Do You Know Whose You Are?
When people ask me where I grew up, I usually say, “All over, but I’m from Camden, Tennessee.” Camden is my dad’s hometown, and we lived there the longest I lived anywhere growing up, and when I’m in Camden, I am known. I am known as one of the Patterson girls, and when I tell someone I’m one of the Patterson girls, they will ask “Which one are you?” To which I respond, “I’m Cooper’s.” And they nod their heads and my identity is defined for them.
That’s what was happening with John as he taught in the wilderness. The crowds were asking John, now which one are you? To which he responded, “I’m not the one we are waiting for. One is coming, who is so much greater than I am that I am not worthy even to take off his shoes.”
And then…he came. And Luke tells us so much in just these two verses.
Luke begins, “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” So simple, but so much is said here. Jesus was baptized right along with the crowd. Even though John is not worthy to untie and take off his sandals, Jesus humbles himself so much that he is baptized by John with everyone else. No big fanfare. No announcement. No miracle parting of the Jordan River. Nothing extraordinary.
“When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized, he was praying.” That is when the extraordinary happened. “The heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”
While Jesus is intentionally seeking God, while he is making himself open and receptive, the division between earth and heaven was removed. It doesn’t happen out of the blue or against Jesus’ will. Jesus is prepared and seeking and receptive, and God’s Word and Spirit come to him, declaring who and whose he is. Luke points out that the Spirit comes to him in bodily form, as a dove, and the word is spoken directly to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock tells about an evening when he and his wife were on vacation in East Tennessee. They were at dinner and an elderly gentleman came up to their table to visit. Rev. Craddock, trying to get rid of him, answered forthrightly when the man asked “What do you do?” “I’m a preacher.”
“A preacher? That’s great,” came the response, “Let me tell you a story about a preacher.” And the old man sat down at their table and started telling them who he was. “I am from around these parts,” he said. “My mother was not married, and the shame the community directed toward her was also directed toward me. Whenever I went to town with my mother, I could see people staring at us, making guesses about who my daddy was. At school, I ate lunch alone. In my early teens, I began attending a little church but always left before church was over, because I was afraid somebody would ask me what a boy like me was doing in church. One day, before I could escape, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the minister. He looked closely at my face. I knew that he too was trying to guess who my father was. ‘Well, boy, you are a child of. . .’ and then he paused. When he spoke again he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of God. I see a striking resemblance.’ Then he said, ‘Now, you go on and claim your inheritance.’ I left church that day a different person,” the now elderly man said. “In fact, that was the beginning of my life.”
Three things stand out to me in that story: the young man intentionally was seeking God by going to church and God used that preacher to send his Word and embody his Spirit to declare to that young man who and whose he is. And it made all the difference in his life. He was never the same.
When the elderly man had left their table and gone on his way, the waitress came over and asked Rev. Craddock and his wife if they knew who he was. “No,” they replied. “It’s Ben Hooper, two-term governor of Tennessee” who had a tremendous impact on this state when he signed a law that made school attendance mandatory and who instituted a more just work situation when he signed a law that required that women workers be paid directly.
In that moment, when God’s Spirit descended upon him and God’s Word claimed him, it made all the difference in Jesus’ life. He was never the same. Jesus was fortified to begin his ministry. This moment gave him the assurance that he was following God’s will for him. It gave him strength to stand up to the challenges and the questions and ultimately the crucifixion that lay ahead. Jesus was born God’s beloved Son. He was born the promised One, but in that moment, his identity was defined for him.
In that moment, Jesus knew for himself the truth that God had spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “You are mine. I will walk with you through the flood waters, and I won’t let the river sweep you away. When you go through fire, I won’t let you get burned, and the flames won’t consume you. You are precious in my eyes, and I love you. So, don’t be afraid. I have chosen you and I will be with you in all things.”
Rev. Janet Wolf once served as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. Hobson UMC is a wildly diverse congregation that includes, as Janet has described it, “people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”
Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The conversation about baptism—”this holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone,” as Janet puts it—especially grabbed Fayette’s imagination. Janet tells of how, during the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am . . . ?” “The class,” Janet writes, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it: “Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am . . . ?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.”
Two months later, Janet received a phone call.
Fayette had been beaten and assaulted and was at the county hospital. Janet described her visit: “So I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved, . . .’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and . . .’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty and buttons askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and . . .’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’”
The flood waters had come and the river had swept Fayette into deep water; she was in over her head, but Fayette knew she was not in that water alone. She knew who she was and whose she was. As Jesus was praying, the heaven opened. Not just for him, but for us. Jesus opens the barrier between God and creation. And we are no longer creatures, but children of God.
When I baptize someone, I always ask their name. Not because I don’t already know it. Not because I forgot to write it down. But because I have already talked to them about their response. They don’t say their last name. When you are baptized, you are baptized into the family of God.
Do you know whose you are? You are a beloved, precious child of God and beautiful to behold. Go now, and claim your inheritance! Amen.