Baptism of our Lord
When I was 15 years old and getting confirmed, I wrote in my required confirmation essay that I would never be a leader in organized religion because I didn’t believe organized religion was necessary for the world.
Six years later, I was sitting in worship at the home congregation of my college roommate, and I just suddenly knew that I would be a pastor. My view on the subject hadn’t changed, to be clear. I didn’t want to be a pastor; I just knew that I would. It was like the decision was taken completely out of my hands. At the time, I was highly conflicted about the church. I was a very active participant in campus ministry at college—serving on the church council, leading worship every Wednesday, serving on an outreach team, going to Bible study every week and worship nearly every single day. But I was also walking out of worship services because I so struggled with the theology and had so many questions. My call to ordained ministry was born of struggle, of wrestling, not of certainty. Despite my struggle and wrestling, the people around me confirmed that sense of call to ordained ministry, and I began seminary after graduating from college and completing a year of Lutheran Volunteer Corps.
In the seminary world, the story I just told is my “call story,” a story I told many, many times in interviews and essays for my candidacy committee, in seminary papers and in my first call paperwork, and in countless conversations with curious people. For pastors, the call story is a foundational story; it is how we make sense of this draw to ordained ministry—which is a very strange job, I’ve got to say. Despite the strangeness of this particular call—to ordained ministry, no matter what our call is, we all have a call story. We all have a story about who we are and how we got where we are, doing what we do in the world and using our gifts for the sake of the world God loves. Even Jesus had a call story, and our gospel reading for today is that call story.
John baptizes Jesus in the Jordan River. When Jesus comes out of the water after being baptized, the heavens open, and the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove. A voice from heaven says: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Immediately afterword, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted and then begins his ministry by proclaiming the kingdom of God come near and calling disciples.
It is in this story that we and Jesus hear who Jesus is: God’s son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased. It isn’t until Jesus is baptized that he begins his ministry. It is after his baptism that Jesus calls disciples, teaches, preaches, feeds, heals. I am just imagining some candidacy committee or call committee member asking Jesus: How did you know you were called to be the Son of God? And Jesus responding: So, my cousin John was a wild man in the wilderness, and he baptized me. And the next thing I knew, there was a voice from heaven—I assumed it was God—saying: You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Right then, I knew. I knew I was the Son of God, so I went and did it.
I long thought that my call story was simply the one I told you earlier, the one where I figured out what I would do to serve God and God’s people and also get paid enough to live and pay off my student loans. But here’s what I notice about Jesus’ call story—God doesn’t tell Jesus to call disciples, teach, preach, feed, and heal. God doesn’t tell Jesus: your skill set is working with people and forgiving sins. God tells Jesus: You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. The call is actually not about daily work. The call is not to particular tasks or skills. The call is to relationship—relationship that leads to action.
If we are similarly called, then, our calls may include a call to daily work as a teacher, a business owner, an administrator, a nurse, a pastor, or whatever we do day-in, day-out to pay the bills and contribute to the world. But our calls also include the relationships God draws us into as parents and children, citizens and neighbors, friends and, of course, children of God. My first call story—and perhaps your first call story as well—is the story of how my parents brought me to the baptismal font of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Noonan, North Dakota when I was three weeks old. As my father—the pastor—splashed water on my head three times, he declared: “Sarah Lee, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And then, he made the sign of the cross on my forehead, saying: “Sarah, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Then and there, God was calling me, calling me to be a child of God, calling me into relationship with God and relationship with all God’s people, my sisters and brothers. That means, one of my jobs is to live among God’s faithful people—as the affirmation of baptism promise states, to be here with you in community, to share in worship and study and prayer, to serve alongside you, to work for justice and peace in the world because that’s what God’s children do. And it’s not just me. It’s not just because I am a pastor. All of God’s children, this is what we do, our first and primary call: to be in relationship with God and with all God’s people.
Martin Luther, the reformer of the church who founded the Lutheran church, wrote that we are all called to various vocations, not just to one, and that all vocations are holy work, not just the priesthood. If you are wishing today for the heavens to open and for a voice to boom forth telling you what you should be doing with your life, if you are waiting for God to say: do this!, if you are praying for God to open doors to a particular vocation, perhaps something to consider today is: to what have you already been called? What relationships? And what skills and gifts do you already have? What are the things and who are the people to whom you are drawn? I guarantee you this—and I don’t guarantee many things, so listen up if you haven’t already: You are called to be a child of God, and there is no greater call on your life. You are called to be a child of God, a sister or brother to each one of us in this room, a worker with us in the kingdom of God. You are called to be a child of God, God’s beloved, and with you God is well pleased.