Named by God Baptism of our Lord Sunday, January 13, 2019
This past week much of our focus has centered on a little person we knew nothing about a week prior. When we arrived at our son’s place last Sunday there were three people in that family. Around an hour later, there were four. There are only a handful of questions people generally ask when these new little people arrive on the scene; is it a boy or a girl, what’s their size and weight, do they have any hair…and what is their name? In this particular instance, the parents were a bit undecided as to her name (as some of you parents may well relate), and several days passed before her name was officially made known to us and the rest of the world…Nola Eleanor Sorenson. Although not all keep their given names, and it’s still common to either change or hyphenate parts of those names upon marriage, most likely this will be the name she will carry for the rest of her life (and into eternity).
In the play Romeo and Juliette, the character Juliette questions the value of a name stating that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Although this may have had merit in her particular instance as her beloved Romeo carried the last name of a family rival, it doesn’t hold true in most cases. Names matter, and names form an integral part in how we, and others identify us. Names play a particularly significant role in our lectionary readings throughout the season of Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Several weeks ago we had the dramatic story of Zachariah, who doubted the message of the angel announcing the birth of a son. That disbelief would result in him being unable to speak until he would utter the name to given him by the angel… John. We find similar naming accounts given to both Mary on Joseph as they are to give their son the name “Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins”.
The following Sunday we read of the infant Jesus being presented in the temple on the eighth day for his official naming ceremony and circumcision. In that observance, he would both be named and marked as a son of Israel…a child of God. In our text today we have one further example of Jesus being named in the waters of his baptism in the Jordan as the “beloved Son of God” in whom God is well pleased. Questions arise for both John and us as Christian readers of this text. For John it was a question of authority and rank. Why should the lesser baptize the greater? For us it’s a matter of theology. Since John’s baptism is a baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus was sinless…why be baptized at all? Although we don’t hear Jesus answer to John in this gospel, we do in Matthew’s where he tells John that he will be baptized to “fulfill all righteousness”. The sinless one would become the sin-bearer, and even though sinless himself, would in fact bear the weight of sin for all people of all time. In his baptism, Jesus fully identified with those he came to save.
Often we use this particular Sunday to remember our own baptism, and consider its role in our identification as sons and daughters of God. As with our natural birth, as important as this day is in our lives was, if you are like me and were baptized as an infant, you probably won’t remember it. And being that many don’t remember it, its value in our day-to-day lives might be questioned as well. After the Reformation, some in the Christian family have doubted its value for infants at all with their limited reasoning capacities and deem it something that should be undertaken at some future date when they can fully “understand what they are doing”. Herein lies the primary difference in our understanding and practice form that our Baptist and Anabaptist brothers and sisters…the question of who is the primary “actor/doer”…and what is being enacted/done.
Here’s a couple of things to consider regarding how Lutherans generally understand baptism:
1) Baptism is first and foremost God’s activity. While both traditions confess that Baptism is a gift from God, most Christians, following the earliest practices of the church, place the dominant emphasis on
God’s unconditional promise to accept us as we are, adopt us into God’s family, and forgive us all of our sin. There can be no greater symbol of that than bringing babies to the font, babies who have not particularly done anything for or against God (actually, most haven’t done anything at all except eat, sleep, gurgle… and you know what else. Utterly passive in the face of God’s grace, infants remind us that all we can really do is receive God’s love with gratitude and try to live as the persons we’ve been called to be. Baptists (and those who share that perspective) on the other hand, focus more on our response to God’s grace. God’s grace, in this case, is like a blank cheque that still needs to be signed and cashed, hence their emphasis on “believer Baptism”, where the candidate is old enough to choose to be baptized.
2) Baptism is primarily about identity. Notice that in today’s gospel account of Jesus’ Baptism, a voice from heaven invariably announces to Jesus, “You are my beloved son and with you I am well pleased.” So also in our Baptism, God conveys to us our identity as God’s beloved children, children and people so precious to God that God would go to any length to communicate to us that love, even to the point of dying on the cross. Which is why Baptism is so important, as in an age where figuring out “who you are” has never been more complex, Baptism suggests that we best understand “who” we are by paying attention to “whose” we are – God’s beloved children. Baptism reminds us that we have infinite value and worth, that God wants only good things for us, that God will always seek to draw us back into relationship with God and each other and forgive us when we stray, and that God will be with us all the days of our lives.
With this debate regarding infant baptism spanning 500 years and more, chances are that we as a Church are not going to “solve” this disparity any time soon. Baptists and Anabaptists both are aware of what we know to be true as well in the limited display of commitment to Jesus and His Church in the lives of many of the baptized. The fact that despite my and others pastor’s best effort to teach on baptism in conjunction with living out the Christian life in the context of the local parish, many parents continue to see baptism as some kind of “ticket to heaven” (or conversely, insurance against hell…if there in fact is such a place). Often such parents speak of baptism in similar terms as they might regarding a child’s inoculation against measles, by “getting them done”. To their credit, such language implies a “doer” at least, but the endpoint is not that of what we read in the Bible. We are redeemed, saved, baptized so that we can live in communion with God and His people. We’re saved to worship and saved to serve. Everything comes to us purely and simply as a gift of grace, and we receive it as such. And all these gifts of grace come to us because of God’s love…and not our “loveliness”. As such, we (nor others) should not judge baptism by its abuses. Abuse (of anything) does not necessarily negate use.
Often we are accused by our Baptist brothers and sisters as making “too much of baptism”. I rather expect the opposite is true. Luther spoke of considering our baptism daily as we come into contact with physical water. Perhaps we could connect our very names with the act by which God names us.
“___________, child of God, you been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” _________, you have been forgiven. _________. you have been saved. _______, you have been named by God. Amen