Since the season of Epiphany also celebrates the baptism of Jesus, I thought it would be appropriate to share as a devotional a sermon on that theme I gave some years ago.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
ur Gospel reading comes from Luke chapter 3, beginning in verse 1:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[b] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
23 Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry…
The word of God, for the people of God.
Thanks be to God.
May God add God’s blessing to the reading of God’s word, Amen.
Last week we began to look at the ways in which Jesus’ life shows us ways we can encounter God in our daily, ordinary lives. We looked at the day when mother Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple to be blessed, only to discover through the words of Anna and Simeon it was he who was the blessing. We talked about how not only does this story clue us into how special and unique Jesus is, but also how each of us are special and unique, each born able in our own lives to encounter God and to have God come near, taking on flesh and blood for other’s help & healing, in a way no one else can.
We join Jesus some thirty years later. Like all of us, he has entered the world totally vulnerable – unable to walk, talk, eat, or clean himself without help and, like us, had to learn each day. That’s right, Jesus didn’t enter the world fully knowing his calling or what he should do with his life, either. That is why last week’s text said Jesus had to grow in grace, in wisdom, and stature after his dedication to God as a baby. Like all of us, Jesus didn’t enter the world having it all figured out. Those years of Jesus learning, growing, and (eventually) working – likely, with his hands as a carpenter like his stepfather – began to all come together, coalescing into a sense of calling in this passage. I think that Jesus’ hearing of a call, a sense of “what should I do with my life?”, teaches us volumes about our own sense of calling, our own answers to the question “what should I do with my life?”
Does anything stand out to you in this chapter about Jesus’ sense of calling? Anything that might point to how we find our own?
First I want you to notice that Jesus hears and answers his calling rather late in his life. When I first realized this, it shocked me – how could Jesus not have fully heard his call, until late in his life? It speaks volumes to me now. Growing up, I remember hearing preachers talk about hearing God’s call and school counselors talk about discovering what you wanted to do with your life and feeling this great pressure to decide what thing I needed to do with my life. I remember getting the impression I ought to know already – and if I just walked closer with God, or was a bit more together I’d know. Jesus’ example shows that, no, in fact the Son of God himself took awhile to fully realize what he was called to do. Why should you or I feel guilty if sometimes we feel like we are just beginning to find our way with God?
On the flip side I’ve known people who beat themselves up for not figuring out their life yet, or sensing their call so late in life. “If only I’d known it sooner” or “I must have something wrong to not be sure yet”. I remember distinctly while getting trained to be a pastor in Pasadena an older gentleman whom everyone called “Uncle George” who came with his younger family to church. He was approaching his 70s I believe, and at first when he came to understand the message of Jesus was hesitant to decide to follow Jesus because, as he said, he was too old to change and learn something new. Yet when he finally did get baptized as a commitment to follow Jesus – in his relative’s bath tub no less! – he was so full of joy saying “oh how I wish I had known Jesus earlier”.
If you feel you should be further along in your calling, or worry it is too late to answer the call Jesus has placed in your heart, remember this: It was actually late in Jesus’ life when he came to realize his call and, through baptism, say yes to it.
Luke says Jesus was in his 30s – roughly Kat’s and my age – when he finally answered his calling; much later than us, and much later than his cousin who was the same age as Jesus, whose preaching helped Jesus understand his own calling. That certainly isn’t a teenager, or even a twenty-something. And though thirty might sound young to some of us, in Jesus’ day, living in a world without modern medicine the average age a man died was his mid-30s, so someone in their 50s or 60s was considered blessed with a long and productive life, almost ancient by their standards. At best Jesus is answering his call to ministry late in mid-life by the standards of his day, but in reality Jesus doesn’t answer this calling to ministry until near the end of his life, since Jesus only lived around three years more after he publicly embraced his calling here through baptism. Most of the rest of his life was learning, growing, working ordinary trades like carpentry. Yet how those three years out of 33 – 35 changed the world! That commitment Jesus made in his baptism literally split history in half, so that in the West now we mark history as before Jesus’ life and after. Three years living out his calling, in the three last years of his life, totally change the world.
That should show us first that we do not need to rush, if we have not yet figured out our calling. After all, rushing might lead us down a path that is not God’s choosing where we have to face situations or suffering God doesn’t have planned for us. And we should not beat ourselves up for not having arrived at a destination God might not yet have ready for us yet. Trying to arrive at God’s destination too early can be as disastrous as showing up too late.
And you need to not tell yourself you have not figured out what to do with your life fast enough, even if you are just beginning to figure it out fairly late in your life. Jesus has only three years left as he answers his calling – and he is right on time.
Secondly, I want you to notice with me what Jesus is saying “yes” to, in answering his calling through baptism.
When I first read this story, it really made me scratch my head. John is calling people to the baptism for the forgiveness of their sins, and when I heard baptism preached in my church as a young Christian it was about going back home to God when you’d gone astray into sin. But Hebrews 2 & 4 tell us that Jesus lived without sin, that He alone was the first human to live His life perhaps not without making mistakes but truly without ever failing to fully love God, love others, and care for God’s earth. Jesus never sinned, never failing to do justice, to love compassion, and to walk humbly with His God. So Jesus had no sin to repent from, no sin to have forgiven. What call was Jesus answering?
