Sunday, January 14, 2007

You Are...!

The Baptism of our Lord Sunday
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, Isaiah 43:1-7

Consider yourself normal if you’ve ever questioned why...
Jesus had to get baptized.
It raises obvious questions.
Wasn’t Jesus the divine, sinless, Son of God?
Wasn’t he superior—spiritually speaking—
over John the Baptist, the one who baptized Jesus?
We associate baptism with forgiveness of sins.
Did Jesus sin, and need to be forgiven?
Was he repenting of something?

Baptism was not a traditional religious ritual among Jews,
and we don’t know exactly what it meant to everyone John baptized,
but it had something to do with cleansing, and purification.
We do know that John was preaching a message of repentance
to the people of Israel in general,
and inviting them to reclaim their identity as God’s people.

Since we can’t mind-read, we don’t know what Jesus was thinking,
when he walked up to John that day and asked to be baptized.
But we can be sure something extremely significant happened there.
Something happened at Jesus’ baptism
that profoundly shaped the rest of his life.
It marked the beginning of a ministry
that ultimately changed human history.

Sometimes we refer to this baptism as Jesus’ ordination,
or commissioning for service.
Not a bad way to think of it.
Because his ministry was ordained of God,
and service did follow on the heels of his baptism.
But I don’t think “ordination for service,” is the essence
of what happened that day in the river.

I think Jesus’ baptism was not so much a commissioning,
as it was a “christening,” a naming.
In fact, the words baptism, christening, and naming
are closely connected.
When a new ship is christened, it is named,
and bottle is broken over the bow,
a relic from the days when ship christenings
were religious rituals performed by priests,
reminiscent of baptisms.

In any case, what happened with Jesus in the Jordan that day,
was a sequel to what happened when he was eight days old,
being held in the arms of his teenage mother—
the day he was circumcised and given the name “Jesus.”
On that day,
even though the baby boy Jesus had no clue what was going on,
he was publicly named by his Jewish community,
his identity was located within these people of faith.
In that ritual the community was told, in effect,
“Here is one of your own. Care for him.”
And the baby Jesus was told, in effect,
“You are one of us. You belong here, with us.”

So Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan was his re-christening.
When Jesus rose out of the water,
the dove descended and a voice from heaven named him.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The God who gave Jesus life made a pronouncement
the began with two words “You are...!”
A declaration of identity. “You are!”
Not, “you shall” or “you should” or “you will.” Words of duty.
But “You are.” Words of identity.

In our culture, we don’t quite grasp the significance of being named.
Names for babies come in and out of fashion—
and there are lots of new names lately here at Park View.
Sometimes, parents just like the ring of a certain name.
Sometimes, a name comes from the family, a generation or two back.
Sometimes, a name is chosen for what it means.
I’ve always been a little envious of persons
who have names that mean,
“Gift of God”
“Strong one”
“Son of righteousness.”
My name means “lover of horses.”
And I’ve been on a horse only half a dozen times in my life.
But the real significance of my being named,
was who named me.
I was named by David and Esther Kniss.
Two persons voluntarily, out of love and responsibility,
named me, and in effect, said to me, and to the world,
“You are our son.
We claim you.
We have a personal stake in your life.
Until you reach adulthood, as long as we are responsible,
we will sacrifice our very selves for you.”
You know, having the right, and responsibility, to name a child,
is an awesome and powerful thing.
I was fortunate enough to have parents
who fulfilled that responsibility with love and integrity.
Not everyone does.

So, Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan,
including the descending dove and the voice from heaven,
was not some supernatural, super-special, singular event
suitable only for a sinless Messiah,
for the divine Son of God.
No, his baptism is a prototype.
We should all have baptisms like that,
where we are named, christened by God.
No, I’m not saying our actual water baptisms should be
accompanied by miraculous signs from heaven.
But the essence of what happened with Jesus,
is something all of us have available to us as children of God,
and something we should all strive to take hold of.

In his baptism,
Jesus came to understand, in a deeper way than before,
who he was, and who he was called to be, and to become.
He was not given a to-do list, he was given a name.
His ministry happened
because he accepted that name as his true identity,
and didn’t allow anything else to rob him of that identity,
or to redefine him
and make him into someone he was not.

Oh, if only we all had that kind of clarity.
If only we were not so confused about our core identity.
If only we were not so swayed by a culture that tells us lies like,
you are what you own, or
you are what you drive, or
you are what you eat, or
you are what you wear, or
you are what you look like.

We live in a society where there is, I believe, a severe shortage
of people who know and embrace who they truly are.
There are a shortage of people who believe they are called
by someone greater than themselves,
and are secure in that calling.
People throw around that word a lot—the word “calling.”
If someone has a job that they really enjoy doing,
and they’re really good at doing that job,
they might glibly say, “it’s my calling.”
And people talk about vocation—another word for calling—
but what they mean is their job, what they do.

