1/13/13, Identity Crisis

 Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7, Acts 10:34-38, Luke 3:15-23                                                

The church year really moves along fast, doesn’t it?  Just last Sunday we were marking Epiphany, the visit of the astrologers from the East to the infant Jesus. Here today we are considering his adult baptism at the age of 30.  Is this what they mean when they say time flies when you’re having fun? 

Actually, in the New Testament there is one other mention of Jesus’ early childhood: the presentation of the child in the Jerusalem temple forty days after his birth.  This Jewish ritual was carried out according to Mosaic law to purify the mother after childbirth as well as to offer redemption for the firstborn.  I suppose we might consider this ritual a parallel to our own practice of infant baptism.  The gospel of Luke notes that in this event, the priest Simeon names Jesus as the one who would be “the light to the Gentiles and the glory of the nation Israel.”  In essence, we have here the early naming of Jesus’ identity. 

Do you remember your infant baptism?  I’ll bet Jesus didn’t remember his either.  And do we suppose that Joseph and Mary understood the fullness of Simeon’s prophecy so that they could keep reminding Jesus of who he was? Probably not anymore than our own parents understood who we would become as life with its unpredictable experiences unfolded for us. So it is worthwhile to think about what today’s story of Jesus’ “adult baptism” means for adult Christians.

From the gospel accounts, we know very little of the years of Jesus’ life in between his infancy and the commencement of his public ministry.  We hear of only one incident that happened around the time Jesus was 12. He worried Mary and Joseph by staying behind in the Jerusalem temple chatting with the elders when everyone else got back on the road to return to Nazareth.  He told his irritated parents he needed to be about God’s business. Other than this story, we are simply assured that Jesus grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.  This indicates that he was probably a respected man of the working class community who faithfully assumed his responsibilities to his widowed mother but was otherwise unremarkable. 

All this got me to thinking that if Jesus was living a truly common human life in Nazareth, by the age of 30 he might well have been wrestling with some of the same questions that you and I began to ask around that age.  What is this life all about anyway? Is this all there is? Who am I and what is my purpose in the middle of all this mess?  Is there anything I can do to change the world?  How much am I willing to turn my own life upside down to be someone who might make a difference? 

It helps me to think of Jesus in terms of having an identity crisis. Just considering that his experience might have been like mine makes me feel closer to him as a human being. It makes me want to pay attention to how he walked the journey of his life.   What experiences and questions would have shaped his adult thinking? When news of that charismatic guy John the Baptist began circulating, wouldn’t a man who had had a teenage dream of being involved in God’s business be drawn to wondering if there was something more out there for his own life… an unexplored identity that might be found in giving himself over to the waters of baptism and coming out a new person? 

St. Augustine taught Christians the doctrine that priestly baptism is a sacramental necessity for the washing away of original sin. This belief still prevails today.  But wait…Is the grace of forgiveness for being born into the human race really the primary gift received in baptism? Or is it possible that the true grace received in baptism is the establishment of a new identity. Jesus’ own life suggests that there could be a series of baptisms in our lives, offering both purification from the past and identification of our present purpose in God’s kingdom.

Baptism, in essence, is all about the letting go of what has been in order to receive what might yet be.  A contemporary voice of wisdom, Joseph Campbell, puts it this way: "We must let go of the life we have planned so as to be ready for the life that is waiting for us.”  The scriptures we read today about Jesus’ baptism carry for us a message about the need for yielding up past certainties, even when they have been good things, in order to make way for parts of our lives that are yet to be fulfilled.

 For Jewish people, baptism was a well-known ritual. It set the pattern for baptism in today's Christian church.  The Hebrew name for baptismal waters is mikveh, specifically used in Jewish law for the waters or bath of the ritual immersion. A baptismal font was so important in ancient times it was said to take precedence over the construction of a synagogue.  Jewish law says there are many times of life where immersion in the mikveh is required. A major one is conversion to the Jewish faith. While witnesses to baptism are required, the one seeking the bath must immerse himself.

Rabbis referred to the baptismal water as the womb of the world. As a convert came out of the water, it was considered a new birth separating him from his pagan past and changing his very identity. He was referred to as "a little child just born" or "a child of one day.” The term "born again"  in rabbinic literature refers to at least six different life changing experiences. The New Testament uses similar Jewish terms as "born anew," "new creation," and "born from above."

In our passage today, we notice that John the Baptist isn’t even present.  He is said to be in prison!  According to Luke, it appears that Jesus took himself into the waters of the Jordan to be baptized.  For what reason?  It would seem that Jesus was announcing his conversion to a new way of life.  He was giving himself over to a new birth within the very Jewish world he was part of.  Emerging from the dry and meaningless places of his own identity crisis, he entered into the waters of the Jordan, immersed himself in death to an old way of life and emerged with the blessing of God naming him: “You are my Own.  On you my favor rests.”

We started this Church year by waiting for Jesus to be born into our human company.  We celebrated his birth with common people like shepherds and educated people like the Magi. They showed us in last week’s readings what it is like to have an Epiphany- a flash of understanding about God.  Now we are going to continue to follow Jesus on his life journey all through this Church year.  We are being asked to participate in this journey with Jesus.  So-  Epiphanies: What new understandings of God are coming to you?  Baptisms: in the light of these epiphanies, are you open to submitting yourself each day to the possibility of letting go of the past so that you might receive your unfolding identity in the work of God’s kingdom?

Each encounter with water might be for us a sacramental reminder of the grace available to us in baptism.  Consider making it a habit to be reminded of your baptism each time you shower or wash your face by saying to yourself, “I am God’s son or daughter, on whom divine favor rests.”  

And on this day of baptismal renewal, I invite each of you to approach this font with humility and gratitude and amazement as you receive the waters of baptism in whatever gesture is meaningful to you, hearing the voice of Spirit declaring, “You are God’s own, on whom Divine favor rests.”  

By Sandi DeMaster