One answer that is true is that Jesus was throwing His lot with us, saying that, sinful and broken as we are, He is embracing each and every person just as they are and in His life extending the arms of forgiveness for all who need repentance. And that is true, but there is something deeper, here… something that motivates this choice of Jesus’.
We see it in the words that the Father speaks over Jesus, as the Holy Spirit descends like a mother dove does when she shelters her baby under her wings. The Father speaks out Jesus’ calling clearly. What is it the Father says?
The Father says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ calling is not to do this or that thing, not to perform this ministry or that. It is not to have a title, or a role. Jesus’ calling is to know, and know that he knows, deep in the core of his soul, that He is God’s own child, that He is loved without condition, and that because of this, before He has done anything in his life, God is well pleased in Him. Jesus is called to accept this love, to be well pleased in who He was made to be, and then to go out with that fire of love, showing others that they too are loved without condition, children of the same Father God and mothering Spirit, and ones God is well pleased in before they have done anything right or wrong, simply because they are God’s children.
And for 3 years this is what Jesus does – lives secure in the fact He is God’s child, He is loved without condition, and lives well pleased with who He is made to be because God is well pleased with Him. And Jesus goes reaching out, letting others know this is who they are too… and that they can make this world one where all are treated that way.
Ultimately, that is your calling and my calling too.
I used to struggle with that. Am I called to teach? To preach? To pastor? How can I live my calling when I can’t preach full time, but have to sometimes work in the school system, or a book store, or a radio station, or a mental health firm? I used to feel I was always falling short of what I was called to do. Have you been there?
But I see now – no. I am not called to do any one thing. Neither are you. I am called to know, in depths of my soul, that I am loved. Unconditionally. Irreversibly. That I am God’s child, and nothing on heaven, on earth, or under the earth, can ever take that from me. And that I am this, before I do anything, right or wrong; and after whatever I have done, disastrous or beautiful. And that God is always well pleased with who I am at my core, even though I don’t always live true to who I am, and so I ought to learn to be well pleased with who I am, just as God made me. Learning to truly believe this and live this out is my calling – and yours.
And when you start to do this, you can’t help but begin to also like Jesus begin to treat others like they are deserving the same unconditional love, like they too are God’s children, like there has to be something in them to be well pleased in because who God made them to be, who they are in their core no matter how often they are not true to it, is a divine work of art that God is well pleased in. And you can’t help but tell others, in your way, whatever job you are doing. You can’t help but begin to look around you at the many ways our world tries to send another message, and try to mend this world by making it a place that treats people more like they are loved children of God, who ought to be well pleased in how God made them. This calling is what we are truly acknowledging when we choose to be baptized as Christians, we are saying out loud that yes I accept your word to me, God, that I am your child, whom you love, and that you are well pleased in me and I should take pleasure in who I am in you.
You may come out, as a gay or bisexual person, but still deep down wrestle with feelings that maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m broken, not just another beautiful way to reflect God’s love. You may tell others who you are, but deep down feel someone like me doesn’t deserve love.
You might voice that God loves you but continue to beat yourself up for the ways in which you ran from God over the years, doing things you are ashamed of – forgetting that God’s love separates that guilt and shame from you as far as the east is from the west.
You might voice the thought that you are worth something, but continue to treat yourself like you are garbage, staying with activities that tear you down. In my own family, some folks close to me did that through drinking themselves to near oblivion. In my own life, I did that by often putting other’s thoughts, needs, and feelings so ahead of myself that I ended up not making space for the full life God had for me, pushing down pain and hurt and brokeness for years.
And we might fail to live as if others are also so loved, so worthy of being well pleased in who they are at their core, in small and big ways – so often as a way of hiding from ourselves how little we are pleased in ourselves.
This is a part of why Jesus’ baptism is couched in John calling people to repentance. Repentance is not what I experienced in church growing up – beating people over the head with shame and self-loathing for what they’ve done. In reality, all that does is not change someone’s life but make it more painful. No repentance in the Bible comes from the word metanoia, which means to change your thinking and the pattern of your life. Repentance is changing your thinking so you little by little begin to see yourselves more fully as God sees you, and see others the same. It is changing your pattern of your life so you move away from those things that tear yourselvs town, tear others down, and make you relate to God as someone less than loved by God and wellpleasing to God.
To close I want to ask you to do something.
I want to ask you to take this phrase – You are my Child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased – and meditate on it 3-5 minutes each day. Do this the way that works for you – you might read through this story a few times each day, reflecting on different parts. You might journal or write your thoughts on this phrase, or write poetry or songs about it. You might run the phrase over in your head as you walk the dog, or work in the yard. To get ready for this sermon, I used it for a centering prayer – where I repeated this statement of love during prayer and meditation as a way of meditating, thinking a little about what it means about Jesus, what it means about me, and what it meant about different people I encountered each day. I challenge you to take this phrase and meditate on it each day this week.
I also want to encourage you to take time, if you are a baptized Christian, to remember your baptism. Martin Luther is remembered as having told people when they wash their face in the morning, to remember their baptism. Take time during this time of Lent to recall your own baptism, what it meant to you, and renew the sense of calling it brings to mind. If you have not been baptized you might consider in the weeks leading up to Easter talking to a leader at the church you worship about what baptism means, in case it is something that might help you on the next step of faith.
Most importantly, recall who you are and whose you are. Child, heaven’s got a plan for you.