Expectations. They can give you wings or be the chains around your feet. They can lift you up and take you places you didn’t think were within your reach, and they can stifle you, weigh you down, keep you from blossoming. You don’t always know where they come from, whether they are your own or your parents’ or some accumulation of the images and messages we all receive daily from our culture, subtle or not-so-subtle.
People were filled with expectation about you before you were born. They were filled with expectation when they looked at you in your crib, when you went to school, when you tried out for the baseball team, when you walked down the aisle in your long white dress, when you graduated, when you joined the church, when you had your first child, when you started your new job. And you have been trying to find your way through that thicket of expectations, the spoken and unspoken. You have been trying to find a way, to make a way that feels like your own rather than someone else’s idea of your life.
In the Gospel of Luke, we get to look at a short and curious sequence of scenes. John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, far from following in his father’s footsteps as a priest at the temple in Jerusalem, has appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He admonishes the crowds that have come to be baptized by him to bear fruits worthy of repentance. “The ax is lying at the root of the tree,” he says with fire on his breath. He urges them to be generous, honest, and just in their relationships, and the people are filled with expectation, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. “I baptize you with water,” he says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And more fire to come when the one more powerful than John will judge the world, separating the wheat from the chaff.
And then Jesus steps into this scene that is charged with messianic speculation and expectation, with apocalyptic visions of judgment and redemption — but he doesn’t come down from on high, winnowing fork in hand and and an ax in the other. He comes to be baptized, washed in the river, along with all the people.
This is the Jordan, the river that Israel crossed after long years of wilderness wandering to enter the promised land. This river marks the border between what was and what is to be, between longing and fulfillment. Its waters wash away the dust and grime of the journey, the failures and the regrets, the anguish and the sticky shadows of all the things we can’t undo. Forgiveness flows like a never-ending stream, and in repentance we step into the current, we let ourselves be plunged into the deep, and we let the water cleanse and renew us, and we emerge filled with gratitude and ready to finally live as God’s people on God’s earth, according to God’s will.
And now Jesus gets in the water with us. He gets in and he makes our lives his own, our real lives with all the distortions and ugliness our lovelessness and disobedience have caused. He gets in and he lets himself be plunged into the deep, all the way down where its dark and cold, and, making our broken lives his own, he makes his life ours – his love and compassion, his righteousness and humble servanthood.
This moment in the river is the gospel in a nutshell: God bears all that fractures the wholeness and fullness of life, and we are given a new beginning and a new purpose as those whom Christ has made his own.
The curious thing, though, about Luke’s account, is that he mentions Jesus’ baptism almost in passing, in a subordinate clause: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.
Luke makes sure we notice that Jesus was in the water with all the people, but the real news is the opening of heaven and the Spirit’s descent when Jesus was praying. Remember, this was a moment charged with messianic expectation, with firy judgment in the air and anxious hope for redemption – and Jesus prayed. He stood amid the flurry of expectations of John and the crowd and, not to forget, his mom and dad, his siblings and friends, and he prayed. And a voice came from heaven.
Now this is God speaking in the first person, which doesn’t happen very often in the scriptures, and if you think that it’s important to have all the words of Jesus printed in red, what color do you suggest for the voice from heaven? Gold letters in 18pt font? Or should our Bibles perhaps have a page break right after the comma to give these precious words a page of their own, so our eyes don’t just keep reading as though getting to the end of the story were a matter of speed? An extra page might slow us down enough to notice that the voice from heaven didn’t add to the already dense thicket of expectations: there’s no solemn commission to Jesus to go and save the world. Instead we read this beautiful statement of love and delight, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s all. Perhaps we should insert another blank page at the end of this sentence to help us realize that these twelve words are all the voice from heaven says. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.
In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation upon generation, layer upon layer of family history and all that comes with family history – but Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water by a voice from heaven. The list of generations goes back all the way to the first parents, Adam and Eve, and perhaps Luke inserts the list here to illustrate that Jesus life and work is about all of humanity in our need of redemption. He comes to make his life ours. He comes to remind us of our true identity as God’s beloved children in whom God delights. He comes to reveal to us that who we are is ultimately not defined by layers of generations nor the deep wounds of past injustice that continue to cause pain, shame, guilt, and despair. We are, every last one of us, God’s beloved children in whom God delights. And this love God has for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are: God’s own and God’s beloved.
Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy sorting through piles of expectations, trying to put all the pieces together into a life we still recognize as our own. We forget because somehow life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own and as siblings in God’s one human family. What are we to do about that forgetfulness?
Luke draws our attention to Jesus’ praying after he had been baptized. I don’t think he does this to suggest that heaven opened because Jesus prayed, but rather to remind us that the openness of heaven is a reality we can perceive with the openness of heart and mind which prayer cultivates. He wants to encourage us to pray so we will know deep in our bones and not forget that we belong to God and are loved.
Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged and dejected he would say, “But I am baptized.” It was the prayer of a desperate man hanging on to the promises of God. He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I am baptized.” When the waves of conflict around him and within surged high, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And he would reply, “True enough, devil, but I am baptized.”
Luther wrestled with a host of demons, he was passionate about the truth of the gospel and the faith and faithfulness of God’s people, and he was pulled in many directions by the expectations of many. I imagine that on some mornings, perhaps every morning, when he washed his face he paused and whispered, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.” Not a bad habit; perhaps you should try it. In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your face and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “Holy One, I am your beloved child and you delight in me.”
In this morning’s reading from Isaiah is another passage where God speaks in the first person. The words were first addressed to a small band of uprooted men and women who felt abandoned by God: Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.
First spoken to God’s people in exile in Babylon, far from the land, far from Jerusalem, we hear ourselves included in these words, in the promise to all of God’s sons and daughters, the promise of the great homecoming from all our exiles:
Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.
That is the heart and the end of the story: All of us knowing ourselves and one another by our true names. All of us living fully in the love that made us, redeemed us, and never ceased to call us. Thanks be to God.