by David Baer, January 8, 2017
Text: Luke 3:1-22
I’ve seen this gag going around on Facebook during the last week. Some of my friends clicked on something called LindoTest, and it posts a picture on their feed that says, for example, “Richard is not Richard without… his cell phone.” That one happened to be true! So I tried it myself, but I found it less than satisfying. The blasted thing said it was analyzing my profile, but it seemed to be guessing at random “David would not be David without…” “money”, “drinking”? Come on, man… It’s like you don’t know me at all! How about David would not be David without his family? Or if you want to be more light-hearted about it, David would not be David without his morning coffee? Without his podcasts? Alas, LindoTest failed to figure out my essential identity.
What makes you who you are? Is there some part of you that has held constant for your whole life, something where taking it away would mean that you stop being you? You’ve had your body for your whole life, but did you know that every year 98% of the atoms, the matter that makes up your body, is replaced?1 Almost all of the physical stuff that makes you you didn’t belong to you last January 8. It might have been part of the soil or the air or another person, plant, or animal, but it wasn’t you. And now it is.
The first-century Greek writer Plutarch wrote about the ship that, in ancient times, had brought Theseus and the youth of Athens back from Crete, which had been preserved for hundreds of years. Every time one of the planks or the oars rotted out, they replaced it, until the whole ship had been replaced, and so the philosophers argued over whether it was the same ship that carried Theseus or not.2
Your job, your home, your friends, even your name—so many of these things don’t stay the same. We even seek out many of these changes when we get excited to do or become something new. So what makes you you? What constitutes you as a person if our relationships, our environment, and even our bodies are subject to constant change?
Today in the church calendar is a day for remembering the baptism of Jesus. There may not be an answer to the question of who we are that can be expressed in simple, straightforward words, but as Christians we point to our baptism. In the simple act of having the water poured over us or being immersed in it, in the name of the Triune God, there is more than words can ever express about what really matters in who we are.
Jesus wasn’t the first person ever to be baptized. And John the Baptist, who took him down into the Jordan River, wasn’t the first person ever to perform baptism. Baptism is a ritual enactment of cleansing. We wash all the time to remove sweat and dirt from our bodies, and so people have used ceremonial washing since ancient times as a way to demonstrate being renewed, beginning again. That’s what John was up to when the crowds of people came down to the Jordan to hear him and be baptized.
His was a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for “repentance” is μετάνοια, which literally means “a change of mind, a change of heart.” The people coming to be baptized by John came because they were electrified by his message that God’s day of judgment was coming soon. You can hear it in his words about the ax lying at the root of the tree, and someone coming after him with a winnowing fork to sort out the grain from the chaff. These people wanted a new beginning free from sin, and trusted that by being baptized they were going to be part of God’s new world.
But a change of mind didn’t just involve attitudes and feelings. It meant changed actions too. You can hear this in John’s advice to the different groups of people asking what they should do—share your belongings and food with those who don’t have enough, he says to the crowds; he tells tax collectors not to cheat people, which was common, and the soldiers he tells not to use their position to oppress or extort others. This washing, this cleansing these people had undergone was meant to send them on a new course, living right now as part of the new world God was beginning to create.
Into this mass of humanity struggling to change their minds and their way of life walks Jesus. In some tellings of the story, John tries to argue Jesus out of submitting to baptism, or else he announces to the crowd that Jesus is somehow different from the rest of them. But that doesn’t happen here, in Luke’s gospel. We don’t even know if John recognized Jesus, or if he just shuffled forward in a long line to take his turn in the river like everyone else.
But those other stories just lift up in an inescapable way a problem that’s present here too. If this is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then what in the world is Jesus, the Son of God, doing here with the rest of us sinners? Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized. He doesn’t need a change of heart and mind and life to be part of God’s great cleanup of the world. He’s already there. If anything, he should be standing on the bank of the river where people are coming out, pulling them up by the hand and saying something like, “Welcome to Team God!”
But if we start pulling that thread, there are a whole lot of other things Jesus didn’t need to do. He didn’t have to die on the cross, not for his own sake. He didn’t have to be born, to take on our humanity and live among us. There’s something about who Jesus is that leads him to do things for others that he doesn’t have to do. And what Jesus is doing here is to join the human movement for God’s better world. He’s not going to cheer for the movement while standing apart from it or above it. He is going to walk right beside people who are grieving and struggling to live differently.
And it turns out that God is pleased with what Jesus did here. After the baptism, as Jesus is praying, heaven opens, the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove, and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It might seem to us that Jesus, the Son of God, undergoing baptism is out of place, but it doesn’t seem that way to God. No, God says, “This is what I love about you. This is why you’re my beloved Son!”
Jesus’ baptism points to his identity. Later on in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (12:50). In other words, what happened to him in today’s story was just the beginning of his baptism. The cross is what completes it. Jesus finds his identity in his baptism. Without this baptism that spans everything from his immersion in the Jordan River to his death and rising, Jesus is not Jesus. The beloved Son of God stands with sinners and bears their burdens out of love for them. That’s who he is.
But through the centuries we Christians have also looked at our own baptism as the sign of who we are. The apostle Paul wrote that “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28). The other identities Paul names here were central, defining facts about people in the world he lived in. Jews and Gentiles couldn’t eat together. Slaves and free people lived vastly different lives. People’s basic identity as male or female strictly hemmed in the possibilities that were open to them. So think how radical it would have been in his time and place to say this: no longer male and female! All these basic facts that are so basic to the way we think of ourselves, Paul says, no longer make one bit of difference. You are clothed with Christ.
Jesus joins us in the water of baptism, and that means he stands with us—in our struggles with our own brokenness, in our hope for God’s new world. But it also means we stand with him when God claims him as a beloved child. He shares in our identity, and we share in his.
But that puts us in a funny place, doesn’t it? You share in Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved child, but you’re not Jesus. Letting your baptism define who you are means putting on an identity that you don’t yet fully own. You live into your baptismal identity when you bear other’s burdens not out of obligation or to gain an advantage, but out of pure love, like Jesus did. There is a lot we regularly do here at the church to help share food and shelter with those in need. At a time when a lot of people in our communities are worried about being threatened or harassed, one way to live into your baptismal identity might be to look for bystander intervention training, so when something like that happens you feel empowered to step up for the safety of your neighbors.
Jesus enters the waters of baptism with us, and he gives us a new identity. We may have all kinds of answers to the question, “Who are you?” We may look in the mirror and see everything others want us to be. We may see the limits imposed on us by guilt and shame. We may see ourselves as victims, failures, sinners. But when we come to God, especially when we come to God in prayer as Jesus did, asking to be reminded of who we are, God doesn’t see any of that. The life of love and obedience Jesus lived wraps around us, first masking and then rubbing away everything else. And God takes a look at us, squints hard, and says, “What victim? What failure? What sinner? What are you talking about? You are my child, my beloved. In you I am well pleased!”
So may you hold on to this gift, this new identity you have in Jesus. When you waver, may you turn to God in prayer to be reminded of who you are. And may you live, may all of your words and actions express your true and lasting identity, as God’s beloved child. Amen.
David Kestenbaum, “Atomic Tune-Up: How the Body Rejuvenates Itself.” NPR, 14 Jul 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=11893583. Accessed 1/6/2016.
Plutarch, “Theseus.” The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/theseus.html. Accessed 1/6/2016.