Sermon notes 01-12-20 Who Do You Think You Are?

[Matthew 3:13-17] Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV) 

I want to start off with a question: who do you think you are? I don’t mean for that to sound confrontational, so I’ll ask another way: what is your identity? That leads to other questions, such as: how do you know your identity; what defines your identity; where does your identity come from; who determines your identity; how is it determined? There are any number of possible responses that people might give to questions of their identity. We might say that our identity is our occupation or vocation; our nationality, race or ethnicity, our political affiliation, our denominational affiliation, our gender. We might say our identity is determined by our birthplace or where we were raised or the choices we have made or our thoughts or impulses or the circumstances we have been dealt. Some say that identity is something each of us determines for ourselves; for example, we sometimes hear that a person self-identifies as … something. But I want to make the case today that our truest identity, our authentic identity, is not something that we determine at all, nor does our authentic identity have anything to do with our job, politics, birthplace, skin color, sexuality, or any of those other things I named. Our authentic identity is the one that God gave us at our baptisms.

Today is the day on the Christian calendar known as The Baptism of the Lord Sunday. On the first Sunday after Epiphany Sunday each year, the Church focuses on one of the Gospel accounts of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and we intentionally remember our own baptisms on this day as well. The baptism of the Lord is described in Matthew, Mark and Luke and it is referred to in John. That tells us that the baptism of Jesus must be a very significant event.

But what did it accomplish, exactly? Why did Jesus come to John to be baptized? What is the purpose of baptism anyway? When we were baptized, whether our parents arranged it on our behalf or we made the decision to do so ourselves, what exactly happened at that moment; what did it all mean? These are some questions that I want us to consider together, although I will tell you up front that I will fall well short of perfectly answering them.

Before I even attempt to address those questions, I want to show you this football from a once-proud football school up in the Midwest signed by the coach who led the team to a national championship in 2002. You might think I drug this out of storage to console myself over the fact that we are not playing for the national championship tomorrow night, and there may be some truth in that. I received this football as a Christmas gift the year after they won the championship in 2002, but what I really want you to see is this Certificate of Authenticity that came with the football. This certificate verifies that this autographed football is authentic. The certificate is personally approved by the individual who apparently has the authority to approve it, and whose signature is on the certificate. The certificate verifies that the autographed football is not a fraud. Unlike the most recent version of the football team itself, this football is the real deal; it is what it is purported to be, it is authentic.

So what does any of this have to do with baptism, you ask? I want to suggest to you that baptism, like this certificate, is a claim of authenticity. At Jesus’ baptism, God dramatically authenticated who Jesus was and is. The baptism of the Lord was a type of certification of authenticity. In Matthew’s account of our Lord’s baptism, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus giving his stamp or seal of authenticity. Then with his own voice, God the Father, the highest authority of all, personally approved and verified the authenticity of Jesus. The voice of the Father from heaven identified Jesus as the Son, the beloved, with whom the Father is well pleased.

We should notice that at the Baptism of the Lord we have the presence of all three persons of the Trinity: we have the voice of the Father speaking from heaven, we have the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, and we have the Son being baptized. This scene is one that helped Christians derive an understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity, One God in three persons.
We should also notice that an important question is raised by this scene; in fact the question is raised in the scene. John the Baptist raises the question with Jesus. John says to him, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” ‘YOU coming to ME to be baptized?’ We can certainly understand why John would ask the question. The Bible tells us that John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But we know that Jesus was without sin. Why then did Jesus come to John to be baptized? It does not seem right, and Matthew tells us that John would have prevented it, would have refused to do it, were it not for Jesus saying to him, “Let it be so for now.” Jesus seems to acknowledge that John is right to ask the question, but he says in effect, ‘It must be done, even though it does not seem right, so that the purpose for which I came can be fulfilled.’

In other words, Jesus came to John to be baptized because it was necessary in order for him to rescue humanity. At his baptism, Jesus, though sinless himself, joined the ranks of sinners, identifying with us and indicating that he had come to take the burden of our sins upon himself. In order to pay the penalty for the sins of humanity, Jesus had to fully identify with humanity.

But we know that Jesus could not have taken the sins of the world upon himself if he were only human. He also had to be divine. At his baptism Jesus identified with sinful humanity in order to save us, and the Father identified him as God’s beloved Son, the Messiah. The baptism of Jesus marked his authentic identity as the fully human and fully divine Savior of the world.

Okay, but how does this relate to us, and to our own baptisms? I am fairly certain that many of us have a kind of on-going interior battle that involves a question of authenticity. This interior battle seeks to settle the question, who am I really, authentically? I don’t know about you, but I find myself often recalling things I have done or said; things that are not in keeping with someone who calls himself a Christian, let alone a minister of the Gospel. I recall circumstances, incidents, situations in which I have said or done things that would seem to indicate I am someone far different than who I claim to be or who I want to be. The question of conscience that can torment me at those times is, “Who do you think you are?” Who am I really? Am I really who I am trying to be and professing to be as a follower of Jesus Christ, or is my identity more accurately revealed by the many regrettable and shameful things I have said and done and thought?

