Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, January 24, 2022
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A Case of Mistaken Identity

Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17 and 21-22

 Mistaken identity is a frequently used foil or ruse in story-telling.  Last month I was watching the new King Kong movie, and that’s what got me thinking about it as I read over today’s Gospel lesson.  There’s a scene in the movie where the female lead is meeting the male lead for the first time.  She is a small-time actress, and he is a famous playwright.  He is her hero.  But she is not actually meeting him.  Instead she is meeting a minor character in the story, and it turns out that her hero is actually standing behind her as she gushes to this other character, remarking how much younger and more handsome he looks in person compared to his photograph.  And then of course, she is shocked to find out he is really listening in on the whole conversation.

 That same foil is frequently used in all manner of stories.  My children have an old Flintstones movie where Fred Flintstone is mistaken for the international spy, Rock Slag, and is recruited to take his place while he is out of commission.  I’ve never seen it, but there’s a movie called “Dave,” about an average Joe who just happens to look like the President.  He is recruited to take his place while the President is in a coma.  

 You notice what’s in common in all three:  The average person, the unimportant person, is mistaken for the person of great significance; President of the USA, the international spy, the famous playwright. 

 In a way, we see the same thing in Luke’s Gospel.  John the Baptist has been mistaken for the Messiah.  Now it doesn’t fit the mold completely.  It’s not as if John the Baptist is an insignificant character.  He was the first prophet to come to Israel in 400 years.  Even Jesus said of John that of those born to women, none were greater than John.  So you can see how John would impress people.  

 But rather than playing himself up, John played himself down.  He said, “I’m not the King you’re looking for.  I’m only the messenger.  I’m just the one to tell you that he is on his way.  I’m not worthy to be his slave, not even to stoop down and untie his sandals.”  Later John said of Jesus, “He must become greater, and I must become less.”  

Of his ministry, John said, “I can only baptize you with water.  It’s just an outward and visible sign of your desire to be clean from sin.  But the one who will come after me, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  Both of those are images of purification.  Fire removed the impurities from metal that was being refined, and the Holy Spirit removes sin from the life of the penitent and God-seeking.  “He will separate

the wheat from the chaff.”  That is an image of judgment.  While the faithful are purified, the faithless are removed.  

John’s images of Jesus’ work are very similar to those of the prophet Malachi we heard last month.  And that shouldn’t be a surprise, since Malachi was talking about the coming of Messiah just as John was.  Malachi said of the Messiah that he would be a launderer’s soap, purifying the faithful.  And he would be like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross to extract the precious metal.  The dross and the chaff are both images of the faithless being removed from the Kingdom of God.  

If John the Baptist was an extraordinary figure being mistaken for an even more extraordinary character, then Jesus truly breaks the mold of the story of mistaken identity.  As I said, those stories typically focus on the average person being mistaken for the unusual person.  But in Jesus’ case, it goes the other way.  Jesus is the remarkable man who is mistaken for being no one.  

Almighty God takes on human flesh.  He is born to an average couple, from no place special, and of all things, he is laid in the feeding trough of animals.  The one who created the universe by the power of his word becomes a carpenter, building things with his hands.  How often was Jesus mistaken for being no one special in his life and ministry?  “Could anything good come out of Nazareth?  Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”  

Perhaps the ultimate twist in the story of mistaken identity comes when the holy and sinless one went down into the Jordan River and received a sinner’s baptism.  

Why would he do such a thing?  Several answers have been proposed, but I think the best is that he did it to identify with us.  The sinless Son of God took on human flesh and lived among sinners.  He became subject to the same temptations we are.  

You can’t really serve people if you will not identify with them, walk with them, talk with them, live with them.  You can’t serve people effectively from a distance.  It is the power of incarnational ministry, being present among people to serve.  It is the reason that pastors typically live in the community they serve.  Sometimes it doesn’t work out; for example if the pastor happens to be married to another pastor who lives in the next town down the river.  But generally, it’s the rule.  It’s hard to serve people if you don’t know their lives on a day-by-day basis.  

Jesus did that.  He was born into time and space.  He worked with his hands.  He had friends and a family and a hometown.  He knew what it was to be hungry, tired, and thirsty.  He knew what it meant to be tempted.  He so identified with sinners that he even died for them.  He identified with us, so we could be identified with him, so that we could be children of God, and heirs together with him of all God’s promises.

In Isaiah 43, God says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.”  To ransom is to pay the price to purchase another person out of prison or debt or slavery.  Isaiah was writing to a people who would know the pain of exile and eventually, the joy of restoration.  He talks about that in the language of slavery and ransom.  He talks about three nations, Egypt, Cush, also called Ethiopia or Nubia, and Seba, being a ransom for the freedom of Israel.  Those three nations were defeated by the Persians within a few years of the King of Persia releasing the Hebrews to go back to Jerusalem.  Isaiah pictures that as a ransom, others dying that God’s people might live.  “I have traded their lives for yours.  They died that you might live.”  

It is the same idea when Christ dies for our sins.  In Christ, God names us and claims us.  “I have called you by name.  You are mine.”  Baptism points to that.  Baptism is about God naming and claiming us; God laying hold of our lives.  

“When you go through deep waters, rivers, fire, and trouble, I will be with you.  You will not drown.  You will not be consumed.”  God promises to protect his own.  That may not include the protection of our bodies, but it always includes the protection of our souls.  

Finally, God says he will gather his people from every corner of the earth.  This could be understood as the exiles returning to Jerusalem and Judea after the Babylonian Exile.  It could also be seen as Jews from all over the world returning to the new nation of Israel, in the middle of the 20th century.  But both of those gatherings were incomplete.  I think the image is best understood as the ingathering of God’s people to New Jerusalem in the New Heaven and New Earth.  

Why does God do this?  Well, if we read down through verse 13 of Isaiah 43, we find an answer:  “That all the world might know that there is no other God, no other Savior.”  Jesus took on an unassuming identity throughout his earthly life, but in the end, his identity will not be mistaken.  

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