It all starts here.
This message was offered at Wesley United Methodist Church (Culver, IN) on Sunday, January 12, 2014, as part of a baptismal renewal service. We used a contemporary setting for this renewal. You can find the liturgy here.
Reading: Matthew 3:13-17
Gracious God, in the moments to come, give me the words to speak and they the ears to hear so that together, we might be inspired to speak and live your Word in the world starting today. Amen.
It all starts here.
…in a murky, shallow “river.” It is here, after many years of silence, that Matthew’s Gospel picks up the story. Jesus travels from Galilee to the Jordan River to hear his cousin proclaim the nearness of God’s Kingdom and the need for people to change their hearts and lives. He came, records Matthew, “so that John would baptize him.” John, recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, refused. “But Jesus insisted. ‘Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism’” (Matthew 3:15, The Message). So John baptized Jesus in the shallow muddy water of the Jordan River. As Jesus came through the baptismal waters, “the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life’” (Matthew 3:16-17, The Message).
And so it begins.
When Jesus stepped into the mud and entered the water of the Jordan River to be baptized by John, Jesus found his true identity and began to live his ultimate purpose. You see, it all starts here in the baptismal waters.
Baptism is the initiation rite of the church through which we—like Christ in the River Jordan—are reminded of our identity and sent to live—with the help of God and community—to live into our ultimate purpose.
Through the sacrament of baptism we learn who we are. Baptism is about identity. In the River Jordan, as the water dripped from his beard and hair, Jesus learned his identity. Sure, his mom and Joseph had always said he was special—he had heard countless times his father talk about “the dream” (see Matthew 1:18-25), his mother often recounted what the magi had told her (see Matthew 2:1-12)—but it was here where Jesus’ identity was confirmed to Jesus. It was here where the heaven’s opened and Jesus experienced the Spirit coming down like a dove. It is here where Jesus hears God, his Heavenly Father, say: you are my Son and you are loved! In you I find happiness beyond measure. In you I am well pleased.” It was here that Jesus learned who he was and that’s what baptism’s about.
Baptism tells us who we are. Through the ritual we repent of our sins—the things we think or do that keep or hinder us from loving God and others. We repent as a means of recognizing that these things don’t define who we really are. Through baptism we are reminded that we’re more than our mess-ups (sins). Through baptism we—like Jesus in his baptism—are reminded of God’s deep love for us. We are reminded of our identity as children of God—created in his image, unequivocally good (regardless of what we’ve done or what others might say).
Baptism is about recognizing our identity as people whom God loves—people in whom God finds immeasurable joy. Baptism is about understanding who we are, but it’s also about what we’re called to be and do.
Baptism isn’t the culmination of faith. It is the beginning of it.
In Matthew’s text, the baptism of Jesus is not the ending of his ministry. In Matthew’s text, the baptism of Jesus is the beginning of his ministry. It is his launching. It is his commissioning to begin the public ministry for which he was created and to which he was called. To be sure, the baptism of Jesus named his identity, and this is crucial. Identity, however, is not a static thing. One’s identity grows and deepens, as did Jesus’ identity throughout his public ministry. His identity is as much about purpose as it is about personhood. 
Like Jesus, our identity as followers of Christ cannot be separated from our purpose.
Jesus came not “to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, Common English Bible). He came that we might have live—indeed, so that we could live life to the fullest (adapted from John 10:10, Common English Bible). Jesus came
to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Luke 4:18b-20, Common English Bible
In other words, Jesus’ purpose was to show the world how to have a healthy and renewed relationship with God and one another. Jesus came so that we might know of God’s love and offer that love to one another.
Our identity as persons loved by God is linked to our purpose. Jesus said it best: you must grow in your love of God and one another. Everything depends upon and is fulfilled, if only you’d grow in love with God and one another (see Matthew 22:34-40). Do this, says Jesus, and people will know your true identity. “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34-35, Common English Bible).
Our purpose and our identity are inseparably linked and revealed to us through our baptism. It all begins there (at the font). As the water washes over us, we are immersed in the love of God and sent out to offer that love to all we meet. It all starts here, at the font, at our baptism.
Therefore, this morning, I’d like us to go back to where it all begins. This morning, I’d like to invite you to the font so that—as we continue in this new year—we might remember who we are and what we’re called to do. I invite you to the font—perhaps for the first time, perhaps not—to remind you that you are a beloved child of God who is called to help others understand that they are loved too.
 Note: in Matthew’s text this is the first time Jesus’ identity is revealed to Jesus. This is the first instance—in this Gospel—where Jesus’ identity is confirmed.
 “Matthew 3:13-17: Pastoral Perspective,” Rodger Y. Nishioka in Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1 (Advent through Transfiguration) (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 238.