January 21, 2007
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,
22 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."
As most of you know, a few months ago, my family was richly blessed with the birth of a third granddaughter. I was thinking this week about all the preparations that went on for that birth. The doctor visits, the sonograms, the baby showers, the shopping. The nursery had to be painted, and the crib set up, and all the other stuff--the little fluffy toys, the mobiles and about a ton of pampers and wipes--had to be put in place.
Another thing that Martin and Kim spent hours and hours on was a name. They bought books; they got input from everywhere and everybody. Perhaps they even got input that they did not particularly desire, but they were always polite about that.
In the baptismal ceremony, the minister asks a question: “What is the name of this child?” Even if the minister already knows the name, and I hope I knew the name of my own granddaughter—I better have known her name--even if the minister knows the name, the question is asked as part of the sacrament, because a person’s name is important.
We want to give a child a name that will sound right, that will convey some legacy, that will not cause the child to be a target for insults and jokes.
Some parents have done their children harm with a name, like the woman who named her baby Female (pronounced feh-MAH-lee). She could not think of a name, and she looked at the hospital band on the newborn’s wrist and saw that word and branded her child forever. Another couple named their child Urine (pronounced yuREEN). One clueless couple decided to pick a random middle name, and so they settled on Random. Governor James Stephen Hogg and his wife Sarah of Texas named their daughter Ima. What were they thinking?
One hundred years ago, among the top 20 most popular baby names for 1907 were Clarence, Walter, Mildred, and Gladys. Fifty years ago, some of the most popular names were Michael, James, Susan, and Linda. But don’t be surprised today if you attend a baptismal service, and learn that the child’s name is Nevaeh. That is a name that was not in circulation in 1907 or 1957 or 1997.
But suddenly in 1999, eight baby Nevaehs were born in the United States. The next year, 86 Nevaehs were born. Today the name is in the top 100 most popular baby girl names.
Last year seven of the top 10 baby boy names could be found in the Bible. That has always been a trend in Western society. And many people repeat names. In the 1800’s people were being named— Emily, Emma, Madison, Abigail — and those are still propular girls names today.
But how do we explain the popularity of Nevaeh in the last eight years? MTV. In 2000, Christian rock star Sonny Sandoval of P.O.D. appeared on MTV with his baby daughter. He announced that her name was Nevaeh—which is, he explained, “Heaven spelled backward.”
I wonder about that because usually a name spelled backward means the opposite. I am sure that was not Sonny Sandoval’s intent. I wonder though if somebody soon will name a baby “Lleh.” That is H-E-L-L spelled backward. And can you imagine baby Natas? You can spell that one backward for yourself.
Whatever the eventual name of a child, the naming process has changed. In the past, the sound or popularity of a name was important. More often today, people are looking for unique names, or names with embedded meaning.
This was also the practice in biblical times. If you read the footnotes of your Bible, they will often explain the meaning of various names. Aaron means “teacher” or “mountain of strength.” Isaac means “laughter.” John comes from “the grace or mercy of the Lord.” Biblical names carried meaning.
The angel said to Joseph, concerning Mary, “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The name “Jesus” was as common in first century Palestine as Michael, John, or David today. But in the case of the Lord Jesus, the meaning of his name was his identity. The name Jesus literally means “salvation” or “the Lord saves.” His name and his life were one; they show his meaning, identity, and destiny.
We are in the season of Epiphany. We celebrate the appearance the Christ. We recognize the shining forth of God to us in human form. Our verses from Luke 3 show this in the public appearance and the baptism of Jesus.
John was the forerunner, unfurling God’s ultimate plan for redemption. He must have been really something—dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He had a wild look in his eyes that bore the divine authority of prophecy. He was a man on a mission. He toured the countryside, smashing at tradition and convention. This redemption plan of God’s would not come through a religion or an ancestry. It would come through the very Epiphany of God himself. Redemption itself would appear in God incarnate.
John went about “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). The Messiah, John taught, wanted their public proclamation of their brokenness and need. The messiah would be a righter of wrongs who would level the playing field between spiritual haves and have-nots (v. 5). All people could access this salvation from God (v. 6), and so even tax collectors came to be baptized by John (v. 12).
