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Baptism of Christ, January 13, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 29
Luke 3:15–17, 21–22

Over the past few weeks there has been much feasting and celebrating in our congregation over the birth of Jesus. But now, as we are firmly situated in the season after Epiphany, we seek to solve, as it were, a bit of a mystery. Who exactly is this baby we have been celebrating and who will this child of promise grow to become? Who is Jesus?

Ask that question on Michigan Avenue and you will likely get as many answers as you get people willing to respond. Jesus is a complex figure who means different things to different people. For some, Jesus is an inspiration: a teacher, freedom fighter, or community organizer. For others, Jesus and the religion built up around him is identified with personal pain or historic injury. Theologian and pastor Brian McLaren says he has come to know several Jesuses throughout his lifetime. By this he means that he has become familiar with a different kind of Jesus during each period of his life and through very different communities. So, there’s the Pentecostal charismatic Jesus who taught McLaren how Jesus is present here and now, intervening in wonderous and surprising ways. Then there was the Liberal Protestant Jesus who taught him to pay attention to not only what Jesus did at birth and death but how Jesus lived life. Each of these and other traditions unveiled a different dimension of who Jesus is.

As we at Fourth Church begin our journey toward Lent, the forty-day period of reflection and self-examination leading to Easter, we’ll be exploring this question of who Jesus is, this gift at the heart of the Christmas story. We’ll seek to uncover the significance of Jesus for our hopes and dreams. Jesus does many things in scripture. He heals, teaches, preaches, befriends, and redeems. He dies and rises. But from the very beginning of his public life and ministry, one quality or role seems to define him. Jesus is the Beloved One of God. That phrase, as we hear it in Luke’s Gospel, is taken almost word for word from the Second Psalm. Likely used for a coronation of a ruler, the phrase seals the connection between God and the one who is to rule or govern people. It is both a reflection of the ruler’s potential and what they have already accomplishment by seizing the power of the throne.

For us, that word Beloved is probably less about political power than it is a title or term of endearment for someone who has played a particularly beneficial role in our lives: a beloved teacher, artist, or friend. Beloved is an honorific earned by people who have accomplished or achieved something on our behalf.

The need for accomplishment itself drives so much of our lives. It motivates efforts to earn the affection of loved ones, to prove yourself to coworkers, to build a resume that attracts employers, to leave a legacy for your descendants. What does accomplishment mean for you? Is there something you look to achieve in this new year?

There is a competitiveness drive propelling us to achieve. Nowhere have I seen that culture on display quite like it is in entertainment. All one really needs to do is flip on the television and watch one of the many competitive reality shows being produced to understand how strong the desire is among us to be cherished, loved, and adored by others for what we feel we have accomplished. Shows in the competition genre have proliferated and are everywhere. Being a self-described foodie, I’ve been particularly attuned to the cooking shows: there’s Top Chef, Master Chef, Iron Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Cutthroat Kitchen, Cake Wars and Cupcake Wars, and the Great British Baking Show. And while the cuisine or dishes involved are diverse, the common thread that runs through these shows is the simple formula of the competition. Amateur chefs are gathered before a panel of three or more judges. Among the judges is always a curmudgeon, a grinch whose job is to critique and complain without mercy. In each round, new challenges emerge with unusual ingredients or unfamiliar cooking tools. Occasionally there is a lightning round of elimination or sometimes the contestants are all pardoned from their sins and live to compete another round.

Recently, I was watching one of the more memorable scenes from Master Chef, when in the fifth season a blind competitor, Chef Christine Ha, has a difficult round making a dessert and is about to be judged. The objective was to bake an apple pie. Sounds simple, but without the benefit of sight and with the need to rely on touch, memory, and taste, she learned how challenging it could be. Before her was judge Gordon Ramsay, a famed chef and notorious judge in the culinary world. Gordon doesn’t ever mince words. His character in these shows, but also his real-life persona, is marked by frequent outbursts of anger. He mercilessly calls out would-be chefs for their flaws and regularly uses colorful and creative language to describe a chef’s worse creations. He sends chefs home flattened like the plates they serve their dishes on. So Christine expected him to eviscerate this pie she made with barely eighteen minutes in the oven. He asked her what she thought her pie looked like. She assumed it looked like a pile of rubble. But in a rare moment of compassion and encouragement, Gordon describes the pie Christine cannot see as exceptional. He grazed his knife across the well-baked crust and complimented its texture before giving an approving nod to its taste. Relief washed over Christine’s face. She was now a chosen one.

