By the Rev. Joel Bergeland
Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Baptism of Jesus
Sunday, Year A
January 8, 2023
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John the baptizer would have prevented Jesus, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” -Matthew 3:14
In this week’s Gospel lesson, we only read the words of the conversation between John the Baptizer and Jesus. We don’t hear their voices, and so we don’t know what John’s tone was or what he is experiencing when he hesitates to baptize Jesus and instead suggests that Jesus should baptize him. I’ve always assumed John is exhibiting warranted humility and awe – he is talking to Jesus, after all. But today, I’m thinking that John, despite his public ministry and charismatic preaching, might live with a deep sense of unworthiness. To me, his words seem tinged with the self-reproach that comes from magnifying one’s own faults, or with the shame that accompanies the nagging feeling that you’re not actually cut out for your work.
Maybe I’m just seeing myself in the text. I write this on a day in which I’ve burned a batch of cookies, missed a meeting’s start time by a full hour, and, as a painful cherry on top, like a cartoon character I walked headlong into a traffic sign. Everyone has bad days, of course, and that’s all this was. But what’s been fascinating to notice is how easily my mind turned it into a referendum on my worthiness. My brain isn’t content to just let a bad day happen; it likes to pile on: “Wow, you’re a klutz!” and “none of the people you admire would be late for a meeting,” and “maybe you shouldn’t be a pastor after all.” In John’s refusal, I hear a similar set of brain games. “You’re coming to me? I’m the one who needs baptizing – let’s just forget the whole thing. I’m not worthy of this.” The of the voices of shame and self-doubt are unmistakable.
How many of our people know these voices? How many of our people live with self-doubt, with brains that tell them that they are imposters in their own lives? For me, it was just one bad day, but for some people, the world has planted those doubts down deep. Whole classes of people are taught to second guess their own wisdom, carry shame about who they are, and see themselves as “less than.” It’s exhausting to live as if every day is a referendum on your worthiness. And yet so many of us do.
Negative thoughts like these can keep us from stewarding our lives to achieve the potential that God has given us. A preacher could explore this issue though this interpretation of John’s story and help people rediscover God’s hope for their own self-doubts.
If John’s sense of unworthiness and self-doubt had prevailed, we might not have this story of Jesus’ baptism. But by God’s grace and power, the voice of shame doesn’t carry the day. It is another voice, the one that booms from heaven, that speaks the truth we must tune our hearts to today, a truth that speaks louder and deeper than our shame.
Matthew implies that Jesus alone sees the heavens split open and the dove descend upon him, but the voice rings out for all to hear: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The words aren’t far off from what is spoken over each of us when we are baptized: “Beloved Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In the waters of baptism, God loves each part of us, finds joy in each part of us, and uses each part of us to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to the world. Just as all of Jesus plunged into the Jordan that day, so God claims all parts of us. I might be a forgetful klutz, but God has called me, and, in the mystery of God’s grace, even my spaciness and lack of body awareness have some role to play in God’s kingdom. God’s voice names me – and all of us – beloved.
We can challenge our congregants to ask to whose voice they are listening. And what is the consequence of listening to voices of shame and doubt? What gifts do we fail to use because of the imposter syndrome? It is easy to magnify our own faults and flaws, but hard to hear and trust the voice of God that calls us beloved. Where do we hear that voice best? Who helps us hear it? Listen deeply, for God is there, claiming and rejoicing in each odd and beautiful part of every one of us.
If you have oil-filled candles around your altar, play around with the wicks before the service to the point where the flame is weak, smoky, or flickering out of control. Or if you have altar flowers, snap the stems of several so that they’re hanging over the edge of the vase (It might be wise to enlist your altar guild in these tasks!). The congregation may notice it and become bothered and distracted. Doubtless many congregants may want to snuff out the candles or snip off the bent flowers. But let them burn and hang sideways, and then explain that they are a visible reminder of Isaiah’s words about God’s chosen servant: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
When faced with underperformance and ugliness, humans tend to want to blot out and remove the offender as quickly as possible. But God is patient – Isaiah’s vision of God’s chosen servant is of one who will bear with the world and carry all its pain until justice finally dawns for all people. Perhaps the incongruous flames and flowers in worship will teach your congregation to be patient and bear with the world as we wait and work for justice. At the very least, they will be prompted to consider the depths of God’s patience!
Peter gives a stunning claim that God shows no partiality. His claim wasn’t just about God, but about what life ought to look like those who follow this God in Jesus – Christian community is to be composed of people from “every nation” sharing life together. Faith in God in Christ cuts across any human-created line of difference, prejudice, bias, or partiality; all melt away in the presence of God’s grace.
Youth will be able to identify such human-created lines of difference in their life, from the classroom to the athletic field to the headlines on the news. If your group has a high degree of trust in each other, perhaps youth will feel safe enough to name some of the ‘partialities’ they carry within themselves.
Rich discussion can be had here. Where do these lines of difference come from? Can humans ever be free from being partial or having bias? Have the youth observed any lines of difference softening or hardening over time for them? Who can the youth think of in their life that shows the least amount of partiality, and what might we learn from that person? What would it look like for each of us to love like God does, without any partiality?
In your time with children, explain that when Jesus was baptized, his whole body went into the water. Even though many churches use only a sprinkle on the head when they baptize, Jesus’ baptism reminds us that God can use every part of us to help love the world. Brainstorm what role our different body parts might have in God’s work of love – hands, legs, ears, nose, brains, lungs, etc. If you have an especially abstract-thinking group of children, you could do this for feelings or internal states, too. How can God use our anger? Our sadness? Our hunger?
If the children are gathered around the font, you can have them dip their fingers in the water and mark a cross on each part of the body you list.
The Rev. Joel Bergeland serves as the pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Here are previous reflections for Baptism of Our Lord
Sunday, Year A:
2020 – Jesus H20
2017 – Walk wet and share the Good News
2014 – A discipleship elevator speech?
2011 – God speaks; are you listening?