Manassas Church of the Brethren
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His 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.”
21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and 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.”
One of the most frustrating and intriguing parts of the New Testament is the way the gospel writers almost completely neglect to give us any details about what Jesus was like before he turned 30. Mark and John, even skip over the birth narratives, starting their stories here, with Jesus’ baptism. Matthew explains that when Jesus was an infant, Joseph and Mary traveled to Egypt for a time to escape the wrath of King Herod, but shortly returned to Nazareth, where, we imagine, they remained. In Luke, the book from which today’s passage comes, we get tiny bit of a picture of Jesus as a kid: He grew up and became strong, Luke tells us, filled with wisdom and blessed with God’s favor.
And Luke tells us that funny story about Jesus at age twelve, a kind of nerdy kid, going up to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival and lingering in the temple with the scribes and rabbis, arguing with them and wowing everyone with his wisdom, scaring his parents half to death when they realized he’d been left behind. And then, Luke says, Jesus matured in wisdom and in years, in favor with God and with people.
Well, all right. Maybe that’s all we need to know for the purposes of the story, for the purposes of faith. But I can’t help being curious about what that twelve-year-old Jesus was like…because anyone who’s spent any amount of time with twelve year olds knows that the processes of maturing in wisdom and in years is not quite as simple as Luke’s single sentence makes it out to be.
Maybe you know a twelve-year-old. Maybe you have a twelve-year-old. Maybe you ARE a twelve-year-old. Even if none of those is true, every one of us once WAS a twelve-year-old, and if we think really hard about it, we might be able to remember what that was like.
Being twelve is hard. I don’t mean that being twelve is the hardest, I just mean to say that it is, like many other ages and many other stages, a hard place to be.
When we’re twelve, it’s hard to know who we are. Things – lots of things - are changing, and fast.
There’s the physical, adolescent things everybody’s always talking about. Kid-bodies begin to change into adult-bodies, muscles stretching and voices cracking. Twelve year olds get a lot taller than eleven year olds, and in the course of just a few months, you’re looking out at the world from an entirely different vantage point, forced to constantly meet the eyes of adults, when all you used to see was a sea of belly buttons.
All those eyes, all at once! It’s no wonder teenagers are sometimes prone to hiding behind their hair or staring at the floor!
And then, other things change, too. We have to go to a new school, deal with lockers and changing classes, navigate our way down crowded hallways filled with hundreds of other kids caught up in the hardness of being twelve six or seven times a day. We have to navigate all these new kinds of relationships – cliques and dates and friends and enemies and frenemies (if you don’t know what that is, ask a twelve year old). People aren’t just people anymore, and friends aren’t just friends. All of a sudden the world is divided into categories: cool kids and dweebs, in crowds and outcasts, the people I like and people I LIKE-LIKE, popular circles and wallflowers. We want to make sure that we end up in the RIGHT place, with the RIGHT people.
On top of all that change, people start heaping adult-like expectations on top of us: Now we can take care of our younger siblings. Now we can make rational decisions. Now we can be responsible for keeping our own schedule. Now we can do harder homework. Now we can stay home alone. Now we can start making our own decisions. We forget, sometimes, how hard those things are to learn to do. But when we’re twelve, all of that is brand new.
And, as much as we’d like to think so, twelve-year-olds do not get spared the rest of life’s challenges while they’re sorting through all this change. When we’re twelve, we exist in that weird place where we understand the implications of the world around us but haven’t yet matured in enough wisdom or enough years to do much about it. We get hurt, our parents get sick, friends move away, violence happens, tragedy befalls us, and when we’re twelve, we are stuck in that place of knowing exactly what’s happening while at the same time being rather unable to change much of it.
I think, once we get past being twelve, we tend to forget – mercifully - how hard it is.
But I know a few twelve-year-olds, and have been lucky enough to spend this year with them. And they will tell you, and I will tell you: being twelve is hard. When we’re twelve, it is hard to know who we are, hard to know why we matter.
