January 13, 2019

What’s Your Sign?

Passage: Luke 3:1–22

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Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’  —Luke 3:21–22


I want to look with you at Luke’s story of Jesus’ baptism to see what we can learn about our own baptisms.

“When Jesus was baptized,” Luke tells us, “the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, my beloved. In you I am well-pleased.’” Baptism is an adoption into the family of God.

The sacramental language of a church like ours is very careful to get this point across: “In baptism, God claims us,” reads our baptism liturgy, “God claims us and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.” That word ‘sign’ is very important. Baptism is a sign and seal of our adoption into the family of God. “You are my son, you are my daughter,” says God to each one of us in this sign and seal of our adoption into God’s family.

That is to say, baptism is not an agent of holiness but a sign of holiness. Baptism doesn’t create a holiness that was never previously there but acknowledges a holiness that always was there. Baptism isn’t the beginning of a relationship with God that never existed before our baptism but recognizes a relationship with God that goes back to birth and before.

Remember a time not too long ago when in Catholic homes it was very important that an infant’s first trip outside the home in the wild and dangerous world was for her baptism, because there was nothing more tragic than dying unbaptized? In that old Catholic sacramental theology, you see, baptism, a kind of magical incantation, creates holiness, creates a relationship with God, but that’s not what baptism means and that’s not what baptism does. Baptism is just a sign that we belong to God and always have.

Dudley is my third golden retriever. When Dudley’s predecessor Duncan died young at the age of six, we were so bereft we couldn’t face the prospect of replacing him. He was such a sweet and faithful animal we thought he was irreplaceable, but after about year we got sick of our doglessness, so nine years ago on the day after Christmas I took the whole family up to this charming old farm house near Hartford, Connecticut. A knock on the door caused a canine cacophony within when about seven golden retrievers start yammering and scurrying for the door.

The streets of heaven, they say, are paved with gold, and sure enough, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven because the minute we stepped inside we were set upon by all these attention-starved goldens who completely outnumbered the humans within and thus needed lots of loving. All four of us were smothered with gold.

In every corner of the house there were litters of puppies in various stages of canine development. Now, all these puppies are for sale, of course; the kennel owner knows that most people like to name their own pets and that most of these puppies will get new permanent names when they go to their new homes, but she names every one of them anyway, at least temporarily. This means that she has to come up with scores of names.

Over in one corner there was a litter of Bible puppies whose names were Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In another corner there was a litter of Yankee puppies whose names were Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and The Babe.

Before he was Dudley, Dudley’s name was Edison, because he came from a litter of inventor puppies which also included Alexander, Graham, Bell, Ben, and Franklin.

While we were there, the vet made a house call, because how do you get ten golden retriever puppies to the vet’s office? I think there were ten puppies in Dudley née Edison’s litter, and they’re all squirming all over each other in this fenced-off corner of the house, and the vet reaches down and grabs a puppy and squirts a syringe in his mouth, and then she dips her finger into a bowl of water and leaves a wet spot on his forehead. Then she reaches into the pen and grabs another puppy and does the same thing. This happens ten times.

My daughter was 15 at the time, and her eyes get wide, and she says, “Do puppies have to get baptized too?” The vet laughs and says, “Well, yeah, I guess so. These are Presbyterian puppies, right?”

But then she explains that the real reason she put a wet spot on the puppies’ heads was so she could tell which ones she’d already inoculated and which ones still needed the syringe.

She put a sign on those puppies so that we would know which puppies are protected. I don’t want to say that the unbaptized are unloved or unprotected; I just want to say that the baptized have a sign and a seal reminding them about how loved and protected they have always been.

I am of course a passionate advocate of Big Ten football. I love all the great schools you all send your children to—Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern. My father-in-law was a Wolverine, my wife is a Wolverine and when my son came along, I sent about $200,000 to the University of Michigan to see what they could do with him. So I love Big Ten football.

But I have to say that I have some new football heroes in my life just now. Did you listen to Dabo Swinney and Trevor Lawrence talk about their faith after that impressive display of invincibility against Alabama? All the glory went to God.

I guess I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d never heard of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence until the playoffs. It turns out he’s always been special. When he graduated from high school—six months ago; he’s 19—when he graduated from high school, he was the #2 rated recruit in the entire country. His record was 52–2 at his Georgia High School.

He wears #16 because that was Peyton Manning’s number at Tennessee. He’s 6' 6" and completely unflappable. He has these flowing golden locks and they call him ‘Sunshine,’ because he reminds Clemson fans of Ronnie ‘Sunshine’ Bass, the California beach-boy hero from the film Remember the Titans.

He says, “Football is important to me, obviously, but it’s not my life. It’s not the biggest thing in my life. My faith is. That just comes from knowing who I am outside of football. I just know, no matter how big the situation is, it is not really going to define me. I put my identity in what Christ says, who he thinks I am, so it doesn’t matter what people think of me.”[1]

It just made me think: Who tells you who you are? Who tells you what you’re worth? Have you ever been tempted to accept the world’s assessment of your essential worth? Did the world ever try to shrink you down to size—in the classroom, on the playing field, in the workplace?

It’s important to remember that whether we’re winning national championships or improbably bonking the goalposts five times in two games like Cody Parkey, only God can tell us who we are. Only God can tell us what we’re worth. And God made God’s assessment way back there at the beginning with the sign and seal of baptism.

“In baptism, God claims us and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.” This sign says that we are God’s own children, and God knows each one of us by name. God is our origin and our destiny—from God we come and to God we return. From God, to God, with God—always, every single day.

“What’s your sign?” It’s a common query between strangers at the pub. Leo, Virgo, Scorpio. “What’s your sign?”  You kind of hope people don’t have to ask. You kind of hope it’s obvious. Baptism is the act of a moment but the work of a lifetime, this living up to and into this marvelous sign of God’s lavish grace, God’s unmerited favor, this Good News of our Glad God.

[1]From an interview with The Clemson Insider, quoted by Cindy Boren, “College Football’s Newest Darling Is Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, a Future ‘Legend,’” The Washington Post, January 8, 2019.