A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (43:1-7)
Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, *
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; *
worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the Lord is upon the mighty waters.
4 The voice of the Lord is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the Lord is a voice of splendor.
5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; *
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; *
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
9 And in the temple of the Lord *
all are crying, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11 The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (8:14-17)
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (3:15-17, 21-22)
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 Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The feast of the Baptism of Jesus is a natural and customary time to talk about, well, baptism – except for the fact that we did that last Sunday, on the feast of the Epiphany, when we baptized Katelyn and Kyson. It feels like we have already addressed that topic and moved on.
But if we have, we are in good company because, in our gospel reading, St. Luke has also moved beyond that subject. In fact, Luke does not even describe Jesus’ baptism itself. His reference to it appears only in a subordinate clause: “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying…” Luke moves us quickly away from the baptism itself and on to a consideration of the scene that he presents as taking place after Jesus’ baptism.
Here he describes God’s Holy Spirit descending on Jesus in the form of a dove and God’s voice speaking from the heavens and declaring to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke’s emphasis is on Jesus’ identity: on who he is in relation to God.
Identities in life can be tricky things. We think of them as permanent, as unchanging; but some of the main ways that we define our identity can and do sometimes change in the course of our lives.
First-time parents, for example, find out quickly that their roles in relation to their own parents shift a bit. It used to be that, when they stopped by for a visit, their parents’ main focus was on them. Now it’s clearly on the baby. The new parents sometimes get the impression that their main role is now one of providing transportation for their child. (I wish I could tell them that this is a temporary thing; but the fact is that they need to expect that they will be their children’s taxi drivers for years to come.)
Young adults go through an identity shift: through a process of moving from a dependent role in life to an independent one, to one in which they become and are expected to act like responsible adults. Much later in life, we sometimes find ourselves with an even more difficult and painful change in our identity: going in the opposite direction as we find ourselves becoming dependent more and more on others, mostly on our children.
During the course of life, some changes in our identity can be especially difficult. People who, after a number of years, have to change jobs, find themselves having to transition from being an experienced and respected member of one organization to some other organization’s “new kid on the block,” even if that “new kid” is in his or her 40s or 50s or 60s. Other people, whose identity in life has been caught up in their profession or job, but who suddenly lose that job altogether, can find that changed reality to be completely disorienting to their lives. Couples, whose identity for years has been primarily that of being parents, but whose last child has just moved out of the house, can find their marriage strained as they struggle to readjust to being a couple, instead of being primarily care-giving parents; for some, it can be a time of great tension and strain.
Yet with all these changes in the way that we identify ourselves, the way that we think of ourselves, isn’t there still something at the core of who we are that doesn’t change? Isn’t there something so fundamental, so basic about us as individuals that it persists through whatever transitions life brings us?
Perhaps today’s readings point us to that primary reality.
In our gospel reading, after Jesus has been baptized, a voice comes from heaven that declares to Jesus: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” That word “beloved” is of central importance for us as well as for Jesus; because it is one of the words that early Christians used to describe one another. And it wasn’t just their sense of love for one another that was being expressed here, but God’s personal, deep and never-ending love for each and every one of them. Their belief was that, in effect, God had spoken to each of them and declared to each of them: “You, too, are my beloved son or daughter.” It was their conviction of God’s unending and forgiving and healing and sustaining love for each of them that lay at the very heart of their identity, of their sense of who they were.
That is the same reality that lies at the heart of our identity as well. No matter what changes and transitions and losses and reversals we may encounter in life, one thing remains the same: God’s deep and eternal love for us, as God’s own sons and daughters. That, most fundamentally, is who we are.
But why? Why would God commit God’s self to us so unreservedly, so completely, so absolutely? Why, with all our faults and failures, with all our human flaws and limitations? Why would God’s care for us be so constant, so unshakable?
Our ancestors in faith, the people of Israel, seem to have asked that same question long ago. And the unknown author of the second part of the book of Isaiah, responding in the words of today’s first reading, provided a clear, concise, and completely humbling answer from God. Why? “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” It all comes down to that: God simply loves us, without need for any justification, for any explanation, for any particular reason. God simply loves us.
About ten years ago, the late Bishop Herbert Thompson addressed the annual Convention of this diocese; and, as he often did, he told a story. He was visiting the Sunday School classes in one of the diocesan parishes and was fielding questions from the children. One of the young children asked him whether he liked being bishop. His reply was an enthusiastic “Yes!” ”Why wouldn’t I?” he asked. “After all, my job is simply to tell people that God loves them. That’s it: to tell them that God loves them. And they even pay me for it!”
We may not get paid for it, at least monetarily, but, when you come right down to it, that is our most basic job, too: to tell the people of the world that God loves them. And the place for us to begin is by looking first at our own innermost identity. When we look at who we are after all other things have been stripped away, like Jesus, we are, at the most basic level, God’s own daughters and sons. And God loves us: totally, unreservedly, and forever.