Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Terms of Endearment
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
“Terms of Endearment” – those distinctive words or phrases we use to let folks know they are special to us. I came across an article by a new father who noted the phenomenon: he writes,(1)
I recently ran through the list of nicknames Alene and I have called Bridgette since she was born. I was amazed. In only 22 weeks, we have referred to her, alternately, as: Bridgette, Bridge, Bridgey, Bridgelet, Bridgester, Bridgemeister, Bridgeman, Bridgette-the-Fidgettey-Midget, Bridgettes-of-Madison-County, Pooh, Poop, Poopy, Pumpkin, Pumpkin Seed, Pumpkin Pooch, Peanut, Muffin, Noodle, Doodle, Doodle-Doo, Dew Drop, Sweet Pea, Pea Pod, Boopie, Bubbles, Bundles, and Stinky the Bald-Headed Girl. (That last one was Bridgette’s name her first week only. I fully expect her to take me to court over it one day.)
In the end, I believe my clearly exhaustive repertoire of aliases for my daughter comes from my desire to dote and fawn and fuss over her that much more. And the more syllables the better (even though, in the end, a Bridgette by any other name still smells like Johnson’s Baby Powder).
True enough, a rose by any other name still smells as sweet, but we also know how true it is that WHAT we are called makes a difference. As we grow, if we are called “smart,” it makes a difference; if we are called “stupid,” it makes a difference.
What our FAMILY is called is also important. Several years ago, at my step-father’s funeral, the family was gathered – Mom, three of my four sisters, my brother Joel. Long-time family friends had made the trip. It was a time to renew old acquaintances, to sustain each other in a difficult moment, to share stories. Joel and I were talking with one of those long-time acquaintances who was remembering a conversation he had had with his own brother some years ago. This brother – Tom – was a high-powered attorney in Baltimore who, at that moment, was involved in an important real estate closing. Joel, who happens to be one of Baltimore’s most respected land surveyors, had also been called in on the project even though he was relatively young at the time. As the introductions proceeded, Tom was introduced to Joel, then, with a quizzical look, asked him, “And who is MILTON Leininger.”
Joel looked startled for a moment, then responded. “He is my father.”
Tom turned away quickly to his partners and said, “He’ll be fine.” Tom had known our Dad, and just because of that family relationship, the NAME – what he was called – he had every confidence in Joel.
Isaiah understood the importance of the name: “But now, this is what the LORD says — he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”(2) What a wonderful word of divine protection! And why? No other reason than “I HAVE SUMMONED YOU BY NAME, YOU ARE MINE!”
As counterpoint to Isaiah, our gospel lesson carries us to the waters of the Jordan and the story of Jesus’ baptism. Theologians will always wrestle with why Jesus did that (just as John himself wondered(3), but most say this was the Lord’s visible demonstration that he really was WITH us – with us in our fears, with us in our foolishness, with us in our failures, with us all the way down into the mud of the Jordan.
In Charleton Heston’s autobiography, In the Arena,(4) the actor describes making The Greatest Story Ever Told in November of 1963. Heston appeared as John the Baptist. Director George Stevens had chosen to film the baptism in Glen Canyon, Arizona, on the Colorado River. Heston points out that in November the water temperature was in the forties. It made for some interesting reactions as the hundreds of extras were immersed, one by one, in the cold Colorado. “As they came up, gasping and wild-eyed, the cameras conveyed pure, heartfelt epiphany.”
It took several days to shoot the scene. Heston remarks that they “baptized” around sixty a day. He suspects the real Baptist did better. So, after several days of standing in cold water dressed in a bearskin, he got to pretend to baptize Jesus. As he was waiting in the water for the shot, he warmed his hands on a cup of coffee with his head down. This might have caused Stevens some concern, for he called out, “How ya doin’, Chuck?”
Heston says he answered, “I’m okay, George. But I’ll tell you this, if the Jordan had been as cold as the Colorado, Christianity never would have gotten off the ground.”
The climax of the scene in scripture is wonderful. The dove, the voice. “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Pleased at what? Jesus had not done any miracles at this point, he had not preached or taught or healed. He had not accomplished any of those things we identify with his ministry. And yet God says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Interesting, is it not, that God praises Jesus before he does great things. We often reverse that order, reserving praise and approval until one has earned it…EXCEPT for our children. Loving parents start with those words of affirmation and affection right from the beginning. “My Son, whom I love.”
The fact that, in his baptism, Jesus heard God’s “term of endearment,” provides something important for us. Baptism can be seen as a first word of God’s love and acceptance for you and me. When we remember and celebrate our own baptism, we recall that we, too, have been called God’s child.
Fred Craddock, that wonderful teacher of preachers, tells the story of vacationing in the Smokey Mountains area of Tennessee. He and his wife had found a lovely restaurant at a place called the Black Bear Inn. Craddock writes:
We were seated there looking out at the mountains when this old man, with shocking white hair, a Carl Sandburg-looking person came over and spoke to us. He said, “You’re on vacation?”
We said, “Yes,” and he just kept right on talking.
“What do you do,” he asked. Well, I was thinking, Craddock notes, that it was none of his business, but I let out that I was a minister. Then he said, “Oh, a minister, well I’ve got a story for you.” He pulled out a chair and sat down.
“Won’t you have a seat,” Craddock added. (He found out later that the man was eighty years old and a former governor of Tennessee.)
He said, “I was born back here in these mountains and when I was growing up I attend Laurel Springs Church. My mother was not married and as you might expect in those days, I was embarrassed about that — at school I would hide in the weeds by a nearby river and eat my lunch alone because the other children were very cruel. And when I went to town with my courageous mother I would see the way people looked at me trying to guess who my daddy was.
“The preacher fascinated me, but at the same time he scared me. He had a long beard, a rough-hewn face, a deep voice, but I sure liked to hear him preach. But I didn’t think I was welcome at church so I would go just for the sermon. And as soon as the sermon was over, I would rush out so nobody would say, ‘What’s a boy like you doing here in church.’
“One day though,” the old man continued, “I was trying to get out but some people had already got in the aisle so I had to remain. I was waiting, getting in a cold sweat, when all of a sudden I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked out of the corner of my eye and realized it was the face of the preacher. And I was scared to death.
“The preacher looked at me. He didn’t say a word, he just looked at me, and then he said, ‘Well boy, you’re a child of…’ and he paused, and I knew he was going to try to guess not who my mother was but who my father was.”
“The preacher said, ‘You’re a child of…um. Why, you’re a child of God! I see a striking resemblance, boy!’ He swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Go, claim your inheritance.'”
And then the old man who was telling the story said to Fred Craddock, “I was born on that day!”
“You are my Son, whom I love.” Terms of endearment. In baptism we find our affirmation. Remember that as we recall our own baptisms in a moment. That is where we find strength for the struggle, courage for the crises, and hope for the future. We are part of God’s family, each of us God’s own child, never alone, and nothing can separate us from that love of God in Christ Jesus all the days of our lives.
1. Bruce Kluger, “It’s a Girl – Now What?”, via Internet, http://www.homearts.com/ depts/relat/girlb6.htm
2. Isaiah 43:1-2
3. Matthew 3:14
4. In the Arena : An Autobiography, New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995
Copyright 2001 David E. Leininger. Used by permission.