Called to Grow: Living as God's Beloved
January 8, 2017
1st Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17,21-2
Over Christmas, as I was cleaning out my email inbox, I came across this email a friend sent me some time ago after we had lunch:
I thought you should know that Neti [his 3-year-old daughter] gave you a theological promotion shortly after returning from our lunch. I asked Neti who I was with, and she said, “Brian!” Then I asked, “Who is Brian a daddy to?”(Neti had just been talking about Abby yesterday). Her answer: “Jesus?” Hmmm…serious problems with this, but complimentary nonetheless!
I guess you could say Neti was a little confused about the identity of her daddy’s friend. Of course Neti was only three years old at the time, so her confusion is understandable. And perhaps she’s already picked up on that the safe Sunday school answer to most questions is “Jesus!” But the truth is, identity confusion is not just a toddler problem. Identity confusion is an epidemic in our society. One of the deepest and most important existential questions we must all grapple with is the question, “Who am I?” And along with it: “What am I on earth for?” Today is the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was January 6. Epiphany literally means “to make manifest” or “bring to light,” and it is the time in the church year, right on the heels of Christmas, when we celebrate that God has brought to light his salvation in the birth of Jesus. Ephiphany is a season where the Holy Spirit helps us to “see” more clearly God’s truth and grace.
So today we meet John the Baptist again. We bumped into John during Advent, this eccentric desert preacher who came to prepare the way for the Messiah. For all John’s quirkiness, give him credit: John was not confused about his own identity.
Luke tells us that when the crowds went out in droves to the Jordan River to hear John preach, they wondered if he might be the Messiah. But John is quick to clear up any confusion: “John answered them all by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Lk. 3:16).
No, John is not the Messiah. He is a witness whose job is to point people to the Messiah, the one coming who is greater than he. Then one day this “One who is greater” shows up. Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah, comes out to the Jordan River where John is baptizing people. And what is so surprising is that Jesus insists upon being baptized as well.
All four gospels tell this story of Jesus’baptism, although with slight variation, and all four agree that this is a pivotal moment of epiphany—of “bringing to light”—both Jesus’ identity and his vocation.
I want to ask two critical questions of this text this morning. First, what does it reveal about who Jesus is and what his vocation is all about? Secondly, what does this text reveal about who we are and what our vocation is all about? The second question, as we will see, flows from the first. We can only answer the question, “Who am I?” by first answering the question “Who is God?”or even more directly, “Who is Jesus?” As John Calvin pointed out, knowledge of self flows from knowledge of God.
So let’s look at the first question: What does this story reveal about who Jesus is? From the very beginning, Christians have been puzzled by why Jesus would need to be baptized in the first place.
After all, wasn’t John the Baptist the forerunner of the Messiah who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins? But Jesus does not share our sinful condition, does he? Jesus doesn’t need to get washed up and clean, does he? This would be like someone announcing the coming of a great preacher at a big tent revival meeting, and then one night the preacher arrives, only not to the platform but to the altar! Rather than standing up to preach, he comes forward and kneels as one responding to an altar call! How strange would that be?
So why is Jesus baptized? Jesus is baptized as a way for God the Father to reveal—bring to light—Jesus’ two-fold identity. Here is a human being, named Jesus from Nazareth, real flesh and blood, who stands in the Jordan water with his cousin, John. Jesus is fully human.
Yet here is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Here is the one who is “the Son of God,” God-in-the-flesh. Jesus is fully God. In Jesus’ baptism, both of these are revealed to us: Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and, in him, divinity and humanity embrace. Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us.
Let’s unpack this further. Three things happen in Jesus’ baptism that are epiphanies for us. Two of them are visual, the last one is audible. First, “the heavens were opened.” This expression recalls the prophet Isaiah’s desperate prayer hundreds of years earlier for the heavens to open and for God to come again as in the exodus: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” (Is. 64:1-4). This first visible sign indicates that at long last, the time has come for God to do what he promised through the OT prophets: He would come to rescue his people and the new age of God’s kingdom would dawn. And all of this was happening now, in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth.
Second, the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus, descends like a dove. Certainly the image of the Spirit hovering over water reminded Luke’s audience of two of the most important historical events in which God was present and active in the world: creation, when, in the beginning, God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos and darkness; and also the Exodus from Egypt, when Israel was called “God’s Son” by Moses, and they were led through the waters of the Red Sea, out of slavery and into a new life of freedom.
