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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

January 12, 2014

Love in Search of a Name

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

             On January 3, 1892 in what is today known as South Africa, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born into this world.  By age six he was fluent in Latin, which he learned from his mother.  He devoted his life to philology, the study of language.  He developed a love for ancient languages, and from 1925 to 1959 he taught at two different colleges at Oxford University.  Tolkien was fluent in Latin, Classical Greek, Old Norse, Old English, Medieval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon.  As a child he created words and codes with his schoolmates so they could communicate secretly, and then as an adult he invented his own language, which had its own alphabet, its own sounds and structure.  He called that language High Elvish, perhaps to match his love for high fantasy, a genre of literature he created.  Tolkien spent twelve years writing a book for his children incorporating that language.  In The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor quotes Tolkien saying, “I wrote the book to provide a world for that language.”  The book was, of course, The Lord of the Rings.

             When I read this I realized that this was in some ways what God has done as well.  Last week we read the first words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.”  John goes on to tell us that this Word was love incarnate; he tells us that “God is love.”  Which means that this world – this creation and all its creatures – was created to provide a world for that Word, or a world for that language, which is the universal language of love.  In a sense, this is what the language of baptism gives to us.  It teaches us how to live in this world and how to speak the language of love, a language that transcends all cultures, all peoples, all races and all religions, for that matter.

             Maybe that is one reason so many branches of the Christian Church baptize infants.  From the moment we are born into this world, good parents are engaged in teaching their children to speak.  Learning language is nothing less than a miracle, and the language we learn to speak shapes the lives we live.  Baptism provides a framework for the whole life of faith.  Just as we continue to learn how to speak our language or languages for our whole lives, so we learn what it is to speak the language of love, the Christian language of incarnate love, all of our days.

             But that learning has to begin somewhere, and Christians believe that discipleship, the art of following Jesus, the life of faith, begins in baptism.  Jesus’ own public ministry began in His baptism.  Matthew is clearly a little uncomfortable with this.  Mark is written first among the Gospels, and in Mark, Jesus simply comes to John and is baptized in the River Jordan, in the very opening verses of the Gospel.  Matthew must have been uncomfortable with this straightforward act as reported by Mark.  So he includes something Mark never mentioned.  John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and you would come to me?”  John is uncomfortable baptizing Jesus; he feels unworthy.  Maybe it is because his is a baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and Matthew wants us to know that Jesus did not need that kind of baptism, for He was without sin.

             But please note that Jesus insists upon being baptized, in order “to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus submits to John, and by doing so, Jesus submits to His heavenly Father.  Baptism is an act of submission, no matter when it happens.  In the case of infant baptism, the parents are submitting to God’s will and way for their child.  They are admitting that this child is not theirs, that this child belongs to God, who has entrusted this child to them to raise as God’s beloved child.  Discipleship always starts in submission to God.  In baptism we acknowledge that we are not our own, that in life and in death we belong to God, and all our days we are accountable to God.  From our baptism on, we seek to live the life God calls us to live, to respond to God’s will and way for us.  This is not easy to do, and we surely cannot do it on our own.  Children are utterly dependent upon their parents for life – but even as we become adult believers, we need each other to become the people God intends for us to be.  You cannot be Christian on your own.  We submit to God in baptism as Jesus did, and then we spend our lives learning how to do it over and over again.  “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”  Jesus started this submission to God in His baptism, and He ended it upon the cross.  We are called to die to self and to live to God in our baptisms.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person, He bids that person to come and die.”  “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

             Secondly, baptism reminds us that we never outgrow our need for God’s grace.  At tax time we always need to declare how many dependents we have.  In baptism, we declare once and for all that we are dependent upon God.  We never come to a point as disciples when we will not need God’s grace.  The question we ask of the parents in baptism includes the lovely phrase “in dependence upon the grace of God.”  Believe me, there is no other way you can be a parent!  And there is no other way you can be anything!  We are called in our baptisms to a life of obedience to God, and we simply cannot keep that promise apart from God’s grace.  I have been trying to follow Jesus, to submit to Him, to live the life He calls me to live, all my life, and it is not an easy calling.  Some would say that it is impossible.  And without God’s grace, it is not.  By God’s grace, what is impossible becomes possible.  We fail, and we fall down.  And God picks up back up, and allows us to begin again.  This is the life of grace.  And it is amazing!

             In baptism, we remember that we live by God’s grace, and we never outlive our need for that grace.  In baptism, we hear that there is grace enough for a lifetime in God, even as there is challenge and calling for a lifetime in following Jesus.  And that grace has your name written all over it.

             Finally, in baptism we are reminded of who we really are.  When Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened suddenly to Him, and the Spirit of God descended upon Him like a dove and touched Him.  And a voice from heaven said: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  What Jesus heard His Heavenly Father declare was a combination of two Old Testament scriptures: Psalm 2:7, a Psalm of enthronement for a king, and Isaiah 42:1, one of the Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah.  Jesus never forgot that voice, or those words.  And every time we recite them in baptism, we are being adopted into God’s family through Jesus.  His baptism becomes the model for ours.

             And note that these words come to Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, not at the end.  He does not have to earn this status.  It is given to Him.  It comes as gift.        You do not have to prove who you are, and you surely do not need to be anyone other than who you really are.  You may spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the life you are called to live, but baptism reminds us that even as we are trying to figure out our lives, we never need to wonder about who or whose we are.  We are God’s beloved son, God’s beloved daughter, “with whom I (God) am well pleased.”  One of the great gifts of weekly worship where baptism is almost always a part of the service is that we are reminded again of who we really are.  In baptism, God calls us by name.  In baptism, we learn that God’s love for us is personal, or in the words of Jonathan Edwards, “infinitely personal.”

             It is easy in this world to lose sight of who you really are, or to forget completely who you are, and to try to be someone else.  I see people all the time trying too hard to promote themselves or to sell themselves.  I have been there and done that myself.  There is no freedom in that.  Your only freedom is found in being real, in being truly yourself, in being the person God created and called you to be.  It takes a lifetime to grow into that person, but the sooner you get started, the fuller and deeper and richer that life will be.  Connie and I went this weekend to see Saving Mr. Banks.  It is a lovely movie that tells the story of P.L. Travers, who sold the rights to her Mary Poppins novels to Walt Disney.  The movie is not always factual, but the story rings true.  Travers writes to try to redeem her father, Travers Goff, who died tragically from alcohol related illness.  Travers never stopped trying to redeem her father’s life.  And all along, I thought of the fact that in baptism she already had a loving, redeeming Heavenly Father.  We all do, we have a Father who calls us by name.

             “God is love.”  And that love has a name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And that love calls us by name, by our full name.  We are fully known, and fully loved.  And the name that calls us, calls us to love as we are loved.  To be a beloved son or a beloved daughter is to be called to love others as you have been loved, to be gracious to others as you have received grace, and to welcome others as God has welcomed you.

             So I return often to that day in the grouse woods of Western Pennsylvania with my father, just the two of us with our English setter.  We had hunted all morning long on a crisp, cold autumn day.  Leaves were thick on the ground, golden brown leaves were still on the trees, filtering the sun.  We were eating lunch, baloney sandwiches we made at 5:00 that morning, and a Hershey bar with almonds.  My Dad put his hand on my shoulder, and, who knows where his words came from?  “Todd, I couldn’t be any prouder of a son than I am of you.”  I tell you, you can spend a lifetime living into blessed words like that!

                                                                                     Amen.

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