What’s important

As I write this, the prayers of millions are focused on a young football player, Damar Hamlin, who collapsed on the field last Monday night. By all accounts, Damar is a Jesus follower and a man of character. He’s also an elite athlete. Last Monday, millions watched in shock and sadness, and for a moment at least, were left to contemplate what’s important in life.

This Sunday, as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, we again contemplate what’s important in life.

When couples bring their child to be baptized, I remind them there will be moments when they will be terrified for their child’s health: A little one struggles to breathe in the middle of the night; her fever spikes, prompting a panicked rush to the ER.

In those moments of terror, we remember our Baptism.

We remember that we are not our own. Our children are not our own. We belong to an eternal God who first gave himself to us. 

John the Baptist had said that Jesus would come to baptize people with fire. Instead, Jesus showed up asking to be baptized by John. There was no fire and John was horrified. He said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 

New Testament scholar Dale Bruner said this was the first miracle of Jesus: the miracle of his humility. The miracle that God was willing to go down with the whole human race into the waters of repentance and baptism. 

Jesus began his life as a baby in the manger, but he began his ministry in a river with sinners.

His life ended with prayers for us on a cross between sinners. 

His entire ministry was down at our level; identifying with us; one with us in our humanity.

We’re his.

In life and in death, we’re his.

That’s what’s important in life.

Father’s love

A few years ago, there was a movement to remove “paternalistic” language from the Bible. Some objected to calling God “Father” or “Son,” arguing that since some people had fathers who abused or abandoned them, calling God “Father” might be a barrier to faith. Others objected to certain passages that were used to marginalize women and minorities. The movement led to translations of the Bible that were more gender neutral. We still need to be sensitive to these concerns. 

The problem with making things gender neutral is that you can neutralize the truth.   

Now, my own father was not perfect. He could be moody, lose his temper, and boy, could he swear. Remember Ralphie’s old man in A Christmas Story?

But every day of his life, my father told me he loved me. It gave me confidence to go out into the world and meet life’s challenges. My heart goes out to everyone who has to face life without a loving father.

The Gospel writer Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth. Mark begins with the fully grown Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens were torn open, and God said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus had been one with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all time…they were loving each other before the creation of the universe. The persons of the Trinity are the essence and the source of pure love.

Yet Mark tells us that God the Father said, “I love you” to Jesus. 

There is something in each of us that longs to hear our father say, “I love you.”

If Jesus needed to hear it, how much more do we need to hear it?

This is one great reason why Jesus was baptized: not just for his sake, but for ours.

In Baptism our heavenly father says to us, “I love you,” as he longs for the day when we will say to him, “I love you too.”

Odd truth

The late southern author, Flannery O’Connor once said, “You shall know the truth, and truth shall make you odd.” It’s a twist of something Jesus said in John 8:32 about God’s truth. The truth of the Christian faith will make you different from the rest of world, sometimes shockingly so.

Ephesians 4:22 says, “Put off your old self.” Now that sounds odd to us, but it’s the language of Baptism. In Baptism, we become new creations. We put off our old identity and put on our truest and best identity, the one God gives us.

Every day, all day, the world tells us, “You be you.” “Be true to yourself.” It resonates with us because we’re basically self-centered. The irony is, it’s the culture telling us that. It’s others telling us to be us. If we believe it, we’re really just doing what someone else says.

What makes a Christian shockingly different is not their appearance, the way they act, or their likes and dislikes. A Christian has just as many problems as anyone else.

A Christian, a real one at least, is someone who is less and less motivated by what the world says.

A Christian is increasingly motivated by the truth that the living God stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ. The only rational choice for the Christian then is to start putting off the things of their old identity and follow the God-man, Jesus.

That may seem odd to some.

Passing through the waters

The videos coming out of Missouri were heartbreaking. Floodwaters had risen rapidly and with little warning. Homes were underwater or swept away. Most of the deaths happened when people underestimated the strength of the current and tried to drive through the water. One bewildered survivor said that he had gone to work in the morning and came home to find four feet of water in his home.

As the New Year began, people everywhere were being overcome by different kinds of floods. Some faced the holidays for the first time after the loss of a loved one. A friend was laid off after working at a company for years. In our family, the question of how to care for aging parents was made more difficult when one parent was diagnosed with progressive kidney disease.

The truth is that many things in life can leave us asking who am I? Where do I belong? Do I even matter?

This is the week when the church remembers the baptism of Jesus; when we remember that God went under the water for us. The prophet Isaiah wrote that when you pass through rivers, when you pass through waters, when you walk through fire…God is with you. It would be easy for God to wave a cosmic hand and lift us out of our troubles. Instead God chooses to do something infinitely harder, and in doing so proves his costly love for us: God walks with us through the floods and fires.

When the religious insiders asked Jesus for a sign to prove who he was, he said the sign they would get was the “sign of the prophet Jonah.” Jonah had spent three days in the belly of a fish, but Jesus would spend “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” Jesus allowed himself to be overwhelmed to death.

The floods of life are always going to come, and at the worst possible time. They may engulf us, but Jesus proves they ultimately won’t overwhelm us.