Pastor Chris Tweitmann
The question is a straightforward one. Who are you?
It is a question of identity – of belonging and of purpose. Who are you?
It is a question that appears to be simple enough to answer.
And yet HOW this question is answered impacts
not only our self-image and personal health.
The answer to this question affects
how we interact with and are impacted by others
as well as our perceptions and vision of what’s possible.
For the answer to this question influences the choices we make.
And the choices we make bear consequences in the world around us.
Strip everything else away and the answer to this question
becomes the reason we do the things we do
as well as why the world is the way it is.
All of our cultural discussions and debates
– all of our increasing polarization around matters of
politics, gender, nationality, ancestry, ethnicity, and privilege,
are fundamentally about our sense of identity – who we think we are.
So then, who are you?
We each have our answer to that question.
For some of us, more than we may realize or want to admit,
our answer to this question has been and continues to be
defined by the thoughts and opinions of others.
But today’s message is about God’s answer to this question.
Though admittedly, at first glance,
as we go back out into the wilderness with John the Baptist,
and Jesus arrives on the scene, it’s not going to appear
that what follows has anything to do with us – with who we are
– as much as it does with Him – with who Jesus is.
And yet as we’ll discover what Jesus is about to experience
and what comes immediately after has everything to do
with understanding and appreciating our true identity
– the definitive answer to the question of “Who are you?” (TEXT)
The crowds who’ve come all the way out to the desert are getting restless.
They’ve listened to John’s sermon
inviting them into the grace of God’s forgiveness.
They’ve heard John’s challenge
– out of the power and not just the pardon of that forgiveness –
to be fruit bearers for the Lord’s Kingdom
instead of biting, poisonous snakes.
Many people – Jews, tax collectors, and soldiers of Rome alike
– have responded by submitting to John’s baptism of repentance
– a sign of their renewed, daily reorientation towards the Lord.
Guided by John, they’ve stepped down into the Jordan River
– those same waters crossed long ago by Joshua and
their ancient ancestors in order to cross into the Promised Land.
But as time passes, the people once again find themselves waiting.
“The people were waiting expectantly…” – Luke 3:15
Still waiting after such a long, long time.
In that waiting, after centuries of deafening divine silence
and more than just a few decades
of being under the oppression of various foreign empires,
the people are starting to wonder, starting to get excited,
that maybe, just maybe, John is the One they’ve been waiting for
– the Messiah, the Savior promised by God.
“The people…were all wondering in their hearts
if John might possibly be the Messiah.” – Luke 3:15
John, for his part, seemingly knowing the question
that is on everyone’s mind, burning in all their hearts,
redirects the people’s expectations
– pointing away from himself towards someone still to come.
More than simply indicating he’s not the Messiah,
John emphasizes the greatest, the superiority of the One still to come
by reinforcing his own unworthiness in comparison.
“John answered them all…But one who is more powerful than I
will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
– Luke 3:16
In the rabbinic tradition, a master’s disciple was
to serve his teacher through the fulfillment of all sorts of mundane tasks.
One exception to this was the removal of the rabbi’s sandals
– a task deemed too menial even for the disciple
and more befitting of a servant.
Against the backdrop of this cultural understanding,
John insists he is not even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah.
It’s worth pausing to consider John’s remark here in light of
the future moment when that same Messiah John points towards counterintuitively lowers himself to wash the feet of his own disciples.
John goes on to highlight the contrast between
what he is doing and what the Messiah will do when He comes.
John prepares the way; but the coming Messiah is the Way.
“John answered them all, “I baptize you with water…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” – Luke 3:16
John’s baptism with water serves as a sign
– a symbol of the inner, transformative work
that only the Messiah can make a reality.
Water washes the surface, but it is fire that melts the center and purifies.
In other words, John enacts a visible image of getting clean.
But it is the Messiah, through the gift of the Holy Spirit
and the later fire of Pentecost, who is the only One
that can deliver the means for us to become clean
– to be purified and made righteous – freed not only from
our bondage to the wages of sin which is death
but also empowered for fruitful service – enabled to bring life to others.
