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Scripture Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7

Pop quiz: What do you know about baptism?

You know what happens, right? We put water on your head, or dunk you in it. But what does the ritual mean? What do we say really happens, not just on the surface? (Answers might include forgiveness of sins, washing, purifying, the presence of God by the Holy Spirit, adoption into God’s family, membership in the church, or a promise to help a child become a Christian.)

And who is it that baptizes? (The pastor, or if you know what story comes next, you might say John the Baptist.)

Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. So, who baptized Jesus? (John the Baptist, of course.)

Since we’re reasonably well-informed church people, most of the answers we come up with will be correct. All the same, I found the next reading from Luke shining new light on them. The other gospels have other details, but today let’s listen just to this one. First you’ll hear John the Baptist preaching, then a bit of narrative, then Jesus’ baptism. Listen for what Luke changes about what we knew. What does Luke add to our understanding of this relationship with God?

Scripture Reading: Luke 3:15-22

Show and Tell (from Carolyn Carter Brown)

We’re talking about baptism today. Something special about baptism is what you’re called there. I was called “Nathan Scott” – my whole first and middle names. What are yours? Most of the time I don’t go by middle name. It’s used only when the most important stuff is being said. And at baptism we say the most important thing you can say.

Isaiah said this most important thing you can say: “Do not be afraid–I will save you. I have called you by name (your whole name)–you are mine…. I love you…. I created you to bring me glory.”

We can practice a saying to remember this: “God has called me by name–I belong to God.”

Meditation

So what did we learn from Luke? What happens? Not just dunking in water, but the presence of the Holy Spirit arrives (as happens throughout Acts). The meaning is about God’s parental claim of Jesus, his identity as God’s Son. It’s not that Jesus just became God’s Son right then – nothing can, or needs to, change God’s parental claim on us – but this moment reveals something that’s already there. And who did it? Well, it’s almost as if God did it directly. Luke already told us that John the Baptist has gone to prison. Jesus’ baptism is separate from John’s message of escape from wrath.

I’m starting to suspect that there’s something intentional about Luke’s re-ordering of this story. It’s not important whether or not John the Baptist is there, because this is not his baptism. It’s not even simply Jesus’ baptism. I think this story is about all of us. That may be the key to reading Luke: the Church is the continuing Body of Christ, so Jesus’ story is our story. He is the model of what we’re becoming, so his baptism is also ours. As a result, Jesus’ work of healing, feeding, teaching, and serving continues in us.

But does that mean that John the Baptist’s proclamation of Jesus is also about us? I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of us winnowing the wheat from the chaff; the church has done too much sifting and burning in its history, and many still look forward to it. But then, separating the wheat from the chaff is not a distinction between people (or between plants). The wheat to keep and the chaff to remove grow in the same person (or as parts of the same plant). Living as Christ’s people demands this kind of self-critical eye. To serve, heal, and free means that we have to make choices about how to be and what really matters.

Today we ordain and install officers, Deacons and Ruling Elders, and ask them to be the church’s self-critical eye. That’s especially true for Ruling Elders, for whom sifting the good from the waste is their exact call. We ask them to measure the church’s fidelity to God’s call and steer us toward it again. Leadership means discernment of what truly matters, and that’s terribly difficult work. Voices and contingencies draw us in many different ways. We’re tugged by the needs of the institution, the possibilities of our community, and individuals’ hopes, fears, and dreams. The key is to listen to God’s Voice above all. Sometimes that voice comes from the person we’re tired of hearing or sometimes from the quiet clarity when other voices stop talking.

Ordination is not so different from baptism. In baptism we’re called to something unique. Christian life is just as challenging as church leadership, and for the same reason: it’s hard to see and hear what really matters. Plenty of voices will tell us what they think matters: advertising tells us what to buy; TV tells us what to watch; our bank statements can tell us how far we are from the next level of security. But God’s Voice also speaks to us. The Holy Spirit calls us (as individuals and the church) to service, love, and peace. It calls us children of God, just as Jesus is.

That Voice calls to all of us, to let everything we do be grounded in the reality that we are God’s beloved, called by name. You remember the Isaiah reading from before our pop quiz? Well here it is again. Perhaps that’s what Jesus heard or understood in his own baptism, in parallel with the key moment from our baptism ritual when the parents name their child. In the same way, our name is clear: we are beloved children of God, and we’re invited to share that name with all God’s children everywhere. Isaiah’s promise is what we proclaim. It’s what the church is for. It’s what baptism and this life of service is about. Thanks be for this most important thing.

Amen.

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