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During the Advent and Christmas seasons, we ended up reading the beginnings of all four Gospels. But often, we don’t pay attention to the different ways that each evangelist begins the story of Jesus. For example, John’s Gospel begins with this long description of how Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning with God. Matthew begins with a long genealogy of names that no one can pronounce (so it’s never read in the lectionary, and we pick up with verse 18!) Luke gives us all the stories we love about angels and shepherds, and the songs of Mary and Elizabeth. And Mark says nothing at all about Jesus’ birth or childhood!
Yet all 4 of them begin the story of Jesus’ public ministry in the same way – with the story of Jesus’ baptism. Although they tell the story in different ways and give different details, for all four Gospels, Jesus’ baptism is the first story of Jesus as an adult beginning to do the work God sent him to do.
Baptism is the beginning. And it’s the beginning for all 4 Gospels because it’s in Jesus’ baptism that he’s revealed and claimed as God’s Son: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now it’s unclear from Mark’s Gospel whether everyone heard these words, or only Jesus. But when WE hear them, most of us think, “wow, what a wonderful affirmation and pious statement of God’s love!”
But really, we should stop and ask, “why is God saying this now?” Why is Jesus beloved by God? Why is God so pleased with him? At this point, Jesus has not preached or taught anything. He’s healed no one and performed no miracle. And most importantly, he hasn’t offered himself up as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Yet God loves him. And God is pleased with him even before, and apart from, what Jesus will say and do and accomplish. God’s claim on Jesus, and God’s love for Jesus, are not rewards for what Jesus has done, but rather they’re statements of who God is. God loves his child. God is pleased with his child. And God’s love and claim are not conditional on the words and deeds and accomplishments of his child.
And that’s remarkable, because it’s often not what happens in our lives. We want to be loved and accepted regardless of whether we say the right words or do the right things or accomplish what’s expected of us. And we try to love and accept others no matter what they say or do. But it’s hard.
And deep down, in the quiet of our hearts and minds, we wonder whether we’ll still be loved and accepted if we say the wrong the thing; or if we do something, even unintentionally, that offends somebody else; or if we fail to accomplish something really important.
We wonder those things, because most of us have had experiences where someone, or some group of people, rejected us or walked away because we said the wrong thing, or we did the wrong thing, or we failed miserably. We wonder if it’ll happen again with others. And we even wonder whether that’s really the way it works with God.
And that’s why baptism is so important, not just for Jesus, but for us. It’s in baptism that God claims us in the same way that God claimed Jesus. “You are my child, my beloved. With you I am well pleased.” That claim and that love never go away, no matter what we say, no matter what we do, no matter whether we succeed or fail at what we’re trying to accomplish.
And so baptism is the beginning for us, too. Life, as we know it, is supposed to begin with the irrevocable love and claim of God in our lives. In fact, that’s why Luther said in the Catechism that we should begin every day by saying, “I am baptized!” He wasn’t simply saying, “remember that water got splashed on you.” Rather, he meant begin every day remembering God’s claim on you and God’s love for you.
And if you can remember and trust God’s love and claim on you no matter what, it can be a really empowering experience, as it was in Jesus’ life. Jesus was so secure in God’s love and acceptance and presence that he was empowered to live the life God called him to live. And that’s the point of our baptisms, too.
Baptism is really a way of living in which we’re so secure in God’s claim on us, and on God’s love in our lives, that it changes how we:
- think about ourselves – we’re no longer the sum of our accomplishments and failures, or even the product of our own good PR; our “self-worth” is really not supposed to be based on our “self”, but on God’s love and acceptance…!
- feel about others – if God loves and claims us apart from our successes and failure, then God also loves people we have trouble loving; and that can begin to change our attitudes towards a lot of people …
- act in the world – if life is not a “test” to see if we can live up to God’s love, then we’re free to risk a little and see what we’re able to do with the gifts God has given us …
We should make a big deal about baptism, because in baptism, God has made a big deal about each one of us. Baptism is God’s promise, each and every day, that we’re loved by God even when we feel unlovable. Baptism is God’s claim on us, even when we feel rejected and dumped on by others. And baptism is God’s empowering act of forgiving and freeing us, so that we can live boldly each day as children of God.