All her life, my friend Laura had dreamed of being a doctor, like her parents. In her senior year of college, she had many med school applications to complete and essays to write. This was back in the days before unified applications — or even the internet — and each one had to be done individually.
The essay question for Case-Western was, “What is the most important thing you learned in college?”
What is THE most Important thing you learned in college.
Laura was understandably freaked out. How to distill 4 years of study and experience into one thesis sentence?
She polled all of us: What is the most important thing you’ve learned in college? What is the most important thing you’ve learned in college?
Most of us were not very helpful.
“Never take an 8:00 class.”
“Get a single room if you can.”
Laura fretted and exercised. She meditated and kept a dream journal. She second guessed herself.
“Why did I minor in Art History?” she moaned. “What medical gem did I miss because I took Art History?”
Then, one morning Laura came to breakfast all smiles.
“I figured it out,” she said. “The most important thing I learned in college is how to learn.”
We all “ahhhh”ed in amazement. It was the truth. Learning to learn was the most important thing we had all learned.
Laura got into the med school of her choice. She became a doctor. Then she became a psychiatrist. Then she became a pediatric psychiatrist. As she encountered challenges, roadblocks, speed bumps, and even inspiration, her mantra was, “I can do this. I know how to learn.” She continues to learn from her patients and their families to this day.
Some people think of baptism the way we tend to think of academic degrees. You go to school for what you want, you get your diploma, and you’re done, ready to live happily ever after.
Baptism? Check. Confirmation, maybe? Check. Religion and faith all set until you need to get married or be buried.
But finishing a degree is never the end. It’s the springboard for the next thing. Preparation.
Likewise, today’s story of Jesus’ baptism shows that being a Christian is never “done.” Baptism is just the beginning. And — spoiler alert — there is no happily ever after, at least, not in the way we imagine it.
The last time Matthew talked about Jesus was to say that his family fled to Egypt to escape Herod, Herod died, and the family moved to Nazareth, in Galilee.
Today’s passage is preceded by a description of John the Baptist. Chapter 3 begins, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (3:1-2) John is offering a baptism of forgiveness of sins, absolution after confession.
He also says, “After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
When Jesus walks up to be baptized, and John protests: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (v. 14) Jesus says, this is what is to be done, so let’s just do it.
As soon as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit lands on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am deeply contented.”
With this story Matthew establishes Jesus’ identity. There is John’s foreshadowing of the Son of Man. Then there are supernatural events: the sky splits, a spirit descends, and, in case that weren’t enough, a voice says, “This One. This is The One.”
Prior to this, Jesus hasn’t done much of anything. And yet, God claims him as his Beloved, and announces that God is deeply contented with Jesus.
There is no turning back for Jesus. Once God has declared you to be a Son in front of witnesses, there is only forward. Forward into ministry. Forward into preaching and healing. Forward into confronting an unjust system of government and unfaithful management of religion. Forward to the the passion and death on the cross and resurrection.
In fact, the very next sentence that follows is, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (4:1)
For us, baptism allows us to imagine living into the people God made us to be. In our Reformed tradition, we understand baptism to be a sign and symbol of God’s claim on us as God’s children. That’s why we baptize babies. Baptism isn’t about us choosing God. It’s about God marking us as God’s own with water and the Spirit. God loves us and is well pleased with us even before we’ve done anything because God is loving and created us good.
The sacrament we practice in the church is a corporate act of a community welcoming a new member. Every time we baptize someone, we all reaffirm the vows we made — or someone made on our behalf — at our own baptism. Baptism is our launch pad, our first equipping that helps us remember who we are, and whose we are in this secular world.
Because, as Karoline Lewis says, baptism assumes wilderness.
I’m always kind of wistful this time of year because just last week people were bringing the baby Jesus birthday presents, and boom, this week he’s all grown up. His public life begins with his baptism, and we know it doesn’t last long or end happily. The first time, anyway.
But it’s important that Jesus’ ministry begins with baptism. It is his fortification. He immediately heads out into the desert to be tempted. When the devil whispers in his ear, “If you are the son of God,” Jesus can cut him off with his mantra, “This is my Son.”
Likewise, our lives are constantly in flux between OK — great, even — and the next difficulty. We believe and teach one thing at home, then send our children out into the wilderness to fend on their own. We live in families with like-minded people, and work in a diverse world of divergent viewpoints and values.
This is why baptism is not personal, and neither is wilderness. None of us is alone. None of us could possibly make it alone.
Renewing our baptismal vows, sharing in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, hearing the Word proclaimed all build us up. Like a candle wick being dipped repeatedly in wax, we are built up, fortified to walk God’s way every time we share in the corporate life of the body of Christ.
We need to come to church, we need to learn scripture, we need the witness of community because then we learn God’s truth in our bones.
And that truth is that we are never alone. When the Hebrews wandered the desert with Moses, they had each other. When Jesus was in the desert, he had the Spirit. We have the community of baptism.
In baptism, we are equipped to live into who God calls us to be despite all the “despites” — despite peer pressure, economic pressure, political pressure, expediency, or convenience.
When Madison Avenue tries to tell us, “You need a bigger, better fill in the blank,” we have “With you I am well pleased” as our mantra.
When we are crippled by guilt or self-loathing, we have “You are my beloved” as our mantra.
When we are desperate and lonely, we have “You are my child” as our mantra.
In baptism, we are publicly identified as God’s children. We can turn our backs on that truth, but we can’t make it not true. It will always be true that, no matter what we face, we are accompanied by the Spirit, and carried in prayer by our family in Christ. Sometimes we are even helped in physical ways by our fellow incarnate beings. And in our work as members of the body of Christ, we accompany, pray for, and help others.
So friends, remember your baptism and be glad. Remember that we are all God’s beloved, no strings attached. May we fulfill God’s vision for each of us.
Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, “You Are All My Beloved,” www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4790,
accessed January 8, 2020.