“You are Worthy” Colchester Federated Church, January 9, 2022, (Luke 3:15-17, 21-22) Baptism of Christ Sunday

Today is Baptism of Christ Sunday where we witness the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the waters of the Jordan River.  As we heard during the Sundays of Advent, John was out there in the wilderness calling on people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.  It was an outward sign of an inward and invisible grace.  Jesus is baptized by John who points to Jesus being the more powerful one to come, the one to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  This is an important part of the early days of Jesus’ ministry.  Luke tells us that during this moment heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.  A voice could be heard, saying, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[1]

It’s a remarkable moment of Jesus being named and claimed by God.  It’s hard to know if everyone present on the banks of the Jordan heard this message or if this was a private calling that Jesus experienced in the depths of his spirit.  We could interpret the scene in multiple ways.  Though what’s especially interesting is that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness afterwards to face temptation.  What must have shored him up when facing trials and tribulations (we hear this story during Lent) was this holy moment of the affirmation of his identity.  One can imagine the words ringing out in his head and heart: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  We sometimes miss the flow of these stories when we hear just part of the Gospel, but the connections of these settings and scenes are there.

Further, just last week on Epiphany Sunday we contemplated how it was the magi—foreigners who were likely astrologers or priests—who understood the identity of Jesus as the newborn Messiah far more than those closest to him.  Following the light of a star, they trusted God leading them on to find this child of promise in Bethlehem.  The magi trusted and traveled and followed.  The wise ones found God’s beloved Son in whom God finds happiness.  After Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus our Emmanuel, both Epiphany and Baptism of Christ Sunday help us settle into this knowledge of Jesus’ identity.  The story moves from the shepherds and angels to the magi and then to John the Baptist and now to you and me as we recognize who Jesus was and is and shall ever be.

Though what’s lovely about Baptism of Christ Sunday is that it’s an invitation to consider our own baptisms.  To contemplate that moment in our lives or to anticipate our baptisms to come.  To think about the baptisms of loved ones and members of our church family that have inspired us and helped us understand our own worthiness, that we are also beloved children of God.  Because there is a moment in any infant baptism when the Minister asks, “By what name will your child be called?”  Or in the case of an adult baptism the minister asks the person what name to use before we pour water into the font or enter the waters of baptism together.  In either scenario, there’s a moment of being named and claimed by God just as Jesus experienced in the Jordan.  It’s an important moment on anyone’s journey of faith.

Writer Anne Lamott reflected about the importance of baptism in the Christian faith by writing, “Christianity is about water: ‘Everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’  It’s about baptism, for God’s sake.  It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet.  Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under.  But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd.  It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched.”[2]

We have just two Sacraments (they are called Sacraments in the United Church of Christ and Ordinances in the American Baptist Churches) and those are Communion and Baptism.  Those are two of the most important acts of our faith—to welcome a person into the faith and to remember the last night of Jesus’ life, to feed one another for the journey.  Both point to the grace of God and the reality that we sometimes sin and fall short of the glory of God.  But God’s grace keeps getting extended.  Because we are God’s children in whom God finds happiness. 

One of the most remarkable texts we can read about God’s grace and our worthiness comes from Lutheran Theologian Paul Tillich.  Now Tillich was German and an early critic of Hitler who ended up being barred from teaching in Germany in 1933.  So Paul Tillich emigrated to the United States and held teaching positions at various Seminaries and Divinity Schools for the rest of his career.  He’s considered to be one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century and we read parts of his multi-volume Systematic Theology when I was in Seminary.  Because his teachings remain important. 

In addition to his academic research and writings, Paul Tillich would occasionally preach sermons in the chapel of Union Theological Seminary and compiled them into a book called The Shaking of the Foundations.  One of the most famous sermons from that collection is called “You Are Accepted.”  Tillich preached about the power of grace and what he noted as the all-determining facts of our lives—that sin abounds and grace is greater.  He wrote, “In grace something is overcome; grace occurs ‘in spite of’ something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement.  Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself.  Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected.  Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage.  There is something triumphant in the word ‘grace’: in spite of the abounding of sin grace abounds much more.”[3]  Sin as separation from God, from others, and from being who God created us to be doesn’t get the last word in our stories.  Because grace is truly triumphant.  The waters of baptism show us for all time that we are worthy and that God’s grace keeps getting extended over and over.

Near the end of “You Are Accepted” Tillich told those gathered in that Seminary Chapel, “And in the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in relation to ourselves.  We experience moments in which we accept ourselves, because we feel that we have been accepted by that which is greater than we.”[4]  We could further argue that when we perceive the power of grace in relation to ourselves and we accept ourselves, then it in turn makes us all the more accepting of one another.  Because if God’s grace is extended to me, then God’s grace is extended to you.  If I am named and claimed by God as beloved, then so are you.  If I am worthy, then you, too, are worthy.  Remember on this Baptism of Christ Sunday that God has named us and claimed us in the waters of baptism.  And on those days when you may forget, remember—you are worthy.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 3:22, CEB.
[2] Anne Lamott as quoted in Words That Listen: A Literary Companion to the Lectionary Volume 1: Advent to Ascension, by J. Barney Hawkins IV and Ian S. Markham, 69.
[3] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 156.
[4] Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 163.