I wonder about twelve-year-old Jesus. What was he like? Kind of nerdy, I guess, since he wanted to hang out in the temple and argue about the law with the rabbis. But what else? Was he the motor-mouth kid who couldn’t stop talking to save his life? Or was he quieter, content to sit back and take it all in? Did he make friends easily? Was he a loner? Did the other kids talk about him behind his back? Did he have a girlfriend? Was he a part of any twelve-year-old love triangles? Did he worry about turning thirteen, having a bar mitzvah and becoming an official adult? Did he know who he was? Was being the Son of God a weird thing for a twelve-year-old carpenter’s son to carry? Did he argue with his parents? Did he ever feel left out? Awkward? Wrong? Unloved?
The biblical witness doesn’t answer any of these questions – the answers are left up to us and to our own imaginations. But Jesus was God Incarnate – fully divine and fully human. I think that means that he submitted himself to all of our human experience – if being twelve is universally hard for humans, it must have been hard for Jesus, too.
Having spent a good portion of this year with some incredible twelve-year-olds, it makes perfect sense to me that Luke would follow up his story about the twelve-year-old Jesus with the story of his baptism. I think the story of Jesus lingering in the temple with the rabbis is one about Jesus figuring out his own identity. He knew he needed to go home with his family, but he also felt drawn to be in his Father’s house. He knew he needed to obey his parents, but there was also this growing certainty that home was not where he would always stay. It must have been hard for Jesus, especially at twelve, hard to know who he was and where he belonged.
Luke moves the story along quickly. One minute, Jesus is a twelve-year-old lingering in the temple with the rabbis, the next he is a thirty year old wading with the crowds into the Jordan River where his cousin John is baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. “And after all the people had been baptized,” Luke says, “including Jesus, who was praying, “the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Could there be a more definitive answer to the question of identity? If twelve year old Jesus was in the temple working out who he was and where he belonged, struggling with all the ambiguity of being twelve, could there be a better resolution? If the questions were “Who am I?” “Where do I belong?”, God’s thundering voice reaching down from heaven answers them in no uncertain terms: “You are MINE. You belong with me. Don’t worry, you’re doing just fine.”
Do you remember that feeling from being twelve, that feeling of uncertainty, of needing to know who you were? Do you feel it sometimes, still? I think, in our own ways, we all feel it. Even long after we’ve left twelve behind, it is still sometimes still hard to know who, exactly, we are and where, exactly, we belong. The idea of a voice booming down from heaven to remind us who we are, and how well we are loved, to reassure us that being ourselves is good and is enough, speaks directly to that lingering twelve-year-old longing.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book called “Life of the Beloved” in response to a Jewish friend who asked him to share his spiritual wisdom in a way that people unfamiliar with Christianity might understand. Nouwen wrote the book based on this passage, this moment where the Holy Spirit descends and God’s voice breaks out to call Jesus his beloved son. Nouwen says that THIS is the message of Jesus’ life, that this is the message we ought to learn and live out – that WE are also God’s beloved children. God’s words to Jesus are also God’s words to us. Nouwen says it this way:
“We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved.’ Listening to that voice, we hear…I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more infinite than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse…yes, even your child…wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”
I think it’s telling that this message didn’t come to Jesus while he was praying alone. He did that sometimes, we know – went up on mountaintops to escape the crowds or out on boats with only his disciples to keep him company. But here, Jesus had gone down to the Jordan with a big crowd of people. He was one among the many, being baptized by John in the river. Luke says “after all the people had been baptized, and Jesus with them,” the Holy Spirit came down. In that moment, God staked his claim not just on Jesus, but on all of them, on all of us. We are the beloved, children of God in whom God is well-pleased.
And that truth is what we get to celebrate when we share in communion together. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we get to remember our relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ. We get to remind one another who we are: beloved children of God. When we’re human – twelve or thirty or eighty nine – it’s hard to know who we are. We might not see the Holy Spirit descending like a dove this morning, but the voice is here among us, reassuring us nonetheless: we are God’s children: holy, beloved, and in whom God is well-pleased. Let’s listen. And let's celebrate.