Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17
I wonder if you’ve been struck in recent years by what seems to be a surge in American parents adopting children from across the globe. In my own family’s circle of friends we can count children who have been adopted from China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Russia, Sudan, and Honduras. And you only have to move around the city or visit a mall to see parents with their young children looking as if they stepped out of a poster for the United Nations.
It has been a moving thing to watch our friends as they have welcomed these children from faraway lands into their lives. Many of them went through years of yearning for a child to love and raise. And they spent months and often years of planning for their adoption, dealing with bureaucracies, making multiple trips to the host country orphanage, and then navigating the complicated logistics of getting their new child home and launching their life together.
And then these parents have poured themselves into the demands of raising their new child, sometimes dealing with scars left over from their hard beginnings.
What strikes me most in this adoption love story is that these children were chosen—plucked out of lives that held little promise and adopted into a world where they can grow and thrive. Out of their immense yearning and love and desire new parents sought them, claimed them, gave them new last names, and are now giving them a future of hope and possibility.
There’s something extraordinary about the chosen-ness of those children—the sheer gift that they have been claimed and loved. I remember hearing about a biological child giving her adopted brother a hard time about being adopted. “Well,” the little boy said, “Mommy and Daddy just had you. But they chose me.”
Today as we hear the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and as we baptize seven new Christians, we are exploring the immense declaration that all of us, like those adopted children, are chosen and loved by God.
If there had ever been a group of people who wondered whether there was a god who cared about them it must have been the people of ancient Israel. They had watched their holy city burned to the ground, including the Temple, the holiest place of all, and their leaders had been taken across the desert to be prisoners in the dreaded Babylon. But there, after some 70 years of exile, a prophet named Isaiah brought them words of hope. You heard it in the first lesson as God says to Israel:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him….
And a little later God will say,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; …. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.
From the heart of the universe came this declaration that has been shaping Jews and Christians ever since—that each of us, all of us, have been loved, called, and chosen, and this Love will never let us go.
You know it’s hard in a world like ours for people actually to believe that they are loved and chosen. The signals often say just the opposite. We heard today in our Sunday Forum about horrible violence taking place in central Africa. We grieve this morning the violence in our own land as we absorb the shock of the Arizona shootings that have killed six people. We know what being unemployed, looking for work, can do to someone’s sense of self worth.
Last year many of us saw a remarkable movie called Precious that showed powerfully what’s it like to feel unloved in a seemingly unloving universe. It’s a painful film to watch as it tells the story of a sixteen year old African American young woman living in Harlem who has just about everything going against her. Precious is obese and illiterate, she has been abused physically, sexually and mentally by her mother and raped and impregnated by her father. To survive she creates her own fantasy world where she is strong, confident, even glamorous, and able to fight back. She even sees herself in her fantasizing moments as a slender white blond girl that everyone likes.
Things begin to shift, though, when she becomes pregnant a second time. The principal suspends her and sends her to a special school where a social worker and teacher work with her and begin slowly to build up her confidence to learn to read and write. By the end of the film she is starting to value herself enough to push back against the destructive forces around her and to start a new life.
At one point in the story Precious breaks down and starts sobbing, as she declares that she isn’t worth anything to anyone. But her teacher tells her “your baby loves you”—and I love you”—probably the first real awareness in her life that she too is chosen and loved.
It’s a disturbing, moving film about the struggle to believe that we are loved and have worth, that we are chosen. In fact, the story of Precious is relived countless times by people everywhere—female, male, black or white—who have been devalued or underestimated, whether those demeaning voices have come from outside us, or the harsh self-criticism we turn on ourselves. “You are precious in my sight,” God says in Isaiah. Everyone needs to hear those life-giving words.
One of the great mysteries about Jesus of Nazareth was what happened to him from the time of his birth until he turned thirty. Except for one brief glimpse of him in the Temple at age twelve, he vanishes from the scene until we see him as we do today on the bank of the Jordan River. His ministry begins when he walks out of the town of Nazareth and into the countryside to hear his cousin John preaching his fierce message of repentance and calls the crowd to turn to God and make a start in their lives. And to do that he invites them to step down into the river and allow John to plunge them under water as part of an ancient ritual of death and new birth—being washed free from the sins of the past and beginning again.
So Jesus decides to be baptized. What exactly was going on in him we can’t know. But we can guess that he was still wondering where his life would take him and what God might want from him. Was he to be a carpenter like his father for the rest of his life, or a rabbi in the Temple? Maybe he was feeling the restlessness most of us have felt about where we are in our lives and wanted to know God’s will.
What we do know is that there at the Jordan something shifted for Jesus. None of those who would be his followers were there to witness what happened, and they probably wouldn’t have noticed anything if they were. But later he must have recalled that it was as if the sky opened, and God’s Spirit came down like a dove, and he heard a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There’s an old saying that there are two great moments in your life, the day you are born, and the day you discover why you were born. This was the moment when Jesus discovered that he was loved, that he was chosen, and that he had been called for a mission that only he could fulfill.
And the point of his story, and of Isaiah’s too, is that all of us are beloved, all of us are chosen, whether we take the time to acknowledge it, whether we ever decide to live in the light of that truth. That’s why we baptize people, whether they are infants or adults. We want to sign them, mark them, brand them, so they can never forget that they too have been loved from the moment of their conception, they have been chosen for a God-filled life, and that God’s love will never let them go.
And the purpose of the church is to convince people that they are loved and chosen and called, and to turn loose on the world people who want to live that love. We want to pull them away from the uncalled life of chasing after small things like self-fulfillment and success, and release them to see their lives as gifts and callings, however seemingly small and ordinary.
Because the truth is that the lives God is calling us to are the lives we’re living right now. Right here is the place where we are called to claim our chosenness, and right here we have everything we need to respond to God’s call. We each have one life to live on this earth and we can choose to live it generously in ways that enhance the world, or we can just take a pass. We can put our heads on our pillows at night having either brought more life and hope into the world or less.
And all this has public implications for the life around us. There are young people like Precious filling our cities who need to know that God has chosen them and so has their community—the one in five American children who live in poverty, the one in five African American young men in urban areas who are either in jail or on parole, the school systems that are going to suffer yet again as states and cities make major cutbacks. The well-being of children in America continues to suffer as older and retired Americans protect an increasing piece of the economic pie. We are called to work for a society where every child and young person can know that he or she is chosen and entitled to a life of dignity and hope.
Today seven candidates for baptism are going to be adopted as God’s chosen. And we are going to give them new last names. It won’t simply be Mary, or Jane, or David. Their new name will be Christian. Their first loyalty will be to God. They are joining a family that promises to help them know their chosen-ness more and more, and that will help them answer God’s call. They will know who they are and whose they are. After today it will be up to them and to us to make this baptism real.
Today in this service each person being baptized will be washed with the water of our own little River Jordan, and they will be hearing for themselves the words that came from the heavens:
You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
You are chosen. Say yes to that, and an immense journey has begun.