Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday 13 January 2019
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger
“Hello my name is…”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few weeks ago, my neighbor and I walked out the doors of our apartments at the same time, nearly bumping in to each other in our shared garden. “Hi, Melanie!” I said. She responded with, “Hi!”
And then, in her very lovely British accent (which I will not attempt to copy) she said, “I am soooo sorry. I just realized I’ve been calling you by the wrong name for months!”
Now this was very confusing to me, as I was certain she had called me “Carrie” on more than one occasion.
“I’m so very sorry, I hope you’re not offended.” she continued. “All this time I’ve been calling you Carrie, and then I saw your name in print the other day and realized your name is actually CAAA-rrie!”
Now this made me laugh out loud! Believe it or not, I’ve had this exact conversation several times before (nearly always with Europeans) and each time I have to explain that yes, my name is spelled “Carrie” but because I come from the American Midwest, it’s just pronounced “Kerry”. Where I’m from, we say “Merry Christmas” and we also get “married”, not MAAA-ried. We don’t “CAAA-rry” things home from the store—we just carry them.
And yes, my name is also just pronounced—Carrie.
So no, I wasn’t offended, I told Melanie. She had been saying my name right all along. In fact, some might argue that I’m the one who’s been getting it wrong, my whole life!
As we parted ways, I realized not only was I not offended, I was smiling. It felt good that my neighbor cared enough to say my name correctly. It felt good, because names matter. It matters what we are called.
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 3, a voice from heaven—the voice of God—has something to say about Jesus. And it matters what Jesus is called in that moment.
As it is written, Jesus was in the Jordan River being baptized by John,
“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
This name—Beloved Son—matters immensely. It mattered to John! And it mattered to the others gathered at the Jordan that day who must have heard the same heavenly voice.
It matters that Jesus was called Beloved Son at his baptism, because this was a critical moment in Jesus’ life. He was about to start his public teaching ministry. In fact, being baptized by John was Jesus’ first public act—before he gave the Sermon on the Mount, before he turned the water into wine in Cana, before he healed anyone, and before he went obediently to the cross, he stepped into the Jordan and was baptized by his cousin John.
Seeing this public act from our post-Easter, post-Pentecost understanding of baptism, we might say that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. Being sinless, he had no sins to wash away! Being the Body himself, he had no need to be engrafted into the One Holy and Apostolic Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth today!
And yet…Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, as a sign of his obedience to God and his commitment to the tradition of the prophets who came before him. His baptism showed John, and the crowd—and us—who he is.
In other words, Jesus was baptized not so that he would be made whole and holy, but so that in our baptisms, we could be made whole and holy. For as the voice of heaven declared, he is God’s Beloved Son. He is not only a prophet, not only a teacher, not only a healer. He is both human and divine, the One we’ve been waiting for, our Savior and our Redeemer. Amen!
It matters what Jesus was called at that critical moment, when he was poised to begin his ministry of teaching and healing, feeding the hungry and raising the dead. It matters because the crowds—and maybe even Jesus himself—needed to know who he really was before the seeds of the Gospel of love could be planted, and grow, and take root in the lives of the people.
In this way, although there are important differences, Jesus’ baptism and our own are similar. At our baptisms, we hear God calling us by name, bestowing on us our true identity as beloved children—and then, we too are sent out to scatter the seeds of the Gospel—the seeds of justice, love, mercy, reconciliation, and true peace.
Jesus heard the voice from heaven calling him Beloved Son just as he was poised to begin his ministry in the Galilee. Today, we also are gathered at a critical juncture in the church year. Today, the Baptism of Our Lord, is the official end of the Christmas season in the church calendar (although of course in Jerusalem we have one more Christmas to come, when the Armenians celebrate on January 19!)
Christmas is over for now, and next Sunday begins what we call “ordinary time”. It’s not that nothing extraordinary happens in February, it just means there are no feasts or festivals on the Sundays between now and Lent! During this “ordinary” time, we will be hearing about Jesus’ ministry of feeding, healing, and raising the dead. We’ll be challenged and convicted by his teachings. And therefore, it matters what Jesus is called. This is not just any man teaching us to forgive, to love our neighbor and to pray for our enemies. This is not just any prophet who sends us out to seek justice, and build peace, and create community with those who are different from us. This Jesus is God’s Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. Amen!
As I said, next week is the beginning of “ordinary” time. But actually, I get to start the ordinary season doing something quite extra-ordinary:
Next Sunday, I get to baptize Jesus in the Jordan!
It’s true! Well, sort of…
You see, after church next week, the German, Arabic, and English-speaking congregations of Redeemer will join together for a trip to the Jordan River baptismal site. With Pastor Fursan and Propst Schmidt we’ll have a short liturgy there to remember our own baptisms and our shared commitment to seeking God’s justice, love, and mercy for all people.
And then, we will step into the Jordan, and baby Emory, daughter of Allyson and John—who just happened to play the part of Baby Jesus in our church’s Christmas pageant in December—will be baptized. How many people get to say they baptized Jesus in the Jordan? I mean, aside from John the Baptist… Nothing ordinary about that, I would say!
After Baby Emory is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, she will hear these words:
“Emory, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
In that moment, called by name not only by me, but by God, Emory will know her true identity. No matter what else anyone calls her – daughter, student, friend, maybe partner or parent someday—she will know that she is first and foremost a Beloved Child of God, saved and sent through Water and the Word. She won’t remember the day or the river, because she’s only 6 months old! But Allyson and John will. Those of us gathered here today, and those who will gather at the Jordan next Sunday, will not always be Emory’s church community. But our job, as Christ’s global church, is to call her by name. Our job is to remind the Emorys of the world who they are, and who loves them, and to welcome them into our shared mission to manifest the Gospel of love in the world today.
It matters what we are called.
Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities for the differently abled, once wrote:
In one of our communities, there is a man called Pierre who has a mental handicap. One day someone asked him, “Do you like praying?” He answered, “Yes.” He was asked what he did when he prayed. He answered, “I listen.” And what does God say to you?” He says, “You are my beloved son.”
I’m sure there were those who called Pierre many other things due to his differences.
But thanks be to God—and I’m sure, thanks be to the community which nurtured him—he knew who he was. He knew he could trust God’s voice calling him beloved, calling him worthy, calling him saved by grace through faith, apart from works, apart from accomplishments, apart from abilities.
Dear siblings in Christ, I’m sure you have been called by many names in your life. Some of them are welcomed. But if you are Palestinian, you may have been called an invented people. If you are a woman, your voice may have been called insignificant. If you are differently abled, or differently colored, or differently oriented, or differently educated, you may have been called names that are much, much, worse.
Hear me when I say today that through water and the Word, you have been called by name. Your name is God’s beloved. And God always, always, pronounces your name correctly!
As it is written in Isaiah chapter 43:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
On this day, the last before ordinary time, I pray that you hear God calling your name, which is extraordinary. I pray you know that through the cross of Christ, you always have a home in God’s house. You are beautifully and wonderfully made! Because you are beloved, you can confidently be who God created you to be. With God’s help, you can live out your baptismal covenant, standing with the poor and the voiceless and working for justice and peace in all the world—from Jerusalem to California, from Ohio to wherever God takes you next. You, child of God, can live and love boldly for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let it be so now, according to God’s will. Amen.