1.10.10 Sermon: “Called by Name”

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“Neither flesh of my flesh nor bone of my bone, but still miraculously my own. You didn’t grow under my heart but in it.” This short poem sat framed in my house growing up. It was a poem about me from my mom. I was brought into my parents’ house when I was about three weeks old; they adopted me through Catholic Charities. Yes, I have always known I was adopted, no, I don’t feel any desire to seek out my biological mother. Why? Because the words of that poem truly sum it it. While I did not grow inside my mother’s body, I am still hers. I am fully my parents’ child, and even though I don’t share their DNA, anyone who knows both me and my parents can tell you, I definitely resemble them in mannerisms, and I am getting to that age where I, myself, am starting to realize that at times I act like my dad, and other times, I sound an awful lot like my mother! I have been adopted into my family. But it is my family! We, here, have been adopted too. We have been adopted into God’s family!

Today we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus, and we hear God’s words to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in you I am well-pleased.” At first when we hear this story, we may simply think that it is a story about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and that those words spoken by God as the Holy Spirit descends like a dove are meant only for Jesus. But if we look more fully at the meaning of our own baptism, we find that those words are also for us. This baptism of Jesus is a significant event. In it, we witness one of the few places in Scripture where we explicitly see all three persons of the Trinity working together. As the Son is baptized, the Spirit descends, and the Father speaks from heaven. The baptism of Jesus points to the way in which God works in our own midst: always with all three persons of the Trinity in consort, and our baptism is no different. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we are clothed in Christ, in his death and resurrection, and in that, we may stand before God as his daughters and sons.

Just as in his baptism, God affirms Jesus’ identity as his dearly beloved Son, in our own baptism, our identity is affirmed. We too, are now called dearly loved children of God. What does it mean to you to hear those words? To have God say to you, “You are my child, the beloved?” Do you feel like you are? Do you know it to be true? There are times where God can seem distant from us, and we can sometimes feel like anything but loved. Yet in baptism, through the touch of the water, God gives us a tangible sign that we are, in fact loved, and that we will always be his children. This is God’s gift to us, and we hear the sentiment of what baptism is in today’s Old Testament reading. Listen again to the words of God relayed by Isaiah: “But 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. 2When 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. 3For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour, I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia* and Seba in exchange for you. 4Because you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6I 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— 7everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.’” God speaks these words to us! To you, and to me! Are they not the words of a loving and present Father?

Baptism is about God’s love for us. While we generally associate baptism with a personal choice, a personal confession of faith, or with a promise to raise a child in a household of faith, baptism is about much more than that. In fact, it is probably fairer to say that baptism is first and foremost a sign of God’s choice for us. There have been debates throughout the ages over the merits of infant baptism versus adult baptism. Some believe that only adults should be baptized because they believe a personal profession of faith is necessary. Others believe that it is ok to have infants baptized. In the Methodist Church, we do both, because we believe that baptism is a sign of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. It is about the love of God that precludes all of our own actions and choices. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the church, the other being communion. The definition of what a sacrament is can be summed up in these words: an outward sign of an inward grace. In other words, it is a sign that we can, touch, see, witness. It is an action that we can understand, and that action points to the deeper ways that God is working. The act of baptism points to the deeper reality that God chooses us through his Son Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Growing up, I always knew that I was adopted, and one of the books my parents read to me when I was little to help me understand was a book called “The Chosen Baby.” The title tells it all. They used it to help me to understand that I was sought out, that I was picked specifically, that I was chosen. As we remember our baptism, we are remembering that we are first chosen by God, before we can ever even respond, before we can ever even choose back. This is what we call God’s prevenient grace, that grace that precedes us in all things. As 1 John 4:19 reminds us, we love because He first loved us. Yet, our baptism is about more than just God’s choice for us. It is also about how we respond to God. Whether we are baptized as infants, children, teenagers, or adults, our baptism on some level is about a response of faith. It may be on the basis of our parents and surrounding community, or it may be our own. Nonetheless, baptism is in part, about human response to God’s choice for us. It is about saying, yes, I want to be a part of God’s family. We too, are given in the unique act of baptism, a way to respond to God’s love for us. While we only need to be baptized once, every time we witness a baptism, and every time we reaffirm our baptismal covenant as a congregation, we are remembering our baptism, and we are making a continual choice to respond to God’s love for us. But what exactly happens in baptism? What is it really about?

