Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Baptism of the Lord
10 January 2010
If you had gotten to be the one to pick the name on your birth certificate, what name would you have picked? Would it be something more original that what your parents chose? Or maybe less original? Is there some name you have thought would fit you better than the one they picked?
[I went through a period in my childhood when I insisted that my friends and family call me “Lisa.” I’m rather glad it didn’t stick, since about 10 years later a juggernaut of a television show debuted, with a main character named Lisa Simpson.]
I knew a woman who went through a divorce in her early 40s and changed her name. Not her last name – her first. She had been called “Susan” all her life, but suddenly she felt like her real name was “Sophia,” which means “wisdom.” Her children had given her the name when they were playing make-believe, and she embraced it as her true identity, letting herself be named by her children instead of her parents. She felt like it gave her a fresh start on a new life following the breakdown of her marriage. I only met her after she was already going by Sophia, and I thought it suited her perfectly – she was wise, and her wisdom was hard-won. But I understand that the change in her name was rather difficult for her friends and family to adjust to. Claiming who we really are can be hard on those who thought they already knew who we were.
Most of us don’t get to choose the names that other people call us. Our parents name us something, and that’s what we go by, or some variation of it. Along the way, we pick up other names, too. Smelly Elli. Fatty Patty. Spacey Stacey. Schoolmates think they are so clever in their cruelty.
Most of the names we live under are a little more subtle than that. To name something or someone is an act of creation – it creates a reality. People in our lives say things to us or about us, and those things help create our sense of our identity. Stupid. Ugly. Lazy. Failure. We don’t choose these names either, but if we’re shackled with them long enough, we begin to consent to the truth in them. We begin to see ourselves through those lenses. We will never be smart enough, or good-looking enough. We don’t deserve to be happy or successful. We can never work hard enough or accomplish enough to get the approval or love we seek. We can never throw off our old names. Or at least it seems that way – in part because those names have sunk down into our hearts. We have let them claim us.
Others of us have worked hard to build our identities into something rock solid and unassailable. We mean to make a name for ourselves. Hard worker. Successful. Attractive. Brilliant. We have put an awful lot of stock into our self-made identities, and we can do just fine with them for a long time – until something like illness, or aging, or disaster, does something to shake those identities or even shatter them.
Jesus had a mighty big name to live up to. His name meant “God saves.” In this morning’s gospel story, he gets a new name, too. It doesn’t replace his old name, it simply clarifies it. He comes to the River Jordan, where John is baptizing people. The people there are getting washed in the river, repenting of their old ways, rising from the waters to embrace a new life. Luke tells us that these people were filled with expectation. They were there at that river’s edge looking for something, hoping for something. The gospels never explain why Jesus sought baptism, too, but they agree that he did. Luke’s focus is not on the baptism itself but on what happens next.
He tells us that after all the people had been baptized, and after Jesus also had been baptized, Jesus was praying. Luke is the only one to note this detail. In this Gospel, it is the first thing Jesus does after coming up out of those waters, and throughout his Gospel, Luke will show us Jesus praying. In Luke, at the most significant moments of Jesus’ life, he stops to pray. It is the pattern of his life and of his ministry.
In this instance, while he is praying, the heavens are opened, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” His name has now been augmented, deepened. He is called Son. He is called Pleasing. He is called Beloved.
Before his temptation in the wilderness, before the work of his ministry, before his long road to the cross, before a mocking sign calling him “King of the Jews” is hung over him on that cross - these are the words that are hung over his life: Beloved, Pleasing, Son. Living under the reality of this claim, he moves out in freedom and with courage to love, to serve, to teach, to die. The names that God pronounced over him would ultimately undo the mocking claims that others would make about him. He was freed from having to prove himself, or defend himself. He didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love. He could live like this because he knew who he was.
In his baptism, Jesus identified with us. Some would say there was no need for the sinless one to submit to a baptism of repentance. His descent into those waters, though, was a sign of his solidarity with us. God speaks in this morning’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…” and in Jesus this was visibly, physically so.
