Baptism of our Lord C2016
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 10, 2016
I share with you today the simplest of all simple sermons. The scripture we hear today proclaims extraordinarily good news, so I invite you to hear it, to soak it in, to trust this good news. And if you would like, I invite you to sit with your feet flat on the floor, with your palms up on your legs, a posture that has helped me receive words from others, especially words that are hard for me to hear. The irony is that the best news is usually the hardest to hear. Go figure.
In today’s first reading from Isaiah, the Israelites were coming toward the end of a nearly 40-year period of captivity, of slavery by the Babylonians. For nearly 40 years, the people of Israel had lived in a foreign land without being free to go home, their ability to practice their faith likely limited, their families torn apart. Two generations of children were born during this time, so children most likely did not even know some of the religious and cultural practices of their people. The Israelites lived alongside the Babylonians not as free people but enslaved. I wonder what they heard from the mouths of the Babylonians about themselves. I wonder what the official decrees of the Babylonian government were concerning the Israelite people. I wonder what stereotypes or misconceptions were drawn of the Israelites in mainstream Babylonian culture. Scripture doesn’t tell us, but I’ll take an educated guess that these messages about who the Israelites were weren’t positive. I would guess that the things that made the Israelites unique were seen as liabilities, as character flaws, perhaps even as ethnic defects. I would guess that the messages the Israelites heard were not messages of love and belonging and acceptance but of worthlessness and indignity and hatred. I wonder if the Israelites believed what they heard about themselves from the Babylonians and Babylonian culture.
In the midst of this situation, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the people and tells them what extraordinary value they have in God’s sight, tells them they are honored, they are precious, they are loved.
God’s word through the prophet Isaiah leads me to wonder today: who gets to tell you who you are? Who gets to tell you about your value?
There are lots of people who like to tell us who we are, right? There are many who think it is their job to define us, to label us, to assign us value or not. Sometimes, these labels and definitions are positive, shared in ways that are meant to uplift us, yet sometimes, even these definitions can lead us to wonder where our value really lies.
For example, my whole life, I have sung in front of people. From my first solo in church at age 5 through high school all-state choir to majoring in music in college through today, I have sung because I am good at singing. I have sung because the music seems uplifting to others. I have sung because I figure God gives us talents so that we may share them. All of that is good. And I have deeply appreciated the kind words of those who have listened to me sing. I really have. But one day when someone told me about how they appreciated my voice, I for some reason began to feel uncomfortable. Of course, I like hearing nice words about my abilities (don’t we all?), but I honestly began to wonder: would I still have value if I didn’t have a good voice? This is where labels and definitions get tricky. With good intentions, we speak of others’ gifts and connect them to the person’s value.
These labels and definitions and assignments of value, whether meant positively or with the intention of hurting others, they can be painful. They can distort our sense of self. While we grieve how others label or define us, we know that we too do the very same thing to others. We look at someone else and instantly label them, perhaps according to our perception of their race or class, their profession or behavior. Some labels are positive or simply descriptive; others are full of judgment. I’m sure I do not have to give examples of judgmental labels we hear in the media about certain groups of people or about the many labels that are simply part of our culture that degrade and hurt others. We are already familiar with those labels. I’m sure I do not have to give examples of labels I myself have erroneously used in order for us to understand how ridiculous—and simply inaccurate—such a practice is. But when we are wrapped up in our own righteousness, when we are caught up in being right, or maybe when we feel desperate to hurt another because of the hurt we ourselves feel, we might forget that we are not the ones who get to tell others who they are. And if we are willing to tell other people who they are, I wonder: what are we saying about ourselves? Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy. Think about it. What do you tell yourself about yourself? Where do you see yourself getting your value?
Today, we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. On a day 2000 year ago, John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. And afterwards, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Who tells Jesus who he is? God does, and the message is one of love, of delight, of belonging. God claims Jesus as God’s own Son.
In the same way, though we cannot literally see heaven opened, though we cannot literally see the Holy Spirit descend in bodily form like a dove, what happens in baptism for us is the same as what happened for Jesus. God breaks through and claims us as beloved daughters and sons of God. God breaks through whatever messages others are telling us, whatever we are telling ourselves, and speaks the truth: You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Who gets to tell you who you are? Just God.
And the truth God proclaims about who you are is that you are precious in God’s sight, that you are honored, that you are God’s own child, that you are loved. Thanks be to God! Amen.