Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
When I was baptized, when I was eight years old, I’m not sure I understood it at the time as a call to ministry. In fact, I think a lot of us don’t. My senior pastor at my previous church was fond of a story where he once baptized a baby, and then the whole very large family who was there for the occasion left right after, in the middle of the service, to make it to their celebratory lunch at the county club. I’m going to wager a guess that this family wasn’t thinking too hard about the call this ceremony placed on their baby’s life, and theirs as they raised her, but the truth is a lot of us are probably there with them. We baptize because it seems like the right thing to do, or very possibly out of a fear that this is something God requires, and perhaps don’t give much thought to what it’s supposed to mean for the rest of someone’s life.
But among other things, baptism represents a new beginning, which makes it appropriate to this time of year. It is dying to sin and rising again to live in this world in a new kind of way, a way we call ministry, with a little m.
It was a new beginning for Jesus, too. That day he showed up on the banks of the Jordan River, much to the surprise of John the Baptist, who had been preaching that someone was coming who was greater than him, winnowing fork in hand to separate the wheat from the chaff, and who would baptize people not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. All these other Joe Schmoes are there getting baptized by John, and all of a sudden Jesus shows up, and gets in line.
And John says, uhhhhhh….
He is perplexed by this in the way the disciples later would be when Jesus washed their feet, because it seems odd for the lesser one to baptize the greater one. But Jesus tells him it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Like all of us, or perhaps for us, Jesus needs a way to mark this new beginning. From here he will begin his preaching, telling the stories of God that invite people into the story. From here he will begin calling people to repentance and rebirth. From here he will begin to cast out demons and heal, from here he will begin to make waves, performing miracles on the Sabbath and associating with the socially questionable and calling the religious leaders out on their hypocrisy. You can see why he couldn’t go from just being some guy from Nazareth to being Jesus as we know him just like that, without some sort of sign, without some sort of formal break from the past and commission for the future.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus was baptized, Jesus saw the heavens opened, kind of like how the prophet Ezekiel saw the heavens opened when God started giving him visions, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came down, and then a voice for everyone standing around to hear: “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
For me, if not for John the Baptist, this is actually the more surprising part of the story.
I took a personality test once called the Enneagram and got the result called The Achiever, which is pretty much the kind of person who tries really hard to adapt and succeed in any different context so that will people will like and think highly of them. Like every personality type, this one can be a blessing or a curse, but what it does mean is that when I hear these words booming down from heaven, “with whom I am well pleased,” my first thought is, but this dude hasn’t even done anything yet.
I mean, I know he is Jesus. But, pleased with what, exactly?
He hasn’t started preaching yet. He hasn’t started a tally of the people who have repented and followed him. He hasn’t yet healed anyone or cast out any demons or won any fights with religious leaders. To me it seems more appropriate that God would express God’s pleasure after Jesus has earned it a little—and in fact, God does, later in the event we call the Transfiguration, just before Jesus begins his final journey toward Jerusalem and the cross. But this is several years before that, and so it seems I am forced to reckon with the fact that God’s pleasure in God’s Son is based on something more basic, more primary than what Jesus has accomplished as the Son of God.
The Common English Bible translation, I found out in my reading this week, puts it a little differently: “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.” The notes at the bottom suggest a different translation still: “He is my favorite.” I actually really like that: He is my favorite.
I realized that before, when I have read this passage, I have read this last line as prescriptive: I should also do the kinds of things that will make God well pleased with me. Remember—that’s my personality! Only it doesn’t really say that, and when I read the translation “I find happiness in him,” or “He is my favorite,” it begins to become clear how wrong I’ve been, because those things don’t sound earned at all. They sound more like the way I feel now that Evelyn is here, because, you know, she can’t do that much yet, at least not much that there is to approve or disapprove of. And yet I find pure delight in her – not because she is good at being a baby, but simply because she is mine, my beloved. I love watching her grow and learn new things, like how to hold her head up, and how to grasp part of my shirt in her hand, and how to make new noises. I find happiness in her, in those things.
The story about Jesus’ baptism isn’t on the face of it a story about any of us, and probably we should all be careful about writing ourselves into Jesus’ place in Scripture, but then I think on some level it is a story for us, as God’s children, who begin our Christian life and ministry in baptism. And I admit that I find it both comforting and unsettling to think that God might feel the same way about me—comforting because maybe I don’t have to try quite so hard for God’s approval as I always think I do, and unsettling because I’m not sure I know how to live in a world where that is the case. Can I dare to believe that God finds happiness in me from the very beginning of my story?
