Jan. 9, 2022
“God’s Children” – Rev. Brent Gundlah

         Just two weeks ago, we looked at the passage from Luke’s Gospel in which twelve year-old Jesus ditches Mary and Joseph so he can go to the Jerusalem Temple to chat with the religious scholars there. It is, as I mentioned then, the only time in the Bible that we see Jesus as a child who can walk and talk and read.

         Last Sunday, in honor of Epiphany, we talked about the familiar tale of the Magi coming to visit baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Now today we jump three decades forward (and a few miles east) as Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River as an adult.

         Children, it is fair to say, get pretty shortchanged in the Bible — we only catch one brief glimpse of Jesus’s younger years courtesy of Luke, and there’s not many other places in either Testament where we encounter any kids at all, let alone meeting ones with actual names and things to say.

         The Bible’s scarcity of stories about children and their experiences is kind of strange — especially in light of today’s text. Look at the very last line of the passage and consider what God says to Jesus there: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here, God proclaims that Jesus is, first and foremost, God’s child. And this is kind of a big deal.

         Now I’m not exactly sure why this is the case, but God seems to be a whole lot chattier in the Old Testament. In fact, there are only three times in the entire New Testament where God speaks at all: during the Baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke; and during the week of Passover in John’s Gospel. And on two of those three occasions, God makes a point of telling us that Jesus is God’s child.

         “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God states here at Jesus’s baptism.

         “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”, God declares on the mountaintop during the Transfiguration.

         Listen to the wisdom of children because God said so. And when God speaks, we probably ought to listen too.

         For some reason, as I think about the Baptism of Jesus, I tend to find myself focusing on the idea of childhood. Maybe it’s because God makes a point of saying that Jesus is God’s child here; maybe it’s because I was baptized as a child, as were my own children.

         One could spend a lifetime contemplating the meaning of baptism and never comprehend it fully. They teach entire classes on this subject in seminary — I know because I had to take them.

         But maybe we could consider a slightly less academic approach. Instead of turning to some theological treatise to guide us as we seek to better understand the essence of baptism, we could employ a different kind of text — one meant primarily for children. It is a book that I used to read to my daughters when they were young — the story of a feline named Pickles, otherwise known as The Fire Cat.

Relax – I’m not actually going to read it to you, but please let me know if you want to borrow it. In a nutshell, the story goes like this…

         Pickles is a yellow cat with black spots. His paws are big, and he wants to do big things with them. But he just can’t seem to find his place in the world on his own. Pickles lives in a barrel in an empty city lot and passes the time by terrorizing all of the little cats that come into his yard and chasing them up trees.

         The cats in the house next door to Pickles’s yard, who are small, don’t like him but, for some unknown reason, the owner of the house, Mrs. Goodkind, does. Pickles doesn’t seem to have done anything to warrant this kindness, but every day, like clockwork, Mrs. Goodkind goes over to his yard and gives him something to eat.

         One day, Mrs. Goodkind decides to lay it all on the line for Pickles — it’s not clear what prompts this intervention, but here’s what she says to him: “Pickles, you are not a bad cat. You are good and bad. And bad and good. You are a mixed-up cat. What you need is a good home.”

         Mrs. Goodkind then makes it her mission to help Pickles find that good home. There are definitely some setbacks along the way — most of which are the result of Pickles’s questionable life choices — but Mrs. Goodkind never stops believing that he is inherently worthy. Mrs. Goodkind values Pickles not because of what he does, but simply because he is.

         With his Dalmatian-like coat and climbing ability, Pickles finds himself a permanent home at the local fire station, where he is inspired to turn from life of chasing small cats into trees to a life of rescuing stranded cats from trees.

         And all that Pickles needed to reframe his entire perspective on life was someone who believed in him — and never stopped believing in him. And like I said earlier, this children’s story might help us to to better understand the sacrament of baptism, this mysterious gift of grace from God.

         As our passage from Luke’s Gospel begins, an expectant crowd has gathered around John on the banks of the Jordan River, wondering if he might be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. John, of course, knows that he is not the Messiah — he is the one paving the way for the Messiah, namely Jesus and he lets the crowd know this; he says to them:

         “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

         Now I’m no farmer, but even I know that I’d rather be the wheat than the chaff in this example. And so it’s no surprise that people throughout the ages have sought to see themselves as being the former and not the latter. I’m wheat, you’re chaff; I’m one of God’s chosen, you’re not; I’m saved, you’re… well, you get the picture. And, sadly, baptism is often used as a way of showing that you are on the right side of that line — I’m baptized, and you’re not.

         But what if that’s not the way it really works? What if John’s analogy of the wheat and the chaff does not call us to be seen as one and not the other, but rather to understand that we are inherently both at the same time — a mixture of wheat and chaff? And by that I mean each and every one of us. In other words, what if we all, like Pickles, are not bad or good? What if we are good and bad, and bad and good? What if we are all mixed-up?

         And what if we, like Pickles, the Fire Cat, really just need a good home where someone will always believe in us; a place where we are always given the chance to try to be better, to work for a greater good, to care about something bigger than ourselves and our own self-interest? And what if that home always remains open to us, not because of what we’ve done (or failed to do) but simply because we are? And what if baptism, above all else, reminds that we have that home in and through and with God.

         Baptism isn’t something we get because we deserve it, and it’s not something we do in order to show that we deserve something else. Baptism isn’t a hoop we jump through so that we may be forgiven and welcomed in God’s home; it is a celebration of the fact that we have already been forgiven, that we are already home.

         Pickles doesn’t go from chasing cats to rescuing them in order to earn his home in the firehouse; he starts to change his ways — and his entire orientation to the world — when he realizes his home is the firehouse.

         When Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit arrives as a dove and God’s voice booms from the heavens declaring that Jesus is God’s Son – which he’s been from the beginning of time. And Baptism affirms our own status as God’s children — which we’ve always been.

         But because we are good and bad and bad and good — because we are mixed up — living into all that God is calling us towards is a process full of highs and lows and successes and failures for us — just as it is for Pickles.

         But God never, ever gives up on us; God is always there for us. May this sacrament of Baptism serve to remind us of who and whose we are, and inspire us to respond accordingly.