The Rector’s sermon for January 13, 2019        


Is. 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22


Today is about knowing who we are and whose we are.   When we know who we are—sinners saved by grace—and when we know whose we are—children of God created to glorify God—then life can never be the same again.  There will be fears and problems and life will not always be rosey, but we are not alone; we can remain steadfast and at peace amid the storms of life...because we know who we are…and whose we are.


A few years ago I had a conversation with a young man about Confirmation.   His mother had said a year or so before that she wished he would be confirmed before he went to college.  At the time I wondered why she had said that …because I knew they weren’t attending worship.  So what would confirmation mean to them?  Perhaps it would simply be a right of passage, and I have to admit that I’ve heard that before.  Some time later I learned from the young man himself that he didn’t have a very positive self-image.  He said things like…I’m a screw-up…I’m just mad at God…and then he added things like… If God is God, why does he let awful things happen and why do people die?  Those are actually the stumbling block questions for many.  I did my best to explain that all things began in perfection, how they were distorted by sin, how life with all its pain and sorrow is the result of sin, but how we have been saved by grace.   I ended up with something like ‘you need to know that God loves you no matter what you’ve done or ever will do, that you’re never alone, and that you’re his child.  Almost immediately he was reduced to tears.  Often times in a young person’s life, and perhaps in anyone’s life, there is a point where he or she has no idea who they are…in relationship to their family, their friends, their classmates, or even who they are… period.  But when you learn whose you are…really grasp whose you are…the rest falls into place.  Later he told me that he felt better after our talk, but I know he has a long way to go before he really understands what he heard.


Knowing who we are and whose we are is the message of today’s gospel.  The people ask John if he is the Messiah, and John responds with what he knows to be true.  “I’m not the Messiah,” he says, “but he is coming, and I am not worthy to even untie his sandals!”  That’s quite a statement.  John was not the most normal kid on the block and to this point; his life was borderline crazy.   But now hundreds of people are coming to him for baptism.  He is the center of attention.  He could have easily played his new-found popularity to the hilt!   John finally was someone important.  But when the crowd asks him what they should do in response to his words—seek forgiveness and be baptized, John says, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7)  John needed a press secretary; he certainly didn’t know how to gain followers!   He was trying to say their manner of life would determine whether or not they understood the need for baptism and repentance.


But it wasn’t John’s job to gain followers or speak with grace.  And he knew it…because John knew who he was.  He knew clearly who he was in relationship to the Messiah.  He was the forerunner, the one with the message of the One to come.  He knew that to be a follower of Christ, a person would first have to acknowledge who he or she is and make no pretense as to his or her own righteousness.   Later in Jesus’ ministry he would say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23)  John never heard Jesus say that, but he already had it figured out.  John knew who he was.  John set the stage for all followers of Christ.  All Christians are tasked to point people to Jesus and to acknowledge who we are in relation to Jesus.  And who are we?  For those of us who believe in Jesus we are sinners saved by grace.  I’m going to say that again:  we are sinners saved by grace!  No matter what we’ve done, no matter what kind of sketchy past we may have, and no matter what the future may hold…if we are believers, if we repent when we fall, and if we return to God…WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE!  We can’t earn…we don’t deserve it…but we are saved by grace.  It’s as simple and complicated as that!   


Now, this John, who knows who he is, finds himself face to face with Jesus, and Jesus is asking John to baptize him!   It’s hard to imagine how John must have felt.  Think of it this way: Take any important person you know who is the best in their field, or even someone you simply admire a great deal—an athlete, an artist, an actor, a teacher—then put yourself in front of that person and hear that person say, “I need your help.”  Regardless of the scenario you come up with, you would be shocked, humbled, but it would be nothing like John felt when Jesus, the Son of God, stands before him seeking baptism.  In Luke’s version of Jesus’ baptism that we just read, he treats the scene very casually.  But Matthew’s version captures more of the magnitude of the moment, the sense of awe.  He writes, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.  John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matt. 3:13-14)


John knew who he was and John knew who was standing before him:  it was Jesus, the Messiah, the One coming into the world.  And with total trust and amazing humility, John acts in obedience and baptizes Jesus.  And Luke says, “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  As Jesus began the ministry that would ultimately lead him to the cross, what an incredible affirmation to receive…directly from His Father.  We hear words from the Father and we see the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  The scene is God in all three expressions of the Trinity—all in complete agreement as to who Jesus is and whose he is.  “You are my Son, the Beloved…”  Surely Jesus would remember those words and actions every day of his life as he did the ministry he was born to do.


Jesus didn’t aimlessly come to the Jordan that day.  From creation, Jesus knew he would one day stand at that very spot and be baptized.  He came to earth to bring glory to God.  He went to the cross to bring glory to God.  He rose on Easter morning to bring glory to God.  And what was true for Jesus is true for us.  We are all created to bring glory to God, and to do that we must acknowledge who we are—sinners saved by grace—and acknowledge whose we are.  For surely God says at every baptism:  “This is my beloved son…This is my beloved daughter…with you I am well pleased.”


So what’s the next step?  Notice that Jesus’ baptism occurs at the beginning of his ministry.  This great affirmation prepares him for what is to come.   Matthew, Mark and Luke all report that Jesus’ baptism was followed by 40 days in the desert, where he was tempted by Satan.  Though tempted strongly, Jesus stayed completely true and sinless.  But Satan didn’t stop there.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry, Satan opposed every good Jesus did, and every day Jesus spent time alone with his Father in prayer, surely remembering those words… “You are my Son; with you I am well pleased.”  He gave us a sure-fire pattern for our daily living as we go through the temptations of life.


Now the next time the Holy Spirit would descend to earth (in a visible form), it would be on the Day of Pentecost.  But the appearance would not be as a dove, but as tongues of fire.  Why?  Because mere men, the fearful disciples would need a firey jolt for their task to come:  to preach Jesus to all of Jerusalem and beyond.  And on that day the holy church of God, the fellowship of all believers, was born with 3,000 being baptized.  And it’s no coincidence that both Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of the church begins with the descent of the Holy Spirit and with baptism.  And that same Spirit empowers the church today.


So as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we hopefully see the true picture of what happened that day.  Jesus began his ministry with baptism.  His Father affirmed his obedience.  His ministry led Him to the cross.  But all of it leads to the Resurrection!  And the same holds true for us. 


When we know who we are—sinners saved by grace—and when we know whose we are—children of God, created to glorify God—then life can never be the same again.  Temptations will come; sometimes we will fall into sin; other times we will be able to resist temptation. But all the time, we remain children of God, in whom he is well pleased.  Distress will come, doubts and voices other than the voice of God will call us away from him, but we are still children of God, in whom he is well pleased. 


That young man I spoke to many years ago is still searching, but I believe with all my heart that some day he will come to know who he is and whose he is, because it is in that realization that life begins and he will grow in the knowledge and love of the God who created him and would say to him, given the chance, “You are my son; with you I am well pleased.”