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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Baptism of Our Lord 01/09/2011

“Who am I?  Why am I here?”  If you’re old enough you might remember that was how Admiral James Stockdale began his opening statement in the vice presidential debate back in 1992 when he was on a third party ticket with Ross Perot.  Some of you remember or maybe you don’t remember but you’ve seen the Saturday Night Live version at some point.  Admiral Stockdale was one of the most decorated Naval officers in the history of this country but, following that opening he gave a rather bumbling performance in that debate and “Who am I?  Why am I here?” was then parodied by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live giving that moment a much wider audience and a much longer life span also making it about the only thing many people know about Admiral Stockdale despite his outstanding service to this country.  It’s not fair, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

Lost in the humor though, is the fact that those questions, “Who am I?  Why am I here?” are really good questions for anybody to ask.  In fact, as a lead in to the season of Epiphany that we are now in, you could have Jesus posing those questions regarding himself as part of what happens during this season is we look for answers to questions about Jesus’ identity and purpose.  In looking for those answers concerning Jesus, we also think about how we ourselves answer the same questions and about how our identity is connected to Jesus and about how it’s connected to how we understand God.

All of today’s Baptism of our Lord lessons get at this in some fashion not so much in any systematic way but instead it’s more like a kaleidoscope where different images appear and then go away as you keep looking and turning.  The images change, but in today’s readings all of them have something to offer in thinking about “Who am I?  Why am I here?” as they relate to Jesus.

In the gospel Jesus is called “My son, the beloved,” this following his baptism by John the Baptist after John’s initial hesitance concerning his worthiness to perform this baptism.  My son, the beloved, that’s our first image; but whose son is that?  With the voice announcing that coming from heaven he must be God’s son but what kind of God are we talking about?  Turning the kaleidoscope to Psalm 29, the psalm of the day, we get a God of power and majesty whose voice breaks the cedar trees, bursts forth in lightning flashes and shakes the wilderness; so the voice calling Jesus “My son” is connected to that powerful creator God and so we focus on that for a time before we turn the kaleidoscope and move to one of the other lessons. 

We turn to the book of Acts and in his speech there, Peter describes Jesus as Lord of all, anointed with the Holy Spirit and power, so it’s a similar image to what we were looking at in the Psalm, but in Acts that image doesn’t last long but quickly disappears as Peter goes on to make reference to Jesus’ death.  That’s different and begins to bring a more vulnerable, maybe a more troubling image into focus.  With the gospel, the psalm and Acts though, in looking for an answer to “Who am I?” regarding Jesus we’ve got these images that start with and connect him to an almighty and powerful God but those images go in and out of focus as hints of other possibilities and images are also included.

Those hints come more into focus as the kaleidoscope turns again and we look at the first lesson.  This is one of the servant songs of Isaiah and Christian interpreters have always read Jesus into these texts and with that those images of power and might are gone and now we focus on a servant, a servant chosen by God to bring forth justice, to be a light to the nations.  We stay with that for a moment but the image fades and Isaiah reminds us again of the creator God of glory before all the images are gone and we’re left to think about what we’ve seen, our answer to the “Who am I?” question of Jesus still a little out of focus.

Actually I think most of us are probably OK with this way of thinking about who Jesus is because in our own mind our image of him changes as our needs change.  Sometimes we do think about and want the Jesus of power but at other times we want the compassionate servant who provides justice and forgiveness.  The good thing is that we can consider Jesus one dimension or image at a time rather than trying to wrap our minds around all the theological complexity that can be part of thinking of him.  

All of which kind of brings us around to Jesus’ “Why am I here?” question.  Peter’s speech from Acts gives us part of the answer as he describes Jesus as preaching peace, doing good and healing, things that have to do with Jesus’ power.  He also connects Jesus to forgiveness of sins which has to do with power but also has to do with servant hood; so all that is part of “Why am I here?”

Turning the kaleidoscope back to Isaiah though, the word that keeps repeating is justice:  “He will bring forth justice to the nations,” verse 1, “he will faithfully bring forth justice,” verse 3, “he will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth,” verse 4.  Seeing Jesus in the servant one can only conclude that for him, justice has a lot to do with “Why am I here?” and if justice has a lot to do with the answer for Jesus, it must have a lot to do with the answer for us as well.

Staying with Isaiah, I said that Christian interpretation has always connected Jesus to the servant described in this and the other “Servant Songs” of Isaiah.  That’s true and it is a valid interpretation and it does play a role in our understanding of Jesus and it is important.  However, it’s not the only interpretation.  Just as important for us, as we answer “Who am I?  Why am I here?” for ourselves, is the fact that another thing this text does is to affirm that God’s work in the world is to be enacted by human agents.  If we limit the servant songs to just being about Jesus, we miss that.  If we miss that, we miss our own role in the work of the servant.

This Isaiah text has to do with our own answer to “Why am I here?” but that answer really starts with the answer to “Who am I?”  The lessons today are less centered on our identity focused as they are on Jesus.  But as the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is “My son, the beloved,” when we are baptized we are joined to that identity as we become children of God.  As children of God we see ourselves as heirs of the servant, called to participate in God’s work in the world; that’s why we’re here, but it starts with our identity as children of God. 

Identity is a simple thing in some ways but complicated in other ways when you think about it, when you think about all the factors involved in your identity.  You hear a fair amount these days about identity theft which usually has to do with someone getting access to and then using some of the numbers that identify you, social security numbers, credit card and other account numbers and passwords things like that.  It can cause big problems and so there are workshops designed to help you with ways to protect your identity.

You don’t need a workshop though, to help you with ways to protect your identity as a child of God, because that is an identity that can’t be stolen, it can’t be taken away.  It is however an identity that comes with responsibilities and so while it can’t be stolen from us, we can fail to live out this identity.  We can fail to do the servant’s work of attending to the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks of the world, we can fail by participating in systems that perpetuate injustice, unconcerned because we’re doing OK.  We fail to live out our identity when we ignore that refrain of justice that doesn’t just ring out in the Isaiah passage today but which also echoes loudly in pretty much all of the teaching of Jesus.

“Who am I?” and “Why am I here?” are really good questions.  For each of us the answer to “Who am I?” may go in and out of focus like the images of Jesus we considered.  But the “child of God” part of that answer is always in focus; Jesus has taken care of that for each of us so we don’t have to worry about it.  It is always in focus and it’s always the starting point as we look at Jesus and his teachings and strive then to live out the answer to “Why am I here?”

Rev. Warren Geier
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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