Strength for the Calling…His…Ours!

It’s a double-edged connection. The more I see the power for Jesus’ calling of his own baptism by John, the more I will see the power for my calling(s) of my own baptism. And the reverse, sadly, is also true!

First, let’s consider the power for Jesus’ calling of his baptism at the Jordan. How many times during Jesus’ ministry did Jesus call to mind the day before us in Sunday’s gospel (Luke 3:15-17, 21, 22)?

Part of the challenge for us is that we (rightly) take so seriously a key message of Epiphany – Mary’s infant son is the glorious eternal Son of God – that we end up, quite unintentionally, almost forgetting the reality of his humanity and what it means that according to his human nature he humbled himself! Without ever ceasing to possess all divine attributes (as true God essentially, as true man by infinite gift at his incarnation), as Jesus lived as our substitute he did not always or fully use that gift to his human nature of equality with God. While we see glimpses of his glory in his miracles (as we see in Epiphany), yet mark this well: Jesus never once used his power and glory for his own personal advantage. It was, in fact, the devil’s temptation in the wilderness that Jesus summon his power for his own advantage.

Instead, having placed himself willingly under the law to fulfill it for us, he found his strength for his perfect obedience in all his callings (son, brother, neighbor) and especially in his Calling as our Messiah, in the same place our Father calls us to find strength. In trusting obedience he pondered his Father’s Word with all its promises. And he prayed for the growth in wisdom through that Word to live out what the Father had planned from eternity for his life.

That is what Luke shows us at Jesus baptism! Jesus comes to the Jordan to receive the gift that John had received from God: the powerful water and Word of baptism. Now, Jesus didn’t need the specific gift of forgiveness so desperately needed by all others then and now who have approached the baptismal waters. But please don’t let that lead you to discount what he did receive! As the God/man who had humbled himself he found in his baptism the comforting strength for the public ministry that lay ahead of him as the Messiah!

And what he received in water and the Word is confirmed for him and for us on that day as the powerful sign of baptism is accompanied by two additional signs. As heaven opens, the Holy Spirit takes the form of a dove to assure Jesus not only of his identity as God’s Anointed but also of the Spirit’s strength given him in water and Word (Isaiah 11:1-3). And then his Father’s voice, booming with delighted love, broadcasts Jesus’ eternal identity as his Son and his fatherly delight in 30 perfect years of trust.

And lest we underestimate just how comforting were his Father’s confirming words, note that the Devil in the wilderness immediately attacks Jesus in regard to that very certainty! In the wilderness Jesus clings to his Father’s words – still echoing in his heart – as the Devil’s aspersions ring in his ears! Just imagine again and again throughout his ministry the strength his baptismal day would bring him when he was despised and rejected by men, when the dark clouds of judgment rolled over this beloved Son, and when all evidence of his Father’s delight seemed absent! In water and Word the Spirit had been poured out on him and the Father’s love confirmed for him. There, in his baptism, was strength for his calling

And there too, in our baptism, is strength for our callings – all of them – but in particular our public ministry calling – if only we would see it!

How many times was I told in college and seminary that the true strength for my calling in the public ministry was not something in me? Countless! And I could recite that reality quite well in ministry: just as it was with Jesus as he humbled himself, so the strength for the calling is found in my Father’s Word and in all the promises that Word reveals.

But, unlike Jesus, how easily I shift my confidence from my Father’s Word and promises to reliance on myself. Even though I knew better in my head, how easy to act as if success in ministry is chiefly the sum of the sweat of my brow and the smarts of my brain. The faithful and trusting use of such gifts is wise, but that repeatedly morphed over the years into an unhealthy reliance on my brawn or brain. What a strange turn of events! He who actually possessed infinite divine power and strength choose not to use that and in humbling himself relied on his Father’s promises. Yet, I, who have very finite strength have often relied on my fleeting strength more than my Father’s promises. That’s more than ironic. That’s idolatrous.

And now, God has given me a new way to recognize that! With the arrival of the year 2019 anno domini, I will turn 60 (as I am reminded by frequent junk mail for retirement planning, retirement communities, and Viking River Cruises). The energy I once could summon for long stretches has begun to fail more quickly than before. That worries me. But right there dawns the new insight! The degree to which my waning strength troubles me is directly proportionate to how much I believe success in my ministry calling rests on me. It never has, of course, but youthful energy and enthusiasm often deceptively begged me to forget that. Now, not so much. The temptation to self-reliant arrogance of my earlier ministry days (“Don’t worry about me. I’m doing just fine!”) is now replaced by discouragement (“Take my life, Lord, I am no better than my fathers!”) or cynicism (“Why try so hard? Nothing will change anyway!”). Same heart problem. New presenting issues!

But the answer – as always – is found in my baptism! The beauty of the Sunday of the Baptism of our Lord is not only that we see him marked by dove and declaration as the Messiah and the Father’s eternal Son. The beauty is not just to see the strength received by the One who humbled himself to live out his Calling as Messiah in trusting dependence on his Father. But notice this as well: Luke closely connects Jesus’ baptism to all the others coming to the baptismal waters. The baptism of each of us has intimately connected us to everything that belonged to Jesus on that day at the Jordan!

To the water he contributes his perfect human trust in his Father, and I bring my idolatrous trust in myself. From the water he takes my self-reliant idolatry, and I step away with his trusting obedience. As my baptism, connects me to Jesus, there I find a gift Jesus didn’t need – forgiveness – and there he accepts a burden I cannot bear – all my sin.

And there in the water of baptism, because I am connected to the Messiah and the Son of God, I receive the additional two gifts Jesus received. There in the water and the Word I receive the seal of the Spirit marking me as God’s anointed one because of the Anointed One. And there in the water and the Word the same Father who delightedly announced his good pleasure with his eternal and essential Son announces with equal delight his good pleasure with me (for I am clothed with my brother’s obedience)!

So, my brother, it doesn’t matter whether you are newer in ministry and brimming with more youthful energy, or you are longer in the tonsure and your energy isn’t what it once was. Our real strength for our calling is found in the same place it was for Jesus! There, in the water of baptism, you, like Jesus, find strength for your calling to ministry (and yes…strength for all your other callings too).

There, in water and the Word, you were sealed with the Spirit! There, you have already and forever received your Father’s full approval as his child and heir (Titus 3)! There, your loving Abba Father “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40:29).