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Sermon: Dad Always Liked You Best

January 8, 2010

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

“Mom always liked you best.  My mom always liked my brother best, and she never liked me.”

“Every time you get mad you always say ‘Mom always liked you best.’”

“You and mom always picked on me.  My mom and my brother got together and said ‘We don’t like you.’  Because mom liked you best and she never liked me.”

“Do you want to know why mom liked me best?  Do you want to know why?  Sure she liked me best.  Why not?”

“Mom always liked you best and she never liked me.”

“Do you want to know why?”

“Why?”

“Because I happen to be an only child.”

“Mom gave you a dog.  My mom gave my brother a dog, and I didn’t get to have a dog.  I wanted a dog more than anything in the world.  I said, ‘Mom, I want to have a dog like my brother Dickie Smothers.  You remember me.  I’m Tommy Smothers.’

“My brother had a dog and I didn’t have a dog, and you wouldn’t even let me play with your dog.  You told mom.  ‘Mom, Tommy’s playing with my dog.  You remember him.  He’s the one you don’t like so much.’”

“Now before you go any further, you know you had your own pet already.”

“A crummy chicken.  It’s no fun playing with a chicken.  They don’t bark good.”

Mom always liked you best, and she never liked me.  (Smothers Brothers routine; see also Smothers Brothers Home Page.)

*     *     *     *     *

John the Baptist said, “Dad always liked him best.  I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming after me will baptize you with fire and the Holy Spirit.  All I have is water and this crummy chicken.”

Certainly it seems as if the Father liked Jesus best.  A whole chorus of angels announced his birth.  Jesus hung out in the Father’s study in the Temple.  He grew up in wisdom and years as well as in divine and human favor.  Why wouldn’t dad like Jesus best?  He was an only child, after all.

So why is it, then, that we have such an odd, low key description of Jesus’ baptism?  This is how the New Revised Standard Version puts it: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”  “All the people” and Jesus are just lumped in there together.  In one of Fred Craddock’s sermons, he pictures Jesus just standing there together in line with everybody else (“Next!,” Fred Craddock, citation?).  Apparently, there was no Platinum Frequent Flier line to expedite the process for the important people, not even for the one the Father supposedly liked best.

It would seem that if Jesus really were the superstar Messiah John had been predicting, that John would have stopped the whole proceedings as soon as he saw Jesus come over the hill.  “Everybody, make way.  This is the one we’ve all been waiting for.”  But that isn’t how it happened.  Jesus stood in line along with the tax collectors, the soldiers, the mothers and their crying babies, and everybody else.  Just like everybody else, he humbly and obediently stepped into those waters as a sign of repentance and forgiveness.  When he emerged from the other side, he fell to his knees in prayer.  (As we read through Luke’s gospel this year, we will watch Jesus in prayer often.)

It was only as he prayed that the remarkable happened—the heaven was opened.  In Jesus’ humble obedience and identification with the rest of us—sinful, misguided humanity—that heaven opened up.  The Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like that new dove on the wall of our Sanctuary.  There was a voice: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

That is a great affirmation.  Imagine you are a young person like Jesus, just starting to feel your way into life, to understand your purpose on this earth.  You’re not quite sure of things yet.  You lack the quiet confidence of a master craftsman who has spent years chiseling away at marble.  You haven’t yet developed the practiced hand of a doctor who has been listening through a stethoscope for decades.  In fact, you haven’t quite decided whether you should become a journalist or a lawyer or follow some other career path altogether.

Jesus must still have been growing into himself at his baptism.  He may have heard strange stories from his mother.  He struggled with confusing insights into his own place in the world.  And so he took his place with everybody else on the banks of the Jordan River.  As he prayed on the other side he received that priceless affirmation: you are my Son, the Beloved.

Jesus did not receive a clear set of marching orders, with specific information about who, what, where, when and why.  He didn’t hear the message “I like you best.  Here’s your puppy.”  But Jesus did receive what every human being desperately wants to hear from parents, good friends and mentors: “I love you.  You are on the right track.  You will do well.”

This affirmation came to Jesus, mind you, before he had begun.  To this point, Jesus had not preached a single sermon.  He had not healed a single leper.  He had never turned a handful of fish and bread into a feast.  The blessing of God was conferred upon Jesus before he can earn it.  He was assured of God’s love for him first, and then he was sent out.

This is why The United Methodist Church celebrates infant baptism.  We share the blessing of God with those babies long before they can earn even a tiny grain of grace.  We affirm to everyone who will listen that they are God’s own beloved children, and they will grow up in this world with the grace of God surrounding them, upholding them and encouraging them.

If you were baptized as an infant, an entire congregation gathered around you to say, “This is God’s beloved child.  God is well pleased.”  The task of the congregation then, is to make sure we live out that divine love toward you so that you could grow up into that love and take your true place among God’s people.  If you were baptized later in life, then you made your own choice to accept God’s affirmation.  As our reaffirmation of baptism liturgy tells us,

We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit.  All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.  (“The Baptismal Covenant IV,” The United Methodist Hymnal [Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1989], 50.)

Without price.  Not earned, but given as a gift.  You are God’s beloved child, and God is well pleased with you.

That statement can do for you what the father’s arm around his child’s shoulders, the mother’s hug, the grandparent’s encouraging words and the mentor’s praise can do for the life of one who is still learning to take her place in the world.  You may still be learning how to live out your own mission as beloved of God and disciple of Jesus.  You may be unsure of yourself as you prepare to take the next step of faith.

Jesus’ humble obedience to the water of baptism—waiting in line like everyone else—is a model for us.  We can remain prayerfully obedient, confident of God’s love.  God doesn’t like Jesus best.  God likes all of us best.

Please turn in your hymnal to page 50…

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