January 12, 2020 / Baptism of Our Lord / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9; Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43; Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17
What difference does it make to be baptized? How does it matter that a long time ago somebody splashed a little water on our heads and spoke a few words? Why do we take time to remember and renew our baptismal covenant? There are many very good answers to these questions – yet today I want to reflect with you regarding three claims that are inherent in the sacrament of baptism.
To begin with the most important one: through baptism God has a claim on you. Just as God claimed Jesus at his baptism, so God has claimed each of you. It’s a Father’s claim of abiding love and devotion. God says to Jesus: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In the same way, God claims each of us as his daughters and sons. God is pleased to embrace us as his children. Through baptism you are now and forever a child of God – nothing can change that. How does it feel to know this? This is your real and permanent ID! The sign of God’s claim on you is the cross of Christ. At baptism you were marked with the cross of Christ, a mark that is as indelible as the brand on a steer. Whenever God looks at you, God sees that sign of the cross that marks you as one of his own. You belong to God’s flock. Once you and I were not a people, but now God has claimed us as his very own people. Baptism has changed our status for good – that is, for better and forever. Our lives are not our own. St. Paul reminds us, “You have been bought at a price,” – the price of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is no small claim. We tend to think that if anything is ours, certainly our lives are. But our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection changes things. We now belong to God. So, do you resist the idea of belonging to anyone – or can you see it as a blessing? Baptism makes explicit what Jesus once told his disciples: “You did not choose me, I chose you.” In baptism, God takes the initiative, choosing us to be his children. We are Christians not by our choice, but by God’s grace. God’s love is unconditional, yet it is the nature of love to make a claim on the one who is loved. God names and claims us as his own.
God has an eternal claim on you – and you have a claim on God. You call on God by God’s name: Father, Savior, Lord. You have a child’s claim on the parent’s heart. Most of you know and appreciate the claim that your children and grandchildren have on you – right? You would give your life for them – it’s true. You have that same claim on the heart of God. It’s amazing when you think about it. At your baptism, God made promises to you. You have every right to claim those promises: God’s promise to be with you always, to forgive you, to bring you to eternal life. Many of the psalms are filled with language calling upon God to remember promises God has made. There’s no reason to be shy! We should not be hesitant to press our claim on God. Be bold! In worship we are called to remember who God is for us. We also call upon God to remember us, to recall and fulfill the promises made to us. In your prayers, along with giving thanks and offering confession, it’s also appropriate to call upon God to remember the promises made to you. “Ask and you will receive,” says Jesus. In short, because we are baptized children of God, we can expect God to be God for us.
God has a claim on us, and we have a claim on God. And because we are baptized, we also have a claim on one another. Because God is Father to us all, that makes all of us sisters and brothers. You can’t have God as Father without having all Christians as your brothers and sisters. So then…I want you all to stand up, turn around, and greet a sister or brother who is here today. You might say: “God loves you and I do, too.” … You know, long before I was called to be your pastor, I was already your brother in Christ. And what sort of claim do we have on one another as brothers and sisters? Like all families, the church is a mixed up bunch of people, combining a large spectrum of personalities. As family members, you can expect me to love you, come what may – and I expect the same of you. You can expect me to always forgive you, and I will count on the same from you. You can count on my support, and I on yours. We are mutually accountable. You can encourage me to live as a faithful child of God, and I will point you to the same standard. Quite simply, it is not acceptable to ignore, neglect, despise or abuse one another. Remember: our lives are not our own. Our model for behavior is our brother, Jesus.
Baptism becomes something profound and momentous for each of us when we begin to recognize the scope of these claims: God’s claim on us, our claim on God, our claim on one another. Baptism is not just past history, it shapes present reality. (Or it can, if we pay attention to it.) It becomes especially significant when we realize that these claims take precedence over the many other claims that are part of our daily lives. All kinds of claims compete for priority in our lives. Many of them are good and legitimate: the claims of family, of community, of career. God’s claims and these claims are not mutually exclusive; they often coincide and complement each other. Yet no claim can ever take priority over God’s claim on our lives. Jesus put it bluntly when he warned that anyone who loves family more than God is not fit for the kingdom of God. When we find other claims on our lives coming before God’s claim on us, it’s time to recall our baptism: who we are and whose we are.
Our purpose today is to recognize and celebrate the claim that God and the people of God have on us. Our selfish selves may wish to resist these claims, but finally we can embrace them. After all, there are really only two commandments: to love the Lord with all our heart and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s what life’s all about. This is our ultimate purpose. This is who we are and what our lives are for. All the rest is details! And I encourage you today: have great expectations! Remember to recognize and exercise the claim you have on God and on other Christians. Expect to be loved! Expect to be forgiven! Expect to be supported! Expect to be held accountable! Expect to be included and encouraged! Claim your identity: child of God, fellow Christian. Claim God’s name: Father, Lord and Savior FOR YOU. Don’t settle for less. God has decided you are worth it. The almighty and loving God has blessed you and claimed you as his own forever.
Thanks be to God!