John declares the certainty, the inevitability of God’s judgment
– of righting the wrongs and its consequences.
But it is the Messiah alone, John insists,
who can objectively discriminate and execute
final and ultimate justice for all and its consequences.
“John answered them all… “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” – Luke 3:17
Through an agricultural metaphor, John makes it clear,
it is the Messiah who judges this world –
who is the Lord of the harvest – the harvest of salvation.
The Messiah alone bears the winnowing fork to clear the threshing floor
of all creation by separating the wheat from the chaff
– the heavier, beneficial, fruitful, life-giving grain
from the lightweight husk or shell that offers nothing of sustenance.
For the chaff – the unrepentant, the unchanged, the fruitless,
John cautions there is nothing but “unquenchable fire.”
This image is reminiscent of a word picture framed by the prophet Isaiah
to speak of those who insist on going their own way
rather than abiding in and following the Lord.
“Unquenchable fire” no doubt also brought to mind for those listening
– Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – Jerusalem’s perpetual garbage dump, where the fires burned day and night.
Does this metaphor point to a literal, physical place we call “hell”?
Or is the heat of all our desires that can never be satisfied apart from God, that slowly and destructively burns the unrepentant from the inside out – always consuming but never purifying – is this unquenchable fire
any less of a literal hell for those who bear it?
Both questions are interesting, but both miss the point of John’s message.
The point is the Messiah comes not to destroy – to burn the chaff
– but to break the power of sin and death and save the wheat.
And so John preaches not to present or celebrate
the demise of the unrepentant as inevitable
but rather as a warning so that none would perish.
“And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” -Luke 3:18
Not everyone appreciates John’s message.
Public talk of judgment – even when expressed as a caution
– always offends somebody.
It doesn’t help that John starts getting specific and naming names.
“But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.”
And so, Luke looks ahead and shares with us how John’s preaching
will end up landing him in prison – locked up in order to be shut down.
But Herod Antipas’ attempt to silence the messenger will not stop
the message – the Gospel – from breaking through.
For the way already has been paved for the Word made flesh.
Before John’s arrest can occur, Jesus arrives on the scene.
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”
– Luke 3:21
Jesus, comes out to the wilderness, stands in line,
and is baptized along with everyone else – like everyone else.
Compared to the other gospel accounts,
Luke’s description of Jesus’ baptism is very sparse. It’s almost an aside.
Luke’s focus turns instead
on what happens in response to Jesus’ baptism.
“And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came
from heaven…” -Luke 3:21-22
Interestingly, it is not as Jesus was baptized but as Jesus prayed
– as Jesus communed with the Father – that heaven opens so that
the Holy Spirit can descend and a voice can be heard from above.
The opening of heaven
– the piercing of the eternal into the fabric of the temporal –
serves as a divine spotlight – announcing not only the presence of the Lord – but in focusing on Jesus – also signals that He is the Messiah.
This revelation is further reinforced by the endowment of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, whom Luke told us earlier, was conceived by the Spirit,
who grew in the Spirit, is now filled with the Spirit.
Such an anointing – a setting apart – such an empowerment for ministry –
is a mark of the Messiah according to the prophet Isaiah.
And the Holy Spirit appears not as a figment of anyone’s imagination
but in the visible manifestation of a dove.
A dove – the former sign of God’s presence and promise of salvation
when the floodwaters receded in the days of Noah – will prove to be
a fitting form for the Spirit to come upon Christ
– as Jesus is revealed to be the Prince of Peace.
Luke doesn’t identify the one who speaks from heaven but from
what it is spoken, clearly it is the voice of God, the Heavenly Father.
This voice addressed directly to Jesus confirms what
Jesus had been told by his parents since his birth,
what Jesus Himself intuitively sensed since he was 12 years old:
“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
To fully appreciate what is being said, we need to recognize Jesus,
having come out of the waters of baptism, is now being drenched
in the poetry of both the servant song of Isaiah, chapter 42
and the Messianic address of Psalm 2.
There is even foreshadowing in these words as they echo that fateful day long ago when Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
But what is being declared here is that
Jesus is more than a son of Abraham.
Jesus, as the Messiah, is of course that.