But Christians, people of faith in God through Christ,
have a different take on this matter of being called.
Because we start at a different place.
We don’t start with “what we do.”
We start with “who is calling.”
In fact, the word vocation, comes from the same word as “voice.”
Our calling begins with hearing a voice that is not our own—
it’s not a voice in our head, or our gut,
it’s the voice of the only One who has the right to name us.
Jesus’ baptism brought clarity about who was calling him.
It brought clarity about who he was
in relation to the one who was calling:
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Hearing and embracing our calling
is less about what to do,
and more about who to be.

It’s not that our doing doesn’t matter.
No, it matters a lot.
It’s just not the place to start.
We start at the place we hear the words, “You are...”
Then once we have that clarity,
once we have heard and accepted those defining words, “You are...”
we have a basis on which to act, to do, to behave.
We have a suitable foundation for ethics,
for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.
Our doing has integrity when it’s grounded in our being.
Doing that happens only for the sake of “should” or “ought,”
is missing something essential.

The reason we have such ethical confusion in our culture,
is because we’re missing that essential component,
of hearing and accepting those defining words from our Creator,
“You are... You are my son, my daughter.
I have given life to you, and I love you.”
Most of the time, people just rush out and “do,”
because everyone else is “doing.”
That’s what happens in a society suffering from identity confusion.
If a particular activity or product or lifestyle
is embraced by huge numbers of people,
it must be worthwhile,
because so many people are doing it.

We let so many other things determine our identity—
our possessions,
our jobs,
our money,
our personality,
our body image,
our sexuality.
And when those inferior identities become the basis for our life choices
rather than the identity given us by God,
by the only one with the right to say, “You are...”
then we are living less than the life we were created for.
We end up creating our own self-determined identity.
And we get congratulated for it—
because our culture loves self-made people.
“Be all that you can be!”

This is why I wish we could all have a baptism like the baptism of Jesus.
Many of us here have been baptized with water,
in a church service somewhere, sometime.
Others hope to be someday.
Maybe you are one who does look on your baptism day
with that kind of clarity.
The day the question of who you are,
was answered in a definitive way.
“You are a child of God.
You belong to God, and to the people of God,
because God loves you and calls you.”
Or maybe this clarity came for you at some other time.
Or perhaps, you’re still looking for clarity about who you are.

The question will always be, “whose voice will you listen to?”
The only one with the power to name us,
is the one who had the power to create us.
There are many other voices in the wilderness out there,
saying things that begin with the same words, “You are...”
But they are speaking false identities.
They are engaging in identity theft.

That’s what happened right after Jesus’ baptism.
He was tempted in the wilderness by Satan.
Tempted to assume a false identity.
But because he had just been so clearly named by his father,
because of the clarity he had by the river Jordan,
Jesus was able to remember the truth about himself.
He said, “No. This is who I am.
I am God’s beloved Son.
I live to fulfill the purposes of God.”
Jesus had been christened by God.
His life and his mission were not his own.
His heavenly father had a claim on him.

It’s the same for us who are called and named by God through Christ.
We, too, are given a new name.
God names us as his own children.
Names us into the body of Christ.
Forms us into a living community.

But when we go out into the world carrying this new name,
we will be challenged.
We will be tempted, like Jesus, to deny this new name.
We will be tempted to choose an alternate identity,
a name that fits in better with those around us.

We will be tempted,
in a world that values individualism and self-fulfillment,
to forget our identity in Christ Jesus,
who taught his disciples to deny themselves,
to take up their cross and follow him into a new kingdom.
We will be tempted,
in a culture that worships wealth and fame and power,
to forget our name, which identifies us with Jesus,
who lived and taught a life of simplicity, of humility,
of strength through weakness.
We will be tempted,
in a world of war and violence,
to forget our name, which identifies us with a kingdom of peace.

We are called by Christ, called by a new name, into a new life.
That is our first calling.
There are many secondary callings, that grow out of that first calling.
Some are then called to teach children.
Some are called to care for the sick.
Some are called to build houses.
Some are called to balance budgets.
Some are called to manage businesses.
Some are called to preach.
But all of those callings are secondary,
to hearing and accepting the voice of our Creator who says,
“You son, my daughter. And I love you.”

Let us now, and always, tune our ears to that tender voice.
And make whatever choices we need to make,
to turn down the volume of all those other voices
that would try to convince us otherwise.
So that the first voice we hear when we rise in the morning,
and the last voice we hear when we lie down at night,
is the voice of the One who claims us, and says, “You are mine.”
Who will say to us, in our times of fear,
Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

And those are the words we will sing together now.
You’ll find them in your worship insert.

—Phil Kniss, January 14, 2007

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