Luke 3.15-17, 21-22
A chap out walking his dog one evening was pleasantly surprised when a beautiful and, to him, young woman warmly greeted him. He obviously looked rather surprised, because she apologized and explained, “Oh, I ‘m so sorry. When I first saw you I thought you were the father of two of my children.”
He didn’t realise that she was a school teacher.
Larry, a photographer for a newspaper, was scheduled to meet a plane on the runway to take him on a job.
“Hit it,” said Larry, climbing into the first plane he saw on the runway.
The pilot took off, and was soon in the air.
“OK,” said Larry, “fly low over the trees over there, I want to take a few pictures.”
“What do you mean?” asked the pilot.
Larry looked at the pilot and answered a little annoyed, “I need to take some pictures for the paper, so please…..”
There was a long pause, before the pilot asked in a shaky voice, “you mean you’re not my flying instructor?”
Identity is very important today. Whenever I counter-sign a passport application form, I have to provide the number of my own passport, so that my identity can be checked as part of the process. Whenever I collect a parcel that wouldn’t fit through the letterbox, the Post Office always ask me for ID, and I produce my driving licence. Alongside that, in my wallet I’ve got several library cards, all with my name and photograph on, and probably several other things as well.
Perhaps some of you can remember having identity cards during World War Two? Like rationing, they carried on long after the war – 1952 in this case. They only abolished, against the wishes of the police and security services, after intense public pressure against compulsory identity cards in peacetime.
Two of the things our reading from Luke’s gospel is keen to get across are the avoidance of any mistaken identity, and Jesus being confirmed in his real identity.
John is busy preaching and baptizing, a baptism in token of repentance, helping people get ready for the new things God will do. Jesus, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, is praying. The heavens open, which doesn’t mean a hole appeared in the sky, but is the code to tell readers that God is acting. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and this is when the identification is made. Jesus is addressed, “You are my beloved Son”. John is John, and Jesus is Jesus. They cannot be confused.
Luke tells us that not only did the Spirit come upon Jesus like a dove, but it was in bodily form. I think this is Luke’s way of stressing that this isn’t any internal subjective feeling, or some sort of emotional episode in the life of Jesus. This is God working out his saving promised purposes in the world. This baptism of Jesus is a crucial moment of identity. The child born at Bethlehem is now grown to be a man. He responds to the preacher’s invitation to baptism, but he’s more than one of John’s disciples. God is affirming Jesus’ true identity.
Jesus comes for baptism in response to the call of God, delivered through a prophet. I think what’s going on is that Jesus acknowledges his identity, along with all those others coming for baptism, in the line of God’s ancient people, Israel.
But it’s at his baptism that Jesus learns something more. He hears the voice of God. He receives the Spirit of God. He’s declared to be the Son of God. Called by God, empowered by the Spirit, he’s set upon his ministry in the purposes of God. Jesus’s baptism declares his unambiguous, full, and true identity.
And this is true for us also. Baptism declared Jesus’ true identity, and so does our baptism. In our increasingly impersonal world, where people can be badly treated by reason of education, wealth, colour, gender, and much else, the question of identity becomes a crucial issue. Who am I? Who are we?
Baptism, whether we received it without knowing a thing about it, or by coming ourselves as an answer to God’s gracious call, affirms who we are in God’s eyes. We’re his children, sisters and brother of God’s beloved Son, members of a new humanity, called in the purposes of God to live the life of the kingdom. We may be put down and discarded by others, but our baptism affirms the truth that we are God’s children who have the promise that whatever deep waters we may be called to go through, we shall not be without God, not without grace and salvation.
And baptism also affirms our identity as a member of Christ’s people, the Church. Here we find we belong to a new family, not marked by the painful disabling features of our world: economic, racial, religious. We belong with all those in Christ. We are Christians, not by our achievements but by gift, by grace. Baptism affirms this identity which we are given in Christ.
Just a few months before he was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a remarkable poem. He entitled it Who am I? In the poem he recalls what others say about him, but is he really all that others say of him? Is he the person he thinks himself to be? Is he a hypocrite, one person today, another tomorrow? He’s lived through confused times with all sorts of designations thrust upon him by friends, enemies, and himself.
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
Like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
Freely and friendly and clearly,
As though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
Yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
Tossing in expectations of great events,
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
This is the identity we receive at birth, though we may not know it or be told of it. Thankfully, it’s affirmed in our baptism. We belong to Christ. That’s who we are.