Like all my sermons, I feel like the words on the page are nothing like the moment in which this happened, which was powerful beyond anything I can describe. One day I’ll remember to get a video of me preaching.
Hear these words from the prophets.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah
But now, Leah and Rachel and Jacob, hear the word of God – the One who created you, the One who fashioned you, Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the seas, I will be with you; when you pass over the rivers, you will not drown. Walk through fire, and you will not be singed; walk through flames and you will not be burned. I am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.
A reading from the prophet Ezekiel
God says to Israel, “I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
(Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)
Sermon MCC Hartford
January 10, 2016 – Baptism of Jesus
Marie Alford-Harkey, Clergy Intern
Water plays a huge role in our scriptures, beginning with the creation stories of Genesis where we read that the Spirit of God was brooding over the surface of the waters. And then God created the earth and tamed the waters by separating them into seas and the sky.
We learn that water is cleansing and healing in 2 Kings where Naaman was cleansed of leprosy by washing in the River Jordan, the same river where Jesus would be baptized hundreds of years later.
Water is also used to indicate something fearful, dangerous, and chaotic, especially in the psalms. In Psalm 69, the psalmist pleads “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” because being submerged in water signified being in anguish of spirit. And in Psalm 18, the psalmist proclaims that God saved them because God rescued them from the water. “You reached down from on high, you took me; you drew me out of mighty waters.”
In our readings from the Hebrew scriptures today, we see both concepts of water: as fearful and as cleansing and renewing.
In Isaiah, God tells God’s people, “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you: I have called you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the seas, I will be with you; when you pass over the rivers, you will not drown. Walk through fire, and you will not be singed; walk through flames and you will not be burned. I am your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.”
In Ezekiel, God promises to cleanse God’s people from their uncleannesses by sprinkling clean water upon them and then promises: A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you … and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
Rituals involving water were important to the Jews of Jesus’ and John’s time. The concept of immersing in water to mark a change in one’s life or for purification was a common practice. To this day, Jews immerse themselves in ritual pools known as mikvehs to spiritually purify themselves before significant life events. John proclaimed that God’s realm was coming very soon, and people understood his message of repentance from sin and the corresponding outward act of purification and starting a new life by washing or immersion in water.
Later in his ministry, Jesus makes use of the symbolism of water – John’s gospel recounts Jesus telling a blind man to wash in the pool of Siloam to receive his sight. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tell us that whoever offers a cup of water to someone is offering hospitality and in Luke’s gospel he reminds us that providing a basin of water to wash one’s feet was also basic hospitality. And of course one of the most intimate moments of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples was when he took a towel and a basin and washed THEIR feet with water.
But back to today’s reading. Why is Jesus baptized by John? He doesn’t need to repent, or to be cleansed or purified.
But Jesus’ baptism signifies the moment where Jesus’ life changes. This is the moment when Jesus is commissioned by God to begin his ministry of proclaiming God’s commonwealth on earth. And note well, that this is the beginning. Before Jesus has performed one miracle, preached one sermon, recounted one parable, healed one leper, God said, “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
“You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” These words are not just for Jesus. They are for us, God’s people. As Isaiah said, “I have called you by name; you are mine.” As Ezekiel said, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God.”
You are my own, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased. Those words are for us.
I can still remember the first time someone told me that these words were for me. I was on a 3-day silent retreat. The retreat was at a Roman Catholic convent. Part of the retreat was that I would meet with a spiritual director (one of the nuns) once a day.
So I went into this nun’s office, not quite sure what to expect from a 3-day silent retreat or from a nun spiritual director who had never met me. We talked for a few minutes and it became clear that this was serious business to her. She had prayed for all the people she would be directing on this retreat. So when she said “I’ve chosen a scripture for you for this retreat,” I was convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me though her. And this was the scripture. “You are my own, my Beloved. With you am I well-pleased.” She told me to go and sit with this scripture and imagine God saying it to me.
I was completely un-done. I read it over and over, crying every time. “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
It wasn’t easy for me to hear that as God’s word to me. I have had to un-do a lot of the teaching I got as a young Christian. I was taught that God was always judging me and that I was always falling short. One of the scriptures that I can still recite from memory is “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I was taught that baptism “washes away our sins” but that it was still my sins that killed Jesus. I was taught that God is love at the same time that I was taught that Jesus HAD to die because God demanded retribution for my sins. This theology that taught me how awful I was did not leave a lot of room for me to hear “You are my Own, my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
It was pretty confusing, quite honestly, especially for a young teenager. And it’s a theology that permeates our airwaves in the United States. My own boss once said to me, “How can you worship a God who would demand the death of someone in payment for someone else’s wrongdoing?”
Good question. Short answer. I can’t. I don’t. But it took me years to arrive here. For me, the journey to finding that God who loves me, who calls me Beloved, who claims me as God’s own, began with leaving. I left Christianity when I left for college. I had been “falling away” for some time. I just couldn’t take the constant fear of judgement and the constant feeling of not measuring up. So I walked away, definitively, and called myself an atheist. I proclaimed that religion was just for people who weren’t very bright. But even with all that posturing, it took years before I could bring myself to believe that I wasn’t going to hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus anymore.
After years of inner work, I wanted to believe that I was done with Jesus. But I wasn’t.
After divorce, after coming out, after successfully avoiding Jesus for 15 years, my first lover was a Christian. We met online and I can still remember when she asked me if I was a Christian. I typed back something like, “No, I’m a lesbian.” I didn’t understand how a person could be both.
But she did. Turns out that she’d had a lot of experience with a “big gay church” in Houston where she lived. (Thanks, Resurrection MCC.) So when she moved to Toledo, we went to Good Shepherd MCC. It took me a while to settle in though. I wanted to believe that God loved me just as I am, but all that old theology kept coming up and I wondered if we were all just deluded. Slowly, God’s love won. Sunday after Sunday, I kept showing up. And Sunday after Sunday, church changed me. The Holy Spirit found her way into through my brokenness.
I stand here today confident that God loves us all with a lavish, expansive, extravagant love that is beyond all that we can imagine. That day, when that nun handed me the scripture that said “you are my own, my beloved, with you I am well-pleased,” I just kept crying in gratitude, because I knew those words were as true for me as they were for Jesus.
They say that every preacher has one sermon. This is mine. This scripture is for us. God loves us. All of us. Extravagantly. Without exception, without reservation. We are all worthy of love. We are all valuable in God’s sight, without ever having done one damn thing to prove our worth.
So hear this for yourself today. God says to you: you are mine. You are beloved. With you I am well-pleased. Amen.