is because God’s Holy Spirit is speaking to our inward spirit reminding us that we are God’s children.[iii] We can name God as our heavenly parent because God first spoke to us through the waters of baptism, whispering in that heavenly voice, “You are my child, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now, one thing I don’t want to do this morning is leave anyone with the impression that baptism is some magical rite; that we scatter water like the waving of a wand and it magically makes the recipient impervious to sin or wrongdoing, trials or temptations. Like Jesus, we will face difficult spiritual tests. But unlike Jesus; sometimes we will succumb and fall short. And that’s why baptism is done with the context of the Church; Christian community, our spiritual family. We need one another to grow up into our baptismal identity. We all face moments when we turn a deaf ear to that heavenly voice of the Spirit and then we must be reminded by the voices of the faithful who surround us; reminded of who we are and whose we are so that – having endured those trials and tribulations – we can emerge from our own wilderness ready to choose a path of obedience and faithfulness to the heavenly Father and loving service to those we encounter. Martin Luther noted that baptism was a once-and-for-all sacrament that took our entire lives to complete. In other words, the waters of baptism are not like a microwave that cooks up a meal in two minutes in a well-contained tray. Our life in Christ is messier than that. Yet, through it all, on mornings like today, we are invited to remember who we are and whose we are. This morning, after we baptize Leah, there will be an opportunity for all of us to remember our baptism. You may come forward and Pastor Linda or I will dip our fingers in the holy water and make the sign of the cross on your forehead. In ancient times, a mark or seal upon the forehead of slaves or servants indicated the one to whom they belonged, the one who was responsible for them.
Friends, all along life’s journey, various people will seek to name and define you and not all of those names or definitions will be welcome, affirming ones. Words will be spoken over us that are hurtful and destructive. But, in baptism, God speaks a powerful and revealing word over us as that voice from the heavens proclaims, “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
[i] Luke 3:22. NRSV.
[ii]Remember Who You Are, p. 30.
[iii] See Romans 8:12-17.
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