The baptism of Jesus serves as a link between him and us. We are called and claimed by God just as he was. This is revealed in our lesson from Isaiah. Our reading is part of a series of poems in which the prophet is attempting to help the people of Israel, who were in exile in Babylon, understand their relationship to God. Our reading for today is a central part of Isaiah’s effort to convince the people to reaffirm their role as the faithful servant. Verses 1 and 7 frame the central message, beginning with “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1) and ending with “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (v. 7). In other words, the prophet assures us that we have been created by God, redeemed by God, named by God, and claimed by God. In ancient days kings were described as being divinely created and chosen, here the prophet insists that the servant also has a special, honored place among humanity.
That place of honor is given special protection. Throughout the main body of the reading, vv. 2-6, the prophet describes the lengths to which God will go to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the servant. Speaking in the first person as God, Isaiah repeats again and again what “I will” do for “my people,” emphasizing the close connection between the servant and God. The midpoint of the reading, verse 4, is also its high point, when the prophet writes: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” The community in exile viewed itself as a despised and conquered people, so these words of love and honor were meant to counteract the despair they were experiencing. Imagine how people who were at their lowest point would feel to hear such words of compassion and love from their God.
In our gospel reading for today, the loving words of God from our first lesson are repeated as Jesus himself is called and claimed by God. In ancient times it was believed by some that God would begin the apocalypse, or end time, by opening the barrier between heaven and earth and sending angel hosts to destroy and reconstruct humanity. Luke draws on this belief by describing the heavens opening over Jesus at his baptism. However, the Spirit descends without the angels because from Luke’s point of view, that will occur only when Jesus comes again in the end time.
According to Luke, Jesus’ baptism takes place in community. It is not a private ritual. This serves as a reminder to us that when we are baptized we become part of a new community, a new social world. Last week I spoke about students at Monmouth College in Illinois who regard themselves as “nones,” that is, without any religious affiliation and sometimes as atheists. Yet in their search for the true meaning of life they feet that something is missing. They do not find solace in radical individualism and are longing for community. Some of them find it in the inclusive, non-judgmental faith community that the college offers.
At Jesus’ baptism the voice from heaven (God’s voice) identifies Jesus as God’s son, in whom God is well pleased. In the first century those words would have reminded the people present at his baptism of two well-known texts from Hebrew scripture. Psalm 2 was used at the coronation of a new king. In verse 7, God adopts the king as God’s son. So God was adopting Jesus as the divine representative in this new age that is beginning with his baptism. The other texts that are brought to mind are the poems of Isaiah 41-44, which includes our first lesson. Just as Israel was to be the servant of God and bring justice to the nations, now Jesus will be the servant who will suffer as he seeks to bring God’s justice to all of humankind.
The presence of the Holy Spirit at Jesus’ baptism would not be questioned, because according to both Jewish and Christian belief, the Spirit has been present since creation. But we might question why the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. By appearing in bodily form, the onlookers actually saw the power of the Holy Spirit enter into Jesus. This gave them confidence that Jesus embodied the life of the Spirit by manifesting the qualities of God’s kingdom. God is affirming that the kingdom of God takes on bodily form in Jesus and in the life of the church into which we are baptized.
God figuratively tears the heavens open at all baptisms. God pushes through the firmament, and then says, “you, yes, you, are my beloved.” That is why it is important to remember Jesus’ baptism as a remembrance and promise of our own. We are grateful for the gift of our baptism and also in awe of God’s power. It assures us of the security and steadfastness of God, and gives us the certainty that when we look for God, we should expect that everything changes.
Commentator Callie Plunket-Brewton describes how she recently met a man who has two names. His given name is Jeremy but he has been called “Twitch” for years. Twitch was the name he went by when he was in and out of jail before he got clean by the transforming power of God. Plunket-Brewton offered to call him Jeremy, thinking he wouldn’t want to be called a name associated with his harsh past. But he had an unexpected response to her offer. He said he wanted people to keep calling him Twitch so that it would be clear to those who had known him before that he was a transformed man. He was afraid that if he started to go by Jeremy people might not realize that he was the same Twitch who’d been in jail with them and used drugs with them. He comes around pretty regularly to the homeless ministry where she volunteers and hangs out with the homeless guests. Many of them know him. He wants them to recognize him and to take heart that God can transform their lives, too.
When Plunket-Brewton asked him for permission to use the story of his name for her commentary, he said he would be honored for her to mention what God has done in his life. It is a powerful story of redemption and gets to the heart of both our first lesson and gospel reading for today. The prophet Isaiah calls on the people to recognize that no matter their past, they are loved and chosen by God. They are called by name. It is the same at our baptism.
Just as it was for the exiles in Babylon, God choosing to be with us, or God choosing to be one of us, or God choosing to make us God’s own, should be an epiphany a revelation of true meaning in our lives. We get to see the true character of our God who would risk everything to come to earth in the person of Jesus so that God would know what it means to be among us and to be us. Baptism is about promise — the promise of God’s love and grace, God’s protection and provision, and the comfort of God’s community. Jesus’ baptism reminds us that baptism is also an epiphany, that what God chooses to reveal about God’s self is not always obvious. We need an Epiphany that doesn’t settle for God’s appearances in the usual, but that trusts in God’s appearing when we least expect it — to give good news to the poor, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to realize that God’s favor is for all, especially those whom society rejects, overlooks, continues to regard as undeserving of justice, and insists are not really worthy of God’s love. God has called each of us by name, and claimed us as beloved children. Amen