My favorite New Year’s tweet this year was posted by an Episcopal priest I follow: “20 years ago,” he said, “I made a New Year’s resolution that I have kept ever since. And it was – No more resolutions!”
If you have taken a shot at the annual “New Year, New You” project yourself, you know that there is a wisdom to that. But by and large, the market for campaigns of self-improvement via willpower is endless, and not just at New Year’s. Drink a superfood smoothie every morning. Purchase a subscription to these new workout videos which somehow are going to be completely different than all the other workout videos. Track your screen time, and your steps, and your calories, and your sleep so you can get rated day by day as to what progress you’re making.
Even home decorating stores will sell you art based on rules for you to keep. I took a picture of one in a store not too long ago: a framed gold and white image that said Work Hard and Be Nice to People. Since whether you’re truly doing enough of either of those isn’t measurable, it’s just a constant invitation to guilt and low-self esteem. Hang it on your wall!
There are some folks who see the whole Christian enterprise like that. Who see it as one of several possible ways to change yourself for the better (if you’re thinking individually), or one of several possible ways to change society for the better (if you’re thinking politically). And since we never manage to do those things, then it looks like an invitation to guilt and low self-esteem. And it might be that, if we only had, in the terms of today’s Gospel, say, John the Baptist and his baptism to turn to. But we have something else.
We see John today down by the Jordan, as we saw him in Advent. He has been preaching about changing your life, turning around, doing something different. Our reading from Luke this morning didn’t include everything we read in Advent, but it’s from the same chapter. You may remember that along with what he says today, John was giving instructions to those who had flocked to him for baptism at the Jordan river, telling them what they needed to do. Share your food with those who are hungry, he said. Be ethical in your business practices. Be happy with what you already have rather than seeking more. Work hard and be nice to people (well he didn’t actually say that last one.)
And people flocked to that message. We all naturally flock to that message, because we all naturally want to believe John. We want to believe we could redeem ourselves and be what we dream of being, if we just tried hard enough. We want to believe we don’t need help. And so even when John castigates his hearers for not measuring up, calling them a brood of vipers, they don’t reject him then either, any more than we reject our app when it tells us we didn’t take enough steps or drink enough water today. Yes, we failed. We know it’s true.
But see, the thing is that John doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t stop at telling us his message, that we ought to do better and reform ourselves. We all already knew that. That’s not news. What John does in the long run is to point to a new message, to something other than himself, other than his own efforts or ours.
He makes a striking contrast -- "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.” The gap between the one who is coming, whom we know to be Jesus, and the Baptism he will administer, and John and the Baptism he will administer is an immense gap. They’re physically cousins, but spiritually they are in two different eras, two different realities.
Interestingly, Jesus later makes a very similar contrast. He says, "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the least person in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” The least person in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist. Eddie is about to enter the kingdom of God via the baptism of Jesus, and when he does he will be greater than John the Baptist. John is the end of an era. He’s the hinge between the old way, the old covenant, and the new way, the new kingdom, the new covenant.
On one side of that hinge, as we saw, the crowds were coming to John. They want to be better. They want to change. And they think: Maybe this time it'll work. John tried to tell them "This isn't it. Don't pin your hopes on this. There’s something totally different coming right after me." And just as by Jan 9th most people’s New Year’s resolutions have probably petered out, a week or two weeks after John’s Baptism, most people who went to the Jordan were probably again left dry. They’d been washed externally, on the outside. They were washed as a sign of their own repentance, their own effort to change. That’s how things were on John’s side of the hinge.
On the other side of the hinge, we have the last couple sentences of today’s Gospel in which the experience of Jesus serves as a picture of the baptism into which he invites us. The Baptism into which he invites Eddie this morning. What will Eddie be baptized into? What are we baptized into? We're baptized into Jesus. Immersed into him, which means to be immersed into God’s life, God’s very being. How is this Baptism Jesus offers us different from what happened in John’s Baptism, on the other side of the hinge? Well, in several ways.
First off, this Baptism is something God does, not us. In the language of our Gospel, every time a new Christian goes to the font, the heavens are opened, and the Spirit descends. From God’s point of view, whatever it looks like to us, in the Sacrament of Baptism the person is changed forever supernaturally. We can never make that change happen; only God can.
Second, unlike in our various self-improvement efforts, in Baptism a new identity is spoken over us that is immediate, and not earned. We do not have to do anything, in fact we can’t do anything, to achieve this identity; it is given, as a free gift, at the font. What God the Father says to Jesus in today’s Gospel is what he says to us once we are baptized into Jesus: You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. This is what you are.
Finding and expressing your true identity is such a big theme in American culture these days, and people work so hard to get it right. But identity is an elusive goal when you’re depending on yourself. How do you know you’ve gotten there? How do you ensure you stay true to yourself? But in Baptism you get a rock-solid forever identity that you don’t have to curate and you don’t have to earn: I am a relative of Jesus, a child of God, I am marked as Christ’s own forever.
So first, God does it. Second, it gives us a new unearned identity. And third, it happens on the inside. In John’s Baptism he baptized just with water, which washes on the outside but cannot change a person’s being. In Jesus’ baptism, there’s still water involved, but it is sanctified so that it carries the in-person action of God. When God bestows the Spirit and gives us our new identity in Christ, that happens not externally but on the inside. It touches the deepest levels of our being. Down below the roots of the personality, below our experiences or beliefs or goals. And that presence of God dwelling there then (unless we refuse it) goes to work on us from the inside out, not the outside in. In Christianity, change grows outward from the deep identity God has given us; it doesn’t come from something we try to push into ourselves from the outside.
There's no resolution in there, no program, no willpower, nothing we can earn. It’s simply a gift to be received. A love to be allowed. A presence to be consented to. But the ironic secret is that this gift of baptism into Jesus Christ, this holy unshakeable identity, if we will receive it, actually offers much greater potential for change than any of our self-improvement projects.
Even if you were baptized 50 years ago and have been ignoring God’s gift all this time -- even if you haven’t fed it with Holy Communion, even if you haven’t nourished it with God’s Word, even if you didn’t know you could say yes to it – no matter how long you’ve let it lie fallow, that gift of a true identity in Jesus is still there for you, and it still has the power of transformation. So if you want to be a somewhat improved person some of the time, OK, make a resolution, download the tracking app, use your willpower. But if you want to be a transformed person, the person God made you to become, receive this gift waiting for you in our baptism into Jesus. When we with Eddie renew our vows to God in a minute or two, take seriously what you say. Take seriously that yes.