January 12, 2020 | Pastor Kelli Schmit
In our baptismal liturgy, we recall in prayer how the Spirit moved over the waters and how God created the world. When the earth was a formless void, a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. The light, free, protective avian movement of the Spirit surrounds the new creation coming into being. And today the Spirit descends over the waters of the Jordan like a dove.
When we hear today’s story, we can’t help but hear these echoes from the start of our scriptures. We can’t help but hear the connection to the Spirit’s continued movement when Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
Keep in mind, at this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus hasn’t done anything yet. The holy family fled to the safety of Egypt and, after a couple of years, they return to Israel. This is all while Jesus is still a child. And the next thing we hear is – poof! – Jesus is an adult and he’s talking with John by the Jordan River.
In his 30-some years of life up to this point, he’s obviously done some things, but as far as Matthew is concerned, this is his debut moment. He will one day feed thousands, heal the sick, love the outcast, and challenge his followers – he will be crucified and he will be resurrected…but he hasn’t done any of that yet. All we know is that the very first thing Jesus does is go to John to be baptized.
When Jesus comes up, breaking the surface of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit descends like a dove. A voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is declared to be beloved
He is claimed and named as God’s very own son. He hasn’t done anything to prove his worth or fulfill God’s call to love all of humanity – it is just an undeniable reality. It’s his identity. Plain and simple.
And this identity-confirming event happens at the Jordan River…in other words – in the wilderness. Jesus’ formative years were spent being visited and adored by foreign stargazers and hoping for safety in a foreign land. But if that wasn’t enough, he intentionally goes to an empty, barren, lonely location and asks to be baptized in a river by the resident wild man. This is all pretty telling. This foreshadows who he will be, with whom he will interact, and in what he will place value. All of this paints a pretty clear picture of what his ministry will look like.
During this season of Epiphany, we will hear him invite people to come and see – to experience and participate in his work in the world. He won’t ask significant and influential power players of the day to be his followers, but common, ordinary fishermen. He will tell the crowds of people who have gathered around him that they are the light of the world, and he will inspire them to share that light by treating people decently and humanely, especially those who are vulnerable and have been forced to the margins, those who have been relegated to lonely, barren, wilderness places.
In the waters of the font, we become a new creation
We are made children of God and are claimed as beloved. There is nothing – absolutely nothing – we need to do, or that we even could do, to earn, work toward, prove, or purchase to get this relationship on our own accord. No matter what we did or did not do before we were led to the font by the Spirit, God loves us, God wants to be in relationship with us, and God won’t let anything separate us from God. This identity as one of God’s beloved – this assurance of who we are and whose we are – is a permanent, indelible, undeniable piece of who we are.
Throughout our lives, parts of ourselves inevitably shift, morph, or come to a conclusion as the years pass. We are children who become adult children to aging parents. We are students, and employees, and retirees. We are siblings, friends, and coworkers. Some of us chose to become spouses and/or parents. All of these things that we hold so dear, things that are such a vital part of our sense of self, these things can change over the course of our lives.
And our identity can’t help but be impacted by external factors, such as advertisements that try to convince us that who we are is not quite enough but, with this product, we’ll finally make it. Parts of society and wider culture tell us that our age, gender, paycheck, relationship status, family, postal address, and employment is just shy of acceptable. Anonymous online profiles criticize, nitpick, or straight up harass every part of what we share with the world. It’s impossible not to let those images, messages, posts, or statements start to chip away at our self-worth and how we see ourselves.
God made us one of God’s children
With all the hits our identity takes, or the natural adjustments that unfold, God’s claim on us will not and cannot change. Why? Because this name “beloved child of God” – this identity is inherently connected to and dependent upon God…child of God. We can walk away from that relationship but we cannot sever the connection God established with us because God is incapable of letting us go.
God declares that we are beloved. We were created by God, made a child of God, and our identity is rooted in the promise that we have inherent worth, value, and beauty.
We can remember this gift – this promise – on a daily basis and rejoice in the new chances and new opportunities that are presented to us to lean into that identity. With all the external factors vying for our attention and brain space, our call as disciples is to have our identity shape our mission.
We hear this in the baptismal liturgy when God claims us as one of God’s own: we strive to “learn to trust God and proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace in all the world.” This call to active discipleship, this call to live out our baptismal identity in all facets of life is empowering and energizing and challenging.
If being a beloved creation of God gives me intrinsic worth, then every other person whom God created also has worth, value, and beauty. Trusting and relying on my baptismal identity leads me to recognize that dignity in others, and not all of God’s creation is easy to love, myself included. So what better time than Epiphany to remember that Jesus made his debut in a wilderness place, to celebrate how he invited common laborers to follow him, to answer the call to share the light of his love among the most vulnerable and to shape our mission and action in the world around the claim that we are beloved children of God. Thanks be to God.