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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Names are important. Each January our nation celebrates the name, memory and legacy of the late Civil Rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Most people, however, do not know the connection between the Southern Baptist minister and the medieval German monk. In the 1934, Michael King Sr. was one of 10 Baptist ministers who was invited to travel to the Holy Land and then later to Germany. It was on this trip that the senior King “discovered” Martin Luther the Reformer. So as an adult, Michael King Sr. chose the name of Martin Luther for himself and his five year old son. And Martin Luther King Jr. grew into the name. Names, you see, have a way of defining our lives and our futures.
My friends, today as we meditate on the baptism of Jesus, I would like to invite you to consider the importance of the name you have been given at your, “beloved, child of God.” Let us consider first, baptism’s naming, second, the assurance offered, and third, the challenge presented.
Baptisms are important to me and throughout the course of my pastoral ministry I have performed hundreds of baptisms. Now I wish I could say that I remember the name every man, woman and child whom I have baptized, but that would be a lie. There are some baptisms that I do remember with clarity and fondness because of my own human error. I remember the nervous groom that I baptized only minutes before his wedding day and the water that was still trickling down his cheeks as he said his vows, and I remember the poor Lithuanian child who I fear was baptized in the name of the Father, Zone and Holy Toast. Or there was the family of three adolescent aged children who all seemed to receive their baptismal names- jumbled.
Naming the child and calling them God’s own has always been an integral part of the baptism service. When I was baptized, it was still a part of the liturgy for the pastor to ask the parents, “How shall this child be named?” And most assuredly, they had prayerfully meditated on this name- after all this was a sign of what the child would become. Apparently, in my home church, the pastor was not convinced that a set of parents had meditated enough. They had chosen to name their infant son Sandy after the baseball player Sandy Koufax. The pastor refused to write it into church registry until they came up with a proper Christian name. The name Arden slipped in through the cracks. It must have been written in some book of obscure but acceptable names.
Since the earliest of times, churches have wrestled with the significance of naming of children. St. Chrysostom wrote that the conferring of a name ought to be regulated by some idea of Christian edification. He was concerned with those who had gave little thought to the significance of a child’s name. There were families who gave names to various lamps, and whichever lamped burned the longest, that was name given to the child. It suggested they would live a long life. Throughout the middle ages, parents simply named their child after the name’s day of the saint. Infant mortality was great and so it was a comfort to know that their name sake in heaven would be watching over them
Of course, not all Christians today agree on the importance of naming a child or even on the significance of baptism. In most Lutheran churches, you will find a variety of meanings given to baptism. Some see it as a quaint, old fashioned ritual, while other view it as central entrance rite to the kingdom of God.
The early church father themselves debated the story of Jesus’ baptism. And yet, it is included in all four of the gospels. Some theologians felt that because Jesus was sinless, he didn’t need to be baptized. They understand baptism primarily as the washing away of original sin. Others scholars were troubled by Jesus “submitting” to John to be baptized. And, indeed, it appears John himself had the same trouble, questioning Jesus’ actions. Regardless of our understanding of baptism, there is something very important about Jesus rising from the waters, and God’s voice speaking, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well please.”
We live in a world of user names and passwords. It is an age where names, passwords and identity have to be changed often. There is, however, one name given by God at baptism, which cannot be altered. You have been called “a beloved, child of God. We need to grow into that name, just as we grow into the other names given at baptism. Unfortunately, we often let other names define us, which is why it’s so important to remind ourselves that our primary identity as followers of Christ is as “a child of God.” It’s not that all the other names are empty or unimportant. They may be useful. Indeed, they may be helpful to describe who you are, but they cannot define who you are. It is only the name you receive in baptism, the beloved child of God, that ultimately grants you the life you enjoy in Jesus Christ.
As we grow into that name and that identity, we also discover that we take on God’s assurance. Believe me, it is comforting for me to say that that baptism washes away sin. Moreover, I trust that baptism promises the ongoing forgiveness of sin and a new relationship with God. More importantly, there is a word of assurance and protection which God offers to all he calls by name. God promises that he will watch over and protect you from the devil and all his empty promises. For in baptism, you are given God’s word, that there is nothing in all creation that can separate you from his love in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Not disease, not suffering nor death. That is the power of baptism. It is a promise that cannot be taken back, even if you are suffering from old age and dementia, and you cannot remember your own name. God will not forget yours.
I have always enjoyed the poem of Nelle Williams, Your family Name.
You got it from your father It was all he had to give
So it’s yours to use and cherish For as long as you may live
If you lost the watch he gave you It can always be replaced;
But a black mark on your name Can never be erased
It was clean the day you took it And a worthy name to bear
When he got it from his father There was no dishonor there
So make sure you guard it wisely After all is said and done
You’ll be glad the name is spotless When you give it to your son
I wish that we could all work to protect and live out our name as a child of God, just as we live out our family name.
Let us turn now to the challenge of baptism. With all that said, how often do deny or neglect that holy name, his beloved child of God? In our most honest moments, you and I must confess that we like Christian as a description, but we don’t always try or aspire to grow into it. You see the true test of baptism is not whether you see yourself as “God’s beloved child,” but the real challenge is whether you see others as God’s “beloved” children. Frankly, it is often easier to see someone by their earthly names. So I challenge you. Can you call others “beloved” who have a surname name different than your own? Can you call your neighbors “beloved” who have opposed you politically and even family members who have disappointed you deeply? This is not simply a theoretical exercise. My friends, if your own God given name of “beloved” is real for you, then you must dare to find a way for it to become real in how you treat and honor others.
There was a bad snowstorm in the Midwest. Chicago’s O’Hare airport had been closed for hours. The passenger agent was desperately trying to reschedule a long line of weary travelers. Finally a priest found his way to the head of the line. “What is your final destination,” asked the agent. “Heaven, I hope,” said the priest. “But today I’ll settle for Cleveland.” Remembering the name given has given to you in baptism “beloved,” demands that you keep your eyes on what is ultimately lasting and living it out in your day to day journey.
My friends, names are powerful: they convey identity, purpose, authority, and so much more. But whether the words Martin Luther appear in your name, or the name of any biblical saint from Anne to Zachary, or whether your parents lit candles to see which would burn the longest to determine your name, you have been given an awesome family name. You are God’s beloved child, and each time you wash, each time you are near water, each time you make the sign of the cross, remember the name that has been given to all who are baptized “beloved.” They are your brothers and sister, and together, we shall grow into the likeness of Christ. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.