And yet it still doesn’t seem right to leave things there, with God’s simple and unconditional pleasure in Jesus and all of us. It is good that the story begins that way, but again, there is still a lot to the story. “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason,” writes Isaiah, in the passage this voice from heaven echoes, which we heard in today’s call to worship. This is, after all, the beginning of a new thing. Baptism does place a claim on Jesus, to fulfill the reality of who he is and who God has intended him to be. And baptism does come with a claim on all of us.
In baptism we receive our call to take our place in the Body of Christ, putting our particular gifts to work for God’s purposes. In baptism we promise to resist evil and oppression and injustice in whatever form they might take in the world around us, and that puts us to work. In baptism, there is work we are called to do.
I spend a lot of my time thinking about the work we are called to do. I spent years formally thinking about the particular work of ministry that God called me to, writing papers on it, answering interview questions about it – and I keep thinking and praying about it, how that call has grown and changed and where it is leading me today. I think about the work we are called to do as a church, as this collection of baptized people who call ourselves the Body of Christ. And I think also about the fact that God does not just call clergypeople but each one of us, to teaching or nursing or academia or diplomacy or governance or whatever our particular life purpose may be.
What does God have for us to do, separately or together, so that in the end God will say of us, “With them I am well pleased?”
I still happen to think that’s a pretty good question, but like I said, it’s missing something, too, if God’s pleasure in us is based on something more basic and primary than that. Maybe it’s the case that we, in church at least, focus a lot on the things God calls us to do—and forget about who God calls us to be.
The Spirit that appeared to Jesus out of heaven at his baptism is the same Spirit we believe is made available to us in a new way at our baptism, the same Spirit whose fruits, as Paul describes them in Galatians, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23.) Those things are a lot more basic than what particular role I am supposed to play in the Body of Christ, or what my particular mission and ministry is—and they are, I believe, part of our first and primary call as Christians.
I think back to the very brief time after graduating from seminary that I worked at Staples, which was a job I hated wholeheartedly. I can barely go into a Staples anymore without feeling just a touch of PTSD. It was a time in my life when I really felt like life was going nowhere, like I wasn’t doing anything meaningful or fulfilling any sort of destiny or doing anything that corresponded to a call God had placed on my life.
But every morning during the time I worked there I woke up and I tried really hard to remind myself, “Whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord, and not as unto people” (Colossians 3:22). It’s one of those Bible verses that is actually way better taken out of context, because if you put it back in context, you realize it comes right after the sentence “Slaves, obey your masters.” Nevertheless, it was helpful to me at the time, because to me it was a reminder that even at Staples I could practice seeing the image of God in people, and treat them with kindness and dignity. Even at Staples—perhaps especially at Staples—I could practice patience. Even at Staples I could make those small, faithful everyday choices that we all have to make no matter who we are or what we do. Even at Staples if I tried really hard, maybe I could find joy. I’m not saying I always did, but I believe that I could have.
In fact, even now that I am doing something with my life that I do find meaningful and fulfilling, something I believe I am called to do, I still have to remind myself that I am first and foremost called to those same things – that I am first and foremost called to a certain way of being in the world.
Because I wasn’t called into ministry when I began working in churches. I was called to ministry when I was 8 years old, in my baptism. That’s when I was called to let the Holy Spirit work in my life for the good of this world that God loves so much. That’s when I was called to be the kind of person who treats all of God’s people with dignity, who isn’t too good to serve, who stands up for the poor, who is willing to take risks and sacrifice for what’s right, who forgives people freely and tries really hard to love my enemies, who stays in love with God.
I am not saying I am that person all or most of the time, but I do believe that they are my, and our, first call to ministry – to be, as we say, God’s people in the world.
These are the things I hope God will continue to find pleasure and happiness and delight in as my story progresses – no matter how it unfolds.
Today we will have the chance to remember our own baptisms. For those of you who were baptized as infants, this may not be a literal remembrance, but we remember together, as the church, that you are part of the Body of Christ. Maybe some of you have never been baptized, and that doesn’t make God’s love for you any less, but this a chance to experience God’s invitation to a new beginning as one of God’s people in the world. For all of you, this is a chance to remember that God’s happiness and delight in you comes first in the story—but also that in baptism you are called to a new way of being in the world.
A new beginning, a new way of being—a journey we set out on over and over again.