a sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord [Year C]
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What will be the Washington Football Team’s new name? I realize not everyone is invested in this, but there is a definite buzz in our area and among Washington football fans everywhere about the much-anticipated reveal of the organization’s new name and rebranding. The former Washington Redskins and its logo are clearly a thing of the past, albeit a long and storied past. Now everyone who follows football and who loves the team is interested in what the team will be next. What are they going to look like? What will they stand for?
In fact, the team organization released a well-produced video this week to add to the hype. Former coaches and players all chime in to drum up support and approval so that when it’s finally announced people will embrace it. And now they have a date for that announcement. It is, as the voice in the video says, “the date of our new identity, the date it will come to life.” It will be a challenge, for sure. With one name and one image they are trying to represent what they stand for and bring everyone together. Washington Football Team fans anxiously await February 2 to learn what it is.
There is no promo video for it, no secret selection team and no focus groups giving feedback, but the same kind of anticipation likely pulses among the crowds being baptized by John and along the faithful in Israel, wherever they are. They await a big reveal—the big reveal of God’s anointed leader, the one who will represent what God stands for and manage to bring everyone together. And in the baptism of Jesus it is finally announced. This is God’s rebranding. Here, in these muddy waters where the masses are milling around in hope of a new future, the identity of the true God comes to life. The voice of an announcer even thunders from the skies: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
We don’t probably think about Jesus’ baptism this way. I’m really not sure how most of us think of Jesus’ baptism, especially when such a big deal is made about his birth nowadays. His baptism seems almost redundant, in a way, once we figure in what the angels said at his birth about how he brings peace on earth, and how Mary and Joseph watched him grow with this special relationship to God’s Word. Yet in the whole scope of the New Testament, his baptism is more important. If we are looking for a moment, if we need a date for when Jesus’ identity and mission is rolled out for the public, his baptism is it. All the earlier nativity stuff is just build-up, growing the hype—that’s just getting people rallied for the vision that’s coming. The baptism, which all four gospel writers talk about in some way, is the big announcement about how God will engage the whole universe.
At some point during John the Baptist’s ministry when Herod Antipas was the ruler, this otherwise ordinary looking man comes down with all the other people who are waiting for a new beginning in their lives. And then this otherwise ordinary man has water poured over his head, just like the rest of them. Right up front this sounds a bit odd or potentially disappointing. In most superhero movies and in most ancient stories and legends, the designated leader usually has some kind of special quality or stands out in some way. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Tony Stark is really intelligent and wealthy. Jesus of Nazareth is just one among the masses at this point. All he does is pray, which is what he does next, thinking about new beginnings and renewal and turning over a new page.
And then while he’s praying the heavens suddenly open up. I don’t know exactly what that looked like. Maybe it looked like the sun shining through the clouds, or like the crazy thunderstorm with lightning and wind that the psalmist witnesses in the psalm this morning, Psalm 29. It’s hard to say but I find we use this expression all the time (and people in Scripture used this expression occasionally) when something suddenly becomes very clear to us and we see a way where there seems to be no way. The heavens open up that day, saying God is making a way in this person. This otherwise ordinary man will be the way.
We also say, “the heavens opened up” when something really good becomes possible that we didn’t think was possible. Jesus is the good thing for earth that we didn’t think could happen. His mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness of sins—these are so unbelievably good for us and now they are happening. Now they are here.
Then a dove comes down, which is the Holy Spirit, and it flies around for a while. Doves are gentle. They are pretty fragile creatures. And so right after John describes the coming Messiah leader as this kind of fearsome figure with a winnowing fork in his hand who is going baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit we have this little white cooing dove coming down.
