There are few stories in the New Testament that make it into all of the gospels, but the story of Jesus' baptism is one of them. In one form or another, this story appears, with Jesus coming to John to be baptized, and when Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open and the spirit descends like a dove, and they hear the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as the Beloved Son. Agapetos; that's the Greek word for beloved that pops up all over the New Testament. Agape is the unconditional love that God has for all of creation. It's that unfailing love that ensures the grace of God and our belonging as God's beloved children. What a wonderful thing, agape.
God has called Jesus agapetos, beloved, and in so doing has made a promise; the promise that has transcended ages: Jesus would never be alone, never forsaken, even through the trials and temptations to come in his lifetime, and even unto his crucifixion and death. God would never abandon Jesus. Now, this wasn't the first time God had made this promise, nor would it be the last. As we heard earlier from the anthem and the Isaiah text, God had made this same promise to Israel, who was in the throes of persecution and exile. “Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. The floods shall not overtake you, and the fire shall not consume you. You are mine. You are precious in my sight.”
God's love for Israel, for Jesus, and for us, is everlasting, even when we aren't exactly well-behaved in God's eyes. Israel disobeyed God countless times, and they suffered for it, but God still loved them no matter what. The promise was still there. My own faith journey was rocky and during my teenage years, I had turned my back on God because I believed false proclamations that God hated me for being who I was: a queer, lower-class girl who wore hand-me-downs to church and couldn't afford to bring an offering, who had fallen in love with another girl, and didn't understand why that was so wrong. Thankfully I learned later of God's unfailing love, God's covenant with us, and me, that God would never forsake me, even through all the hardships my teenage years brought. The promise was still there. God's love extends to all of humanity, and all of creation. I think we can all recite the verse that tells us why by heart. John 3:16, for God so loved the world. God so loved this beautiful, chaotic creation that when all was said and done, God pronounced it good. And not just good, but very good. God made the cosmos, humans, animals, the planets, the stars. God pronounced them very good, and promised again and again to love all of creation no matter what.
We remember the promises God has made to us through celebrating the sacraments, like communion. The sacrament of baptism also serves as a reminder of God's covenant of love with us: the promise, the assurance that we will never be forsaken. The waters shall never overtake us, but they will wash over us like a refreshing rain. They should also free us of our doubts and self-deprecating thoughts, but that's a bit harder to achieve, isn't it? We are beloved, agapetos, but in our life's journey, it can be hard to remember that we are worthy of God's love. We are a broken, downtrodden, pessimistic world. How can something so broken be worthy of God's love and grace?
When we come to the water, and when we take the bread and the cup, we remember God's promise. “I am with you.” The rest of the world, it seems, has a different sentiment. “You're on your own.” You're going through a rough patch financially? You're on your own. You're struggling emotionally? You're on your own. Your family is fleeing persecution and seeking a new life? You're going to get locked up, but then you'll be on your own. I envision God shaking Her head in frustration. Did God create the universe, the heavens and everything in them, the seas and land and skies and everything in them, and say “Alright, you're on your own now”? Did Jesus come down, see the world's brokenness and say “You're on your own”? Thankfully, no. Even despite our rough edges and misbehavior, God has named us, claimed us, as beloved children. We belong.
Some years ago now, a student of mine had quite a tough time feeling like she belonged. She was just starting public school for the first time, in 7th grade, and the poor dear got sick on the first day of class, in first period. As I walked with her to the front office, she kept apologizing, so embarrassed and miserable. Naturally, she was afraid of getting scolded by the adults, and getting ridiculed by her peers. She was so afraid of having the rest of the world tell her “You're on your own.” Thankfully, it turned out just the opposite. I reassured her that she wasn't in trouble, and none of the students mentioned it the next day when she came back. Instead, a few of them went out of their way to talk to her and make her feel welcome. By the end of that first semester, she'd blossomed into a bright, confident girl who felt like she truly belonged.
Despite that rocky start, and her own feelings of unworthiness, she belonged.
In the gospel of Matthew, John comes out of the wilderness, preaching and baptizing people, and the people actually began to wonder if John was the Messiah they had been waiting for. They all knew the stories, and the prophesies of the Old Testament that told of a prophet, a Messiah, and even the return of Elijah. But John quickly denies being the Messiah. John professes his own unworthiness, and when Jesus goes to the Jordan river to be baptized by John, John looks at him with surprise. He says “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you're coming to me?” John's shock is easy to understand: here comes Jesus, the Savior of all of creation, the very one who John earlier claimed “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals,” and Jesus is seeking to be baptized by him. Earlier in the chapter, John is described as a rather rugged individual: clothing of camel's hair and a leather belt with a diet of locusts and wild honey from the wilderness. But Jesus urges him to fulfill his wishes and baptize him, and then the heavens open up.
God proclaims Jesus as the Beloved Son, blessed through the waters of the Jordan river, the waters of baptism.
When we come to the waters of baptism, and to the table to celebrate communion, we remember that we are all named as Beloved, claimed as God's children. Every single one of us is beloved, and so is all of creation. Even in our supposed unworthiness, even in
our doubt, even in our hurt and tribulations, we are all beloved children of God. Amen.