Baptism and Identity

Sermon preached on January 13, 2019 – Baptism of Our Lord
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Act 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Baptism and Identity

It’s the second Sunday in our Season of Epiphany, the season when we focus on God’s showing forth in the world. This week we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, a moment when Jesus’ identity “shows forth.”¹ And our friend, John the wilderness guide is back; he’s here to do what John does – to proclaim the messiah, and to baptize people. Seems fitting that he would be part of this story of the baptism of Jesus. Though given our story of the magi was just last week, it seems quick doesn’t it? Remember, Jesus is baptized as an adult, as he is just about to begin his public ministry. A lot of time has passed in the narrative, but the theme of God’s own beloved child still rings out clearly. This is the messiah, the anointed one, with whom God is well-pleased.

The Gospel text in Luke recalls the ancient language of texts like our first lesson from Isaiah, in which God says: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Just a chapter earlier in Isaiah, (in chapter 42), God has said:

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.”²

These are the promises that John and the people gathered for baptism are anticipating. The promised one is coming, God’s own chosen and beloved, the one who will deliver them all.

It’s no wonder that the people ask John about his identity – can it be you? John is courageous and prophetic, and a little strange; clearly chosen by God and willing to do God’s work, undaunted by the powers of the world; and certain about what he is called to do. Fortunately, John knows who he is, and who he isn’t. He isn’t the messiah – he is the forerunner, the one sent to proclaim the promised one. For some time now, John has been telling people that the messiah is coming – they need to prepare. He’s been helping people turn toward God, and offering them a baptism of repentance, an opportunity to change. When they ask him if he is the promised one, he tells them that something completely different is about to happen. And it has everything to do with identity. While John baptizes with water offering this baptism of repentance, the Messiah will offer something else entirely. The Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Winnowing the wheat into his granary and burning the chaff. It’s sounds as if John is saying the messiah will deem some worthy and others not. But winnowing doesn’t
separate good grain from bad grain; winnowing separates the chaff from the grain. Every grain of wheat has a husk, and winnowing is the process farmers use to separate these husks -collectively known as “chaff” – from the grain itself, their goal is to save every grain. So, one way of interpreting John’s image of winnowing is to say that the Messiah’s baptism will refine and preserve the good grain within us. What will be removed by wind and fire are impurities: our anxieties, self-absorption, apathy, or greed that make us less generous, less fair, or less respectful of others. Freeing us of the ‘husks’ that keep us from loving God and our neighbors as ourselves.³

In the omitted verses in our text today, John ends up in prison, where he tells the truth to Herod about Herod’s life, probably telling him to repent and change, because that’s what John does and who John is. So, in Luke’s version of the story, Jesus and the people are at the river and baptisms are happening without John. But just as John predicted – something completely different was about to happen.

God shows forth Jesus’ identity to all who are gathered. Speaking to Jesus directly, but in a voice everyone can hear, God says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Everything has changed – God’s promises have begun to unfold through God’s Beloved Son.

Baptism is about identity; about who we are, as we claim God’s promises for ourselves and others. It’s about making promises to live fully into who we are created to be. For us, Baptism is a once in a lifetime event, a choice to turn our life toward God.

We come here to be together, to be in a community with others who have made a similar intentional choice. Who know that this world is not all there is. Because life is more than what is in the news or on social media. There are deeper truths found in community about relationship and coming into our own, about choices and values, about what really matters, and the ultimate truth that everyone is valued, loved and redeemed by the God we worship. The God who loves us and brings us home.

Baptism is about identity – who we are. “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God calls you by name. You are God’s own Beloved. It’s the week we celebrate Baptism, and God calls you by name; this week, and every week. Every day. Every hour.⁴ God calls each of us. God calls all of us.

We come together as a community as those who are God’s own – to support and uphold, to nurture and respect, to sustain one another, and reflect that love to each other and the world. To be beloved community.

Last Sunday we heard three Epiphany gift stories. All three centered around strangers reaching out to others and doing more than meeting needs. What made the stories newsworthy was the way each bridged perceived distances between the people involved. Distances of age, or of fame and fortune, or across a currently contentious border. The young family in Wales who befriended their octogenarian neighbor, resulting in 14 remarkable Christmases to come; the famous former NFL player who is still helping single parent families secure their first homes (long after the cameras and accolades have stopped); the couple in Arizona who searched for a little girl so they could fulfill her Christmas wish list – delivering her gifts across the border into Mexico. In each case it was clear to all involved that everyone gained from the interaction, and those who gave would tell you they gained as much or more than those who received. And what was infinitely clear is that we are meant to live in nurturing and healthy communities. To those gift stories we added our Star: the two New Mainer girls who sang their hearts out at Governor Mill’s swearing in ceremony.⁵

Which brings me to a meeting I sat in on this past week, of the Yarmouth Compassionate Housing Initiative group, (or YCHI) with Carla, Lisa and Cecilia and others. There were a lot of moving pieces in the discussion, but one opportunity in particular speaks to our conversation this morning. Over the past two years, our YCHI group has hosted 40 families of asylum seekers primarily from Central Africa. Many of these families have settled locally in the Portland area, and we are thinking of ways to be in relationship with them more fully. How might we offer friendship and build intentional community with those who are interested in doing so? To do more than meet needs, but bridge gaps and develop relationships, wrapping the care and fabric of this beloved community around them. And, as we weave them into the fabric as well, with the unique gifts they bring our community, we will continue becoming the people we are meant to become. God’s beloved community in this place.

As we have said, Baptism is about identity – who we are. “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

We live in a complicated, sometimes violent, often disconnected world. And we do the best we can at any given moment. Sometimes we do pretty well, and sometimes we leave a lot of room for improvement. But I am convinced that living in a healthy, responsive community is always better than going it alone. I’ve learned that from you, over these 12 years together – the power of having a community wrap around you when you are in need – the strength that comes from knowing that you are not alone. And I thank you for that.

Today, as we remember our identity, may we breathe deeply of the love of God; and commit to living an intentional life, together in community. And may we extend this beloved community to others – loving our neighbors as ourselves, and becoming the community that supports and sustains them, as it supports and sustains each of us. Amen.

1 Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two, January 7, 2019.
2 Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two, January 7, 2019.
3 Jesus Also: Salt’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Two, January 7, 2019.
4 Christine Hallenbeck Ask, Associate Pastor, Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church Sioux Falls, S.D.; for Luther Seminary’s God Pause, January 7, 2019.
5 Last week’s sermon: Unexpected Gifts, can be found our website: