Christians around the world today are celebrating the Feast of the baptism of our Lord. Baptism is a sacrament recognized and practiced by all Christians. It is a Christian ritual as old as Communion. Which means that over the years Christians have had plenty of time to fight with each other about how we do it and what happens when we do it. Despite how much we argue about it, I think that we get pretty close to agreeing about a couple of things and here they are: baptism confirms our identity and our calling. Baptism is about who we are and also what we do.
Early Christians brought the practice of baptism with them from their Jewish rituals. Our model for this is Jesus and before we can say anything else substantial about baptism, let’s tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. It’s in all four gospels but we are going to read Matthew’s version of it this morning. The story begins with Jesus’ cousin John the Baptizer, which is how we know that this was already a significant practice for some Jewish people. This story is in Matthew chapter 3 verses 1 through 17.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
Baptism confirms our Christian identity and our Christian vocation. It is about who we are and about what we do. First, let’s talk about identity. In this story, Jesus has the experience that many of us wish we could have. He literally sees a vision and hears the voice of God telling him who he is. He is God’s son. He is beloved. And God is well pleased with him. God always starts with giving us an identity. Before telling us what to do, God tells us who we are. Our oldest stories say humanity is first and foremost created in God’s image. Noah was first and foremost called righteous. Before Abram and Sarai did anything to fulfill God’s plan, God renamed them Abraham and Sarah – God gave them new identities.
In a culture that is obsessed with production, that values humans based on their capacity to contribute to the GDP, you need to hear this morning that God sees you and loves you first and foremost for who you are. Jesus’ baptism was of course a singular experience but Christians have always affirmed that we share in Jesus’ baptism, which means what happened to him in that moment extends to us. Through Jesus, God the Source calls each of us “Beloved.” My very good friend Rev. Sara McSwords is planting a brand new open and affirming United Methodist Church in Marysville and it is named “Beloved United Methodist Church” because Sara believes God told her that there are many many people who need to hear that they are beloved of God. First and foremost, always and forever, regardless, God says to us “You are my child; you are my beloved.”
The reason it is so crucial that we remember our baptismal identity is because the enemy of our souls is always trying to make us doubt it. It doesn’t matter how you picture the power of evil, whether you call it Satan or the devil, or you see it as a force, the fact is, we can feel it. The easiest way to get us down is to attack our identity, to make us doubt that we are created in the image of God, that we are blessed, that we are beloved children of God. In the story immediately after the one we just read, Jesus goes into the desert and is tempted by one called “The Accuser” and you know what that Accuser says to Jesus? He says, “IF you are the Son of God …” Jesus has just had a vision and heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and the very next thing that happens is the Accuser tries to make Jesus doubt his identity. “If you are the Son of God …” We remember our baptism this morning because we desperately need to be reminded of our baptismal identity as beloved children of God.
One of your options for what to write on those little ribbons is what name you want to hear God speaking over you this morning. Maybe it’s not “Beloved.” The easiest way to figure out what that name is, is to think about what the enemy says about you in your darkest moments. When the thoughts or voices or forces or whatever you call them sneak into your head and start to call into question who you are, what do they call you? If they call you “ugly” then maybe what you need to hear God speaking over you is “beautiful.” If they call you “stupid” maybe you need to write “wise.” If they say “worthless” maybe your word is “cherished.” Baptism confirms our identity as beloved children of God. When those waters touch your body, you are marked forever as someone who belongs to God and to God’s people. Not because of what you can produce, but because you yourself are inherently precious and worthy and valuable. You are beloved. I am beloved. Together we are the beloved community.
So first, baptism confirms our identity. Second, it confirms our vocation. Vocation is not just the work we are paid to do. The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word “vocare” which means “to call.” Our vocation is whatever we are called to do by God. Christians affirm that to be baptized is to have a vocation. We are all called by virtue of the fact that we are baptized. Our baptism confirms our vocation, confirms our calling. We are all called by God to minister in the world. And thanks be to God we are not all called to the same ministry! We do not all have the same gifts! We do not all have the same vocation, and all of our vocations are precious, all of our gifts are necessary.
