“And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)
A sermon preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village Of Ralston, AB, 13 January 2013
Texts for lectionary year B, The Baptism Of Our Lord: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17,21-22
“Mom (or Dad) loves me best!” These words are sometimes heard in disputes between young siblings, ranking closely behind “You’re stinky” as a means of winning the dialectic high ground. When the dispute is sent to the parent for appeal, the wise parent will say something like “No, I love you both just as much”, even if inside the parent’s heart there lurks the unomfortable truth that one child is in fact the favourite. The wise parent may indeed have a favourite, but will not admit it.
On this day in the life of the church that is sometimes called The Baptism Of Our Lord, we hear words of parental love and esteem in Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism. A voice from heaven, which presumably is the voice of God the Father, declares that Jesus is “my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. This words, like Luke’s story of the young Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem which ends with Jesus growing “in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52), might be taken as an endorsment or confirmation that Jesus is indeed suitable for his mission and ministry. If one accepts the Christology of the church’s ancient creeds, one can say that the baptism story also confirm’s Jesus’ identity as the son of God.
Which leads to a question: If Jesus is indeed the Son of God, why does he need to be baptized?
Why does Jesus need to be baptized? This question is discussed fruitfully in this week’s Working Preacher podcast but here’s a quick stab of my own at the answer. If the baptism of John is important, and Luke tells us that “all the people were baptized” (3:21 – presumably all the people immediately around Jesus) then it makes sense that Jesus too would be baptized. If the baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins (which John’s language about wheat vs chaff and the firey fate of chaff might suggest (Lk 2:17), then we might ask “what does Jesus need to be forgiven for at this point?”. I have no answer for that question. Whether Jesus did anything in his youth that was sinful, or whether his whole life was sinless, seems to me a fruitless and rather medieval sort of debate. The best way to answer the question of why Jesus is baptized, I think, is to look at the words of the voice from heaven.
Note what the voice doesn’t say. The voice doesn’t say that Jesus is “my best Son” or even “my only Son”. The voice simply says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). So what if the point of baptism is so that each of us, no matter how old we are when baptized, can hear that we are God’s Son or Daughter, that we are beloved, and that with us God is “well pleased”? If that suggestion surprises you, if you don’t think that you are deserving of such generosity, then take a look at our first reading from Isaiah, where God says “you are precious in my sght, and honored, and I love you” (Isa 43:4). The prophet was speaking these words to Israel at a time when God’s people had lost everything to conquest and exile, but they still speak to we who continue as God’s people, amid whatever loss and uncertainty we might feel.
That we are loved and precious in God’s sight may come as a surprise to those who see themselves as unworthy, or who distrust what they see as an angry or judgemental God. It is the church’s call to convey this message to those who need to hear them. If we accept them and believe that we are indeed precious in God’s sight, it is the church’s call to hear these words clearly and without complacency. What my wife derisively refers to as “Barney theology”, the syrupy message that “God loves you”, is bigger than a saccharine children’s show. God does indeed love us, but for we who are baptized and have accepted this gift of grace, God’s love comes with, well, I wouldn’t call them strings or conditions, but it does come with a vocation. To be God’s people is to accept that God’s love transforms and, if you will, recalibrates us to a new way of being, as we will remind ourselves when we read our baptismal covenant in the place of our normal creed.
All this leads me to some final thoughts on baptism. Most pastors will say that they challenge parents who say that they want their children “done”, which is what I call the immunization theory of baptism. The immunization theory focus on baptism as a one time fix with God, rooted in old and misunderstood ideas of original sin. Yes, I do believe that baptism is in some way with forgiveness of sin, but in a way that removes our fear and self-loathing of our sinful condition as a barrier to the love of God. I would say to parents who want their children baptized that if you believe that God is a wise and gracious parent who loves all his beloved children equally well, then why would you stop at a one time visit to his house? Baptism should be a lifelong invitation to know this loving parent better. And, as a last thought, baptism should also settle the “you’re stinky” argument once and for all.