“Our identity as a child of God, and brother and sister in Christ, is the one identity that goes through the grave and is forever.”
3rd Sunday in Advent, Year B
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thes. 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the Light of the world, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Who are you? “Who are you,” is the question presented to John twice in our Gospel reading today. Here’s this strange man making a lot of noise and commotion out in the desert, drawing crowds from all over, telling people to repent and that something, or rather someone, is coming…and it is a big deal. People need to get ready and prepare the way, he says. So many people were drawn to John who traveled from far and near. They put on their sandals and started walking, or hopped on their camels and made their way to the voice crying out in the wilderness. Perhaps people didn’t even know why they went out to hear John speak, or even know why they entered into the Jordan River to be baptized by him. Some maybe came out of curiosity, others out of a deep longing for meaning, or searching for God. The ones who came to ask the question, “Who are you,” were sent to try and understand what John was all about and his reason for doing and saying the things he did.
“Who are you?”…Scripture may as well be asking you and me that question. John begins to answer the question with who he is not. “I am not the Messiah,” he says. When asked again, he identifies himself as the one who the people asking the question should know very well, as foretold in the prophet Isaiah, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.” I am the voice…John says…not the Messiah. John understands who he is and what it is he is supposed to do.
“Who are you?” is a very profound and complex question. We could answer by saying, like John, what we are not: For instance, “I am not a man. I am not African. I am not an infant. I am certainly not a tight-rope walker, nor am I the Messiah.” Maybe it gets more difficult to come up with words that describe us that are true, especially because we change as we have different life experiences and grow older. Even if we can say who we think we are, there is still a lot of mystery in how we define and identify ourselves.
As Christians, there is a phrase that claims us and tells us primarily who we are: child of God. I know some of you might not categorize yourself as a Christian yet, or are just starting to ask questions and soul search a bit…know that is okay. The identity of ‘child of God’ may mean nothing to certain people, and mean everything to others, but it runs deeper than any other way we describe ourselves to be whether we know it or not. Being a child of God is at the heart and the center of who we are as individuals and who we are together as a human race.
This story isn’t exactly mine to tell (It is my mother-in-law’s, who is a pastor in Duluth, MN), but I like it and it is fitting for our morning together here in this place of worship. A few weeks ago she was having a conversation with four other people about baptism. There was a set of parents and their 7 yr. old son, along with an African man from Nigeria named, John. The 7-year old boy was not yet baptized and John was hoping to have his baby baptized in the congregation as well. My mother-in-law was going through all the “normal” baptismal talk when the 7-yr. old asked, “Aren’t babies the only ones baptized? Why do I have to be baptized anyway?”
I don’t think I would have ever thought of this answer, but this is what she said and what followed it:
“You know, your mom and dad are husband and wife, but they have another relationship that is even deeper than that…they are brother and sister in Christ. When you are baptized you are baptized into a family of faith and you parents will not only be your parents, they will be your brother and sister in Christ.”
My mother-in-law then turned to John from Nigeria and said,
“And here we have John. Long before John came here to Duluth, we have been made brother and sister in Christ in our baptisms, which crosses oceans and makes us one.”
What has been even more moving to me personally in this story, is how after my mother-in-law told me what happened in this pre-baptismal meeting, she preceded to say, “You know, since Ben has died, I have never thought of him primarily as my brother in Christ. I have always thought of him as my son.”
And what she said next was one of those things that penetrated my heart, soul, and mind: “Our identity as a child of God, and brother and sister in Christ, is the one identity that goes through the grave and is forever.”
One week ago today, I witnessed the baptism of Elizabeth Anna, my niece and goddaughter. She is 2 and a ½ months old, and I got to watch the pastor say after she was baptized, “Elizabeth Anna, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” as he took oil and made the sign of the cross on her forehead. I had to hold back some serious tears as I heard this incredible promise given to her from God that no one could take away from her. Before we sat down I could not help but retrace the cross on her forehead and say to her, “my sister in Christ.” Elizabeth is my niece, but above all else, she is a child of God and my sister and Christ.
It is really a special day in the life of our congregation. We have two people, Michael and Orion, who in a little bit are going to affirm their baptism. What happened a week ago to my niece, Elizabeth, happened to Michael and Orion a long time ago as well. Even though they have never met Elizabeth, they are deeply connected to her and her to them. They too, in their baptism, were declared a child of God, were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Seemingly total strangers have the deepest and most on-going relationship possible, with the same mark of the cross on their foreheads.
So in this affirmation of baptism then, which they are going to do soon, is recognizing the promises of God that have already made to them in their baptism. It is saying, “I am so grateful to be a child of God, and I will try my best to be in relationship with God and with other people.” As John the Baptist understood himself to be the voice crying out in the wilderness, we too can have confidence in our identity as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. When we get a sense of who we are or rather, whose we are, we then start to understand our response, which is to witness to the light and love of God for us and for the world.
The incarnation and the Christmas story invite us in to be witnesses to God coming to earth in Jesus Christ. We get to be a part of the story. The Word made flesh in Jesus shines light on who we are and it says, “You might not think you deserve my love, but I think you are worth it. You are my child and you are worth dying for.” God’s love is not for just some of us here; it is for all of us and it always has been. And it is meant to change us.
John the Baptist thought he was not worthy even to untie the sandals of the feet of Jesus, something reserved for least and the lowest of the slaves. But we know the story…John does not get to untie the sandals of Jesus when they finally meet. Instead, Jesus asks John to baptize him and he does. Jesus enters into the waters of life with us and promises to be with us always. This is the greatest gift God gives to us: God’s self. During Advent and Christmas, we say a word you might have heard of before: Emmanuel. What Emmanuel means is “God with us.” Christmas is a simple and as complex as that, kind of like the answer to the question, “Who are you?” It is to this question that we can confidently reply, “I am a child of God.”