Naturally, “the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah” (v. 15). But John was no messiah. He was not baptizing them in his name, in his identity, in his destiny. John knew what the Name meant. The Name would become the kingdom of God, God’s power and purpose in this world: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16).
As the people entered the waters with John, he baptized them into this kingdom that was coming, into this Name which would one day arrive. And then, one day, the Name appeared.
Jesus came to the Jordan with the others to be baptized by John. Apparently he came last, behind the others. He humbled himself and made himself last and least.
The baptism of Jesus has always been a controversial topic. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, but Jesus had no sin. Why was Jesus baptized at all?
The only answer is that Jesus transformed John’s Baptism just as thoroughly and completely as he transformed the Jewish Passover into the Lord’s Supper. Christian baptism is not John’s baptism. The verses before us today give some inkling as to what Christian baptism is about. We are told that after he had been baptized, he was praying. Perhaps he was praying that God would bless the baptism he had just received. If so, his prayer was answered in spectacular fashion. We read in v22, “and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.” I suspect that others around Jesus saw only a dove, but Jesus knew he was God incarnate.
That is the primary meaning of the sacrament of Christian baptism. It represents the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those who baptized. Water is only the outward symbol. They are in fact baptized with the fire of the Spirit and adopted into the family of God.
At Jesus baptism, God said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22).
The one whose name means “Salvation” is called “Beloved.” At his baptism, his father named him Beloved and showered him with pleasure. Think of the implications then for us.
First, identify with the family. Public identification with the family is important and pleasing to God. The family we are talking about is the family of God. Are we willing to openly identify ourselves as belonging to this family? Do our neighbors know that we are Christians? Do our coworkers know it? Do the parents of our children’s friends know we follow Christ? But beyond just knowing we claim that identity, what have they learned from watching and listening to us about who Jesus is?
Epiphany reminds us that God’s plan for reconciliation was to engage a broken world by taking on human flesh. His plan hasn’t changed. Now Jesus who is Salvation works through you. In II Cor. 5:18 we read, “Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also.” You are called to bear the name of Jesus to a watching world.
There is a recent trend among some to no longer call ourselves “Christians.” Instead they say we should be called “Christ-followers.” The word “Christian” is politically incorrect. They say it carries too much baggage and these folks want to sanitized our language to make the faith more appealing to outsiders.
I do not have any objection to doing whatever is necessary to present the gospel to outsiders, and I certainly am a “Christ-follower,” but you do not bash your family to please those not of the family. I am a Christian. I belong proudly to that family.
You can tell when we belong to that family. We all carry the same mark. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Secondly, identify with our baptism. The example of Jesus reminds us of what baptism is really meant to be. It isn’t a hoop to jump through and a box to check. It isn’t a spiritual security blanket for our children. It isn’t a religious routine that just goes with the territory.
Jesus goes into the waters of baptism to publicly affirm his identity as the beloved son of God. When we baptize people in the church, we recognize their place in the family. We agree with them that they are God’s and God is theirs. We celebrated our destiny as sons and daughters of God.
Finally, identify with Jesus. Jesus Christ models for us the only true place to find our approval. Sometimes we can be such insecure, approval-seeking people. Our clothes have labels, our honor-roll children have bumper stickers, our titles put letters behind our names. We will do anything for approval. That is why some folks love the Internet so much. On something like MySpace, they can post their pictures, their music, their quotes, their blogs and journals — and to cap it off, they have a counter numbering all those who visited their little corner of cyberspace. They have a cyber-identity that seeks cyber-attention and gains them cyber-approval.
Why should we care about that kind of thing. The only approval that really counts is approval from God. How would you like to hear the words Jesus heard that day by the Jordan? "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." How would we feel if we were given the name that Jesus was given that day — Beloved?
You can have that. Through Christ, God calls us his beloved children. The void, the emptiness, in each of us is not filled through impressing people and gaining their approval, it is only filled if and when God calls us beloved. When God says we are good enough for him, we are good enough. Through the one called salvation we are made the beloved of God, and that certainly is good enough. Amen.
Lee, Jennifer, “And if it’s a boy, will it be Lleh?” The New York Times, May 18, 2006.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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