— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ “The Baptism of the Lord” Sunday ~~~
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We were with John the Baptist a month ago as we prepared for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. Just as Lent always takes us into the desert before we get to the empty tomb, Advent always takes us into the desert before we get to the manger. In the desert we encountered John preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins and he told us to prepare the way of the Lord, to bear fruit worthy of repentance!
It is a wonder, don’t you think, that anyone went out to John. John’s sanctuary was the desert, his clothes were rough, his language was tough. John spoke like a preacher without a mortgage; he did not care what any of his parishioners thought about his sermons or whether or not they wanted to be rid of him. He had no budget to maintain, no pledges to tally, no parking lot to pay for. What could anyone do to him? He was already dressed in rags, eating bugs, and living in the desert. John was able to say exactly what he wanted to say without any concern for his retirement plan!
Obviously, John the Baptist was not a church growth consultant … and yet people went in droves to hear him. Why? The basic answer to why people went out to John is, I think, that people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something with a larger purpose than selfish gain, something beautiful and enlivening, something that makes more of them by the demands and the call placed upon them. John was part of something much bigger than himself and people wanted in.
Now this Sunday, Baptism of the Lord Sunday, the question that needs to be addressed is not why did the crowds go out to John but “Why did Jesus go out to John?” Why did the Lord God Almighty with cherubim and seraphim falling down before him go to be dipped into the muddy waters of the Jordan River by the freakish John and with all the rest of the rabble? Surely Jesus would go and sit on a hill opposite side of the rift-raft and welcome them once they had been made pure. Surely Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of lords, had no need to get mud between his toes and water in his ears to be prepared for the coming of God into the world. For goodness sake, he was the coming of God into the world; so, why did he, the Lord most high, go down, down, down into the muddy Jordan?
I think Jesus went to John for the same reason all the rest of the folks went to John to be baptized. Jesus wanted to be a part of what God was doing in the world. Jesus wanted to live into his place in the big thing God had designed for God’s creation. Jesus wanted to be a part of something with a larger purpose than selfish gain, something beautiful and enlivening, something that makes more of him by the demands and the call placed upon him.
Jesus stood, probably for a long time, in the long line awaiting his baptism by John. Jesus stood in line with soldiers and the zealots who fought the soldiers. Jesus stood in line with prostitutes and the men who paid the prostitutes. Jesus stood in line with the self-righteous and humble folk. Jesus stood in line with the plain and beautiful people. Jesus stood in line with the wealthy and the poor, the broken and the well, the healthy and the sick, the liberals and conservatives, the meek and aggressive. Jesus stood in line with the ink stained scholars and carpenters with calloused hands from shaping wood to be used for Roman crosses. Jesus stood in line with the unwashed masses…Jesus stood in line because he wanted to take his place in the big thing God was doing to heal the world.
I’m not sure if Jesus knew what would happen. I don’t know if Jesus knew he would be given a new name that he would share with all those who were in that line with him. I’m not sure if he knew, but when it came it must have given him strength and purpose. It was made clear to Jesus at his baptism who he was and what he was to do. Jesus was given an additional name at the river Jordan; his name now was Jesus the “Beloved” and his purpose, his place in the world was to make sure others knew they had the same name.
Baptism, now as always, is about being bathed in love. We are all beloved children of God. Everyone is a beloved child of God. We have a name and we share it with the head of our family – “Beloved.”
Dr. Heather Murray Elkins, a professor of worship and liturgical studies at Drew University, tells the following story. She had led a retreat for pastors. The closing exercise, which had been assigned at the beginning of the retreat, was for each of the participants to go through the Bible and find names or stories that defined or shaped their self-understanding and ministry. The final day of the retreat came and all the ministers were in a circle, and there was a chair in the middle of the circle, and one by one they came and sat in the center chair and spoke of names and stories in the Bible that brought out each one’s sense of self and calling.
It was going well until one man, a young man – young for ministry anyway – sat in the chair and said nothing. He was silent for a long time. The other ministers started to squirm and look at their watches. Dr. Elkins finally spoke to the young man – “Is there something you would like to share with us, a story or a name?” Silence… and then he spoke.
He said: “There are names I wanted. I looked for three days, but none of the names are strong enough to replace the name that I have. I was given this name when I was young and it has been repeated to me over and over again. My father gave me the name.” And then he was silent.
After a few moments Dr. Elkins asked – “Would you be willing to share that name?” The young man remained silent for a few more moments and he was looking down at his hands. He never looked up. He never made eye contact with anyone else in the room. Finally he said – “The name my father gave me a long time ago and that repeats again and again in my head is ‘Not good enough’. That’s my name ‘Not good enough.’ My father gave it to me.” And he began to sob.
Dr. Elkins said that here they were a group of lifeguards and this man was drowning and no one knew what to do. After just a few moments, the Spirit moved and each one of the group got up and placed there hands on the young minister – like he was being baptized or ordained once again – and almost in a unison voice the life guards said: “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” They said it over and over again and gently the young minister stopped crying and raised his head to look at his family of faith.
As the retreat was breaking up, Dr. Elkins saw the young minister going to his car. She went over to talk with him. She asked him if what happened today would make any difference in his life. He said he did not know just how it would make a difference, but something that was broken deep inside seemed to have been mended. He went on to say “Every time I put my hand into the waters of baptism to help name another human being in front of God, I will remember who I am.”
(From Video Series “Living the Questions”)
We all have the same name. It matters not the color of our skin, the history we have with our families, the way we vote, the God we worship, the denomination that is on the name out front of this building, the sins we have committed, the most important thing, the most important name is… “Beloved.” Believe it about yourself. Believe it about your neighbor. Believe it and we will begin to live into the world’s deepest truth – we are deeply loved, by the Creator of all that is, of all that was, and all that will be! Praise be to God who has given us a name. Amen.