Called by Name…

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 Sermon on the Baptism of Jesus

 January 9, 2022

            Our Gospel story today comes to us from Luke who was a great storyteller in many ways.  Here, he only offers us a brief description of the baptism of Jesus and we may wonder why.  After having listened to the few stories of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, we hear about the ministry of John the Baptist, attracting large crowds and inviting people to turn their lives around.

Luke transitions from the ministry of John the Baptist to the public introduction of Jesus by highlighting the differences in the baptism the two will offer. John understands that his purpose is to prepare the way for Jesus and participate in the introduction of Jesus. John attracted great crowds and many followers even though his message wasn’t always easy to hear; people were yearning to be inspired to live better lives.  They believed in his message and he led many to  new ways of living.  But, John did not lose his way or forget that his assignment was to point to the One whose coming would make the difference.  Some who flocked to see him thought he might be the Messiah, the long awaited One, prompting those who were “filled with expectation” to recognize Christ in him.  Let us pray, Loving Creator, we pause this day to remember our own baptisms and to be reminded of the ways in which you called each of us to follow your Son, to live in right relationship with you and with our brothers and sisters.  We thank you for new beginnings in Baptism and in a New Year and ask that you continue to guide us with your love and light.  Amen.

            Many years ago, when I was out of college and living as a volunteer in San Francisco, I recall a day that has always stayed with me.  There were a number of communities of volunteers in my program and we lived in houses or apartments together in groups of 4-6 volunteers in some of the poorer communities, made a small stipend each month, did various kinds of service during the week, and then found ways to have fun on a very low budget on the weekends.  On this particular day, a group of us were all going to meet and go rafting on the California River and then have a big cookout later.  So, I woke up early with my other housemates and we threw on our shorts and t-shirts and headed across the street to where one of my roommates had parked her car.  At the time, we were living in an old convent across from a church and so she had parked it in the church parking lot.  Well, the gates were locked that early morning and so she went into the church as the priest was saying early morning Mass so that she could find someone to unlock it.  I was sitting with one of my roommates on the front steps of the church and still trying to wake up as people began leaving the church.  At the same time, an older gentleman who looked pretty down and out walked up to the steps and he was about to ask those departing for loose change.  He looked over at my friend and me and said, ‘Oh, sorry guys, I won’t take your place here.’ And he walked away.  All of a sudden it dawned on me that he thought we were there to pan handle as people were let out of church.  At first, we had a good laugh as we looked at ourselves, dressed in wrinkled clothes and looking a little less than polished, as we realized how we looked in his eyes…a fellow traveler who has seen better days in need of help.  But as it sunk in, I realized that I felt a little bad.  Like, did I look that down and out?  And then, wow, what if that was how people always so me, someone without a name just hanging out looking for spare change to get through the day.  Just one of many nameless people we pass on the streets every day, struggling to get through life.  It was humbling for sure.  And I became aware of the privilege I had of mostly not being seen in that way, of feeling pretty confident in myself and how I looked to the world, someone important perhaps, someone who was making a contribution or whom others looked at in that way.  And I felt humbled yet again to know that there are many who never feel that way.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus had been in the crowd. He doesn’t really provide many details, but all of a sudden Jesus has been baptized too. Unlike Mark, who opens his Gospel with the baptism of Jesus, Luke doesn’t share Jesus’ geographic journey. Both accounts are pretty limited about the interactions between Jesus and John the Baptist. Matthew’s story is also very brief. The Gospel of John, however; provides a more descriptive retelling of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist that emphasizes the divinity of Christ.  Luke, as a great storyteller, for some reason doesn’t share a lot about this particular story.

Most of us don’t remember our baptisms because we were babies.  That is the tradition in many churches; however others encourage baptism as adults.  I have had the privilege of officiating at the baptism of an older child and of adults in their twenties.  It is a powerful experience to know that they are full participants in the Sacrament.  One of my former colleagues once told me that when he does a baptism, he always prays silently that not too much of the brokenness of the parents will be passed along to the child.  It’s not that he believed in original sin, but rather that he understood on some level that we all have pain and brokenness and far too often that gets passed from one generation to the next. 

