Baptism of our Lord is one of those festivals that comes up each year with very similar texts. Sometimes it’s hard to find a new way to talk about things that we hear year after year. But this year, I was inspired by the first part of our text from Matthew: not the baptism itself, but Jesus’ conversation with John. Perhaps I’d recently been reading something about imposter syndrome, I don’t remember, but that idea just stuck in my mind. Have you ever felt imposter syndrome? What helps you with self-doubt when it comes?
Readings for Baptism of Our Lord: Lectionary Readings
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have you ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s gotten a lot of press in the past few years after some TED Talks about it, but it was first researched in the 70s. Syndrome is sort of a misleading term for it, because it is not a psychological or physical diagnosis. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that you haven’t earned the success, recognition, or accolades that you’ve received, no matter how much outside validation people give you.
You feel that people overestimate your abilities, that you’ve just gotten lucky. That you don’t deserve the praise or accomplishments you’ve actually earned. If you’ve ever felt this way, know that you’re in good company. Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments. She was quoted as saying, “I’m running a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Albert Einstein experienced something similar. He described himself as “an involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it received.
Imposter syndrome isn’t something that only the Einsteins and Angelous experience, though. We all can experience those feelings of self-doubt. How did I wind up in this job? Am I actually qualified enough to be doing this? We can worry that we might be exposed, that others will find out we actually have no idea what we’re doing. Studies have shown that most of us experience self-doubt about our abilities. But because we don’t voice these doubts, we think we’re the only ones that have them. The only ones who feel unworthy or unprepared. Unqualified, or like an imposter.
John the Baptist is definitely suffering from something like impostor syndrome in our gospel reading of the baptism of Jesus. John’s whole story has been amazing up to this point. His own miraculous birth, to a couple of old age, was heralded by angels. He was so advanced, that he was preparing the way for Jesus even in utero. He leaped in his mother Elizabeth’s womb when a pregnant Mary came to visit. He has been a successful prophet, baptized hundreds of people, made quite the name for himself. Scripture tells us that huge crowds of people were coming from all over to hear John preach and to be baptized.
Yet, when Jesus comes to the river, John doesn’t feel like he’s good enough. He doesn’t want to baptize Jesus because he feels unworthy. Of course, we need to remember that it is Jesus. Even the most qualified person would probably feel unworthy in this situation, but John feels it acutely.
This conundrum of John baptizing Jesus is something that the early Christians struggled with, too. And all of the Gospel writers handled it differently. In Mark, the earliest gospel written, John objects, saying he is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, then does it anyway. Matthew, which we read today, has this back and forth with Jesus, where Jesus seems to say that it’s okay because the situation is temporary. In Luke, John doesn’t baptize Jesus. Jesus is baptized, but John is already in prison when it happens. And in John, if Jesus is baptized, it happens off stage, it’s not part of what John writes down.
But, even with all of these explanations and back and forths, at the end of today’s Gospel, John baptizes Jesus. Even though he feels unworthy. Jesus tells him, this is what you should do. This is what you are here for, this is your calling. Despite your doubts, despite feeling as though you’re not good enough, you are. You are good enough, and you are meant to do this.
We can all suffer from imposter syndrome sometimes. We feel like we have been thrust into situations that we aren’t prepared for. We feel like others don’t realize just how little we know. It might be your job, it might be marriage or parenthood, buying a house, you name it, if you’ve ever felt like you’re the only one completely out of your depth, that’s imposter syndrome.
I feel it. I feel it a lot, and most often these days, it’s brought on by the complicated, turbulent times in which we live. I’m not sure I was properly prepared for this. To be a pastor in the midst of an opioid epidemic, climate change, political polarization, possible war. Like Maya Angelou, I feel like I’m going to be exposed for the fraud that I am. Maybe you’ve found yourself in a situation you feel unprepared for. Unqualified for. And maybe you wonder what in the world God expects you to do with it.
Sometimes, God calls us to big challenges and seemingly impossible situations. But God calls us to them, not because we don’t know what we’re doing, but precisely because God knows we have the power and the ability to make a difference.
Today is the Baptism of our Lord, but it is also a chance to think about our own baptisms. That moment, whether you were a tiny baby or a teenager or an adult, when you were sealed with the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus was in the River Jordan. That moment when God declared you to be a beloved child. When God said, “This is my son, this is my daughter.”
We all have received God’s Holy Spirit, and we all have received God’s call to mission and ministry in this world. In the baptismal rite, which we will affirm in just a few minutes, we say that we will—to the best of our ability—“live among God’s faithful people, hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
It’s a big calling. It’s a huge calling, there’s no denying that. God asks a lot of us. And this big, challenging call might mean we sometimes feel like imposters. We sometimes feel like we’re making it up as we go along, like we’re not qualified to do it. God asks a lot of us, but God gives a lot to us. God gives us everything we need. We have received God’s Holy Spirit in baptism, and we have everything we need to answer God’s call. To be God’s voice of good news, to serve all people, to follow Jesus’ example. Because we do not do it alone. We do it with the power of Spirit, and with the love of Jesus flowing through us.
So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, know this: God doesn’t make imposters. God makes beloved children. And God equips us with everything we need to be God’s hands and feet and voice in the world. So as we remember our baptisms, remember: you are beloved. And you have received God’s spirit of power and truth. Thanks be to God. Amen.