It was the last session of a three-day retreat for Methodist ministers. On the gathering’s opening day, the leader had given an assignment. Each participant was to search through Scripture and find a name or a story that they could claim as their own.
On the last day of the retreat, the participants sat in a circle, with a chair in the middle. One by one, each went to the chair, announced their scriptural names, and identified how God’s word had spoken to them, had claimed them through this name or story.
Finally, everyone had spoken except for one young man. He slowly got up, went to the chair and sat down, staring at the floor, not saying anything. The group waited as long moments passed in silence.
People began to glance at each other and shift uncomfortably in their chairs as the silence and tension grew.
Finally, the retreat leader asked, “Is there anything you want to share with the group?”
The young man looked at his hands, sighed, and then spoke.
“There are names that I wanted,” he said softly. “I looked for three days, but none of them were strong enough to replace the name that I have – the name that I’ve been given.
“I was given this name when I was very young, and it was repeated to me as I grew up. My father gave me this name.”
And then he fell silent again, staring at the floor.
“Would you be willing to share with us what that name is?” the retreat leader asked gently.
“My name is ‘not good enough,’” the young man replied. “That’s my name. ‘Not good enough.’ My father gave me that name.”
And then he began to weep.
“It was like he was drowning right in front of use,” the retreat leader said. “He was drowning in a room full of lifeguards who didn’t know how to save him.
“But then the Spirit did its work,” she said. “A group of us, without ever looking at each other, got up all at once and went to where he was.
“And we laid our hands on him. And then it wasn’t one voice – it was all our voices coming together as one voice, like one flow, one stream, and what we said was this:
“’You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.’
“And then we just paused, and we let the blessing rest.”
Later the retreat leader saw the young man in the parking lot, and she asked him if what happened would make any difference in his life. He admitted he did not know, but then he added:
“Every time I put my hand in the baptismal waters to help name another human being before God I will remember this and remember who I am.”
* * *
Today we celebrate the most famous baptism in history, that of Jesus.
Jesus’ baptism can be seen as his public debut, the beginning of his adult life and work as Messiah. Other than stories about his birth, and one brief appearance at the Temple at age 12, we really don’t know much about the first 30 years of Jesus’ life.
One school of theological thought says that from his birth Jesus knew himself to be different, to be set apart, to be the Messiah; that he was born fully into this role; that he did not have to choose his position or learn or grow into it.
And I suppose that it’s true that there is no internship or field education program or certification for a Messiah.
But I prefer to believe that if Jesus were fully human, as we proclaim that he was, that he had all the doubts and questions and confusions and yearnings that every human being has; that those first 30 years of his life were spent learning and growing and changing and muddling about.
I imagine him wondering if this is really what he is supposed to be doing. Is this direction he keeps being tugged in the one he is supposed to follow? Could he possibly be good enough for such a task?
I imagine that sometimes he wanted to just stay in Nazareth and be a carpenter like his father; that he yearned for some solid sign to tell him he was on the right path.
Then comes the moment of his baptism by his cousin John.
As he comes up from the river, water dripping from his hair and eyelashes, he looks up and sees the Spirit of God descending like a dove and voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Biblical scholars write that these words were intended to be a sign to all who heard them that Jesus was the Messiah.
But I think they were also intended for Jesus, as a sign to him that he was on the right path, that he was, indeed, good enough; words of encouragement and love for him to hold on to in the often difficult days ahead.
I imagine that even Jesus needed to be reassured, to be blessed, to be loved.
Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, writes that she always imagined the dove at Jesus’ baptism fluttering down from the sky and gently landing on Jesus’ shoulder.
A pretty, pastoral scene, like one from a Disney movie.
That image was dispelled by her 11-year-old son, who adamantly told her, “That’s not how doves fly, Mom. Doves swoop. They’re fast.
“When they want to catch something they don’t flutter down lightly. They zoom like a hawk. BAM!”
The dove as a bird of prey with Jesus as its target gives a different slant to Jesus’ baptism, and to our own. Objects of prey don’t choose to be hunted; they are targeted, chosen.
Maybe that is why Jesus insists on being baptized, even after John tries to dissuade him.
“I should be baptized by you,” John says.
But Jesus doesn’t give in.
Jesus at that moment knows that he has been targeted; he is the Spirit’s prey. He surrenders to baptism, and in return is assured that he is God’s beloved Son, that God is pleased with him.
Florence wonders how our lives might be different if we all saw the inevitability of our being loved by God.
If we truly grasped and understood that it is God’s nature to love all that God has made, that we have each been targeted by the Spirit, who is relentless in seeking us out, swooping down on us time and time again.
In a few moments we will renew our baptismal covenants. We will promise once again to strive to carry out the responsibilities of all baptized Christians – to pray, to study, to work for justice and peace, to seek and serve Christ in all people.
These are tasks which each of us are called by God to do, tasks that sometimes may seem overwhelming.
But we are also reminded that what enables us to live out this covenant is the knowledge that we have each been targeted by the Spirit, that God has swooped down on each of us and pronounced that we are God’s beloved children.
That pronouncement does, indeed, make us good enough.