This is what we need to hear
PRAYER OF INVOCATION: Loving God, we rejoice in your presence on this holy day. Reveal your presence to us in word, in worship, and in fellowship. Speak words of life that we may feel the power of your Spirit breathing new life into us. Speak your words of love that we may rest in the knowledge that we are your beloved children. Amen.
LET US PRAY: Holy Spirit, come. As the word is read and preached, reveal to us your truth and your will for our lives. Arrive, surprise us, keep company with us. Unveil the mystery of your love for us. Amen.
We’ve all watched this type of show, on Maury, Oprah Winfrey, or The View. A mother brings her daughter onto the show because her daughter is shy, doesn’t have any friends, certainly not a boyfriend. The daughter is not unattractive, but she is also not your classic American beauty either. Her head is lowered to the point that her chin seems to be resting on her chest, and her clothes are loose and baggy. She wears thick glasses. The solution of the show’s host or hostess is to give her a makeover by a professional. At the end of the program, the daughter has been transformed; her head is up, she is wearing a fashionable outfit, probably contacts, and she has a large blonde streak in her brown hair. The audience breaks into applause. Life is perfect, at least for that moment.
I’m not saying that this approach does not suggest different alternatives, but it can never be a permanent one. Adolescent is only the beginning of the questions about our self –worth. The culture tells us that we are too fat, too thin, not rich enough, not successful enough, we don’t drink the right beer, or use the right toothpaste. When we look to our roles, our accomplishments, our peer groups, or acquisitions for an affirmation of who we are, we look in the wrong places. We need to hear the words of Isaiah.
In Isaiah 43, the prophet speaks tender words about God’s love for the exiles in spite of their sins. The exiles are a miserable, insignificant band of displaced people standing on the margins of a hostile empire. Yet it is to these poor folks that the prophet delivers these words from God: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”
Now, if God was with them, one might ask, how did they end up in Babylon? If God is with us now, why do we face loss, disease, crime, hunger, poverty? Well, the Israelites had turned from God; they had sinned and God allowed them to be punished. When I look back upon my own life, I see that a lot of my suffering was a result of my own sin, or my own headstrong ways. And the Herods of the world will always be with us. How different is Herod’s massacre of the children after he hears of Jesus’ birth from the massacres of innocents we have seen in Syria and even in the school shootings in our own country? And sometimes, our suffering results from just plain back luck, bad timing, or bad genes.
Our failures do not prevent God from loving us or laying claim to us. Our illnesses, our losses, and the Herods of the world do not cancel God’s claim upon us. In the waters of baptism, we understand that God claims us as God’s own. We are sealed by God’s love for us, no matter what we might have done, or what might happen to us. God says to Jesus is Luke’s Gospel: “You are my [child], the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
A lot of people wonder why Jesus presented himself for baptism. He did so as an act of solidarity with us. Like everyone else, he got in line. When the lines formed of downtrodden and sin-sick people, who hoped for a new beginning, Jesus joined them. He identifies with all of us who are damaged and broken and who need God.
French writer Henri Barbusse (1874-1935) tells of a conversation overheard in a trench full of wounded men during the First World War. One of the men, who knew he only had minutes to live says to one of the other man, "Listen, Dominic, you've led a very bad life. Everywhere you are wanted by the police. But there are no convictions against me. My name is clear, so, here, take my wallet, take my papers, my identity, take my good name, my life and quickly, hand me your papers that I may carry all your crimes away with me in death." The Good News is that through Jesus, God makes a similar offer. Incarnation has been brought to us. A new identity, a new life, is offered to us.
I’ll bet there is not one of us in this sanctuary this morning who have not encountered people who are in need of God. They may not necessarily know that, or would express their need in exactly that way, but their lives are in need of transformation. We have our existence in the will and intention of God. In baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God gave this child an identity, a name, and a dignity before that child was. We need to hear this affirmation from God and we need to hear it from one another. These are life-giving words that every child, and the child’s heart in every one of us needs to hear every day: “You are my child, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” It is said that Luther began each day by making the sign of the cross on himself and saying I am baptized, not I was baptized, but I am baptized. Remember your baptism every day. Remember who you are and to whom you belong.
Luke’s text is coupled with Isaiah in this week’s reading because they are both grounding texts that can set us to a different level. Isaiah is poetry. We live in a world of sentence fragments. Look at the popular form of communication – text messaging. I notice that when I occasionally send a text message, phrases will “pop up” to save me the time of actually entering the letters on the phone. What if we spent a few minutes every day reading and absorbing Isaiah’s words: “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.” Centering ourselves in scriptures like these are the words we need to hear. Our identity comes from beyond ourselves. We do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God who gave us identity and dignity before we were born. And that, if we take God’s words into our hearts, makes all the difference. That’s the only makeover any of us needs. Amen.