The Memory of Baptism, Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 1: 4-11, Jan. 11, 2009  

A new year, a new you: that seems to be our American pattern for weight loss and exercise every January. And it does make it a little easier, I think, to work on these changes when so many other people are doing the same. We tend to feel less self-conscience at this time of the year in trying to improve our fitness.
 
People will be working, like me, to make changes in their health and fitness. Moreover, often this transformation can be felt from the inside out—spiritually and mentally----as well as physically.
 
As I read this passage about Jesus’ baptism, I thought about how Jesus’ must have gone through a transformation. It must have felt life changing to hear God confer this identity on him.
 
"In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
 
Jesus must have felt like a brand new person when he heard God name him “My Son, the beloved,”
 
I wonder if it felt like a new beginning, like a new start in his life and relationship with God. This baptism by John must have been a transforming and revealing moment for Jesus.
 
The Gospels tell us that Jesus went away, on his own, into the wilderness after his baptism. I think he needed time to accept and adjust and commit himself to the reality of what this identity meant---- in terms of how he would live his life and what it would mean in the future----- to claim this as his identity as “God’s son, God’s beloved.”
 
In the words of the late Henri Nouwen, from a sermon he gave in 1991 at the Sunday Evening Club on 30 Good Minutes in Chicago:
"But what I would like to say is that the spiritual life is a life in which you gradually learn to listen to a voice that says, "You are the beloved and on you my favor rests."
"You are the beloved and on you my favor rests.
"Jesus heard that voice. He heard that voice when He came out of the Jordan River. I want you to hear that voice, too. It is a very important voice that says, "You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter. I love you with an everlasting love. I have molded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother's womb. I've written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace. I hold you. You belong to Me and I belong to you. You are safe where I am. Don't be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved. That is who you truly are."
"I want you to hear that voice. It is not a very loud voice because it is an intimate voice. It comes from a very deep place. It is soft and gentle. I want you to gradually hear that voice. We both have to hear that voice and to claim for ourselves that that voice speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are. That is where the spiritual life starts -- by claiming the voice that calls us the beloved."
Jesus must have known that there would be a transformation in him; that there would be changes in his present and future circumstances of his life because of this baptismal event and naming.
 
Knowing and accepting who he was---would mean living out that identity in a new way with God’s help and wisdom.
 
Like Jesus, we too, have been claimed by God in the waters of our baptism; and as we have accepted and claimed that identity as our own, our old self is gone and our new self lives in Christ. And that life is a life of love   in response to our baptism.
 
In remembering our baptism, we remember WHO we are and WHOSE we are.
 
In some instances of infant baptism, one of the parts of the liturgy asks what Christian name the child is to be known by. Then the pastor charges the parent or sponsor and the congregation to help the child grow into their Christian identity and life, saying:        
 
“Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?”
 
We make a lifelong commitment to help one another grow into this Christian identity and this way of life.
 
Every year at this time, our denomination’s office of Missions publishes letters from our missionaries around the world. In a Christmas letter, missionary Marta Bennett, in Kenya, talked about how the name she is known by  has shaped her experience there in Kenya.
 
She writes, “What’s in a name? Names confirm identity, are spoken in greetings, establish relationships, and at times, declare origins and determine opportunities—or fates. Here in Kenya, a name may make a connection or it may create an enemy (in the January 2008 ethnic clashes, people were stopped and asked for their ID cards to determine whether they should be stoned or co-opted. Names here often reveal one’s ethnicity, and that can mean life or death to a person).
 
Marta continues, "We introduce ourselves by saying, “My names (plural) are…” We have a number of names. When I have students introduce themselves, I ask them to state their names, and then which name they prefer to be called by in this context.
 
My given names are difficult for many to hear or say in their language. And I respond to many different names these days, names which give clues into my various roles, identities, and contexts, they include: teacher, doctor, pastor/shepherd, professor, Mama, Mum, sister, my friend.
 
What’s in a name? In the Incarnation, God took on a name, an identity, a culture. God took on human flesh and human relationships.” God took on an eternal claim on our lives.
 
Marta Bennett ends her letter by saying: Just think about “the names given to Jesus -------Emmanuel: “God with us”, Christ—“The anointed one,” Messiah, Lord, Savior, Friend, Teacher, Rabbi, The Word, Son of God, Son of man, the Good Shepherd, Master, Our Lord and Savior, the Name that is above all names!”
 
These names identify who God is to us and how we are guided and nurtured in our relationship with God through Christ.
 
In a crowd of ordinary people, down by the riverside-- God made all things new, including your life and mine.
 
Prior to her baptism, on the day of her adoption in a social workers office in Flint, Michigan, she was a 6 month-old baby girl know only by a case number, rather than a name. And through an act of loving response to God’s claim on their lives, her parents adopted her, named her, and baptized her Mary Jane Smith, a child of God; and her life changed forever. Her identity changed forever.
 
Whether you were baptized as child or as an adult, in those waters, you and the church claimed the gift of God’s grace and your new identity: as God’s beloved. And with that claim, your life changed from what it could have been to what it is and what it is yet to be.
 
Our Christian identity is a dynamic, living process of change our whole life through. Your baptism is not just a ceremony to perform in a given moment of time. Your baptism is an identity with purpose and meaning that God reveals to you through time and circumstance when you are patient and faithful to God’s plan for you
 
The life of the beloved starts by trusting that we are chosen in our uniqueness, that we are unique in God's eyes, precious.
 
“We are little people, but if we believe that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken, to be given, then we can trust that our life will bear fruit. It will multiply. Not only in this life, but beyond it. Many, many people will find strength by knowing that they are being given new life by those who lived as the beloved and they can become the beloved themselves” (Nouwen).
 
“In our world, when one is chosen it means for the others, "Too bad for us, we are not chosen." In God's mystery, being chosen does not mean excluding anyone. In fact, the more we know we are chosen, that we are seen in our preciousness, the more we will realize that our friends and all people are seen in their preciousness” (Nouwen).
 
I encourage you to remember your baptism this morning.
 
It reminds us of the deep, sacred reality that we are created and claimed by a God who loves us unconditionally;   who forgives us and calls us to a life of loving others.
 
Our Baptism reminds us that there is always a place for us at God’s table; that we belong to God. God communicates that truth to us saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
 
Our walk of faith is a journey we begin new each year---each day---with each prayer. And we can always ask for and expect a new beginning, a new, healthier and whole identity and presence in this life.
 
God loves to help us change and become the person God intends us to be. As this New Year unfolds in our life: let us remember our baptism this morning and reclaim our identity and purpose: We are the Beloved – Love one another.
 
(Liturgy for Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant for a Congregation)
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz  
 
 
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