[This message was given on the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 12, 2020, at Gates Presbyterian Church, Rochester NY, based on Matthew 3:13-17.]
No question is as essential to human life as this one. No question is more frequently asked, though often silently, as this one. It is the basic question of self-identity and we wrestle with it for the span of our lives. The question: Who am I? We are born into families and given names. Some of us have been blessed to have loving parents and families that surrounded us with loving affirmation; others have never had that. Some are born in wealth, some in poverty, and most of us in between. We—everyone of us—are always working at identifying who we are.
My wife and I saw “The Lion King” in Rochester over the holidays. We have seen “The Lion King” many times in various forms. On stage, the animal portrayals and choreography are dazzling. But at its core is that essential question. There is a young Lion, Simba, born to royalty, his father Mufasa being the king. Yet he is looking for the answer to that question: Who am I? He hears different voices and gets confused. For a season his identity is lost. Finally he hears that voice that tells him who he is: “He lives in you.” Simba realizes who he is and returns to his homeland and acts on his true identity.
“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” Did Jesus wrestle with the question, Who am I? I expect that he wrestled with his identity more than any of us do. Was he the Son of God or another carpenter? If he was royalty, why did he live in such humility. Psychologists call it individuation, the process of discovering who we are. For some of us it is an easier process; for others a tortured process. We are not human doings, but human beings. And we wrestle with the question of who we are.
This scene is filled with irony. The setting is the Jordan River, in the north of Israel. It is a wilderness area. It is interesting that Jesus is born in a little town called Bethlehem and raised in a back-water town named Nazareth. Why not Rome, or Athens, or even Jerusalem? And now, after most of his 30 years lived out in obscurity, he gets in line to be baptized by John the Baptist. John sees the irony better than most would: “John objected, ‘I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you.’” Do we see it? It is incongruous. It is disorienting. Jesus, the heaven-sent Messiah, the one promised for centuries, has finally arrived. His mission: to save sinners; to save us. John has been preaching about the need for sinners, which would be everyone except Jesus, to repent, to turn from their sinful ways. John has been pointing everyone to Jesus, the Lord and Savior. And Jesus gets in line with all the sinners.
First, we might say, he should go to the head of the line. After all, he is Jesus, the son of the Most High. During Lincoln’s presidency, people would line up on the front lawn of the White House for the opportunity to go in and meet the president. That was common then. One day, Frederick Douglass, who spent some years of his life in Rochester, got in line. He wanted to know if Lincoln was really concerned about ending slavery. Douglass was an imposing figure with his black skin and his main of graying hair. Some White House employees noticed him and went in to tell Lincoln. When Lincoln heard this, he said, “Get him out of the line and bring him right in. I want to talk with this man.” Douglass was ushered in. At the end of that conversation, Douglass knew that Lincoln was the real deal. At least they could let Jesus go to the front of the line.
Second, did anyone in the line to be baptized that day recognize Jesus? No. He hadn’t done anything in public yet; he was an ordinary carpenter in Nazareth, for goodness sake. Only John that recognized him. And John connected the proverbial dots: “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” Rather than send him to the front of the line, John sees the second incongruity: John should be baptized by Jesus, rather than the other way around. By all common sense, John is precisely right. This whole scene looks precisely wrong. Peter will do the same thing three years later when Jesus is washing the feet of his disciples. Peter correctly deduces that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, and not the other way around. Just as Jesus insisted that he wash Peter’s feet, Jesus insists that John baptize him, along with all those sinners wanting to repent. Jesus takes the path of humility. He identifies with those he comes to save.
“But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.’ So John did it.” We cannot overstate how stunning this is. But it fits right in with everything about this gospel, this story of good news. Jesus is born to poverty and lives in humility. He is ultimate royalty, yet he lets go of all the perks of his royalty to identify with us. With the needy. With those living on the margins. With those scraping to get by.
It was in the news last Wednesday that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are choosing to let go of their senior royal status. While fully honoring the Queen, Harry’s grandmother, they want to live more like commoners. They want their son, Archie, to spend time both in the United Kingdom, where he was born to royalty, and in North America, closer to his commoner mother’s roots. I don’t know if they can pull it off, but I commend them for this. Jesus pulled it off. He left the courts of highest royalty to live among us as a commoner. He did it. He experienced hunger, poverty, physical and spiritual weakness, and public humiliation, including suffering and a ghastly death. He refused to go the front of the line. He refused to be treated as anything but one of us.
He steps into the water of the Jordan with all those sinners. In those common waters, he gets his answer, his answer to that essential human question, who am I? “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
What happens in baptism? I know all the theological answers, but I don’t really know. But I think that at the heart of it, in baptism we are getting an identity. God is saying, “you, too, are my beloved child and I am pleased about you.” Have you been baptized? It doesn’t matter to me whether you remember it or not. When babies are baptized, responsible adults answer questions for them. When people are baptized as believers, they answer their own questions. I affirm both. The key is that God is present in the sacrament. God is blessing the baby, the child, the young adult, the older adult. God is responding to our question with a resounding answer: “you are my child and I love you.”
Now we have the opportunity to identify with Jesus, just as identified and identifies with us. Some studies have shown that when an actor plays a part and really gets into it, her brain experiences some changes. One of my favorite actors is Daniel Day-Lewis. During his career, he would only play a role in a movie every two years at most, because he put himself in his parts so fully that he needed ample time to prepare for and then recover from the parts he played. In “Lincoln,” one of my favorite movies, Day-Lewis. He got into the character of Lincoln so fully that he was never seen on the set in his own clothes. Even off camera, everyone there referred to him only as Mr. Lincoln. Day-Lewis is from Ireland and holds Irish and British citizenship and has lived most of his life in those countries. Yet, he played the role of the greatest American president with utter conviction and authenticity. I am a Lincoln buff and have over 30 Lincoln biographies. When I first saw that movie, there was one scene in which I said to the person next to me: He just became Lincoln. Though he was acting, he nearly became the role given him.
Jesus isn’t acting when he identifies with us. He is identifying with us when he gets in line and steps into the Jordan River. He is identifying with us when he submits to John’s baptism. He is identifying with us when he hears these words: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.” When we identify with Jesus in baptism and faith, those words God speaks to Jesus include us. Our “who am I?” question is answered resoundingly. “This is my child–my son, my daughter– chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.”