The first Sunday after Three Kings is always Baptism of the Lord, when we remember the day Jesus walked into the waters with John the Baptist, and the heavens opened up, and the voice of God declared from the eternal realm: "This is my child, the beloved."
Whenever I do baptismal counseling for adults or children, I always emphasize this moment in Jesus' baptism, and I tell folks that baptism is the church declaring what has always been true ---- that each of us belongs to God and only to God. The point is especially poignant when I'm talking to new parents, getting ready to baptize their infant. In our culture, baptism sometimes becomes a kind of naming and claiming ceremony for a family -- a moment when the world acknowledges and celebrates that this new child has been born to and claimed by this family. But the reality is that, when those waters hit a child's head, there is a separation from the parents as the child is actually claimed by God above all other claims--including any claim by the parents who produced and care for the child.
That claim of God becomes more and more important as we wander through the maze of life, with so many individuals and institutions trying to declare ownership over us. Our baptism can remind us that no one determines our worth in this world or in the next other than God.
To the prisoner, it means you do not belong to the bars and chains around you. You belong to God.
To the addicted, it means you do not belong to that thing which you crave. You belong to God.
To the dying, it means you do not belong to this body or to that cancer. You belong to God.
To the patriot, it means, you do not belong to this nation. You belong to God.
To the debtor, it means you do not belong to any bank or credit card company. You belong to God.
To the empty and overworked, it means you do not belong to your company. You belong to God.
To the depressed, it means you do not belong to this sadness. You belong to God.
To the abused, it means you do not belong to the person or the memories that hurt you. You belong to God.
And even though it might feel like, look like, smell like, hurt like you belong to all these other things, as sure as water is wet and God is good, I heard a voice out of the heavens say it: You belong to God.
The first baptism I ever did was at Yale-New Haven Hospital. It was a night when I was the chaplain on call, which meant that I had to stay overnight in an isolated bedroom at this creepy far end of the hospital. And, during the night, if anyone needed a chaplain, the little phone in that little room would ring, and I would get dressed, pop a Listerine strip in my mouth, and head back into the hospital with my prayer book.
Well, that evening, the phone rang. It was pediatrics. A 16-year-old boy was dying of leukemia. When I walked into the room, the boy was slouched over in a chair, already unconscious -- the kind of unconscious that you don't wake up from. His parents had called for a chaplain because their son had never been baptized, and they wanted me to baptize him.
Now, I wasn't quite sure about this theologically. The problem I had was that this kid wasn't a baby. He was 16-years-old. If he had wanted to be baptized, he could have asked for it himself before he got to this point. And we all know teenagers. The things they want for themselves often are the opposite what their parents want for them. So, what if this kid wouldn't have wanted to be baptized?
But when you're in that situation, looking into the eyes of parents about to lose their child and just asking for some grace, you err on the side of compassion. And you throw as much church at them as you can. You pray as loud as they want, as long as they want -- you open your arms as wide as they want.
So I got some water, and before that boy died that night, he got himself baptized.
Today, I look back on that night, and I understand a little better what God was doing in that hospital room. Those parents, watching their child leave them, needed to remind themselves, and they needed to remind God, that this child did not belong to them. That night, the truth that he did not belong to them was becoming more and more evident every minute, as he had endured suffering from which they could not protect him, and he was about to embark on a journey on which they could not accompany him. And that night -- even though it seemed so obvious in the last 16 years that this boy was theirs -- they needed to know that he truly belonged to someone else: to someone who could accompany him on this journey and protect him from suffering.
They needed water to cover him, and, when he came out of the water, they needed for God to be the one to hold out a hand and say to him, "You belong to me. You are my beloved child and you always have been."