Sermon: The Baptism of our Lord

January 11, 2009 at 6:43 pm Leave a comment

Our son Daniel was born on April 29, 2007. But the problem is that when we received his birth certificate in the mail that summer, his birthdate was listed as May 4.vEvidently the midwife who turned in the information wrote down the date she did the post-birth exam rather than the actual birthdate. Moreover, the name of the father listed on the birth certificate was Maurice C. Frontz IV. Now there is no Maurice C. Frontz IV. I am the third.

So we had to get the birth certificate changed. And this was a bigger problem than usual, because as many of you know, Daniel was born at home. Normally the Commonwealth only accepts a hospital record or a record by the attending medical doctor. Neither of which we had. So it was a really long and frustrating process involving several phone calls and mailings to get the Department of Vital Statistics to get Daniel’s birthdate right.

Now, I suppose we could have left it at May 4. After all, who would know?  We would know. He was born on April 29. It’s important that his birth certificate reflect that. And it’s also important that it gives the father’s correct name.

We finally got a birth certificate back from the Commonwealth with the correct birthday. But the father is still listed as Maurice C. Frontz IV. I suppose we’ll need to drag the whole family down to see Charlie at Triple-A one of these days.

What attests to your identity?

We were born to a mother and a father, the government verifying what our names are and what day we were born. For some of us, we were adopted into our family: adults who do not share our genetic material legally claimed us and named us as their own, with the government’s corroboration. But in either case, just like with our son Daniel, we were called by name, identified as “sweetheart,” “my child,” –our environments and the people around us shaped and gave us identity from the moment of our birth.

As we grew, we got more markers of our identity – cards and numbers from the government, of course, but more importantly, a certain shared family vocabulary, traditions passed from parent to child, a growing knowledge of a particular geographic and social context. To be named is to have a particular identity and to be in relation to others. To be named “Vannucci,” “Denius,” “White,” “Frey,” “Stroup,” “Frontz,” “Houseknecht,” “Harris,” “Stitzer,” immediately puts you in your place, gives you a history and a purpose, and a manifest destiny which is not exchangeable with any other.  And to be robbed of your identity, whether by the slow ravages of dementia, the trauma of amnesia, or by trickery, deception, or government error, is considered one of the most frightening fates in life.

Jesus had his identity from the beginning. From before he was conceived in the womb he was in relation to the Father as the Son. But when he became human, the eternal Son took on our flesh and was born as any other human being, to parents who raised him, to God’s people who nurtured his faith, growing and learning in a certain geographic and social context.

When John baptizes him in the river Jordan, however, something new happens. A voice from the heavens attests him the beloved Son, born to Lordship, and the servant of God in whom God delights. The descending dove of the Spirit sets the Father’s seal upon him. Now Jesus will live his human life publicly in the light of the Father’s and the Spirit’s declaration about who he is. No longer simply identified as the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, with a mother and sisters and brothers, he is to live as everyone’s son and brother, and to present to them the one Father in heaven. He is to do the things that God does: healing disease, calming storm, forgiving sin, feeding them, leading them. He can do so because he is the Son and Servant of God: He is God in flesh.

Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan is the confirmation of his identity; the voice of the Father and the dove of the Spirit do not “make” him who he is, but they witness to who he has been from eternity. When we are baptized into Jesus, however, something different happens. We are given a new identity, one which we did not have before we were brought to the water. We are put into the place of the Lord Jesus, into the water, and the dove of the Spirit descends upon us, the voice of the Father is heard speaking about us, calling us by name, “You are my child, you are my servant.” When we are baptized into Jesus we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because all three were present at the baptism of Jesus – the Son in the flesh, the Father in the voice, the Spirit in the dove. The same Spirit that animated the Son is given to us as a gift; the same Father from whom the Son was begotten adopts us as a daughter or a son.

Why do we need this sign of divine favor? Why did Jesus, why do we?

Because there are so many voices in our lives – telling us who we are and whose we are. If we do not stand for something, we’ll fall for anything. For Jesus, hearing the voice at his baptism, he held onto that baptismal identity when he heard the voice of Satan in the desert, tempted to reject the servant call of his baptism and simply be his own Lord. He remembered the promise of the Father and the alighting of the Spirit through years of seemingly unfruitful ministry among disciples who misunderstood him and countrymen who rejected him and brothers who nearly disowned him, all the way to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Hill of Golgotha. And he trusted in that promise even when it didn’t make sense, even when everything was taken away from him; freedom, followers, even life itself.

For us, as we go through our lives, pulled in so many directions by so many voices, called to multiple identities which are sometimes mutually exclusive, oppressed by our guilty consciences and fearful of death, we are called to believe and trust the Father’s promise spoken at baptism as Jesus did; to live our lives as God’s children, animated by the Spirit given in baptism, to turn away from anything that would keep us from doing his will, and to cling to the promise when all else is taken away.

I mentioned before the spectre of losing one’s identity, either by government error or the mendacity of a thief or the ravages of mental illness. I think that is one of the reasons why it is of such concern when we baptized Christians do not worship regularly, when we let weeks and months and years pass between visits to the church building for worship. When we faithfully come as a child and then neglect Sunday worship as an adult.

Because we continually need formation in our identity. We get that day by day in our families, in our communities. But when we are not formed in our baptismal identity, when we don’t hear that voice day by day, week by week reminding us that we are the Father’s sons and daughters, the brothers and sisters of our brother Jesus, when we don’t hear that voice, we run the decided risk of spiritual amnesia – forgetting who we really are.

Thankfully, if we forget who we are, God never forgets who we are. If we neglect our baptismal identity, we need only return to it, to ask God to remember who we are and whose we are and to help us to remember it too. Thank God that he remains faithful to his call and promise in baptism even when we have not been. And thank God that he continually stirs up the Spirit given us in baptism, calling us to renew our identity, to become more like the beloved Son with whom he is well-pleased.

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