Sermon: Are You a Victim of Spiritual Identity Theft?
Scripture: Matthew 3.:13-17
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date: January 8, 2017, The Baptism of Our Lord
This Sunday on the liturgical calendar, several possible directions could be taken. Some years, the scripture has us focus on the “three kings” who come to pay Jesus homage as a baby. Other years, the scripture will have us focus on the epiphany of Jesus as revealed in his baptism that is what we are reading about today. Today’s Story is a Story whereby Jesus’ true identity is revealed and now that his identity is known, he begins his earthly ministry. Listen to the Word of the Lord!
3:13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Some weeks ago, we looked at the first portion of Matthew 3 as it described the first-century prophet, John the Baptist. We found John down by the Jordan river baptizing people and warning those church officials from Jerusalem that in order to be baptized, i.e. washed and incorporated into a new community, they would have to repent and live life differently. Today we are picking up with Matthew 3:13 whereupon we read how Jesus travels southwestward from the Galilee and comes to be baptized by John himself.
If you’re like me, you may wonder why Jesus needs to be baptized in the first place. It’s surely not for the remission of sins as Jesus was blameless in this regard; John balks at baptizing Jesus just for this reason (cf. v. 14). Jesus submits to baptism because, as we read, it fulfills all righteousness. “Fulfilling all righteousness” does not mean what we make it out to be in today’s vernacular. Today, we use the term to “fulfill all righteousness” as a way to say “Go ahead and check off the box so we can keep on going.” This is not what Jesus meant at all. You see, Jesus was baptized for the same reason he was born: God in Jesus wanted to identify in every single way with what it meant to be a human being. Just as those who flocked to John were to strike out on a new life path and journey, so Jesus was baptized to reinforce that for all of us that turning towards a new life path, direction and vision was essential in following the ways of God and he would personally show us how to do it! This is what it means to fulfill all righteousness.
One of the most meaningful ministries I have witnessed any church conduct with its community is what we are doing with the ministry, I-Dignity. It’s one of those ministries you do not see in many places but it is so vital for those in the community. There are many church food closets and feeding resources in the overall Christian community in America but one area that has been neglected over the decades is what our scripture is talking about in today’s lesson: A ministry of identity.
I-Dignity is designed to help those with no official identification documents obtain legal proof of who they are in the eyes of the law. Try cashing a check without a driver’s license and see how much the teller will give you. Attempt to rent an apartment with no proof as to who you are; no scrupulous landlord would rent to people she did not know. Go to the hospital and attempt to get quality medical care without any identification; see how far that will get you in most places. Imagine applying for a job without any form of ID; no employer will speak to you. This church is involved in I-Dignity because it is a foundational ministry that lets those with no legal identity become a person in the eyes of banks, employers, and hospitals. In our society, you do not exist unless you can prove your identity.
History has shown us unique ways on how people have identified others or themselves. Some are noble and some are ignoble. Our own country has a history of branding slaves which was not so much about identifying who a person was but rather who that person belonged to in the eyes of the law. In the 1930’s and ‘40’s we saw how Jewish, Russian, or Gay prisoners in concentration camps were tattooed with their own serial number and their identity was simply a form of fastidious record keeping. Today, our identities are wrapped up in our Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, Internet Protocol addresses and even our fingerprints or eye scans. Surely our identity is more than just proof of who we are by way of a brand, tattoo or a series of randomly selected numbers!
Another way people choose their identity is through their work or vocation or status in the community. They choose to wrap themselves up in what they do for a living or for the civic organizations they champion. Don’t believe me? What is often the first question a person is asked when they attend a party or social gathering? “So, tell me, Patrick, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a preacher.”
“Oh. Can you excuse me a moment?”
When people find out that I am a minister they oftentimes will get this pale look on their face, become real quiet, or mutter, “Hey, I’m sorry about that joke I just told out loud.” People tend to define one another by what they do or don’t do. “Bob’s a banker. This guy is homeless. You’re a Preacher?!”
“No, my name is Patrick; I’m named after my mom, Patricia, who almost died from an appendicitis while pregnant with me. I’m a regular guy just like you who is trying to get by in this crazy world of ours.”
Nowadays, a person’s identity is something that is attempted to be stolen in order to be sold or used. One site reports that over 15 million Americans have their identity stolen in a year. In 2014, identity theft cost American victims some $15.4 billion! Identity theft is a big deal today. Thieves scour the web looking how to steal our social security numbers and credit card accounts with their hacking; meanwhile, we Americans blissfully allow business like Face Book and Google track our web surfing and buying habits in order to make a composite profile of each of us so they can strategically target their advertising based on our online habits! Our identity is threatened by both benign and malevolent sources in the world and we are constantly being warned to be careful about it. We are reminded to check our credit scores to see if our ID has been stolen and misused.
It makes me wonder. Do we give that much thought or attention to protecting and assessing our personal Christian identity? In baptism, we die to the old life and rise from the waters re-clothed with the Spirit of Grace. Do our lives reflect that to the world and people around us? If not, then has our Christian identity been stolen and misused?
Identity theft occurs in our spiritual life, beloved. The culture has robbed us of our Christian identity. Simply look at three “Christian” holidays that have been hijacked from us: Easter is more about bunnies and chocolate than the powerful resurrection news of the risen Christ; Halloween has usurped All Saints Eve. In lieu of celebrating the Christian saints who have died and now rest from their labors, our country recently spent $8.4 billion in candy, costumes and decorations in 2016 for a holiday that often celebrates fear, gore, and horror; and then there is Christmas.
Friends, the culture has robbed the identity of meaningful Christian discipleship in our day but if we are honest, the Church of Jesus Christ in our country has not displayed a healthy Christian identity either. Too often American/Western Christianity has wrapped itself in the flags of political partisanship, bibliolatry at the expense of love for neighbor, and exclusion of others based on sex, gender, ethnicity, or economic class. We have lost our Christian identity to the cause célèbre whether in worship styles or in what we invest our time and energy. The Church has not done a good job of protecting Jesus’ identity in the world. When God spoke from the heavens the day Jesus was baptized, God was publicly announcing Jesus’ true identity. This man is not just a son of a Nazarene carpenter; Jesus is indeed the very Son of the Holy I Am! From that point on in Matthew’s gospel Story, we see how Jesus immediately began living into the identity proclaimed at his baptism.
On this weekend of Epiphany 2017, we are being asked to take a breath and ponder our true identity and determine if we are living into our identity given at baptism. We are being asked to determine if our identity is based upon what we do, i.e. a professor, student, real estate professional or is it based on our life situation like being sick or healthy, rich or poor, homeless or housed. Or, we are to reflect whether our identity based upon who and whose we are, i.e. sons and daughters of God. You see, baptisms are more than a mini debutante where children and adults are introduced to the world; baptism is the dramatic moment God through the Holy Spirit claim and shapes our identity in and through Jesus Christ. This week, we are being asked to reflect upon what identity we project to others. Do our lives show we are cultural Christians or that we are active Christ-Followers? There is a difference, you know. Today, I urge you to go home and reflect with God in prayer, “Lord, what do you see as my identity?” Our job is to listen for God’s reply. If we listen closely, quietly, we will hear God whisper in response, “My beloved, you are my son and daughter. Live into the identity I’ve given you!”
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Please read more about I-Dignity and the work it is doing at http://idignity.org/.
 See http://www.identitytheft.info/victims.aspx. Accessed 1/7/2017.
 See https://www.csid.com/2016/09/real-cost-identity-theft/. Accessed 1/7/2017.
 See http://www.timeforkids.com/news/how-much-does-halloween-cost/475721. Accessed on 1/7/2017.