The revelation borne of Jesus’ baptism
reveals that Jesus is the Son of God.
This is underscored by Luke’s placement of
the genealogy of Jesus immediately after this moment.
“He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…” -Luke 3:23
It seems surprising Luke puts it here rather than
at the start of his gospel about the life of Jesus.
But it is intentional. Intentional in its placement.
Intentional in how different this genealogy is
from the one we find in Matthew’s gospel account.
Like Matthew’s genealogy of Christ,
the connection to the line of David is established
demonstrating Jesus as the King of Israel.
“…the son of David, the son of Jesse,
the son of Obed, the son of Boaz,” – Luke 3:31
Similarly, the connection to Abraham links Jesus
to the covenant promise given to Abraham and the children of Israel
“the son of Judah, the son of Jacob the son of Isaac,
the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor,”
– Luke 3:33-34
– a promise that not only his descendants would be redeemed but that through Israel all the nations – all the people of the earth would be blessed.
Luke, however, highlights two genealogical connections
that Matthew does not make.
Taking the genealogy all the way back to Adam,
“the son of Kenan, the son of Enosh,
the son of Seth, the son of Adam,” – Luke 3:37-38
Luke explicitly emphasizes Jesus as the mediator for all humanity
– as not just the Messiah of Israel but the Savior of the World.
The promised king of Israel is also the head of the human race.
Jesus not only represents all humanity,
but Jesus relates and acts for all humanity not only as the son of Adam
– notice the conclusion of Luke’s genealogy – as the Son of God.
“…the son of Adam, the son of God.” -Luke 3:38
To be clear, Jesus does not become God’s Son upon his baptism;
Jesus’ identity is revealed to be the Son of God through his baptism.
But let’s step back for a moment and ask ourselves
an important, obvious question: Why was Jesus baptized?
John, let us remember, proclaims he baptizes for repentance
– as an external gesture of daily, regularly turning away from sin –
from rejecting and rebelling against God.
So if Jesus is the Son of God,
if Jesus was uniquely without sin as all Christians profess,
then Jesus needs no repentance. So why then was Jesus baptized?
In Matthew’s gospel account, when John asks this question
as he hesitates to baptize Jesus, Jesus answers
“to fulfill all righteousness” implying that Jesus
is complying with the Father’s will.
However, this still doesn’t answer the question of why
– why Jesus being baptized would be God’s will.
In the midst of all the scholarly debate,
what has been generally understood as the answer to
the question of why Jesus was baptized has to do with His identity.
First, because Jesus is the Son of God – fully divine –
perfect and without sin – Jesus did not need to be baptized.
Instead, God in Christ chose to be baptized.
Jesus chose to become one of us, fully and completely.
Jesus’ baptism is important because it shows us
how far God will go to identify with us
– as far as bearing all our sin and all the brokenness of creation due to sin.
As the Son of God, he was baptized to truly become one of us
– to share in the fullness of our humanity
– experience all our pain, all our suffering, and even our death.
Second, Jesus, being not only the Son of God but the Son of Man
– fully human – chose to be baptized in order to show us – to model for us – what our true humanity is supposed to look like
– what it can be when we live lives of repentance
– of daily reorientation towards God, of regularly abiding in the Father.
The good news is Jesus’ baptism
not only reveals His identity as the Son of God and the Son of Man,
the WHY of Jesus’ baptism, reveals our true identity – who we are.
Being baptized into our humanity – becoming one with us –
God in Christ chooses to identify with us – to stand in solidarity with us,
to claim us as His own.
Therefore what is said from heaven of Jesus is
not only a declaration of who He is but of our true identity.
We are sons and daughters – children of God
– whom our Father is pleased to love.
This is our one, true, lasting identity.
But have we embraced it? Are we living out of it?
So many of us are driven by the question of our identity
rather than living out of the answer of our identity in Christ.
We struggle to find out where we belong – to make a name for ourselves.
We labor long and hard to be accepted – to prove our worth.
We desire greatly to be chosen – to be loved, appreciated, valued.
And yet God comes down in Christ
both to show and tell us that we belong – that we belong to Him.
