Baptism of our Lord – Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
By Rev. Laura Evans Mahn
First Christian Church, Princeton, IL
Rainy days seemed to be the worst. Those were the days when we would find David with his head down, hands covering his ears, crying, sometimes in a corner. Or when he would lose control of his bodily functions and some of the older Liberian boys would tenderly care for him. I don’t know if it was the rain itself or more the dampness, the dark, that earthy, dank smell that the raindrops and wind create as they churn up the muddy waters of a river. We were, after all, just a few hundred feet from the Mississippi.
The story unfolded for me from various people over time. David and his mother escaped by night in a small canoe. His job was to stay down, facedown, and to keep his 4 year old body still and quiet in the bottom of the canoe, covered, while his mom paddled down the river. They traveled by night and slept hidden in the wet woods of the rainy season during the daytime as they tried to make their way from their village in Liberia on the west coast of Africa, to a safe border crossing which would lead to a refugee camp in neighboring Ivory Coast. David’s father had already been killed in the war. Fighting was pressing in on their village. Soon the smoke from neighboring burning villages would reach their nostrils, the sounds of the firing of guns would reach their ears. They had to leave.
Before leaving their home, David’s mom stitched his name and her name in every place she could think of. In the clothes he was wearing, on a piece of cloth sewn into a bracelet on his arm, written on a piece of paper placed inside a necklace he wore. His name, her name, with the possessive making it clear that he was her son – Like Asa or Gabriel Mahn, Laura Mahn’s son, so that whatever happened, someone would know who he was and who’s he was.
David was 8 when I met him at the afterschool program I ran. It had been 4 years since he had made that trip. I don’t know how many nights they spent in that boat on that dark river in the rain. Since then he had spent 2 years in a refugee camp in a foreign land before being resettled here in Illinois. At 8 years old he still wore the necklace with the tightly folded piece of paper inside that announced who and who’s he was.
I think little David (and millions of people like him) probably understands today’s scriptures more profoundly than most of us. Like Liberia, Israel was a war-torn country; a small nation of people with little power, almost always under the control of another, more powerful nation. The homeland and people of the prophet Isaiah and of Jesus of Nazareth was a nation that knew more about oppression and destruction than about comfort and security. The experience of Israel as a country was about as far from what we know as Americans as an experience can be. It can be hard for us to relate to and understand the situation Jesus entered into. The people of Israel were almost never free. They were almost constantly at war with and under the rule of oppressive forces. Israelites were an occupied people. They would have felt like they couldn’t keep their heads above water; like disaster was always a moment away; like they could easily be drown out by their oppressors.
Israel was no United States of America. That’s important for us to realize as we read scripture and seek understanding.
Our reading from Isaiah probably comes from the 6th century BC, when Israel, God’s people, had been forced out of their land and were in exile in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed, the Temple along with it. The people of Israel had lost their place of worship. They were living among people who looked and spoke and worshiped differently. They probably often felt abandoned by God. And here the prophet announces that God has not and will not let them go; that just as God brought their ancestors out of Egypt, God will redeem Israel, free Israel from Babylon. And that no matter what, God wants the people of Israel to know who and who’s they are.
“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, the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” I have stitched your name and my name everywhere I can think of so that no matter what, it will be known who and who’s you are. This proclamation from the prophet reminds God’s people that they are claimed, held and beloved by God.
What more do we want than to know we are loved? To have someone call you by name and tell you that you are beloved? What more do we want than to feel like no matter what we go through we will not be abandoned, we will not be left alone; we will be loved.
This is God’s promise – that God claims God’s people as beloved. That God claims the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for relationship with God. That God claims the weak, the suffering, the tiny little oppressed and uprooted nation of Israel. That God claims the sinners, the tax collectors, the woman at the well, the little children, God claims the blind man, the demon possessed man, the thief on the cross; and in our Gospel reading today, God claims Jesus.
Jesus, already a scandalous person, born among this weak nation living under the thumb of the Roman Empire, is being called a king, a savior, the Messiah. It was laughable. And now Jesus, this scandalous Messiah, is baptized? The idea of Jesus’ baptism has often raised some eyebrows. If Jesus was God’s son and was without sin, why then, did Jesus need to be baptized, some have asked. And to add to the confusion and scandal, was is not until Jesus was baptized that God claimed Jesus as God’s son? Did Jesus suddenly become beloved by God at his baptism?
In his weekly online commentary “Dear Working Preacher”, David Lose observes that this is the logic if we get caught up in the thinking that God forgives us in order that we can be named, claimed, and called God’s children, thinking that we must be baptized and forgiven in order to become God’s children. But the Good news according to Luke seems to tell us quite the opposite; that baptism is not what makes us God’s children. Jesus didn’t become God’s beloved son when he rose up out of those waters and prayed. Jesus was God’s son all along.
David didn’t become his mother’s son when she stitched his name into his clothes and placed that paper in his necklace. He was her son long all along. That stitching, that paper in the necklace was an announcement for anyone who needed to know, whether along that river or in the woods or in a camp in a foreign land – that David belonged to someone, that he was loved, that he was beloved. It was for others to know what was already true and it was a truth for David to cling to.
Likewise, Jesus’ baptism was an announcement for that crowd gathered at the river, it was an announcement to the bullyish Roman empire, it was an announcement to King Herod, it was an announcement to the wealthy priests, it was an announcement to the people of Israel who needed to know that they had not been forgotten and because Jesus was human and would struggle himself, it was an announcement to Jesus too, a truth for him to cling to. Jesus’ baptism was an announcement of what was already true, that he belonged to God, that he was beloved.
At Jesus’ baptism he received the gift of the Holy Spirit to begin the ministry he was born for. At his baptism the flames were fanned for him to begin gathering others to announce by example who God is; to announce by example what the Kingdom of God on earth is as it is in heaven. At Jesus’ baptism the truth of who Jesus already was was proclaimed, giving Jesus the wind at his back to love and forgive, heal and hold, free and challenge, teach generosity and turn tables over greed.
Maybe the confusion comes because we think of Jesus as being baptized just like us, like we are baptized. Again, David Lose suggests that a more helpful way to think of baptism might be to think that we get to be baptized just like Jesus. Baptism is the announcement, the acknowledgement that we are already God’s children. It’s a proclamation for anyone who needs to know that we belong to God, that we are beloved. Jesus’ baptism suggests that we are baptized BECAUSE we are loved and forgiven, not so that we can be loved and forgiven.
Our baptism is the announcement to anyone who needs to know, even when that is we ourselves, that we are God’s children, beloved. It’s a truth for us to cling to. In our baptism the embers of ministry that have been quietly burning might be fanned into flames that set us on fire to live as beloved and claimed people, people of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Some days that claim by God can feel like a wind at our backs, pushing us along in the spirit of God, pushing us along as the Body of Christ, building upon the firm foundation of God’s kingdom, setting us out to heal and hold, to love and forgive.
Other days God’s claim on us can feel more like a heavy rainstorm, churning up the muddy waters of faith. But no matter what the day or what the circumstances, God has stitched both our name and God’s on our shirt collars and in our waste bands, around our wrists, around our necks and upon our hearts.
God has used the possessive to call us by name, (insert your name here) – God’s son/daughter. It’s not a proclamation of power or might as we may sometimes wish. It’s an announcement for every circumstance, for anyone who needs to know who and who’s we are. It is a proclamation that we are claimed by God, held by God, never abandoned by God, redeemed by God. And what more could we ever hope for than to be loved like that? Amen