Mistaken Identity

(Epiphany 1, Mark 1:7-11)




And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.Ē (Mark 1.10-11)

Today is the first Sunday in Epiphany.  Epiphany is the season in which we celebrate the manifestation of Christ to the world.  During Epiphany, our gospel readings focus on the events in the life of Jesus that reveal his divinity to us and also give evidence of his oneness with God.

And we begin that today with his baptism and the parting of the heavens.  As Mark says, the baptism of Jesus was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.  Mark begins his gospel account not in Bethlehem , but in the river Jordon, when Jesus first began his ministry and first began to live into his identity as the Son of Man. 

Who knows how Jesus was known prior to this event.  There are virtually no reports of Jesusí first 30 years.  I assume that he was known as the son of the Joseph the carpenter.  But suddenly, at this moment in the River, a new identity is publicly bestowed on him. 

The heavens split and a dove comes down and God pronounces Jesusí identity as none other than Godís own beloved Son Ė the one for whom the world has been waiting.  And that new identity would define and guide everything that Jesus did until his death.


What do you think about when you consider your identity?  When somebody asks you who you are.  Not just your name Ė but who you are.  What do you say?  How do you identify yourself?  How does that identity shape your thoughts and actions?


I thought a lot about identity this last week.

Yes, it is true.  My daughter Anny and I went to the Rose Bowl to witness the most exciting and thrilling college football game of my life.  And we were there with about 100,000 other people who also came to be part of the spectacle.  Think of that Ė almost twice the population of our city, gathered in one place. 

But the thing that was really special was that all the way through our trip, from the plane ride to L.A., to walking around town before the game, to all of the pre-game tailgating parties, the game itself, and then for the trip home, everyone made very sure that their school identity was very clear. 

If you were for Texas , you wore Texas orange.  And if you were for USC, you wore red and yellow.  At least it looked like red and yellow.  They called it, cardinal and gold.  And there were no exceptions.  I donít remember seeing even one spectator in that whole stadium that was not dressed in one color or the other.  Make no mistake.  For those 2-3 days, that was the most important thing about our identity.  Who we are was defined by our team Ė by the color of our clothes. 

And when we met other orange-clad Texas fans in our travels around the city, we always passed the secret hook-em sign.  And often greeted each other like old friends and started up conversations.  Because we knew that we had things in common.

But, if it was the other guys, the ones in yellow and red, then it was very different.  We were polite of course, but automatically more wary and slower to speak up. 



Jesus could have come to the river as one who was special Ė as one who was set apart.  In fact, as the one without sin, Jesus did not need to go to the River at all.  Yet he came.  And when he came, he did nothing to make himself different.  Did nothing to identity himself as somebody more important or better than the others.  He didnít show up in white flowing robes or wear a sign or try to tell everyone that actually he didnít need to be there.  That he, you know, was in fact without sin. 

Instead he just took his place in line and waited with the others for his turn to be baptized.  Stood there in the same muddy water with the tax collectors and the drunks.  With the thieves and the adulterers. 

And it apparently did not bother him in the least to be included with the  sinners who were in line with him.  Did not bother him to be mistaken as one of us. 

In fact, that was the point.  Jesus went to the River as one of us, so that we could be one with God.  Jesus waded out in that river Ė not for himself Ė not because he needed to repent.  He did it for us.  Did it so that our baptisms would be forever linked with his.

I am struck by the contrast of Jesus being so willing to be included with the sinners, when we in the church so often try to do the opposite.

Just as I made sure by my attire, that nobody could possibly think of me as an USC fan, we often try hard to disassociate ourselves with the idea of being sinners.  We donít want to think in terms of coming to church because we need to be forgiven for our sins.  We come because, well you know, we like the worship. Or the music.  Or we want to see our friends.

God forbid that we would be mistaken as one of those sinners in the river.  One of those, who like Jesus, came to repent and to be washed clean.  No Ė thatís a little to close to home for our comfort.


Another story about identity.

