First Sunday after Epiphany
We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Terms of Endearment.” They’re those distinctive words or phrases we use to let folks know they are special to us.
In preparation for this sermon, I decided to make a list of all the names that we have used at different times in his life, to refer to our son, Adam. I was amazed at how many I came up with.
There is Adambadam, Adamboo, Boopster, Bopster, Moopster, Mopster, Mister Man, Mister Bister, Doodle Bop, Booder Poot, Boosker Doo and, of course, when he was an infant, Stinky. Though it seems like a ridiculously long list of silly names, I have to say that I believe that the proliferation of aliases for my son really came from my deep love for him and my soul’s search for a way to say that in a name or phrase.
It is for that reason that I believe these names we use are so important. Because while it’s true that a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, it is my opinion that what and how we call each other really does matter. WHAT we are called and WHY we are called it makes a difference in how we see ourselves. As we grow, if we are called “smart,” and we are called it because someone loves us and is proud of us, it makes a difference. If we are called “stupid,” and we are called it because someone wants to make us feel worthless, that makes a difference too.
Isaiah also understood the importance of a name: “But now,” Isaiah says, “this is what the LORD says — he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” What a wonderful reassurance of God’s divine love and protection of us! And why? For no other reason than “I HAVE CALLED YOU BY NAME.”
As a counterpoint to Isaiah, our gospel reading takes us to the waters of the Jordan river and the story of Jesus’ baptism. Theologians have always wrestled with why Jesus needed to be baptized (just as John himself wondered). After all, if you just consider the reasons for baptism you quickly realize that Jesus just didn’t fit into any of the categories we use for being baptized. He didn’t need to be baptized as a sign of the Father’s forgiveness of any wrongdoings he may have done. He didn’t need to be baptized to be welcomed into the family of God. So what most scholars have concluded is, that Jesus’ baptism was meant as a visible sign of just how much he really was WITH us – with us in our fears, with us in our foolishness, with us in our failures, with us all the way down into the waters of baptism that wash us and make us new every day. AND, to show us that God is with us no matter what.
The climax of the scene is also so wonderful. The dove and the voice saying “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” But this begs yes another question. Pleased with what? Jesus hadn’t done anything at this point. He hadn’t preached or taught or healed. He hadn’t accomplished any of the things we identify with his ministry. And yet God says, “With you I am well pleased.” Interesting, isn’t it, that God praises Jesus before he does the great things we know he will do. WE, usually reverse that order . . . reserving praise and approval until one has earned it. That is, EXCEPT when it comes to our children.
Loving parents start with those words of affirmation and affection right from the beginning. “My Son, whom I love.” No conditions. No prerequisites. And the fact that, in his baptism, Jesus heard God’s “term of endearment,” tells us something important. Something about God and something about baptism.
Baptism can be seen as a first word of God’s love and acceptance for you and me. When we remember and celebrate our own baptism, we recall that we, too, are God’s children.
I heard a story about a couple who was vacationing in the Smokey Mountains area of Tennessee. The man and his wife had found a wonderful restaurant in an out-of-the-way hotel. They were seated in the restaurant, looking out at the mountains when this old man, with shocking white hair, came over and spoke to them. He said, “You’re on vacation?” The couple said, “Yes” And the man just kept right on talking. “What do you do?” he asked. Even though he thought it was none of the old man’s business, the husband let out that he was a minister. Then the man said, “Oh, a minister, well I’ve got a story to tell you.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Won’t you have a seat,” the husband added sarcastically.
After he got settled, the old man said, “I was born back here in these mountains. And when I was growing up I attended a little church nearby here. My mother was not married and as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that. At school I would hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were cruel to me. And when I went to town with my courageous mother I would see the way people looked at me trying to guess who my daddy was. The preacher at the church fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me. He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure liked to hear him preach. I didn’t think I was welcome at church so I would go just for the sermons. As soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, “What’s a boy like you doing here in church.” One day, though, when I was trying to get out, some people had already gotten up and were in the aisle so I had to stay seated. I was waiting, getting into a cold sweat, when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the preacher. I was scared to death. The preacher looked at me. He didn’t say a word, he just looked at me. And then he said, ‘Well boy, you’re a child of…’ and he paused, and I was sure he was going to try to guess not who my mother was but who my father was. The preacher said, You’re a child of God! And you know what? I can see a striking resemblance! Then he swatted me on the bottom and said, “Now get out there and claim your inheritance.”
I was born again on that day, the old man said. Truly born again.”
“You are my Son, whom I love.” That is God’s “term of endearment” for us. And in baptism we each find our affirmation from God. An affirmation that reminds us that it is in our own baptism that we find strength for the struggle, courage for the crises, and hope for the future. Because in our baptism we know that we are part of God’s family, each of us is God’s child, never alone, and that nothing can separate us from that love of God in Christ Jesus.