Just as in his baptism he identified with us, so in our baptism we take on his identity. We are baptized into Christ. No words came down audibly from heaven when we were raised from those waters, but the truth is still the same. God speaks over our lives, too: “You are my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The words are offered not because we are good, but because we are loved. They are not an approval of our success but the ground of our being. We are named by God’s grace, and the power in that cannot be undone by any other name or claim.
This is already so, whether we are living into it or not. God has already said it: You are mine. You are Beloved. With you I am well pleased. Beloved is already our name. The hard part is not earning that name, but accepting it.
Some of us spend our whole lives looking for evidence that we are okay, we are accepted, we are loved. We seek, we grasp, we clutch at things, or experiences, or people that will make us feel like we matter. It is from this gnawing neediness that we make some of our worst decisions. We use people. We act out of selfishness. We try to prop ourselves up by pushing others down. We react out of fear and out of meanness, instead of out of love and assurance. Would we do this if we knew who we really were?
What would our lives look like if we, like Jesus, were free from having to prove ourselves, or defend ourselves? What if we, too, didn’t have to exercise any power or control but love? What if we already knew we had what we needed, so that we didn’t have to work so hard to try to get it from other people or from things? What kind of life would you live, if you had that kind of freedom? And power? And assurance?
The reality has already been written over our lives, the name has already been spoken as truth: You are mine, God says. You are the Beloved. With you, I am well pleased. The naming has already been done; how do we go about claiming it?
Maybe it would help if we understood these words from God not just as a claim but also as a call – a call to intimacy. Beloved – it is such a powerful and intimate word. In it is an invitation. If you are someone’s beloved, you belong to them in a way that you belong to no one else. And if you are someone’s beloved, you also spend time with that person, intimate time, opening yourself up to know and to be known, to give love and to receive love. You can be sure of that love, because you spend time getting in touch with it. Jesus showed us the way. The first thing he did when he came up from those waters was to pray. If prayer were to become the pattern of our lives, maybe we too would live more fully out of the power and the freedom of knowing who we really are.
In our struggle to claim the identity we’ve been given, we might also find some strength in recognizing our place in a whole family of beloved children. Janet Wolf, former pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of a woman named Fayette, a homeless, mentally ill woman who joined the new member class at Hobson. Fayette was captivated by what Reverend Wolf had to say about baptism. Wolf spoke of baptism as “this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.” During the class, Fayette would repeatedly ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am …?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” Fayette would respond, “Oh, yes!” and then the class would get back to their discussion.
On the day of Fayette’s baptism, Fayette went under, came up sputtering, and cried, “And now I am …?” And the congregation all together responded, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted back. And she danced around the fellowship hall that day.[i]
Fayette claimed the power of those words, and she did it, in part, by relying on other people to remind her of it. We don’t claim the words alone, but together. This is part of what the church exists for – to remind each other who we are: beloved, pleasing children of God. We struggle to believe it on our own. But we come here, together, to be reminded that we are more than our shortcomings, our pettiness, our anxieties, our mistakes. We are more than what we have done, and we are more than what has been done to us. We are the beloved.
There is power in that. There is freedom. Can you sense that? To understand ourselves as entirely loved, entirely claimed, and so so precious, in an ultimate and irrevocable way. If we can receive that reality, if we can give ourselves to its truth, we can be set free for a whole new kind of living. A life of giving, joy, service, embrace, goodness, kindness, gentleness, fearlessness. If we can live into our real names, we can go out from this place, apart and together, to help others know themselves as beloved too.
All of us have a lot of names. Most of them are ones we did not choose for ourselves. Some of them are names that need to be thrown off like a worn-out coat. But there is a name that still holds. A long time ago, God spoke it over Jesus, and then God spoke it over your life and mine. Every day is an opportunity to immerse ourselves again in the reality of it, like baptismal waters washing over us. You are mine, God says. You are my child. You are the beloved.
Let’s live like it.
[i] Janet Wolf’s story comes from The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999. I found it quoted in The Painted Prayerbook at http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved/