Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
“And so, my child, receive the sign of the cross both on the forehead and on the breast, in token that you are indeed a child of God, bought and paid for through Christ, the Crucified.”
Some Baptismal rites say, “both on the head and on the heart.” Contemporary literature and thought would see these two places as the location for our thoughts and emotions. Ancient psychology, however, saw the forehead as the place from which our intentions arise. Marks on the forehead were used for various identifications — even for such converse professions as priest and prostitute. The breast had more visceral connotations. It was the location of profound knowledge and profound emotions. Here we have both love and hate, passion and compassion. When one felt intense guilt or grief, the breast would be pounded.
I am not really sure where the modern notion of “ego” would be located, but I do know that it must be placed under the cross if we are to fully be children of God. We cannot be full of self and full of God at the same time.
I am writing these words during the first week of the last year of the last decade of the Twentieth Century. I wonder how many new year’s resolutions have already fallen into the place where most such intentions seem to slide? I am sure that a few crashed already last Sunday — the resolves of many to “get back to church” or “go to church.” One poll suggests that the only thing remaining to be seen is what will interfere this Sunday. Will the weather be too cold or too icy, or will someone be “under the weather” in that other sense? Either way, the study suggests, about 95 percent of the people who have resolved to attend church this year will do just what they did last year.
Sunday’s Gospel Lesson is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism. When Jesus went to John with the intention of being baptized, John responded, “I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” John was in the repentance business. He had essentially a one word message for everyone: “Repent!” His baptism was a sign of that repentance. The only other people he ever refused to baptize were those who saw the act as a sign of their superior piety, rather than as a way of demonstrating their heartfelt change of mind.
John saw no guilt in Jesus and, therefore, no need for Him to repent. In contrast, John wanted Jesus to baptize him! Jesus said that He had His own “need” for John to baptize Him: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” I have already mentioned the modern concept of “ego.” The English word is the same as the Greek word for “I,” the first person singular pronoun. Oddly enough, by our standards (since we use the word all the time), the Greek word appears very seldom in the New Testament. The reason is that Greek verb forms automatically identify the subject of the action. It is significant that John did use the word when he said: “Ego need to be baptized.”
As John noted, Jesus didn’t need to repent of anything. He had a right to take pride in His own righteousness, but He chose to dump it and place Himself, as all humans should, under the righteousness of His Father. The Father’s response was, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.”
By emptying Himself of His obvious human spiritual superiority, Jesus provided us an excellent example to let God be God. He had every right to make a claim to fame on the basis of His own human righteousness, but He did not. Oh, that I could be so thorough in putting my ego in its place.
John’s baptism was not Christian Baptism as we know it today. His was a baptism of repentance — an outward sign of a sort of “new year” resolution. While repentance can certainly lead us to want to be Baptized, Christian Baptism is not our act of repentance. It is God’s act of acceptance. In Baptism, God accepts the whole of us as His own: whatever is inadequate, He forgives; whatever is adequate, He affirms; and He wraps us with His own righteousness like a baby wrapped in a blanket — no part uncovered! There are no qualifications attached to the death and resurrection of Jesus. He did not come to save good male Jews or pretty female Gentiles. He became one with humanity so that all of humanity might be one with God.
Three aspects of Jesus’ baptism are good reminders of our Baptisms. He emptied Himself of His own ego; the Father accepted Him and the Father identified Him. The voice from heaven echoed the words of both Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. The first identifies the Son as the Messianic King; the second identifies Him as the suffering servant. To the surprise of many, Jesus was both. The Spirit chose to descend and land on Jesus in the visible form of a dove. The bird is symbolic of many things: a Temple sacrifice; all kinds of virtues, not the least of which is peace, purity and innocence; and the rabbinic symbol for Israel itself. For me, this last has great significance: Jesus is the New Israel. He said later that the only sign He would offer of His Messiahship was the “sign of Jonah” (the Hebrew word for dove).
He compared that sign to His being in the belly of the earth and rising again, but the story of the prophet Jonah is the story of the old Israel. Israel was to be the means through which God would bless the whole world. Like the prophet who refused to go to a Gentile nation because he knew God would forgive them, Israel turned God’s gracious love for them into a religion that affirmed their ego at the expense of the other nations. The New Israel is the One through whom we are all blessed. Let there be no surprise that the mission comes up here!
The late Carl Sandburg was once asked, in a television interview, what he thought was the ugliest word in the English Language. He sat in silent contemplation and then began, “The ugliest word in the language . . .” After a moment he said again, “The ugliest word in the English language is (another big pause) EXCLUSIVE!” The word exploded from his lips and into the memory banks of many who heard it. Assuming he was correct, then it stands to reason that one of the most beautiful words is “inclusive.” God seems to think so.
In Sunday’s Second Lesson, Peter sounds almost astonished as he relates, “I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis!” Peter said those words while standing in a place where a good Jew wouldn’t be caught dead, let alone standing. He was in the “unclean” house of a Roman officer. He was right, however, because God’s approval of us is not based on race, or gender or on anything in us at all. It starts with God Himself. He chooses to love, accept and forgive us. He claims us as His children and, despite our imperfections, declares us perfect. There is no place for the human ego in Baptism. Our identification also starts with God — it all starts with God. Perhaps that is the reason most new year’s resolutions fail before they get started — they start from the human ego: “Ego resolve . . .”
The Christian life is a response. If I may turn a phrase from a commercial, once I “leggo” or let go of my ego and recognize that all I am and have comes from God, then to worship Him; to tithe; to seek, find and exercise areas of service; to spread His Gospel to all the world — all of these responses are just doing what comes naturally.
In The Death of A Salesman, when Willy Loman’s wife sees that he has reached the end of his rope, she exclaims: “This is a human being! Attention must be paid!” In Baptism, God exclaims: “This is a child of God! Attention must be paid!”
When new missionaries are commissioned, we sort of put a mark on the forehead of each, identifying her or him with some role or task in Christ’s mission. In no way does it replace the mark placed there in Baptism. As a matter of fact, if our mission activity does not flow from God’s acceptance and identification of us, don’t expect much to come of it. LCMS World Mission leaders are not the only ones whose intentions arise out of what God has done for us. God likes that word “inclusive.” He has included you.