Today, the Sunday after Epiphany, in the Western Church we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus. This is a feast that is rich in symbolism and meaning for us as Christians, and so there are many directions I could go in reflecting on it this morning. But, rather than going deep into the weeds of early Christian understandings of the cosmos, salvation, and God — and indeed the baptism of Jesus has much to say about all of these — I’m going to narrow my focus on just one.
In the story, as Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a heavenly voice is head saying, “You are my Son; in You I am well pleased.” It’s hard to know how Jesus would have felt about this. The Scriptures are silent about how much Jesus knew about his identity. But if we take his humanity seriously, as we must, I think it’s safe to say that he, like us, experienced a lot of doubt. As strong as his sense of vocation, of purpose, mission, and identity may have been, he probably also experienced the same kinds of negative self talk that we do, with parts of his own mind expressing the same doubts as those around him would as he undertook his ministry: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” “Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?” At one time or another, he probably even asked himself the question he later put to his disciples, “Who do I say that I am?” And so, God’s acknowledgement, “You are my Son; in You I am well pleased,” must have been a profound moment for Jesus, a moment that put all the pieces together for him, confirmed the deepest whispers of his heart, and set him on his course. It is no surprise that it is at this moment that Jesus is formally anointed by the Holy Spirit, specially empowered for his ministry of preaching good news to the poor, healing the suffering, and freeing the oppressed.
I’m not sure why, of all the potential messages from today’s rich celebration, this is the one that impressed upon me the most. Perhaps it’s for the same reason I resisted a more triumphant message last week for Epiphany: As I look around me, I see so many people riddled with doubt: grown men who don’t have a sense of who they are, people so afraid to show their real selves that they hide behind projections and disguises, and strong, capable women who don’t speak up because they are so used to being silenced. I know ‘imposter syndrome’ all too well in my own life, the mocking voice that whispers, “Who am I to voice my opinion about this?”
But there is a message to all of us about this in the Gospel. As the Apostle Paul wrote, in words that echo the story of Jesus’ baptism, “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together” (Rom 8.14-17).
Paul is stating in other words the ancient Christian principle that I’ve said before and will unapologetically say again: We become by grace all that Christ is by nature. So if in our story today, Jesus is acknowledged as the Son of God, the promise for us is that by grace we too are acknowledged as beloved sons and daughters of God: If you are unsure of who you really are, God knows you. If you feel you have to hide who you really are, God sees you. If the world has taught you that you don’t matter, God hears you. And if you aren’t sure you have a place in the world, God acknowledges you and your place. God says to you, and to all of us in our broken human condition, “You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.”
Now, as powerful as this acknowledgement is, this isn’t the whole story. Just as this was the moment that crystallized Jesus’ calling, confirmed his heart’s whispers, and set him on his course, so too does God’s acknowledgement of us as beloved sons and daughters act to empower us for our service. Our identity is a calling as much as a fact. As much as God’s voice welcomes us into God’s embrace and family, God’s Spirit sends us out into the world, calling us to be transformed, ever more into God’s likeness yet simultaneously ever more into our true self, and to be agents of the transformation of the world. And as the last part of the passage from Romans reminds us, that life is often long and difficult.
But, we have the rest of the year to reflect on that. For today, let’s rest in the loving, gracious, merciful, and transforming voice of God that calls us God’s own, that calls us by our name, and proudly declares for all to hear, “You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.”