Genesis 1:1 - 2:4
According to the gospel of John, what is “the Word”? It’s Jesus, actually. Not scripture. The Word of God is Jesus. And we are told that, in the beginning, this third person of the trinity already existed.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people…The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. … The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The Word was already in the world, it was there since the beginning. Jesus, as the Word, was there from the beginning. And yet Jesus was born and Jesus was baptized as one of us. What does that mean?
As I’ve said before, Epiphany actually has three parts, or three events. Epiphany is the revelation or revealing of who Jesus was. The first part of the epiphany is the visit of the Magi, their recognition of who Jesus was, through the star, through their study and wisdom and their declaration of who Jesus was by their commitment to travel, to bring him gifts, to honor him. The second part is what we read today, the revelation of Jesus by the Spirit descending on him like a dove, with the voice that came from heaven saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The final piece of the epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle or his turning the water into wine. The Magi represented the revelation to the Gentiles of who Jesus was. The Baptism was God’s own naming of who Jesus was. And his first miracle was done for his own community, for those attending the wedding, or other Jews.
But baptism, the piece of epiphany on which we focus today also has other meanings for us. And the fact that Jesus was baptized shows the extent to which God, the Word, joined us in this human journey, including this, the baptism or the second revelation of God’s coming to be with us. It was, for Jesus, as it is for us, a renewing. It is a commitment to living in the way of Christ, in the way God calls us to be. Mostly, it is a commitment and an acceptance of our being God’s children. We accept God’s claiming us as God’s own and we honor and celebrate that claiming.
A seminary professor was vacationing with his wife in Gatlinburg, Tennessee . One morning, they were eating breakfast at a little restaurant, hoping to enjoy a quiet, family meal. While they were waiting for their food, they noticed a distinguished looking, white-haired man moving from table to table, visiting with the guests. The professor leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I hope he doesn't come over here.” But sure enough, the man did come over to their table. “Where are you folks from?” he asked in a friendly voice. “ Oklahoma ,” they answered. “Great to have you here in Tennessee ,” the stranger said... “What do you do for a living?” “I teach at a seminary,” he replied. “Oh, so you teach preachers how to preach, do you? Well, I've got a really great story for you. ” And with that, the gentleman pulled up a chair and sat down at the table with the couple. The professor groaned inside and thought, “Great.. Just what we need.... Another preacher story!” The man started, “See that mountain over there?" he said, pointing out the restaurant window. “Not far from the base of that mountain, there was a boy born to an unwed mother. He had a hard time growing up, because every place he went, he was always asked the same question, 'Hey boy, who's your daddy?' "Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, 'Who's your daddy?' He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going in to stores because that question hurt him so badly. When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go in late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, 'Who's your daddy?’ But one day, the new preacher said the benediction so fast that he got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, 'Son, who's your daddy?' The whole church got deathly quiet. He could feel every eye in the church was looking at him. Everyone wanted to know the answer to that question and finally, they thought they would get it because surely this kid would not lie to the preacher! This new preacher, though, sensed the situation around him and using discernment that only the Holy Spirit could give, said the following to that scared little boy. 'Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.' With that he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, 'Boy, you've got a great inheritance. Go and claim it.' The boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He was never the same again. Whenever anybody asked him, 'Who's your Daddy?' he'd just tell them, 'I'm a Child of God.'''
The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn't that a great story?” The professor responded that it really was a great story! As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn't told me that I was one of God's children, I probably never would have amounted to anything!” And he walked away. The seminary professor and his wife were stunned. He called the waitress over and asked her, "Do you know who that man was who just left that was sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That's Ben Hooper. He's governor of Tennessee!”
In doing some background checking, some parts of that story are factual (for example, Ben Hooper, the governor of Tennessee, really was born to an unwed mother) and some parts aren’t (he did know who his father was and eventually he ended up living with his father), but regardless of the historicity of the story, it is a story that I find to be true. If we can really claim our identity as children of God, if we can be aware of the awesomeness of our baptisms, of God’s claiming us as our own, we should be changed by that awareness, made new and humbled by the greatness of that claim.
On this, baptism of the Lord Sunday, we remember our baptism in which God comes and claims us as God’s own. The Spirit revealed Jesus as God’s son for all of us. And when we are baptized, we are called to celebrate our revealing as well – God’s children, God’s chosen, called, loved into being. Baptism of the Lord Sunday is the day when we celebrate that God calls us first, claims us first, even before we are able to ask for it, even before we are able to recognize it, even before we are able to respond.
But what does that mean to be God’s child? As I worked on this sermon, I was reminded of a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Defector” in which a Romulan (an enemy) appeared to be defecting and asking for asylum from the federation (those are the “good guys” for those not familiar with the series). He said that he had defected in order to prevent war. He believed his own people were taking an action that would lead to a terrible war and he wanted to prevent that by giving information to the Federation so they might stop the war from beginning in the first place. When pushed, he kept saying, “I’m not a traitor! I love my people. I’m here to prevent a war!” As the story unraveled, it became clear that this was a man who was deeply grieving. He did not want to leave his home, he did not want to leave his family. “What I did had to be done. But to never again see the Firefalls of Gath Gal'thong, and the spires of my home as they rise above the Apnex Sea at dawn. It's a bitter thing to be exiled from your home.” When it was pointed out that his people would believe him to be a villain, that they would see him as a traitor, and that because of that he would never, ever be allowed to see his children again, let alone return anywhere near home because of his actions, his response was simple, “There comes a time in a man's life…when he looks down at the first smile of his baby girl and realizes he must change the world for her. For all children. It is for her that I am here. Not to destroy the Romulan Empire, but to save it. For months, I tried desperately to persuade the High Command that another war would destroy the Empire. They got tired of my arguments. Finally I was censured, sent off to command some distant sector. This was my only recourse. I will never see my child smile again. She will grow up believing that her father is a traitor. But she will grow up.”
That kind of love, the kind of love that cares so much for the other that it is willing not only to die but to suffer humiliation, rejection, exile – that is the kind of love God had for us in coming to be with us in another human person. That is the kind of love God has for us when God claims us as God’s children. When we accept our baptisms, when we remember Jesus baptism, we are both accepting the love of this kind of God, AND we are promising to try to love with that same self-less depth.
Today, on this second Sunday of Epiphany, we are called to reflect on the amazing gift of baptism that God has given to first Jesus, and then us. It is a gift of remembering that God calls us into relationship with God. It is a gift of remembering that God initiates care for us, call to us, purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people which are all people, to all creation, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.” It is a gift, like the star of last week, that shows us the light and invites us to use it to see just how much and how deeply we are loved by God.