Baptism of Our Lord, Year B

Based on Mk. 1:4-11

By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

"Baptismal Identity"

Identity….From early childhood, right up to old age, human beings are, consciously or unconsciously, concerned with identity. At one time or another, we all ask questions like: "Who am I? What am I? Who do I belong to? Where do I belong? Where have I come from? Where am I going? What, exactly, "makes me tick?" What makes me me?"

Ours is a society that may cause some of us to be obsessed with identity. The advertising industry is rather cruel in its narrow, rigid definitions of who is "in" and who is "out." Advertising constantly bombards us, explicitly and subliminally, with images of who we are on the basis of what we have or should want. Television commercials are forever telling us that we're not acceptable, we're not "in," we're too much like that and not enough like this.

No wonder so many human beings today struggle with an "identity crisis" in their lives. No wonder millions of people are lost and confused about who they really are and what their real purpose in life is. Along with this identity crisis, there has been another booming industry ~ that of self-help. If only, many believe, one reads the latest self-help bestsellers, all of our identity problems will be solved.

Whenever we feel lost or confused about our identity, it would be helpful for us to remember how Martin Luther was criticized and told by others that he didn't measure up to their standards. Or, when the powers of evil tempted him, he would remind himself of his true identity: "I am baptized," he would say.

This gave Luther the confidence he needed. It reminded him he was a precious child of God and because of this, God had given him a special mission, a purpose for his life. This gave Luther the impetus to accomplish what God had called him to do.

In our gospel today, we are given an account of our Lord's baptism. It is, for all intents and purposes, A Resounding Affirmation Of Christ's Identity. Mark tells us that the event was so significant that, as Jesus came up out of the river Jordan, "he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him." Then, Mark adds: "A voice came from heaven." This voice, Mark tells us, speaks directly to Jesus, saying: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

What an affirmation! What an experience! What a life-changing event! The baptism of Jesus, among other things, is one of "the" most definitive affirmations of Christ's identity in the gospels! If we are to find meaning in this, then it's necessary to look at the Jewish roots and context of this event.

Reference to the heavens being torn apart is, in both Isaiah 64:1 and Ezekiel 1:1, a Jewish way of speaking of God revealing God's Self to a person or community of faith. The Jewish people believed that after "dry" periods where no one heard the word of the Lord, God would eventually speak by opening the heavens. So here in our gospel passage we have an affirmation of God speaking directly to Jesus, just as God spoke to faithful Israelites in the past.

Then, Mark tells us that it is when Jesus came out of the water that the Spirit descended like a dove on him. This description of the Spirit of God in the form of a dove hovering over the water hearkens back to the act of creation, when God ordered the chaos and the Spirit hovered over the waters, in Genesis 1:2. According to some rabbis, the Spirit here in this Genesis passage was thought to be a dove. Also, it was a dove that Noah sent out to search for land during the period of the flood. The dove's return with the olive branch was a sign of a new beginning for Noah, his family, and all of humankind.

When the dove descended upon Jesus, we have a symbolic divine action of the beginning of the New Creation in Jesus, and along with this a new aeon of love and peace. The dove with the olive branch continues, to this very day, to symbolize peace. Jesus himself, we acknowledge, is the Prince of peace, the One who shall one day order and perfect all of creation in perfect harmony and peace. So, with the presence of the descending Spirit in the form of a dove, we have another affirmation of the significance of this event and the personage of Jesus.

Then, Mark says, a voice from heaven speaks: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." For the Jewish people, this may very well have reminded them of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. In Psalm 2:7, God speaks to the anointed king upon his enthronement, saying: "You are my son; today I have begotten you." In these divine words, God adopts the king as his son, and affirms his identity as the anointed, enthroned king. In Isaiah 42:1, God speaks these words of affirmation to his Servant: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations." Here, the Servant's identity is affirmed in the divine commissioning, so that the Servant's identity is intricately bound up with his mission. As God's chosen, Spirit-filled, the Servant will usher in a rule of justice for all nations.

In Christ's baptism, God speaks to Jesus, affirms him as his Beloved (Special, Unique) Son; with whom God is well pleased. Out of this affirmation, Jesus will respond to his Father by fulfilling his commission as the Anointed One, the Messiah, and go forth to make known God's coming realm through his public ministry.

What about our identity? Are we inspired and affirmed too by remembering the efficacy of our baptism? Maybe the heavens were not torn apart, we didn't see the descending Spirit in the form of a dove, nor hear a voice from heaven when we were baptized. Nonetheless, God has promised, through the Scriptures, that our baptism is efficacious; that we have forgiveness of sin; that we are adopted as God's sons and daughters; that we are given the Holy Spirit; that we are commissioned to spread the coming realm of God to all people.

According to Soren Kierkegaard, the one thing which we all share in common is our tendency to forget, overlook and devalue how much we are and have been loved by God. The example of Martin Luther, once again, is instructive on this very point. For Luther, an integral part of the Christian's everyday life involves affirming our identity by remembering our baptism and the covenant which God has made with us through the sacrament.

Hopefully, each day, God's Spirit works within each of us, helping us to remember and affirm Who We are and Whose We Are by virtue of our baptism. Rather than suffering from an identity crisis, may we be confident in our baptismal identity ~ serving our God by sharing his love with the world.

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