Jesus’ baptism, with the Spirit descending on him as he comes up from the water, brings together both of these historical events and makes a powerful statement about what is happening now: Just like when God created in the beginning, just like when God delivered his people from Egyptian slavery, now, in Jesus, that same Spirit is working through Jesus to bring forth God’s New Creation, God’s New Exodus for the whole world. And Jesus’ entire ministry would be empowered by this Spirit.
So these are the two things we see happening in Jesus’ baptism: the heavens opening up, the Spirit of God descending. But it’s not just what we see. Luke tells us there was an audible Voice as well: “This is my Son, My Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” If there is any question as to what is happening, this voice from the Father in heaven makes it clear. Jesus is the unique Son of God, begotten not made. The Word, as John put it, who was with God in the beginning, who is God, and through whom all things were made and now through whom all things will be re-made.
Luke is saying, right here at the very beginning of his Gospel, that God is not distant and far removed. God is not some impersonal force or energy. God has come to be with us, up close and personal, in the man named Jesus.
And Jesus, who reveals God’s heart, humbly submits to baptism to show that he will come down to meet us where we are. He will enter into our condition, be baptized into solidarity with us in order to save us. He also humbly shows that he has come not do his own will but to carry out the will of the Father.
So that’s the first and most important thing that this story of Jesus’ baptism reveals: Jesus’ identity as fully human and fully God, and Jesus mission to carry out God’s rescue plan for all creation. This story also reveals something about us.
Because of Jesus, we, too, can become daughters and sons of God. Not in the unique sense that Jesus is. But by way of adoption. We, who have been separated from God because of our sin, we who dwell in darkness, darkness as deep as death—can be brought into the light of God’s love and grace and made children of light. Not only does the Father name Jesus as the Beloved, with whom he is well pleased, but in our baptism God names us as his beloved, in whom he delights.
Because of Christ, God’s words spoken in Isaiah are spoken to us personally: “But now, thus says the LORD, he who created you; he who formed you; Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” (Is. 43:1-2).
In our baptism, God claims us in Christ as his own. God calls us by name—our true names. And this means that God will never abandon us for forsake us. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Next to Scripture, I still think the Heidelberg Catechism says it best: What is my only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own but belong, in body and in soul, in life and in death, to may faithful Savior Jesus Christ…Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Spirit, assures me of eternal life and make me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Of course that’s the other piece to our identity—like Jesus, we’ve been baptized into a vocation—to wholeheartedly live for Christ; to do the will of our Father in heaven. To go and tell the good news of God’s amazing love. This is why God has placed us on this earth: to belong to him and to serve him by shining his light to those around us.
Can we just slow it down here to really get present to what’s being said this morning. Do you hear this? Because of who Jesus is and what God has done for us in Christ, God looks at you—right now—just as you are and not as you should be--and calls you… His beloved.
“You are my beloved,” God says. This is the truest thing that can be said about who you are, at your core. In learning to see Jesus clearly, the Holy Spirit helps us to see ourselves clearly. In learning to hear who God says Jesus is, the Holy Spirit helps us hear the truth about who God says we are.
Let’s just be honest: there are so many other voices clamoring to tell us who we are and what defines us. Voices in our culture, voices in our relationships, voices in our own heads—perhaps the loudest voice of all: the inner critic. You know these voices, many of us know them very well: “You’re not good enough. You need to prove yourself. You need to hide and pretend and don’t let others see who you really are. You are not worthy of love.” These voices can be so loud, and they can blur our vision and keep us from seeing the truth about who we are and why we are here. We don’t see the gift in who we are in Christ as God’s beloved.
Around Christmastime, there was a video made by the incredibly talented violinist and dancer Lindsay Stirling that went viral. I want to show it to you this morning. Lindsay disguises herself and plays her violin in the subway, and notice how people just pass on by. Then, at the end, she speaks some words from her heart…that’s what I most want you to hear.
The most important question we all must answer (and time and time again) is this question “Who am I?” It is this key question of identity that shapes the way we live, the kind of people we become. When we are confused about our identity, we will be confused about almost everything else.
A life of meaning, a life of joy and purpose, a life of perseverance, a life worth living ultimately flows from a deep confidence and conviction that we are not our own but we belong, in life and death, to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
You are my beloved, and with you I’m well pleased.
May these words find their way into your heart today. And may we all grow in grace to become who we already are. Not to draw attention to ourselves but so that we might, like John the Baptist, point to the One who is greater than us—the true Light who has come into the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Bruner, The Christbook: Matthew 1-12 (Erdmanns, 2004), p.101.