Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 - As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
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."
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you,
Do not fear,
for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
you are mine.
When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and through the rivers,
they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba
in exchange for you.
Because you are precious
in my sight,
and I love you,
I give people
in return for you,
nations in exchange
for your life.
Do not fear,
for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring
from the east,
and from the west
I will gather you;
I will say to the north,
"Give them up,"
and to the south,
"Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters
from the end of the earth --
everyone who is called
by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."
Last week we followed a star to Bethlehem to lay eyes on the Christ child and to receive Star Gifts for the year to guide us in our prayers and our lives. This week we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. “The Most Important thing about today is that Christ was baptized,” Martin Luther said in a sermon from 1534.
I can’t think about Baptism without chuckling a little and without thinking about one of my seminary professors. He told all of us a story about a time as a student pastor, when he was called to the house of one of the congregants. This woman, who happened to significantly support the church financially, invited him to her house to ask him if he would baptize her monkey. Yes – she had a monkey and she wanted it baptized. Of course, he right away told her that he could not baptize the monkey because – well, this was a monkey and not a human being. She, however, proceeded to tell him that this money was quite like family and like her child to her. Unsure what to do and afraid to anger her, he then told her that even if he wished to, he could not baptize the monkey because he was not really a pastor; he was only a student pastor after all and not yet ordained. I don’t think he expected her response, something along the lines of, “Well, you are not really a pastor, and this is not really a person, so all is well, and nothing stands in the way of you baptizing my monkey.” Oh my, what to do? I am sure my former student was grasping at straws by now, wondering how to get out of this pickle of a situation, when finally, he knew what to do. “Well, I can’t baptize the monkey, but I can bless the monkey,’ he told her. What a relief when she thought about it and found that, yes, indeed, this was a good compromise – but not without also asking him, “But, can you use water?”
While this story is funny, I nevertheless always wondered what this woman was thinking. Why did she want her monkey baptized? I can’t help but wonder if she believed that, unless baptized, a person cannot enter heaven – and she was therefore afraid for her monkey.
I am not sure how many pastors you would find in our denomination that are willing to baptize a monkey. I do believe, however, that there are not many pastors in the United Church of Christ or other mainline protestant denominations, who think that a person must be baptized in order to “be saved” and go to heaven – whatever concept one may have of heaven. I also don’t think you will find many who think that baptism is simply a ritual one must or should undergo. For most, if not all of us, baptism is a sacred event that takes place within the community of believers. Nevertheless, many pastors receive telephone calls from non-members asking about private or backyard baptism for their child or to talk to the pastor about getting their child “done”. Baptism is a big deal to us as Christians and It seems that baptism was a big deal even back then.
Only Matthew and Luke give us stories about Jesus’s birth, but all four of the Gospels tell us something about Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. All four Gospels tell us about the Holy Spirit descending. And all but John tell us that a voice came from heaven calling Jesus beloved. In his own baptism, Jesus received a new name – Beloved. So often people confuse baptism with a naming ceremony or a way to show the world that this child is THEIRS, belonging to them and to their family - when in fact it is God who claims us as God’s own and who gives us a new name as the waters of baptism touch us.
Names are important. Throughout the Bible, the names of people and places signify who they are and how they belong into the bigger story of God. It begins at creation, when God speaks all of creation into being and by naming day and night, earth and seas, and adam or humankind. And in the second chapter of Genesis, God gives humankind authority over naming all other living things. And then there are places in the scripture named after important events – such as “Penuel” meaning “Face of God”, named so by Jacob after he struggled with God but survived. Or Rehoboth – Open Space or Room for all – named so by Isaac after digging a well that was pleasing to all. And children were given symbolic names like Isaac (laughter) because Sarah laughed when she was told that she would have a child at her old age; or Ichabod, meaning “the lord has departed” because he was born on the day that the Arc of the Covenant was lost to the Philistines, and more. Names are important.
Even more important than naming is renaming; in the Bible, renaming is a way of showing who a person is and whom that person belongs to. Abram became Abraham, Sarah became Sarai – each renaming signifying a changed, new relationship with God. Pharaoh renamed Joseph as a way of claiming him and Cyrus renamed Daniel and his three comrades for the same reason. And even in the New Testament – Jesus renamed Simon to Peter and after his conversion, Saul becomes Paul.
In Baptism, God names us. In Baptism we share in being named and in being claimed by God. As heirs of Christ and members of the body of Christ, in the moment of our baptism, we, like Jesus, are named “Beloved”. In Baptism God tells us who we are and whose we are. In Baptism God whispers the words of Isaiah into our hearts and souls:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.
I’ve called your name. You’re mine.
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.
When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place,
it won’t be a dead end--
Because I am God, your God.
For you I would do anything”
The waters with whom we are baptized will dry, but the unconditional promise that we belong to God stands forever. Nothing can ever change that. That is grace!
And as we go through life, we need this grace. All around us there are people, places, or institutions, and organizations clamoring for ownership over us and our choices. They try to tell us who we are and what we are worth, making our worth depending on wealth and health and age and gender and family status and other things.
As one pastor writes:
“Our baptism can remind us that no one determines our worth in this world or in the next other than God.
To the prisoner, it means you do not belong to the bars and chains around you. You belong to God.
To the addicted, it means you do not belong to that thing which you crave. You belong to God.
To the dying, it means you do not belong to this body or to that cancer. You belong to God.
To the patriot, it means, you do not belong to this nation. You belong to God.
To the debtor, it means you do not belong to any bank or credit card company. You belong to God.
To the exploited and overworked, it means you do not belong to your company. You belong to God.
To the depressed, it means you do not belong to this sadness. You belong to God.
To the abused, it means you do not belong to the person or the memories that hurt you. You belong to God.
To those who are told by the world that they are too young, too old, too thin, too fat, too needy, too grumpy, too tired, too much, it means that these words are not who you are. You are God’s beloved.
And even though it might feel like, look like, smell like, hurt like you belong to all these other things, as sure as water is wet and God is good, I heard a voice out of the heavens say it: You belong to God.”
Our baptism is a visible sign of the invisible grace received and “baptism is the church declaring what has always been true —— that each of us belongs to God and only to God”.
“The Most Important thing about today is that Christ was baptized,” Martin Luther said in his sermon. I believe that the second most important thing is that we are or can be baptized, too.
May all those marked by the water, know who and whose they are and may those who are not, feel drawn to this water and know the love that holds us tightly and that will not fail.
You are God’s beloved and with you God is well pleased.
 Luther Seminary, World & Word, Volume XVI, Number 1, Winter 1995, https://wordandworld.luthersem.ed
 From “The Message”, a paraphrase of scripture