Watching the scene made me think how badly we all want to be the chosen ones. The lure of competition is that we might in some way distinguish ourselves through the gauntlet of humiliations, trials and challenges, and be made worthy. But I don’t think it’s just pride at work.

There is a genuine hunger for transformation. From the fix-it-up shows with homes to the fashion-and-fitness shows with bodies, we see the intense desire to make over our lives, persons, and identities. For the participants in these shows, that desire often stems from a deep dissatisfaction in their lives. Their sense of self has been diminished by some tragedy, failure, or burden that makes daily life immensely challenging or unbearable. Realizing how dire the situation has become, these participants essentially launch a quest for redemption. Brenda Weber, an academic who has been studying and following reality TV for years, notes, says author Kelefa Sanneh, that in these “makeover programs a strange new world—or, more accurately, a strange new nation” is coming into existence, “one where citizenship is available only to those who have made the transition ‘from Before to After’” (Kelefa Sanneh, “The Reality Principle: The rise and rise of a television genre,” New Yorker, 9 May 2011).

The kind of transformation being sought in these shows has much to tell us about the appeal of baptism, especially the fiery proclamations of John the Baptist. Like John’s warning to those seeking baptism, these shows become the threshing floor by which the wheat is separated from the chaff, the good from the bad, the successful from the failures, the wise from the foolish. Like those who gathered by the Jordan to seek a new beginning for their lives or escape the perils of the Roman world, we also seek transformation and self-improvement. Our personal journeys have us asking, How can I strengthen my relationship? How can I improve my body? How can I become more efficient with my routines?

Baptism has long been an activity intertwined with the transformation of ourselves. By the time of Jesus and John, it had become a familiar ritual of self-purification. It set apart those who sought to attain a higher level of righteousness. There were those like the Essenes, a Jewish community that lived in the desert to escape the policies and persecution of Rome, who sought to make baptism a rite of entry into their ranks. In this way, baptism was a way to clearly separate those who took transformation and religion seriously from those refusing to turn from the corrupt ways of the world.

It is easy to read our scripture passage and believe that the baptism by fire is about separating and condemning people like so many failed contestants on Master Chef. But perhaps in baptism God is up to something different. It is possible, as the Russian author Alexandr Solzhenitsyn put it, that the line between good and evil runs not through good and evil individuals, but straight through the human heart. In that case, perhaps the Messiah who comes to the threshing room floor is not about our destruction if we simply don’t cut it. Perhaps the Messiah tosses up all the anger, worry, doubt, fear, and deceptiveness in our lives and allows the Spirit to do away with those parts that detract from the image of God in us, so we are purified to be the people God has called us to be.

This kind of baptism is not for the timid. And the truth is, sometimes we feel as though the fiery trials of our lives will consume us and the raging waters of tragedy will overwhelm us. In submitting to John and joining with the crowds, Jesus stands with all those overwhelmed by the waters, and Jesus will also feel the strain of being transformed and called to difficult tasks throughout his life journey.

But there’s another side to it. We are told that the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove, in some embodied form, and a voice is heard that validates the identity and vocation of Jesus. The voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” When God calls Jesus the Beloved, we are encouraged to inquire about our own identity as beloved. Pausing from the exertion of always striving to be our best, Jesus asks us to bask in the warmth of always being loved. Now in a hyper-competitive culture, that can feel like an excuse or way out of the tough work of transformation. It seems like the participation trophy of salvation. Actually, it is, because we participate in the life and work of Christ, who is with the vulnerable, the rejects, the cast asides, the disqualified, the runners-up. Being one in this Christ, we share the same sufferings and cross but also the same resurrection.

So Jesus, the Beloved of God, complicates our understanding of the journey to transformation. In Jesus we recognize a love that precedes all achievement, for this pronouncement didn’t come on the cross. It didn’t come at the entry into Jerusalem. It didn’t come after the feeding of the 5,000 or after the healing of the blind beggar or the raising of Lazarus. It came before Jesus achieved anything by earthly or messianic standards. And that is the profoundly unconditional love of God.

But the love received by being in relationship with God is the ground, or foundation, of all that Jesus would eventually achieve in his life. Unconditional love, given before anything we have accomplished, is the ground from which our individual and collective transformation will come. Such love gives us room for growth and failure, for second chances and course corrections. It is not valorization for a job well done. In baptism we remember that through God’s unconditional love we are loved not just for who we are but also who we are not and who we might be with God’s help. It is also about loving each other this way too. So remember, friends, the power in being God’s beloved. In the midst of your flaws and shortcomings, you remain beloved for who you have been, are, and will be. Thanks be to God. Amen.