Date: January 8, 2017
Text – Matthew 3:13-17
A story is told about the baptism of King Aengus by St. Patrick in the middle of the fifth century. During the rite of baptism, St. Patrick leaned on his sharp-pointed staff and accidently stabbed the king’s foot. After the baptism was over, St. Patrick looked down at all the blood, realized what he had done, and begged the king’s forgiveness. He asked the king, “Why did you suffer this pain in silence?” The king replied, “I thought that it was part of the ritual.” I am sure that we all have some episodes to tell when we baptized our children, grandchildren, or children of our church members. I remember when we baptized Daniel three years ago, he pooped his diaper big time right before being baptized. I could feel the smell and warmth in my hands as I was holding him in my hands.
While many people consider the baptism as an occasion of family celebration, Christians come for baptism because it is a door to the discipleship of Christ. We commit ourselves to following the way of Christ by being baptized in the water. St. Augustine taught in the Early Church that people were born with the original sins and had to be forgiven through the baptism. Since many infants died due to the lack of proper nutrition and medication in the middle ages, people wanted to baptize their babies as soon as they were born so that they could guarantee the ticket to heaven. But in the United Methodist Church, we practice baptism not because it assures us of going to heaven, but mainly because Jesus practiced in baptism himself as in Matthew 3. This is why we call it the sacrament along with the Communion.
In today’s reading, Jesus appears at the Jordan River and comes to John who was baptizing the people. John is shocked to see him because he thought that he was not worthy to baptize him. So, he says, “I cannot baptize you. Rather, it should be you who baptizes me.” If baptism is for the sinners as St. Augustine taught, why does Jesus come for baptism? Douglas Hare, a New Testament scholar, comments that Jesus willingly came for baptism because of his solidarity with sinners. The one who will save his people from their sins by submitting to a baptism of annihilation must here consecrate himself to his vocation by joining the sinful multitude in the waters of the Jordan. Although he is the Son of God, the ruler of his kingdom, he “takes the first step on the road to Calvary” by being baptized.
By being incarnated and baptized, Jesus stands in solidarity with us in knowing what it is like to suffer hunger, pain, and sorrow. He understands what it feels to be betrayed by those we love, and broken hearted. He completely understands what it is to be human being. The grace of God comes and meets us where we are. When he was baptized and came up from the water, the scripture says that the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God calls Jesus, “My Beloved.”
In 2008, I was taking a preaching class at Yale Divinity School. It was my turn to preach that day. I do not remember what I preached or what text I preached from. After the class, a classmate came to me and wanted to hug me saying, “You called us “Beloved” You are the first person whom I ever heard in the pulpit saying that.” I was puzzled by what she said. I did not even know where it came from first but realized that I intuitively adopted the word from Union United Methodist Church in Boston where I was nurtured by the wonderful congregation. The senior pastor, Martin McLee, always addressed the congregation in his preaching, “Beloved!”
As I look back my experience with Union, I can see that it was extraordinarily caring to be called beloved when you do not feel loved in the society. Union is a predominantly African American congregation. Many of them still remember the days in the Civil Rights Movement, racism, and lack of opportunities. I still remember when Bill stood among the congregation and said, “I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody, about somebody, who can save anybody.” Although people often experienced denial, ignorance, and rejection in the society being regarded as nobody, when they came to the church, they were called “beloved” by God who created them in God’s image wonderfully and fearfully. Therefore, they were regarded as somebody by their neighbors.
The essential meaning of baptism is also this. God embraces us as we are and calls us God’s beloved. When we feel like we are doing everything for our jobs, our families, our marriages, our children, and our health, there are times that we are still failing. No matter how hard we try, we still feel not loved. We do not feel respected for what we have done, all the sacrifices we have made. But the baptism of Christ teaches us that God calls us God’s beloved not because of what we have done, but mainly because who we are. God loves us as God’s children unconditionally. That is called the grace of God, the gift that comes to us, not the result of our works.
And to me, it is very important for us to hear the message of Jesus’ baptism in the beginning of the New Year. Jesus spends his youth with his parents until he turns 30. As he sets out in his journey filled with hardships and eventually the cross in Jerusalem, he comes for baptism where he is reminded of his identity, who he is – He is the beloved of God. As we begin the new year of 2017 filled with many visions for ministries and missions in our community and the world, we are aware that there would be many challenges. There will be times when we would be stretched in our perspectives and experiences. The way of Christ does not guarantee trouble free road. Rather, it calls us to be faithful by walking humbly with God. And the first step for us is to renew our identity – that we are beloved of God.
When I was preparing to come to Boston in December 2003, my mother started knitting a neck muffler. It was as thick as a couple of inches and 3 feet long. I asked my mother why she was making it when she could buy one at the shop. She said, “Son, I hear that Boston is such a cold city. I feel strange that I am buying you one-way ticket to Boston and will not be able to take care of you as you are home here with me. But every time you wear this, I want you to know that I loved you very much. You are dearly loved by me and your father who pray you here.” As I was about to embark my new chapter of life journey in Boston, my mother wanted to remind me who I was.
And this is what I believe that God is calling us to do in the town of Putnam, Thompson, Woodstock, and Killingly. By meeting our neighbors, serving the foods, giving clothing, sitting with them, God wants us to be the voice for them calling the, “the Beloved.” When people are disinherited, suffer physically and emotionally, feel alone with no one who care about them, or just go through difficult times in their lives, God wants us to remind them who they are and to whom they belong. “You are the beloved of God.” When we sit at the table with them, break the bread, and hold their hands, we realize that the kingdom of God is right here with us on this earth. I invite you to turn to your neighbors and say, “You are beloved by God, no matter who you are, no matter what you have gone through, you are still beloved of God.”
Would you please stand if you are able, and sing together with us “Jesus Loves Me?”
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, 21.