We belong, not because of what we do or don’t do,
not because of the name we try to make for ourselves.
We belong because of the name God gives to us – His children.
We belong because of all that God does for us through Jesus.
God comes down in Christ to show and tell us that we are accepted
– that we don’t need to prove our worth.
That we are precious – already worth everything to our Father
is evidenced through Jesus accepting and embracing us
at our very worst all so that He can show us, lead us
into the best that we can become.
God comes down in Christ to show and tell us that we are chosen.
Our Father doesn’t just settle for us.
In and through Jesus chooses to love us without condition,
to forgive us before we even say that we’re sorry,
to save us from death not because we’ve earned or deserve it
– but because God desires us – to share life abundant, life eternal with us.
Beloved, we profess to believe this is our identity
but again, are we practically, functionally living out our identity in Christ?
The invitation to know Jesus is the promise of
being set free from our identity crisis.
Knowing who we are in Christ sets us free of being enslaved by
the pressure of trying of constant self-discovery and reinvention.
Knowing who we are in Christ sets us free from trying to figure out
where we fit in, of earning the approval of others,
and justifying our existence.
Knowing who we are in Christ means
no matter what job we have, no matter how much money we make,
no matter what title we’ve been given, no matter what others say,
no matter what we’ve done or what’s been done unto us,
no matter even how we may feel on a particularly bad day,
no matter what we suffer – even death itself
our identity does not change.
The question of who we are has already been answered
by the promises of the Lord.
In Christ, we are sons and daughters – children of God
– whom our Father is pleased to love.
Notice, this declaration of our one, true identity is
both individual and collective.
In other words, in Christ we receive the answer
not only to “Who am I?” but also “Who are we?”
We cannot claim to be living out of our identity as children of God,
if we do not honor and protect that identity in our brothers and sisters.
For understanding and living out of our identity begins with authority.
Before we can embrace the answer of “Who are we?”
we must grapple with the question of authority
– “Whose are we?” – to whom do we belong?
If we insist that we are self-determining beings,
then our identity becomes fluid rather than foundational.
Instead of living out of the answer of who God declares us to be,
we ask and then decide for ourselves “Who do we want to be today?”
But right from the outset, Jesus models what it looks like to live
out of the authority of the identity God gives us.
We’ll begin to see this played out next week as Jesus heads
deeper into the wilderness and the temptations of the devil.
Jesus,as he encounters question after question about his identity
– both in that specific moment as well as throughout the rest of his life –
Jesus, in his humanity, will not ask, “Who do I think I am?”
or “Who do I feel like I am?”
No, continually adopting a prayerful posture of dependence
and relying on the empowerment of the Spirit he has been given,
Jesus’ identity will not change.
Again and again, Jesus will remain rooted in
the authority of the declaration of heaven,
in the answer to the question, “Who does my Father say that I am?”
Our one, true identity in Christ is
not a matter of feeling or even of our choice.
Our identity in Christ is a matter of declaration
– of our Father’s authoritative pronouncement that
we are His, that we, together, belong to Him – live for Him.
And we need to keep following Jesus to discover
not only what it looks like to live out of the authority
of our God-given identity but also the power of that identity.
For, in his humanity, it will be out of the power of his identity
as God’s beloved Son that Jesus will find the strength
to rebuke the devil, to heal the sick and to raise the dead.
Out of the power of his identity as God’s beloved Son,
Jesus will receive the inspiration to reveal the Kingdom of God as well as
the courage to quiet the winds and the waves of opposing storms
– both natural and manmade.
Out of the power of his identity as God’s beloved Son,
Jesus will unreservedly embrace the way of the Cross –
willingly offering his life for the sake of saving everyone else’s.
None of this would have been possible
if Jesus had not lived out of the authority of his identity
as God’s beloved Son.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer on Christian spirituality, observes that Jesus’ ministry on earth is marked by His sonship
– that Jesus engages all those he comes into contact with like a brother
by first learning from His Heavenly Father how to be a son.
Apart from Christ, we tend to be anxious to grow up
– to cast off the mantle of dependency – of being sons and daughters
as soon as possible and to assert ourselves – to exercise the authority
and control of fathers and mothers – even if we don’t have children.
