On Sunday we will baptize four children, ages 4-13. Our congregation will sing David Haas’ refrain, “Do not be afraid, I am with you. I have called you each by name” as we prepare for this joyous celebration. Times four? Even better.
Why do we baptize? What happens in that moment when water meets forehead?
It isn’t magic. I hasten to remind parents that their child will not suddenly sleep through the night, become better behaved, or start cleaning their room.
Another kind of transformation takes place, one that is unseen and mostly has to do with our hearts. It can happen at any age (the oldest person I baptized was an 87 year old man preparing for his death) or any place (the beauty of our sanctuary is lovely, but dipping my trembling fingers into a flimsy paper cup by a hospital bedside works too).
In that moment, God speaks to our spirits, that divine essence in each one of us, and declares what is true about us. During baptism, I always ask, “By what name shall this child be baptized?” It is not that I forgot the person’s name. It is an opportunity to remember with awe that God knows each of us by name. In baptism, God tells us who we are and reminds us of an identity that can’t be taken away from us.
During our lifetime, many people tell us lies about who we are. We are told that we are too fat or too skinny, not smart or cool enough, or that we just don’t fit in. We hear messages about our value and worth and how we don’t measure up to some impossible standard. The world is all too glad to push soul-crushing labels and demeaning false names upon us. Those lies can lead to heartache and crippling self-doubt.
Baptism destroys those lies. God tells us who we really are – a beloved child of God’s, named by God as precious in God’s sight. No one can take that identity away. Baptism cannot be reversed or negated. No matter how anyone else defines us, God’s name for us endures. Wherever our path leads us – what we do, who we love, what mistakes we make, false starts we engage in, dead ends we encounter – we will remain God’s beloved child, always welcome in God’s sight.
At baptism we humbly celebrate God the name-giver who claims us with an unshakeable love.
That’s what we will celebrate on Sunday. Baptism is a gift to children who don’t know enough to even ask for this grace and a reminder to all who witness it. In baptism we say ‘yes’ to God who said ‘yes’ to us long before we knew it, or requested it. It is a gift to the children being baptized and a reminder to all the witnesses. God names us so we can spend our lives discovering how to live into that God-given identity.