A professor from Princeton Seminary was speaking to a group of school-aged children. He chose as his topic the Baptism of Jesus as a moment in time when God was revealed in Jesus. Most of the children took up their usual poses of staring at the walls or the floor. At the conclusion of his talk one student, who had been slouching on his seat all through the talk staring mainly at his feet looked up and muttered, “Don’t think that’s what its saying.” The professor was keen to have a conversation, pleased that at least someone had been listening. “What do you suggest it is saying then?” he asked the student. “Well, the passage tells us that heaven opened up, yes?” “Yes.” Replied the professor. “And when heaven opened the Holy Spirit came down, yes?” “Yes.” Replied the professor again. The student lifted his whole body to an upright position and stared at the professor. “It’s saying that God is on the loose in the world. And it’s dangerous.”
Out of the mouths of babes. I think that kid is on to something! God is loose in the world. Just look at the person sitting next to you. The person sitting next to you has been created in the image of God and has been touched by God and has God moving through them. This whole room, then, is filled with the presence of the Holy and it all began with the waters of baptism and baptism is filled with expectation and revelation. No wonder, Jesus’ baptism took place during the season after Epiphany. Remember, Epiphany is time of revelation and light. God on the loose is one of those revelatory moments and it causes us to pause and wonder, “God what do you expect of us?”
As the people were filled with expectation, many were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah. “The era in which John preached was marked by messianic hopes. John’s imagery of harvest and purifying fire raised expectations that John might be the One.” And that is why people left their homes and gathered into the wilderness to hear a fiery preacher. It wasn’t that it was John. It was because he had hope – preached hope, lived hope, and spoke with clenched teeth words of hope that could make anyone believe that there is something more and it is better than what is currently. People wanted desperately to know that the messiah was near. Life was not so hot. The Roman Empire was stifling – taxes were high, people were enslaved, justice happened only if it supported those in power. It was a difficult and agonizing time. It is quite understandable, then, to hear how the people wanted to hope in something, in someone that was not going to beat them or torture them or bankrupt them. It is easy how the people expected John to be the One. John’s message was based on strong ethical preaching on the nearness of God. John knew how to work the crowd.
Kate Matthews in her commentary on this passage sites the work of Richard Swanson. He writes that Jesus is right in the middle of that "multitude of Jews who are all waiting for the promises they heard about from their grandmothers" in a time when "the sense of accumulated wrong is so powerful, the backlog of unkept promises so enormous, that the hopes coalesced into a focused question directed at John: Are you the messiah?"
“No, but the one who is more powerful than I is coming. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The people’s expectations were high. I wonder, though, what were God’s expectations in all of this? And at that time, how well did John even know Jesus, if at all?
Jesus was baptized and in the Gospel of Luke’s account, Jesus’ baptism took place after John was imprisoned. So we really do not know if John did the actual act of baptizing. Regardless of who actually did the baptizing, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and a voice from heaven announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Or from the Common English Bible version we heard today, ““You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” Wouldn’t that be something if we heard that more than just once a year?
Martin Luther, one of the great Protestant Reformers, passionately reminded people to “remember your baptism!” I cannot remember my own baptism. I was told though, that I was three years old. My brother, who was ten at the time, and I were baptized together by my mother’s cousin who was a Presbyterian preacher. We gathered with family and friends in the dining room of my childhood home. It was there that I was told I was beloved.
When Martin Luther said to “remember your baptism” it is more than just talking about dressing up in a pretty white dress or suit, having a party and, if we're a baby, everyone saying how sweet we look. In his catechism, Luther wrote, "A truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism once begun and ever to be continued." Martin Luther wanted us to remember each day who we are, and whose we are, and how beloved we are. Even in an age when we spend so much time talking about "self esteem," don't we still long to hear that we are beloved?
God’s expectations of us are to live out our baptismal promises to the best of our abilities. And if we are not baptized, God still expects good and compassionate things out of us. Kathryn Matthews writes in her UCC column, “Today, in churches around the world, people are still being baptized, still being washed in the living waters, still thirsting for God's grace and a word of forgiveness and life, still waiting to be included, to find their place in the story of healing and salvation, still longing for the chance to start their life over. The voice from heaven says, "You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." These words may come from heaven but they do not come out of the blue: they echo God's words from Isaiah long before: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you" (43:1b, 4a). God remembers us, Isaiah says; in fact, God reassures us, "I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands" (49:16). God's love didn't start yesterday, or even in the New Testament. It is from of old, and it is focused on each one of us, by name. We belong to God, and God loves us. It's as if God is trying to say to each one of us, "No matter what happens and no matter how low and discouraged you feel, no matter what is happening around you and in your life, don't you ever let anyone tell you that you are anything but a precious and beloved child of God." God expects us to remember that. God expects us to keep saying that and preaching that.
The other thing that is worth remembering is that Jesus’ baptism reveals to us that he is fully human and fully divine. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that Jesus "took the plunge right along with the rest of us" and "never asks us to go anywhere he has not been first" ("Sacramental Mud" in Mixed Blessings).
Yes! God is on the loose in the world. Expectations and questions swirl around us as we speak of the Promised One drawing near to God’s promises. The Holy Spirit and baptism are signs of God’s affirmation of Jesus; however, the grace of the words spoken “from heaven” is not restricted to Jesus alone. In Christ, we are those whom God calls beloved and with whom God is so very pleased. Such love affirms us as God’s own. You are the beloved children of God and with you God is so pleased and finds so much happiness! May it be so.