Rohr argues from watching and learning from Jesus,
the sequence of discipleship – of living into the fullness of
our identity in Christ – is learning first how to be
sons and daughters of God in order to understand and appreciate
how to become good brothers and sisters to each other.
Healthy spiritual mothers and fathers in the Church
must come out of first living out of our identity as children of God
and then next maturing in our common brother and sisterhood in Christ.
This brings us back to the question of the day:
Who are you? Who are we? Where does our identity come from?
Are you a self-made person – whatever you want to be?
Are you a people pleaser – whatever others want you to be?
Is the sum of who you are defined by your achievements and accolades?
Is the sum of who you are limited by
the trauma and loss you’ve suffered along the way?
Is it possible your sense of self is entirely wrapped up
in one person, one role, one failure, or one wound
– something that cannot bear that weight
or either is wearing down the potential of who you truly meant to be?
Does our identity come from where it belongs
– from its true source – who we are in Christ?
A fruitless life – a life that is not bearing the fruit of the Spirit
– love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control –
is not because we haven’t been good enough to earn it;
it is because, rather than live out of the inheritance of the grace
that God gives to us freely, we keep trying to make a name for ourselves instead of living out of the name we have been given.
Being God’s beloved no matter what does not mean
we can now live however we want. This is nonsensical.
Once we know where we belong, whose we are, that we are chosen,
we seek to grow and mature into that identity
– to live as close to home as possible rather than to go off on our own.
It is only when we question that love or forget our identity,
that we fall back into the lie, the trap of forever
chasing after making a name for ourselves.
And as Jesus will both teach and model for us,
one of the greatest indicators that we are claiming
and living out of our true identity as beloved children of God
is our passion and our willingness to help others recognize and embrace their belovedness – their sacred identity in Christ.
Jesus treated everyone as God’s beloved
and in so doing reflected their true identity to them.
And he taught us – and even commanded us – to do the same.
All people are beloved children of God.
But many have forgotten it. Or have never been told it.
Many have never experienced or perhaps have been forced to endure
the exact opposite of the kind of belonging, chosenness,
and love that comes from knowing Christ.
Living out of our identity in Christ does NOT
eliminate our difficulties, fix our problems,
take away our pain or change our life circumstances.
Living out of our identity in Christ – following Jesus – changes US.
It changes the foundation of our being
– not to be less than but yet still beyond our mere biological existence.
It changes our outlook – giving us hope and a vision of life
as it might be, as it was meant to be.
It changes the source of our wisdom and power
– as we draw from the assurance and confidence of God’s presence working in and through every step of the way.
No matter what trials we walk,
they will not ultimately define or limit who we are.
The waters of chaos may rise around us
but they will drown us and wash us away.
We may walk through the fire – the fires of loss, the fires of our purification,
but we can take the heat; we will not be consumed by the flames.
The sacredness and certainty of our identity in Christ
will become our light in our darkness, our stream in the desert,
our peace that passes all understanding, our joy in the morning.
We all desire to be deeply known and accepted.
We all want – we need – to belong – to be chosen.
We all long to be loved without conditions and yet loved in a way
that changes us for the better – the best that we can become.
And in the Gospel, we receive the acceptance we desire,
the belonging that we need, and the love that we long for.
Our identity crisis is brought to end as we heaven comes down
in Jesus Christ, fills us with the Spirit, and whispers to us our sacred name, a beloved child of God our Heavenly Father.
Life isn’t about finding yourself,
life is about discovering who you already are
– who God created us to be – who we together can become in Christ.
Let us hear and receive our one, true identity in Jesus.
Let us live and breathe out of all the authority and power – all the potential and promise – being a beloved child of God – affords us.
Let us reach out and proclaim to those who do not know, those who have not heard, that they are accepted, that they are chosen, that they belong, that they are loved by God in Christ too.
Let us together out of who our Father both has declared and empowered us to be – follow the Son, follow our brother Jesus, in growing and living and even suffering all for the sake of this good, big, and beautiful world that even now our Lord is remaking. Amen.