As a former frequent flyer, one who has a gold American Airlines card that identifies me a million-mile flyer, I am used to some of the conveniences that are offered those who fly often.  Like being in the first group to board, or getting to upgrade in class.  Sometimes I wish that I could wear my lifetime gold card on a lanyard around my neck (like we did our Rose Bowl tickets) so that everyone could see that I am somebody special.  Not just a nobody passenger.

Of course the airlines always make sure that the perks that you get really donít cost them anything.  I mean cutting in line or sitting in an otherwise empty seat are free ways for the airline to make you feel special.

But when you actually want something extra, it is different.  On our return Friday night from LA, our flight was delayed and our connection in Dallas was down to about 20 minutes.  We managed to change terminals and get to our departing gate in the nick of time.  But I was sure that our bags would not have time to also get there, so I asked the ticket agent to call about them.  Well, she was totally uninterested in my concern, and didnít even look at my ticket that I was holding out.  On which it clearly stated that I was an important somebody.  Instead she just verbally patted me on the head and told me to get on the plane. 

As we were flying, I thought about how little that gold card really meant.  In fact, so many people had them, that I should have known better that to think it actually made any real difference.

And then I remembered the one time that I actually did get special attention.  Some years ago, I was on a long transpacific flight back to the States.  The flight was very full, and I was sitting in business class.  Getting special business class treatment of course.  And a young woman, who looked to be Malaysian, and who had a small baby was in the seat next to me.

After take-off, a man who I guessed was her husband, came into the cabin and talked to her for a short time before the attendants sent him back to his seat.  Evidently they could only afford one seat in business class, and she was using it in order to give more room for their baby. 

I thought about their situation for awhile, and then I called an attendant over and asked her to find where the husband was seated.  Because I wanted to give him my seat.  She was surprised, no actually stunned, that I would trade my seat in business class to a stranger, for one in the coach section.  Especially on a long international flight.  But thatís what I did.

During the rest of the long flight an attendant from the front cabin would come back and check on me every hour or two.  Making sure that my legs didnít fall off, I guess.

And after we landed and were taxing toward the gate, the senior stewardess came back and thanked me again and gave me two bottles of wine to take home.

And all I had done was just go back and sit where about 250 other folks were sitting.  It really was nothing special.  But it probably was the only time I that I truly got special treatment.


Jesus did not do anything special.  He just joined the others to be baptized by John.  Yet, the ďheavens opened and the Spirit descended like a dove on him.  And Godís voice came from heaven said, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.Ē 

Jesus had done absolutely nothing of significance at this point in his ministry.  But God publicly pronounces that Jesus is the beloved Son of Man with whom God is well pleased.  And by extension, we receive that same statement of grace at our baptisms also.  The affirmation that we are loved as children of God regardless of whether or not we have accomplished anything of significance is the very essence of Godís grace. 


We are not recognized and forgiven because we are somebodies. 

We are loved and appreciated by God for who we are ĖGodís children made in Godís own image Ė just like Jesus is.

And just as Jesus had his identity proclaimed at his baptism, the same is true for us.  Our baptism Ė our membership in the Body of Christ Ė gives us our identity.  It stamps us as Godís own and calls us into Godís future for us.  Into Godís future for us. 

And that identity (our identity as Godís own) must define and guide everything that we do for the rest of our lives. 


Because this is the feast of the Baptism of our Lord, but also because we need to remember our identity as children of God, it is both traditional and appropriate that we renew our own Baptismal vows.  And that is what we will do in a few minutes.  And as we do that, we want to really listen to our words.  We want to hear our promises and commit ourselves to live into them. 


Promises to continue in fellowship with each other, and in the breaking of bread.  Promises to proclaim by word and example the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Promises to seek and serve Christ in all persons.  And promises to strive for justice and peace among all people.

That is what defines us as a community.  It is the unchanging part of who we are together that gets us through our time of transitions. 

It is what sustains us Ė what helps us grow in relationship with each other and with God as we struggle together.

It is our identity.