Friends, I know I am not alone in this. I know I am not the only one who asks himself these kinds of questions. I don’t ask them just because I am a pastor. Those same questions bothered me long before I became a pastor. They certainly came up often when I was struggling with my call to be a pastor and throughout the process of becoming a pastor. But we all have done or said or thought things that are not at all in keeping with what a follower of Jesus Christ or a child of God ought to be doing or saying or thinking. Sometimes we can be tempted to allow those things to define us, or at least to cause us to question our true identity.

Who do you think you are?

Sisters and brothers, the answer to the question of who we are is found in our baptism. The question was actually settled at our baptism. Baptism is a defining moment. It defines who we are. It is a claim of authenticity. The claim made by Christian baptism is that the baptized person is a child of God, belonging to Jesus Christ, marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.

Our baptism makes the claim that, who we are, in our authentic self, is a beloved child of God. We are created in God’s image; we are intended to become more and more like Jesus. Our Creator has the sole right and the authority to make a claim on us; the Creator gets to identify what he creates. God has the final word on who we are; God alone can verify our authenticity. That is what God did, at Jesus’ baptism, and at our own baptism; God claimed us; he identified us as his own, he authenticated us.

And here is some really good news: the claim God made on our life at our baptism is not nullified by our behavior afterwards. That is why we need only one baptism. It is not necessary to get re-baptized every time we fail and every time we sin, because we cannot invalidate our baptism. Nor would we ever say that God’s action in our baptism was inadequate.

If I were to take this football out of the case and handle it, it might end up with some fingerprints on it. If that were to happen, I might want to take a cloth and remove my fingerprints off of it. But I would not need to get a new certificate of authenticity. My fingerprints would not make the ball any less authentic. Yes, eventually it might lose its value to a memorabilia collector—but it would not become less authentic. The football might become soiled or faded but that would not make it fraudulent. The autograph on it might even become unrecognizable, but this football will always be the real deal. This certificate will still verify its authenticity.

And so it is with baptism. Friends, sometimes we do and say and think things that make us feel like we have dirty fingerprints on our souls. We all have painful memories of things we have said or done or thought, things that make us feel like fraudulent Christians. But no matter how soiled we might have become, no matter how unrecognizable as a Christian we might think we are, God has not forgotten the claim he made on our lives at our baptisms. He still recognizes each one of us as one of his beloved children.

We are not ultimately identified by our sins; we are identified by God’s claim on our lives. Our baptism validates that claim and verifies our authenticity. That is why it is important for us to remember and to reaffirm the covenant made at our baptisms. Baptism is a covenant, and it goes two ways. Not only does God make his claim on our life at our baptism, we also affirm our commitment to God at our baptism.

One very important thing we Christians affirm is the necessity of giving our lives to Christ. But that is a scary concept for someone who has not yet come to know what that means. People are often afraid of “giving their lives to Christ” because they think that means giving up who they are. They do not want to lose who they are; they want to cling to their “self”, because they regard their “self” as all they really have. But so often the self they are afraid of losing is not their authentic self; it is not who they were created to be. When we give our lives to Christ, he gives us our real life, who we were created to be, our authentic self.

This is all to say how important it is for us to remember and reaffirm our baptisms. When we speak of remembering our baptisms, we are not saying that we are to remember the actual event. Many of us were baptized as infants and have no recollection at all of the actual event. What we are saying is that we should remember what our baptism signifies. Baptism signifies both God’s claim on our lives and our commitment to give our lives to God.

When Jesus was baptized, God’s voice revealed who Jesus was—he was authentically God’s beloved Son. When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit marked us with his own seal of authenticity, claiming us as God’s own. Our Christian baptism identified and authenticated each of us as one of God’s chosen and beloved children. That is who we are.

Friends, remembering our baptism is about remembering our authentic selves and reaffirming our commitment to give our lives to Christ. Our authentic self, who we really are, is defined not by the world, by our circumstances or situation in life, by our physical appearance, by our likes and dislikes, by what or whom we are attracted to, by the regrettable things we have said or done or thought. Our authentic self is who God claims us to be, a claim made first at our baptism. Baptism is primarily God’s claim on our lives. Yes, the act was carried out either by our own will or the will of our parents, but the claim being made at our baptism is God’s claim on our life. And the really good news is that God will never relinquish the claim he has made on our lives. Today as we remember our baptisms, may we renew our commitment to give ourselves and our lives fully to God. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.