|Today’s scripture readings:
Who are you? Where does your sense of identity come from?
A few years ago PBS’s Frontline produced an episode called “The Persuaders.” It was a fascinating exploration of the methods that modern-day advertizers use to get us to buy their products. Some of what they revealed made me pretty uncomfortable.
It used to be that advertizers pointed out real, tangible differences between products. They used “-er” words to make their pitch: One brand’s product was whiter, brighter, cleaner, or stronger than the competition’s. But at some point, these words ceased to have meaning. People no longer believed that one product was any brighter or cleaner than another. Today everyone’s products work about equally well and produce basically the same results. Laundry gets clean, disinfectants kill germs, French fries taste crisp, and coffee is hot.
Today, advertizers are taking a different approach. They’re no longer talking about what products do but what they mean. They’re engaging in what Frontline calls a sort of pseudo-spiritual marketing. The advertizer’s job is to create a whole system of meaning for people, through which they find an identity and a sense of purpose. People buy products because they’re searching for belonging, for a sense of identity, a sense of purpose.
The Frontline documentary used the example of Saturn cars. A few years ago, before they company went under, it hosted a “Saturn homecoming.” Tens of thousands of people turned up to spend their vacation time at the Saturn factory in Tennessee. People came because they wanted to meet other people who own Saturns. They wanted to meet the rest of the “Saturn family.” In a kind of bizarre way, the cars helped car owners find community. With this “Saturn homecoming” the company was helping Saturn drivers secure an identity. People were finding a sense of meaning in the kind of cars they drove.
The folks on Frontline pointed out that companies and products had begun doing the work that churches used to do. It used to be that churches provided community, meaning, and identity. More and more these days, people’s sense of identity comes from the things they buy.
Where does your sense of identity come from?
Today we celebrate The Baptism of Our Lord. In our gospel lesson from Mark we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. It happens at the beginning of the gospel, and it’s the event that kicks off Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus is baptized, the heavens are ripped open, as if to communicate that there no longer exists a barrier between God and God’s people. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In his baptism, Jesus is given an identity: God’s Son, the Beloved. His ministry begins only after he has received this identity. Jesus’ mission grows out of his identity as God’s Son, an identity he receives at baptism.
We hear Jesus referred to as the “Son of God” at several critical moments in Mark’s Gospel. At one point, Jesus and three of his disciples go up to a mountain, where he is transfigured before them and begins to shine in dazzling white. The prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to Jesus and he speaks with them. Then there comes a voice from the clouds: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” When Jesus is on trial it is his acceptance of the title “Son of God” that finally condemns him and ensures his execution. And shortly after his death, a Roman soldier kneels before the lifeless Jesus and confesses, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” And then in a scene that mirrors the ripping open of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism, the curtain of the temple is torn apart.
Jesus’ baptism—when he is identified as the Son of God—is a defining moment. It shapes the entire rest of his life. David Lose, the President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, explains it this way: “Again and again, as Jesus casts out unclean spirits, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and welcomes the outcast, he will only do to others what has already been done to him, telling them via word and deed that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased. And the darkest moment of the story when Jesus feels absolutely abandoned is followed immediately by the story of resurrection, where the messenger testifies that God has kept God’s baptismal promise and continues to accept and honor Jesus as God’s own beloved Son.”
Where does your sense of identity come from?
Not too long ago my computer died and I couldn’t revive it. I needed to buy a new one. Being an Apple Computer guy, I went to the Apple Store at the mall to pick out a replacement. I knew I wanted a laptop computer, so when I arrived at the store I walked straight to the table where they had their entire line of MacBook computers on display. Hanging above the table was a large sign that read, “Which MacBook are you?” Interesting. Not, “Which MacBook will best suit your needs?” or, “Which MacBook will help you be most productive?” The question Apple asks its customers is, “Which MacBook are you?” The implication is that the computer you choose actually defines who you are. It will shape your identity. The computer you choose matters because it determines who you are and how people perceive you. The stuff we buy gives us an identity.
Looking around the store, I saw another sign that read, “Make the ultimate upgrade. To a Mac.” Jumping on the Mac bandwagon is about more than upgrading your computer. It’s about upgrading who you are. It’s the ultimate upgrade. Like makeover shows on TV in which awkwardly-dressed oddballs literally put on a new and supposedly more attractive “identity,” Apple gets their customers to believe that a PC user who switches to a Mac will become a new and better person. Apple’s marketing strategy appeals to the consumer’s sense of identity and promises to make the customer a hipper, trendier person.
This experience at the Apple Store brought me back to these questions: Where do I find my sense of identity? Does the computer I buy really determine who I am and how people perceive me? Am I what I buy? Or does my sense of identity go deeper than that?
Like Jesus, in baptism we have been given an identity. When we were baptized we were named—when Jase Arthur is baptized here in a few moments, he will be named—a “child of God” with whom God is well pleased. And, like Jesus, our baptismal identity has a tangible impact on our lives. Because we have been named and claimed in the waters of baptism, we are assured of God’s unconditional love. And so when we follow Jesus in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, comforting the grieving, and welcoming the outcast, we are only doing to others what has already been done to us, telling them by our words and deeds that they, too, are beloved children of God with whom God is well pleased.
Our baptismal identity endures even as other identities come and go. Unlike the identities bestowed on us by our cars or our computers, our baptismal identity will not be scrapped and replaced every few years. Our baptismal identity is much richer and deeper than any identity associated with the things we buy and consume. It endures beyond the identities we receive from our careers or from our families. It endures even beyond our own failures and shortcomings. “Child of God” is an identity we get to keep no matter what. So in our low moments, we might remember that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same one who promised in baptism never to abandon us, either—who promised to love and accept us always as beloved children, even and especially when we have a hard time loving and accepting ourselves.
One last thing about our baptismal identity: We are baptized into a tradition that grows out of generations of reflection on big questions: Who is God? Who are we? What is God’s will for us and for creation? What is our purpose here on earth? How do we make sense of evil and suffering? The answers to these questions that have been proposed by our tradition have stood the test of time. They’ve helped our ancestors find their way in the world, providing guidance in times of confusion and hopelessness. In a world where we consume and dispose of products and information almost as quickly as it is produced, I find comfort in being baptized into an age-old tradition that captures the wisdom of generations of the faithful who have gone before us. The tradition into which we’re baptized is a tradition that can help us, too, find our way in the world today, even as emerging situations pose unprecedented threats and challenges.
In a world where a variety of social, cultural, and commercial forces attempt to lay claim to our sense of identity, may we remain grounded in our baptismal identity as children of God. May we follow Jesus in doing for others what has already been done for us. And may we rediscover the ways in which our baptism, like Jesus’ own baptism, connects us to a rich tradition, one that offers time-tested wisdom and guidance for our journey through life in this world. Amen.
Lee Barrett, “Mark 1:4-11: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin, Frontline: The Persuaders, (Boston, MA: WGBH
Educational Foundation, PBS Video, 2003), http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/persuaders/.
Leslie J. Hoppe, “Mark 1:4-11: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
David J. Lose, Baptism of Our Lord B: Baptism & Blessing, accessed January 9, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/baptism-of-our-lord-b/.