The idea of having a vocation as Christians is one way that we give dignity and honor to our individuality and our work. God calls people to be a part of God’s purposes in this world for the sake of the common good. Justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, truth – these are all part of God’s purposes in the world. These all reflect God. Living attentively to our vocation means considering the call of God in all areas of our life.
That doesn’t mean everything we do is good. There are jobs and activities that promote greed, violence, religious hypocrisy, and all kinds of destruction. That is not what we are called to do and that is not affirmed by God. Some people don’t have as much choice in what they do, but we should strive to do as little of that as possible in our paid work and in our other activities.
Our vocation is what we are called to do. Because you are baptized, you have a vocation, you have a calling. In fact, you have more than one! The question of calling and vocation is always a question for the present moment: “What am I called to do here today?” It is surely related to a wider sense of what your vocation is, but it’s good to remember that our vocation changes over time. I have a dear friend who has moved back in with her mother in order to care for her. For now, that is her vocation. That is what God has called her to do. And there is great dignity in that vocation. It’s not permanent. But it is for now.
Your other option for what to write on your ribbons this morning is your vocation. You can write either your identity or your vocation. If you’re not sure what it is, think about what makes you feel most alive, most fulfilled, most joyful. Or think about what you do that increases God’s justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom or truth in the world. Don’t dismiss it because it’s not compensated work or because no one has ever gotten famous for doing it. God has called you to do it for God’s glory and for the common good and it needs to be done. It is your vocation. You have it by virtue of your baptism.
Baptism confirms our identity – we are beloved children of God – and it confirms our vocation – we are called to expand God’s justice, love, spirituality, beauty, freedom, and truth in the world. Baptism confirms this whether it happens when we are infants or whether we are grown. Your identity and vocation are certain even if you don’t remember your baptism. And although Christians disagree about this, my opinion is that once is enough. Like all of our rituals, it’s meaningful for different people in different ways and that’s fine. But you can’t ever be unbaptized. God’s blessing and calling can never be revoked in your life no matter what you do or what is done to you. You are baptized. You are beloved and you are called.
When Martin Luther was translating the Bible from Latin into German, he holed himself up and worked feverishly on it. It was clearly a monumental effort, to make it possible for regular folks to read the Bible in their language. And you can bet that he doubted his identity and his calling. The story goes that when he was most discouraged, when the voices in his head were saying the most discouraging and accusing things, he would yell back at them, “I am baptized!” Baptism is our comfort, our security, our affirmation, our defense against the lies and accusations that evil wants us to believe about ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether you remember the moment when the water touched you, God wants you to remember your baptism. Remember that you are baptized. You are beloved. You are called. Nothing can ever change that. Everything you to do promote justice, love, spirituality, beauty freedom and truth in the world is valuable and noble.
In the sacrament of baptism we declare our trust in God’s grace and forgiveness and by doing so we are joined to the Church, the timeless worldwide community of people who have made the same declaration. In the sacrament of baptism, we enact what is already true: by God’s grace, through our trust, we are each and all saved, reconciled to God and one another and ourselves. In the sacrament of baptism we are confirmed in our identity as beloved children of God: we can’t earn that; it’s a gift. And we are confirmed in our vocation: we exist not just for ourselves and our own pleasures but to further God’s purposes in the world. Regardless of when or where or how it happens, we who are baptized have been given a new identity and a holy vocation.
We have this identity and vocation as individuals and we have it as a community. It’s not just that you should remember your baptism; we should remember our baptism. We are baptized. As the body of Christ on earth, all of us together, whether we agree with each other or not, are beloved children of God. And all of us together, with all our different gifts and interests, are called to further God’s purposes in the world.
So when you begin to feel discouraged, that you aren’t good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, old enough, young enough, rich enough, successful enough, whatever enough – remember your baptism. You are a beloved child of God who is called to further God’s purposes in the world. Do not let that discouragement overtake you. Stand up, lift your head, and yell back at that discouraging voice, “I! Am! Baptized!” Amen.