Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John 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. 17 His 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.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.”
You and I might consider it a minor offense, but to philosopher, bishop, and saint, Augustine of the Fourth Century, it was one of the most significant events of his adolescence. According to his classic book, Confessions, he and some fellow mischief-makers decided one day to hop a fence and steal some pears from his neighbor’s pear tree. It wasn’t that they were hungry or that the pears were particularly tasty; they did it for the thrill. That act, Augustine concluded, revealed a pernicious, sinful nature within him.
There were no fruit trees in the neighborhood where I grew up. But you might say my original sin came through a game of baseball. In third grade, my friend Jason came over after school, and we sat on my front steps thinking about how to occupy the afternoon. One of us had a whiffle ball bat, but we had no ball. Eventually we discovered, though, that the stones from the landscaping in front of our house could serve as a decent substitute for a ball in our batting practice. We took turns pitching and batting. Then Jason came up with a great little game of seeing how many times we could hit a rock across the street to the sidewalk on the other side. We got pretty good at it and turned it into a competition. I guess I was so focused on the game that I didn’t notice the Lincoln Town Car coming down the street.
I heard the plink of rock hitting metal, followed quickly by the sound of screeching brakes. I didn’t see much, though, because by that point we were already running. We went through the backyard and through the neighbor’s property. We went around the block. After we concluded that enough time had passed, we returned home, thinking we were safe. But then around the corner came the driver of that Lincoln, and he was as angry as we expected him to be. He scolded us and took us to his car to show us what we had done.
About that time, my mom happened to look out the kitchen window, and she saw a strange man bringing me by the arm to his car out front. In about two seconds she was running down the driveway, yelling, “What are you doing? That’s my son!”
Now, I knew I was in trouble. But seeing my mom, hearing her voice, let me know that I was not alone. I was her son, and I was safe.
This morning in our celebration of baptism, we are reminded of the times and places when God’s promises for us take on flesh, when we hear and see and even feel the good news that we are loved, that we belong to God and always will. It’s one thing to know intellectually that we belong to God, just as I’ve always known my parents loved me. It’s another thing completely to be told it clearly in a moment when it needs to be received, to hear the words spoken directly to us, to feel the baptismal waters on our own skin.
Jesus himself received such an important and direct message of love. He had gone out to the river to be baptized by John, along with a whole crowd of people. Now, those people had not been driven out there by internal guilt about private sins or individual acts of mischief. They were drawn to the river by hope. They believed that God could do something new for their community of hurting and oppressed. They were filled with expectation. One theologian says they were a “multitude of Jews who were all waiting for the promises they heard about from their grandmothers.” And Jesus was with them. He stood with them on the river bank in their hope and expectation.
The Gospels say John preached a baptism of repentance, which means a turning in a completely new direction. That crowd followed John in turning away from the systems and powers that kept so many from living fully as God’s beloved children. But they were also turning toward something new: a new community, a new commitment to justice and peace for all people, a restored hope.
Jesus was also baptized. He walked into that water right alongside his neighbors, his brothers and sisters, and he himself turned toward the beginning of a new mission. Later, he’ll describe that mission as “bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free.” It was a huge mission. But before he began all that, he went into the water, and as he came up, he saw the Holy Spirit, incarnated in the bodily form of a bird, and he heard a voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” He saw and heard for himself that he was not alone, that he belonged to God, that he was loved.
Something similar happened to Jesus later on atop the mountain of transfiguration. That was another time that he needed a clear reminder of who and whose he was. But I expect there were many such times during his life and work. Maybe he heard it also during some of the times he went off to pray by himself. Maybe he heard it while worshipping and studying at the synagogue. Maybe he heard it from his friends, Lazarus, Mary, Martha, or even the disciples. Sure, Jesus always knew he was loved by God. His parents and grandparents had taught him the scriptures and brought him to the festivals of worship. He knew the story of God well. But he, like all of us, needed at times to hear that good news voiced and to see it in bodily form.
Teresa of Avila wrote:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
What an amazing and scary thought that is, that God can be incarnated in you and me.
It’s a bold idea, but I hope that I can be an embodied voice of God for you this morning. No, it’s not a booming voice from heaven. I don’t have the voice of Charleton Heston or Morgan Freeman. Hollywood would probably choose someone taller, fitter, smarter for such an important role. But I can say to you with confidence that it is God’s promise that you are loved, that you belong to God forever, and God is so very pleased with you. I hope you can hear that from me, as God’s promise. And when you come up to the table to receive some bread, and Pastor Ingrid or I say, “This is the body of Christ given for you,” I hope you understand that “for you” really means you.
Hear that promise for yourself, and then remember that others need to hear such promises of God from you, too. When we celebrate baptism, we surround the baptized with people—parents, sponsors, a congregation—who promise to repeat God’s message to them, again and again, especially when they need to hear it most. We promise to be that voice of God for them. It’s our first task as the church to tell people—child or adult, member or nonmember, person of Christian faith or another faith or no faith at all—that they are valued and worthy of love. Then we can stand with one another as sisters and brothers, a people not left alone, a people of hope.