How would you react if I asked you to come forward today and share your testimony? Many of us—especially if we were raised Lutheran or in other the mainline Protestant traditions, find the concept of testimony and even the word itself somewhat off-putting.
We are people of the mind—of ideas and reason and sound theology. We are known for great Bible study, for understanding the historical and cultural context that shapes the Biblical text. We study the original languages and send our pastors to seminary for three years of master’s level academics to make sure they not only have a good intellectual foundation, but also, tools for on-going critical study of the scriptures, the history, and mission of the church. And there is great stuff there—I am not knocking it since I am a product of it. It’s where we are most comfortable—where we can argue about ideas and interpretations.
Testimony can seem a bit too emotional and subjective. How do you argue with someone’s experience? Is there one way to experience God or are there as many as there are people? How do you have a standard, a measuring device, a way to know what is true and real, and what is not? And who wants to get into the wishy-washy world of feelings anyway—isn’t that why we are Lutherans after all? We can argue about salvation by grace and what it means, but we don’t have to experience it and feel it, do we?
Or do we?
Jesus may have an answer for us as he comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This happens so early in the story that Jesus has not even done or said anything at all, yet. He was born during an oppressive government census giving him an inauspicious birth in a donkey shed. He received extravagant, impractical gifts by foreign dignitaries which probably financed his family’s emigration out of the country driven by unprecedented violence as they fled into Egypt—a reality we see repeated over and over today as families flee Honduras and other countries.
When the threat from King Herod killing the male Jewish children ceased, Jesus and his family settled in Nazareth of Galilee where he finished growing up. Jesus has not said or done anything at all, except to survive—and maybe in his circumstances, that is remarkable enough. All Jesus does is show up. He arrives at the Jordan with others who are ready to make a fresh start and open their hearts and lives for the new thing that God is doing. Jesus survives and shows up. That’s it.
He speaks one sentence when John thinks he should be baptized by Jesus instead: "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Jesus essentially says, “Let’s do this baptism because this is what God wants us to do.” John goes along with him.
When Jesus submits to John’s baptism, the heavens open up to him and everyone hears God’s voice—"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." Did you hear that?
God gives the testimony in this passage. Not Jesus. Not John. Not the bystanders. Not even us. God speaks and gives the testimony: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
In the Gospels of Mark and Luke—God speaks directly to Jesus and says, “YOU are my beloved son”—it’s a private conversation. But in Matthew—God is speaking to everyone. God is giving an emotional testimony to all who can hear it, about who Jesus is and how God feels about it: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
Jesus does do not much to deserve this glowing testimony—he survives being born in human flesh and manages to make it, even under threat of death, through adolescence, puberty, young adulthood, and all of it—a full 3 decades—and he shows up on time at the river. But that’s enough for God. God adores him as a loving parent and is pleased and joyful that he’s there and he announces it to everyone within earshot. God’s testimony, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
It’s not a doctrine or a rational argument. And it’s pretty emotional. What if that’s really the message at all of our Baptisms? That God is giving a testimony—an emotional, heartfelt witness to the world of the pleasure and joy that we survived and showed up—that our family brought us to the font and the waters of salvation and new life for a relationship with the parent of all humankind. That God wants to open up the heavens above each one of us and say to everyone around, “This is my daughter, the beloved. This is my son, the beloved. I am so pleased and joyful that you are here to have a relationship with me.”
When God created you and claimed you and washed you clean from sin in Jesus Christ, God didn’t write a theological argument about it, God gave an emotional testimony—"You are mine, I am so happy, I love you.” Maybe, just maybe that might give us a testimony in response. A testimony that starts—not with words—but with a life that embodies, and bears witness to God’s testimony that we are beloved.
• That everything that we’ve done is forgivable, that everything that has been done to us is healable.
• That the God who is overjoyed just because we showed up today to be loved and to love God back can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
• That the God who opened up the heavens over Jesus, sent his Son so that we might know that we, too, are just as beloved and wholly embraced in the arms of eternal love and the touch of the Spirit’s presence.
When we hear God’s testimony over us, “This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. The is my daughter, the beloved, with her I am well pleased,” then we can hear God say this over every person we meet—because isn’t that also what it is to "fulfill all righteousness" and to do what God wants?
To hear God say over everyone, “this is my beloved child….Betty, this is my beloved daughter, Tom, this is my beloved son, Shirley, this is my beloved daughter, Ralph, this is my beloved son," and so on and so on, across every culture and class and creed and even faith. Many of you bore witness to this kind of life and embodied testimony at the Interfaith Service for Peace and Fellowship at Congregation Beth Torah last Sunday.
Today Pr. Sileshi Borana is joining St. Luke’s as an official member, and we hear God say, “this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well-pleased.” What we affirm today is not that he is ordained, although we are grateful to receive his pastoral gifts and ministry. What we celebrate is that he is baptized—that he is God’s beloved son, as we are all God’s beloved children. As he joins the church, we affirm our baptismal vows together, and we remember that God’s makes a testimony about Sileshi, as God does about all of us—that God is pleased and overjoyed that Sileshi has survived and continues to show up to love God, and serve God in a life that is a testimony to what God has done for him.
Who knows? Maybe after hearing God’s testimony, some of us Lutherans might also one day share in words and even feelings, a testimony about what God has done for us!