And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17
A lot has happened since last week’s Gospel when the wisemen came to Bethlehem bearing gifts for the Christ child. After a warning that King Herod sought to kill the child, Joseph led his family to safety in Egypt. They became refugees for a few years and when Herod died and it was safe to return, they went north to a small town in Galilee called Nazareth. There Joseph started a carpentry business. Mary had a few more children. Jesus grew up, played with friends, went to school, worked with his Dad. A normal childhood. Not all that different from most children. Then the day arrives when Jesus hears about his cousin John preaching and baptizing at the River Jordan and somehow in some way, he knows his time has come. Something new is about to happen and he sets off into his future.
It’s no accident that John’s at the Jordan. Throughout the history of God’s people that river has been a place of new beginnings. There the people of Israel crossed from their wilderness wanderings into the promised land. There the prophetic spirit of God was passed from Elijah to Elisha. There the enemy commander, Naaman, was washed clean from his leprosy for God is not just the God of the Israelites, but of all the nations. Today at the Jordan, all of this is remembered and put into play as Jesus steps into the river to be baptized.
But there’s a problem. John’s not sure why Jesus is at the Jordan requesting baptism, and perhaps is also not sure if he’s up to performing this particularly liturgical function for this particular man. Next to Jesus John feels as if he’s nothing more than a sack of skin and bones. Jesus responds to his objection saying they must “fulfill all righteousness” whatever that means. Won’t it be more righteous for Jesus not to swim inn the sin-filled waters of the Jordan, but to stand on the shore and shout directions? Or if he did wade into the water, more appropriate for him to tap John on the shoulder and say, “Go rest. I’ll take over for a while?” But he doesn’t. He joins the sinful multitude and is baptized. Then as Jesus comes up from the water something remarkable happens – heaven opens, clouds part, a figure that looks like a dove, something straight from the heart of God, settles on Jesus as a voice declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved with whom I am well pleased!”
Here at his baptism Jesus is given his identity – he’s God’s beloved one. No matter what happens to him in the days, months and years ahead, he is God’s beloved one. God’s love is in him, flows through him and sustains him. During his forty days in the wilderness where he faces the kind of temptations that can break a soul, he remembers, “I am loved.” When the endless demands of ministry – of healing, feeding, teaching, loving, caring – empty him of all energy, he remembers “I am loved.” When religious leaders go after him seeking to discredit and threaten him, he remembers, “I am loved.” And just in case he forgets, on the Mount of Transfiguration right before his last journey to Jerusalem, where his disciples will betray, deny and abandon him and he will feel completely forsaken, again he hears God proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved with him I am well pleased.” Jesus is loved.
As are we. In the waters of baptism, we become beloved children of God. Martin Luther wrote that by baptism we are made “joint heirs of all our Lord’s goods for he is the token and pledge of God’s grace and love against our sin and fear.”[i] We, too, are God’s beloved ones. Yet we live our lives under false identities – what sex, race, class, educational level we are, defining ourselves by our titles and degrees, our job descriptions and retirement accounts – all of it seems so important and yet is fleeting. What endures is that we are beloved ones, and but we so easily forget that. If you have never been baptized, we have water, plenty of it. Talk to me after worship and we’ll plan for it because you already belong to God, you are already God’s beloved.
I fear for our children. Not because they do not already belong to God, but because often they don’t know that and instead of living in hope, sink into despair. Last Sunday after returning home from the Confirmation Retreat, I read an editorial in the New York Times by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard A. Friedman entitled “Why are Young Americans Killing Themselves?” He lays out the facts and considers all sorts of reasons16 young people die from suicide every day. He offers possible solutions including a public health campaign and expanded access to psychotherapies and medication. I appreciated the article, but I thought he missed an important question, and that is, perhaps the increase in suicide is connected to our national decline in participation in communities of faith. Who our young people are, is increasingly defined by competition for grades, for status, for places on the team, for S.A.T. scores, for the number of views on Instagram… And when they don’t measure up, or think they don’t, they so easily slip into despair. They do not know they are a beloved child of God.
It can be scary for everyone to accept such love, because deep down we know we are not worthy to receive such a gift. We didn’t earn this love or deserve it. God’s love is pure amazing grace. Also, deep down perhaps we are frightened of the repercussions of receiving it. To be beloved is to be loved and to love, to be cared for and to care, to receive kindness and to give it. As the first letter of John puts it, “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.” (1 John 4: 16) When love is denied, abused, drowned out and ignored, we are called to do all we can to bring justice and compassion, hope and healing because God lives in us.
Educator and Civil Rights leader, Howard Thurman called this the work of Christmas. He wrote: “When the song of the angels is stilled; When the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flock, the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among brothers (and sisters), to make music in the heart.[ii]
Last weekend on our confirmation retreat our 7th, 8th and 9th graders along with their adult guides did the work of Christmas as they learned about worship, thought deeply about being baptized followers of Jesus and planned our worship for Youth Sunday which will be on January 26th. They explored what it means to be beloved ones, baptized in the name of Jesus and called to love others. Through them God gave me hope, be sure to worship with them and hear the music in their hearts. Amen.
[i] Martin Luther, Sermon on Holy Baptism, Epiphany 1535.
[ii] Howard Thurman, The Mood of Christmas, Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1973, 28