15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them 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 fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 19But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.”
A poem by James Autry has for a long time been a favorite of mine. It goes like this:
There is something about putting people under the water and raising
them up in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, something
that makes people cry
That makes them want everything to be alright.
That makes them want to leave this place and be better,
to immerse themselves in their lives
And somehow be washed clean of all the things they should not have done
and still should not want to do.
Not the other things,
The star in the east,
The treasures in heaven
Or any of the old stories,
Not even life after death.
It’s only to be new again.
Here is the deal. God chooses to bring us into the world. God’s grace claims us and reclaims us over and over again. We don’t need to get all balled up over whether or not we are adequate or worthy. With the exception of Jesus, we are all unworthy and without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.
I love the story about an incident following an infant baptism. On the way home after worship, the brother of the baby who had been baptized cried from the back seat all the way home. Three times his dad asked him what he was crying about. Finally, he answered, “The preacher said he wanted us to be brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”
I think we all want to be brought up in a Christian home, don’t we? We who are baptized struggle just like everybody else to be decent human beings. We are no more or less tempted than anybody else to be less than God created us to be, but Jesus our Lord showed us how to beat the demons back, and God gave us the spiritual power to choose a higher and better way. From our baptism onward, we live inside the promise that we will have a strength that comes from another world enabling us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. That is our identity! We are God’s beloved children through the Sacrament of Baptism.
Baptism is primarily about identity. Notice that in the various gospel accounts of Jesus’ Baptism, a voice from heaven invariably announces to Jesus, “You are my beloved son and with you I am well pleased.” So also, in our Baptism, God conveys to us our identity as God’s beloved children, children and people so precious to God that God would go to any length to communicate to us that love, even to the point of dying on the cross. Which is why Baptism is so important, as in an age where figuring out “who you are” has never been more complex, Baptism suggests that we best understand “who” we are by paying attention to “whose” we are – God’s beloved children. Baptism reminds us that we have infinite value and worth, that God wants only good things for us, that God will always seek to draw us back into relationship with God and each other and forgive us when we stray, and that God will be with us all the days of our lives. The sacrament of baptism should remind us of this fact, and we should continue to tell this story every time, we remember our baptism.
The Kalahari bushmen were made famous in the movie The Gods Must be Crazy. Their recent history is sad, for in the last 100 years the bushmen culture has been disappearing along with their lands. One of the saddest Bushmen settlements is Schmidtsridft in South Africa. There two bushmen peoples, the Xu and the Khwe, who clash fiercely with one another, live like many indigenous peoples whose way of life has been destroyed. They have grown dependent on government pensions and alcohol and marijuana have, for many, become an anesthetic against their dislocation and loss.
Then leader of the Xu Traditional Council at Schmidtsridft is Mario Mahongo, a Xu bushman. He longs for his people to rediscover some of their spirit. But the problem is they’ve lost their stories. “A lot of our culture” he says “is lost in our lives – the old stories that were told by mothers and fathers who would go into the bush and then return to tell the others what they had seen – The problem is that now no one goes out and does anything, so we have no stories to tell our children. We have nothing to pass on.”
We can learn from this sad tale. It is the stories we pass on that shape and define us, that show us the way forward and give us meaning, direction and values. For Christians it is the story told by the bible that becomes our ultimate defining story, and part of that story is remembering our baptism – that gives us our identity as the beloved children of God!
Sermon based upon Commentary by David Lose, Matthew Skinner, Emerson B. Powery, Scott Higgins, and James Autry