Speaking of football teams, the seminary I attended had a flag football team and a basketball team. At some point along the way—the specific time is not really clear—the teams decided they needed a name. The only real recognizable symbol at Southern Seminary was the gigantic stained glass dove window in the chapel. So the football team was going to be the Dove—singular, not doves—a lot like the Crimson Tide. If you’d have seen us play, you would have immediately thought Roll Tide. But just Dove didn’t sound tough enough, I suppose, so they became the Fighting Dove. No worries…I don’t think Washington is going to be the Fighting Dove.
But Jesus will be! Jesus is the Fighting Dove, the gentle, vulnerable, fragile Messiah who will fight for the redemption and freedom and forgiveness of all. He will not attack with anything other than compassion and a strong willingness to draw all people into God’s embrace. He will not employ any strategy other than service and self-sacrifice. He will not coerce anyone to follow God’s new way, nor will he con anyone into the joys of service.
So neither should the church. Our way is Jesus’ way. Through our own baptisms we are made members of his team, whether we agree with God’s logo and name or not. It’s a cross, and the name is suffering and compassion. We are one with this new identity of God who is determined to bring everyone together. Churches and individual disciples who engage the world through prayer, as Jesus does here at his beginning, are part of the heavens breaking open on a weary world. Congregations and individuals who showcase humility and seek to give glory to God rather than self are part of the wave of peace and justice that overcome the world in Jesus.
All of that begins— this whole movement of God’s new way begins right there that day when he steps into the water and is introduced as God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased. The question is: will we accept him? Will we sign on?
It seems to me that new beginnings and fresh starts are pretty much what everyone wanted with this new calendar year. No matter who you talk to, the expectation was that 2022 would bring some new freedom and new vistas. Instead, we’re limping our way into a third year of pandemic. Just about everyone I talk to is weary and suffering in some way, if not from COVID, then from quarantine, and if not from quarantine, then from arguments about mandates for masks or vaccines, and if not from mandates, then about the economy. The whole world is on the struggle bus. So forget football teams, right? We want a re-branding. We want all of this re-branded: dunk it in the water, God, and pull out some fresh new future.
I think that’s partly why so many people latched on to Ted Lasso, the Apple TV hit, that tells the story of an unlikely coach with unconventional methods who ends up forming a community among his team and eve the townfolk and helping people grow. The show’s fans talked about how it was a new kind of show that featured kindness and vulnerability and forgiveness when there was so much harshness around.
And here’s the thing: Jesus’ baptism didn’t happen on some happy, sunnier earlier time in world history. We are told by Luke that it occurs just after John the Baptist is arrested for speaking out and thrown in prison. So it may not have even been John who baptized him. The times were tough then. Battle lines were drawn. Everyone was on edge. Things were tense. Jesus could have shied away from doing this. He could have waited it out a little, let things cool down, crept back to Nazareth and played it safe. He could have held back, or he could have doubled down on John’s bombastic, confrontational style.
But he doesn’t do either. Jesus goes for it. He steps into the water, sees this as the time for a new regime of love and justice and peace to take root, and lets himself be named.
Last week as people were coming up to Holy Communion I knelt down to place the cross of blessing on the head of one of our younger members. Like usual, I said, “Owen, child of God, may the Lord bless you and keep you.” I got ready to stand back up, but behind him was another small child I’d never seen before. Before I knew what was happening, Owen, who is only five, Pointed to the new kid and said to me, looking me in the eye, “His name is Louie.” Louie didn’t have to introduce himself. Owen did it for him. Owen wanted to make sure I called Louie by his name.
Friends, we’ve been named, as much as a tremble to say it sometimes. In our baptisms, we’ve been introduced as one of the new team that looks another tough year head-on and says, “It’s go time.” With our Christlike words, our gentle gestures, our vulnerability on display and kindness in our brains we move forward. We have been equipped for this life of peace and mercy and we trust God will bring everyone together. With Jesus as our leader we walk into that opening in the heavens he made. Because of Jesus God is now with us and God is for us. Always and forever, in good times and in bad.
And so we say, even before February 2: Hail…hail to the Beloved Son. Hail to that Fighting Dove.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.