Just prior to baptism, during the prayer of thanksgiving over the water, the pastor prays these words: “Pour out your Holy Spirit, to bless this gift of water and those who receive it, to wash away their sin and clothe them in righteousness throughout their lives, that dying and being raised with Christ, they may share in his final victory.” In these words, we hear what is going on in baptism. First and foremost, we are recognizing that God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s own spirit to live inside of us, guiding us, sustaining us, transforming us. It is about having our sin washed away and putting on the righteousness of Christ, but it is also about being baptized into Christ’s death. It is about death to self and being reborn into a new life characterized by sacrifice and a willingness to follow Jesus. It is about fully sharing in the life of Christ, which also includes his glorification. We too, are marked as dearly loved children of God, so God says to us also, “You are my child, the beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Baptism is a radical act because it acknowledges the way that God changes us, and we acknowledge the way that we want to be changed, willing to be identified with Christ in his death, willing to put away the old person of sin and put on the new person of Christ. These are heavy words, with a lot of weight to them, and they deserve to be taken seriously.

Around here these days, we see mostly infant baptism, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is good to baptize our infants who will be brought up in church, and it makes sense to have them baptized young. However, historically, while infant baptism has been a practice of the church for most of its history, it has not been the norm until more recent years. Instead, adult baptism was much more frequent. You see, infant baptism only happens with families who are already in the church, but adult baptism is based on a conversion model. When adults are baptized, it is almost always because they were not brought up in the church, or they didn’t stay in the church. Adult baptism reflects a reaching out beyond the church walls. We are not seeing a lot of adult baptism these days because we are failing to reach out to the community in ways that effectively communicate the love of God, and we are failing to show how life is different for Christians. Sometimes the church looks too much like the rest of the world.

In the early centuries of the church, adults who wanted to be baptized went through three years of what was called the catechumenate, or three years of preparation and learning before they could be baptized and come to the Lord’s Table for Communion. During those three years they would learn the lifestyle of the Christian: works of mercy, care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. They would study the stories of the Old Testament, and only during the final year of the catechumenate would they study the New Testament. Finally after those long three years of preparation, their moment of baptism would come. Naked they would come to the baptismal pool, literally making 180 degree turns as they were asked to renounce satan and sin, and to make a turn towards Christ. They would enter the pool, being immersed in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and as they came out they would be anointed with fragrant oil, symbolizing the seal, the gift, of the Holy Spirit. They would then be clothed in a white robe representing the righteousness of Christ as they would finally be ushered in to share in their first communion, that Holy meal of Christ. The newly baptized understood the weight of the baptismal act. After three long years, they had learned that to be a follower of Christ meant that their life would look and feel different from the world around them. To be a Christian, in many ways, means to be different from the world. To be a Christian means to put on the righteousness of Christ and to live a life of peace, of sacrifice, of love. Are we taking our own baptismal vows this seriously?

When I was adopted, I was issued a new birth certificate, with my new name, given to me by my parents. There was no real trace of my old life prior to my adoption. I now belonged to my true family, to the ones who would love me, raise me, teach me, who would be there with me. My life could never be the same again. When we are baptized, it is like we are getting that new birth certificate, for we are reborn of the water and of the Spirit and brought into our true family, God’s family. Our life can never be the same again.

Today as we reaffirm our baptismal covenant as a congregation, consider the significance of your own baptism: what it means for God to first choose you, and what your life looks like when you respond to that choice. What does it mean for the choices you make, the encounters you have? Maybe you were baptized as an infant, and the baptismal vows were made on your behalf by someone else. But today as we reaffirm our baptism, you can claim those words for yourself. Are you ready to claim the life that God gives to us? Are you ready to let the Holy Spirit transform you into a person who looks more like Jesus Christ? Today let us remember our baptism and be truly thankful for all that it means. Amen.

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