January 13, 2019 – The 1st Sunday after the Epiphany: The Baptism of Our Lord
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
In Larry McMurtry’s Western epic Lonesome Dove, we make it all the way through the story—all six hours and twenty-four minutes of it if we’re watching the miniseries—without ever hearing Woodrow Call identify Newt Dobbs as his son. The audience knows that he is Woodrow’s son. We’ve seen Call overreact in anger when another man was abusing his boy. We’ve heard Augustus McCrae criticize Call to his face for not telling the boy the truth. Near the end, we even see Woodrow put Newt in charge of the cattle company and give him his own horse, a clear statement of his paternity, but the only direct communication Call can muster is a long, lingering silence before riding off with tears in his eyes.
Is there anything more important than hearing our parents say to us, “You are my beloved child; I delight in you?” Even if we are not proud of our parents or even if we never met them, to have that person who was responsible for our formation claim us as her or his own is a critical piece in the creation of our identity. It affirms that sense of belonging that is most basic, most primal. Before anything else, we are our parents’ child, and, even if we spend our adolescence or our adulthood trying to distance ourselves from that fact, that part of our identity—whether granted or denied—shapes who we are.
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and our own baptismal identity, we hear those words proclaimed by our heavenly Father, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And, because of Jesus Christ and because of our own baptism, we know that those words are intended for us as well: “You are my beloved child, my beloved son, my beloved daughter; with you I am well pleased.” In the Incarnation, in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took our nature upon God’s self so that the divine nature might be grafted onto our own. In the waters of Baptism, we are united mystically with Christ in his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, so that the power of Jesus’ Sonship might become our own. When we are baptized, we become God’s daughters and sons in a real and transformative way. But when was the last time you heard God speak those words to you?
As Luke recalls for us the moment of Jesus’ baptism, he wants us to celebrate the power of what happens in those waters, but he doesn’t want us to stop there. Notice how he describes the event: “…when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” For Luke, the heavens open and the Spirit descends and the voice proclaims Jesus as God’s beloved, but those things happen not when Jesus comes up from the water but when he was praying. None of the other gospel accounts give us that detail. They include all of the other aspects of the story, but Luke alone remembers that the connection between Father and Son is wrought in prayer.
That shouldn’t surprise us. Luke portrays Jesus in prayer more often than any other gospel writer, and in Acts, his account of the work of the apostles, he repeatedly shows us that prayer is how the Christian community remains united to God and to Jesus Christ. Luke is the one who introduces the Lord’s Prayer as Jesus’ response to a disciple’s request: “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” For Luke alone, it is prayer that precedes Jesus’ calling of the disciples, prayer that precedes Peter’s confession and Jesus’ prediction of his passion and death, and prayer that precedes the Transfiguration. In Luke, we hear Jesus pray for Peter at the Last Supper, for himself on the Mount of Olives, and in agony from the cross. Luke recalls Jesus’ teaching on the importance of persistent prayer in the parable of the widow and the unjust judge and the parable of the friend at midnight. And in Luke Jesus reveals the link between our prayer life and our relationship with God in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee. For Luke, prayer isn’t merely what we do; it is who we are. It is the lifeblood of those who follow Jesus. It is the fruit of our union with Jesus Christ. It is the image of our baptismal identity.
When Jesus went down to the river to be baptized, he already knew that he was God’s Son. Years earlier, when his parents lost track of him in Jerusalem and eventually found him in the temple, he said to them, “Didn’t you know that I would be in my Father’s house?” At his baptism, he already knew that he belonged to God as God’s beloved child, but he heard God speak those words to him in prayer. You, too, are God’s beloved child. In Christ, God has taken your nature onto God’s self, and in Baptism your union with Christ has become full and complete. Know that you belong to God and that, when God looks upon you, God does so with love and delight. But, when was the last time you heard God say to you, “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased?”
Jesus is calling us to prayer. Jesus is showing us that, as children of our heavenly Father, we belong to God in prayer. We are God’s children, but we cannot hear God say that to us unless we spend time with God in prayer. And I don’t mean the kind of prayer in which we tell God everything we need and want and tell God everything that is wrong with our lives and with the world. There’s a time for that, and our heavenly Father hears those prayers, too. But we also must make time to sit in God’s presence and give space and silence for us to hear God say what God is always saying to us: “You are my beloved child; in you I take great delight!”
Is there anything more important for us to hear than that? Is there anything more formative for our identity that hearing God speak those words to us?