It’s important to note that in Luke’s simple account, Jesus is part of a larger group who are being baptized by John.  This moment of ritual cleansing  and preparing to embrace a different path is certainly powerful in the story of Jesus, because it marks the beginning of his public ministry.  At the same time, Jesus is one among many.  He joins all those who have flocked to John to listen to his message; he is there as another person in the crowd, not seeing himself as one who deserves special treatment.  He is there walking alongside and in the midst of those who have gathered that day.  It is after we hear that he had been baptized that Luke includes the voice of God who calls out to say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  

Robert Brearley, a Presbyterian pastor, writes, “According to Luke, all we

know about the baptism of Jesus is that it was with ‘all the people’…Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the ‘wear and tear’ of this world and had all but given up on themselves and their God. When the line of downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them. At his baptism, he identified with the damaged

and broken people who needed God.”   Jesus didn’t seek to be singled out or make this experience all about him and it’s a powerful example of his humility, humanity and yes, his divinity.

            When we step into that water with Jesus, at that moment we are wrapped up with all other human beings: the well ones and the hurt ones, the brave ones and the weak ones, the successful ones and the ones who can’t seem to get anything right, the fortunate ones and the ones who, perhaps through no fault of their own, have suffered setbacks. There is no test that must be passed beyond a desire to turn one’s life around and to give our hearts to God…just folks, bound together in the river of life. The writer Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Whether

we were carried in our mother’s arms or arrived under our own steam, we got into the river of life with Jesus and all his flawed kin. There is not a chance we will be mistaken for one of them. Because we are them, thanks be to God, as they are us.”

 And one other thing we share, there by the river is the voice of God calling out to us.  ”You are my son, the beloved.” Jesus, in his baptism, receives a new name…and so do we. Jesus is claimed as God’s very own…and so are we. We are them, they are us, and all of us are God’s very own forever. When you hear these familiar words,  I hope you may hear  God calling your name; I hope you are reminded that each of you is the beloved, each of you made, loved and claimed as God’s precious child.  (Rev. Eugene Nelson))

Do you remember the opening theme song to the show Cheers? It was such a popular show and perhaps you have visited the bar in Boston around which it was based.  The lyrics remind me of the importance of others knowing our names. 

“Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name

And they’re always glad you came

You want to be where you can see

Our troubles are all the same

You want to be where everybody knows your name.”

(Song by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart-Angelo)

 Years ago, Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., was asked by an interviewer why it was that her design seemed to have  such a profound emotional impact on people and she explained, “It’s the names. The names are the memorial. No edifice or structure can bring people to mind as powerfully as their names.”

            In the beautiful reading from the prophet Isaiah, we are reminded in these words, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”   When we hold a baptism, we always ask the parents, “by what name do you call this child?”  It is an important and beautiful moment in the ritual as the community welcomes this child by name, knowing too that God promises to call us each by name and that we are claimed by God as God’s own precious and beloved ones.

When we look back at that moment in Jesus’s life, we may be able to better appreciate what was going on: there’s Jesus, standing in the muddy water of the Jordan River. Clearly it is a humble act, an act of solidarity, of identification with his brothers and sisters, those who will begin to flock to him to hear his message, those who are yearning for a deeper and more meaningful life.  I think it is also  more. Because as he stands there, it seems that even Jesus had to ask, “What is my name? Who am I really?” And what does he hear? He hears God call his name. Prof. Peter Storey of Duke Divinity School, writes, for Jesus, there in the water, “Suddenly, all those first inklings of vocation that stirred in childhood, the un-shaped consciousness of call, the inner yearnings and searchings are brought into sharp focus. God names him: ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ This affirmation is the defining moment for Jesus.” He has a name; he is somebody; he is God’s beloved; and God has called him into God’s new creation. Can we imagine that the same thing could be said about us?

There is a story attributed to Martin Luther. He said that when life just seemed too hard for him, in those times when nothing in life seemed to be going right and everything and everyone was against him – and he certainly had more than his share of such times – he would look into that mirror, see the same old face, and say to himself, “You are baptized. Never forget, you are baptized.” And that was enough to see him through.

 And so this day, I invite you to embrace that same thought.  You are baptized. You have been named and somebody is calling you by name. Each of you, in your own unique, personal, and distinctive way is a precious and beloved child of God, as we all receive the grace of God’s promise of unconditional love and grace. Try to remember that. When you look at yourself each morning in the mirror, seek to embrace the idea that you are also a beloved child of God with whom God is well pleased. Jesus chose to stand side by side with all who showed up that day looking for a better life, the winners and the losers, the rich and the poor, the overwhelmed and downtrodden from all walks of life.  He understood that is why he had come, to walk hand in hand with humanity, to feel our pain, to share our joys and to inspire us to find our purpose, to share our gifts and to know in the deepest parts of our heart and souls that we are beloved and we are called to help him create the Kin’dom of God here on earth.