If you have ever heard the same story told by two different people, then you know how many different ways there are to tell a story. And often the way a story is told tells you something about the storyteller. For instance when two brothers come home from a fishing trip–one who didn’t catch a thing and the other who caught 5 fish, including a 15lb walleye–they will tell you different stories. One will tell you how it rained the whole time, how impossible it was to sleep on that uneven ground, and how poorly his brother set up the tent. The other one will tell you how delightful the weather was, how he didn’t mind not sleeping because it just meant he got to listen to the sound of creation throughout the night, and how he can’t wait to do it again next month. Same event, different details. And it is the details that make all the difference.
The same is true for the writers of the four Gospels. Each of them try to tell us something by how they tell a story. What details they put in. What they leave out. Each of the gospels writers tells of the baptism of Jesus in a completely different way. Now, in the Gospel of John, Jesus isn’t even technically baptized, so we will just leave him out of this. In Mark, when Jesus is still soaking wet in the river standing next to John, God speaks only to Jesus, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In Matthew, John baptizes Jesus and then God speaks to everyone, not just Jesus. God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
But the way Luke tells the story is quite different than both Mark and Matthew. In Luke’s version of the Jesus’ baptism, someone is missing. Listen again:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Someone is missing from this event. Who is it? Who is missing? John is missing. John the Baptist. That little section that was left out of the lectionary reading in your bulletins, Luke explains why.
John proclaimed the good news to the people. But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
So John is missing because John is prison. Put there by King Herod. But if John is in jail, then who baptizes Jesus? Listen:
And when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
Who? The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit baptizes Jesus. Now, I don’t think that Luke is trying to make a historical statement by saying that John wasn’t there when Jesus was baptized. I think Luke is trying to make a theological statement. Who baptizes Jesus? Not John. The Holy Spirit. It seems Luke is saying it does not matter if John is the one who poured water over Jesus’ body or not. Baptism is about God’s action. This is not a historical statement. It’s theological. It’s about God. Who baptizes? God baptizes! The Holy Spirit baptizes. It doesn’t matter who is handling the water. Whether it is John the Baptist, me, or your aunt who pours water over you – God is the one who baptizes.
A couple of years ago, I heard the story of a woman in her 80s. She was attending worship one Sunday morning and during the sermon, the pastor proclaimed to the congregation this message. That God is the one who baptizes, not the person pouring the water. The woman caught her breath, not expecting to hear those words. And also not knowing how much she needed them. With tears coming down her face, she approached the pastor after church. “Is it true? That God is the one who baptizes?” “Yes, it is true,” the pastor said. The woman spoke again. “When I was born, I was very, very sick. They didn’t think I would make it. So there in the hospital room, in great fear, my aunt baptized me. And all my life I have wondered and worried that I was not enough because I was never truly baptized. That it didn’t count and I didn’t count. Because it had been my aunt in a hospital and not a pastor in a church. I have felt incomplete. But now I know. It wasn’t my aunt who baptized me that day in the hospital; it was God.”
More than telling us about Jesus’ baptism, Luke is saying something about God. That in baptism, God is the actor. God is the one doing something. It’s not you choosing God; it is God who has chosen you. God has claimed you. Baptism is a claiming event. It is about hearing for the first time who has claimed you. Who you belong to. To be soaked and washed in God’s claiming love. It’s a love that says, “You are mine.” It is all about identity. Your identity.
Have you ever wondered about your identity? Have you ever asked the question: who am I? So often, when we want to get to know some one, when we want to know who they are, we begin by asking them, “What do you do?” What’s your career, your job? Or we ask seniors in high school – who do you want to be when you grow up? And this is when we start to associate who we are not with who we belong to. And who has claimed us. But with what we do. And then, if who we are depends on what we do – what happens when we lose our job? Or when we fail at our job? Or when we retire? We feel like a nobody.
But with God, your identity does not rest in what you do. But in who has claimed you.
As you might imagine, I read a lot of children’s books these days. One of my favorite books is called Are you my mother? If you don’t know it, it is the story about a baby bird that has just hatched. But just before it hatched, its mother flew away to go find it some food. So when the baby bird hatches, its mother is nowhere to be found. So the baby bird goes around to all different animals asking, “Are you my mother?” To the kitten, “Are you my mother?” To the hen, “Are you my mother?” To the dog, to the cow, even to a big bulldozer, “Are you my mother?” Finally, in the end, spoiler alert, the baby bird sees its mother and says, “I know who you are. You are not a kitten, or a hen, or a dog, or a cow. You are a bird. And you are my mother.”
This is a story about identity. The baby bird is wondering who it is and who it belongs to. And what I love about this book is that the bird’s identity does not rest in what it does or what it accomplishes. It doesn’t rest in whether it is a good bird or a bad bird. Its identity is discovered and rests in who its mother is. Who it belongs to.
We ask these questions: who am I? Am I enough? Baptism says you are made by God. You are made in the image of God. And you belong to God. This is your identity. And then the questions of who am I? Am I enough? They can fall away. It doesn’t matter what other people think of you or say about you, this is who you are. You are God’s child. Be who you are. Every thing we do should flow out of that promise. I don’t care what you’ve done in your life, good or bad, you are God’s child and you are loved.
I know this may sound redundant and old-hat. God loves you. We hear that all the time. But as we continue to spend time together, what I continue to learn is how much we still need to hear this. We need to hear this over and over and over again. We forget it. We lose sight of it. Because it dissolves away too quickly. Every week, atleast, we need to hear these words from God. You are my child. I love you. Martin Luther says that we must remember it daily. Every day. And not just us. But the people in our community needs to hear these words too. The kids at the alternative school need to hear these words. The men and women in the detention center need to hear these words. The people at our places of work and the people in our families need to hear these words.
Let me just say again as I have in the past, if you haven’t been baptized, or if your child or your grandchild hasn’t be baptized, this water and these promises are for you too. You have them.
So, let’s all listen to them. Let them sink into your bodies and be digested. Take them in so that they might change our life. And then let’s be people who share these promises to others, with our words and with our actions. Let’s be a community who tells others these words of God: You are my child, my beloved. I am pleased with you. Amen