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Baptism of Christ Sunday | Rev. Vicki Kemper

Isaiah 43:1-7
Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Tradition tells us that Jesus was without sin—and maybe he was. But if he was—and I’m not so sure—then why did he present himself to John, the wild prophet who warned people to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins?

Tradition tells us Jesus did it for us—that he humbled himself and submitted to John’s baptism as an act of solidarity with sinners and outcasts, the poor, the guilty, the desperate, the hopeful, and everyone who’s ever hit bottom and realized that only a Power greater than their own could save them.

Still, I’m not so sure that’s all it was.

And while we are still trying to reconcile a sinless Jesus with a sinner’s baptism, tradition offers still another perspective: That it is in Jesus’ baptism that his full identity as God’s Chosen One, the Messiah, is revealed. That it is at his baptism that the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove.

Yes—but I’m not so sure a momentous result necessarily proves a master plan.

And so I wonder—not only about baptism but also about Jesus. I wonder what really led him to leave his home in the green hills of Galilee and head way down into the hot, barren Judean wilderness, one of the lowest places on Earth, to the banks of a muddy river.

I wonder about Jesus’ life. After all, the last we’d heard he was a self-possessed boy of 12, studying scripture in the temple and worrying his parents sick. By the time he answers John’s call to repentance, by the time he joins the line of others who will confess their sins and be baptized, he was middle-aged. Where had he been? What had he been doing?

I wonder if he, like so many people in mid-life crisis, had not started to wonder what he was doing with his life. At one time everything had seemed so clear. He used to know himself and his purpose, but . . . now? He wasn’t so sure. So much time had passed, and things had only gotten worse. So much time had passed, and what had he done? He had felt so close to God. He had wanted so badly to do God’s work. He saw poverty and oppression, inequality and division. He saw how the religious authorities, more concerned with survival than justice, colluded with the Roman occupiers. But what could he do? How could he make a difference? Maybe he had it all wrong.

I wonder if Jesus, too, wasn’t a seeker. Maybe he, too, was trying to find his way. I wonder if Jesus, too, wasn’t so hungry for mercy and deliverance that he would travel far and wide to hear the harsh judgment of the latest prophet. Maybe he, too, longed for answers—or at least a fresh start. Maybe he, too, thought John might be the one.

Maybe Jesus was not so different from us, after all.

Or maybe I’ve simply had too many strangers ask me for a blessing. On the sidewalk here in Amherst. Lined up at the Pride Festival in Northampton. In the Old City, the modern markets, and the holy sites of Jerusalem. In Arabic and Hebrew, French and Spanish and German and broken English. In Washington, D.C., from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon, from subway stops to hospital entrances, from shopping centers to hospitality centers, from the grandeur of hallowed monuments to the stark and tear-stained walkway at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

I’ve heard militant atheists ask for hope. I’ve seen the blank faces of grown men crumple into tears when I put my hand on their heads and tell them they are beloved. I’ve felt protective resolve melt away to vulnerability. I’ve received countless thank-you hugs. I’ve watched parents and children walk away, embracing. All because I told them what the prophets have been saying for thousands of years:

That they are beloved of God. That their primary identity is as children of God. That there is nothing they have to do to earn God’s love and nothing they could ever, ever do to lose it because it is a free gift, poured out on them brand new every morning. That they are honored and precious in God’s sight. That, even as I call them by name, God calls them by name. That God wants for them wholeness and fullness of life.

And if you could see what I see—the tears, the smiles, the gratitude, the newfound tenderness—you might think that the heavens had been opened. You might think that the Holy Spirit herself had come down. You might even think you had heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my child, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

You might think that we are not so different from Jesus, after all. Not at all different from all those lost souls lined up on the banks of the Jordan:

Seekers wondering who we are and why we’re here. Broken ones in need of healing. Guilty ones looking for a fresh start. Tired ones in need of a power that isn’t ours. Lost ones looking for direction. The beaten down hoping to be lifted up. Hidden treasures waiting to be revealed. Healing love awaiting release. Hungry ones needing the Bread of Life. Thirsty ones approaching the Cup of Blessing. Separated ones wanting connection. Human ones wanting the Divine. All of us needing to know that we are seen, that we are loved, that we are precious. That, despite all our failures and flaws, Someone delights in us.

All we really know about Jesus’ baptism, says Barbara Brown Taylor, is that he “goes into the waters of the Jordan a carpenter and comes out a Messiah. He is the same person, but with a new direction. … He went into the waters of baptism his own person … and came out God’s person …”

Which is not a bad description of baptism.

We learn who we are when we discover and claim whose we are. And just as baptism revealed who Jesus was, it also reveals who we are: Children of the Most High, beloved of God, the apple of God’s eye, the light of the world.

In this season of Epiphany, of revealing and enlightenment, let us remember not only Jesus’ baptism but also our own. Let us remember that God has put her stamp on us, that we are created in God’s image and sealed with God’s love, forgiven, dead to our brokenness and newly alive to our wholeness. empowered by a divine Spirit, clothed with Christ and welcomed into the body of Christ, the church.

Even Jesus needed the reminder of ritual. Even Jesus needed to hear a tender word. Even Jesus needed revelation and direction, belonging and identity.

So let us remember that we belong to God. That we are accepted and loved for who we are, but that even greater things are possible. That we are not alone and do not have to make it on our own. That we have been baptized into the light of Christ and clothed with the power of the Spirit, raised to new life in God. As Jesus’ identity and purpose was revealed, so may ours be.

Just as we recall Jesus’ baptism to see again who he is, we remember our own baptism to remember who and whose we are. We remember God’s covenant of unconditional, relentless love for us, and we remember our promises to God. Just as Jesus’ baptism inaugurated his ministry of radical loving and self-giving, we remember that our baptisms call us to our own ministries of resistance, renewal, reconciliation, reunion, and empowerment.

Because we all need to be reminded, because we all near to hear a tender word, we have some water here this morning. Because we are Jesus people, this fount of mercy flows with water from the Jordan. [hold the bottle up and pour some in] And because we are dust, that water comes complete with sediment and dirt.

Our closing hymn will invite you to come to the feast of love and the water of life. After you receive communion you may come here—not to a river and not to the font (this is not a baptism)—but to this bowl of Spirit-infused water.

If you have never been baptized, I hope you will consider how baptism could bless you, the church, and the world. Perhaps you could begin the journey today toward making that public commitment. I invite all of you to come to the water for a blessing, to remember who and whose you are, to renew your promises to God and to Christ’s church, and to take hold of the life God wants for you.

So come to the water, all you who are thirsty. Come to be marked again as God’s beloved. Give yourself over to God’s love as if you were going down into a river. Come to renew your promise to follow Jesus. Come just as you are, precious in God’s sight.