Sermon for Sunday, January 9, 2022 || Epiphany 1C || Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Every year on the Sunday after the Epiphany, we hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. The Gospel writer Luke skips the moment of the baptism, preferring instead to focus on what happens next. Jesus comes up out of the water, towels off his hair, and puts on his clothes. And then he starts praying. I’ve read this passage a hundred times and I’ve never noticed that Jesus is praying when we get to the part of the story Luke wants to tell. In my imagination, I see Jesus kneeling by himself on the riverbank, eyes closed, hands held palms up in his lap like a little bowl. His posture is that of someone who has just sat down in church and spends a quiet moment with God before the collective worship begins.
During that moment of prayer, heaven opens and a dove descends. The dove is the Holy Spirit in bodily form. Jesus opens his eyes and holds his hand out. The dove alights on his outstretched fingers. The bird looks at Jesus and then looks up. Jesus follows its gaze. A voice speaks from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
These words from God – spoken during a moment of prayer – launch Jesus on his mission. God also speaks these words to us and launches us on our missions. I’d like to dwell on these words this morning so we can all more readily recognize that God does not just speak them to Jesus, but speaks them through Jesus to us.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“You are my child. I love you. I delight in you.”
“You are mine, my love, my joy.”
God’s words to Jesus and us consist of three elements: a relationship, an identity, and (for lack of a better word) an attitude. “My Son” is the relationship. “Beloved” is the identity. “Pleasure” is the attitude. Let’s take each in turn.
You are my Son. God affirms God’s relationship with Jesus as he prays on the riverbank. The relationship is lifegiving and nurturing. Later in the Gospel, Jesus will tell a story about fathers and sons. It’s a story about a father who always seeks to repair and restore relationships. It’s a story about a father who rushes out to meet his long lost son and celebrates his return instead of condemning his departure. This is the God who is the parent to the Son. This is the God who promises in today’s reading from Isaiah:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
This God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and this God is our parent too. God calls us God’s children too. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (8:14-16).
And not just children of God, but beloved children of God. That’s the second piece. Relationship first, then identity. Our identity is the Beloved of God. God’s love makes our hearts beat. God’s love remains with us even when our hearts stop beating. God’s love keeps us loving. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians says, “[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (1:5-6).
Jesus is the Beloved of God. Jesus became like us so we could become more like him. And that means we are God’s beloved too. And not just people who believe in a certain way or sign on to a particular ideology or religion. The whole creation is God’s Beloved, and each creature within it is God’s Beloved. So when we accept the identity of God’s Beloved, we also accept the fundamental truth of that identity living within every person we meet. And not just people, but plants and animals, and all living things, and all matter in the universe. Creation exists because of God’s love, and therefore all creation is God’s Beloved.
When we live into this fundamental truth, our priorities shift. We stand with people whose essential belovedness has been trampled by the greed and power of others. We realign our relationship with the world around us to live as pieces of our environment rather than consumers of it. We take no action that is not born out of love. This does not mean we are weak or we are doormats or shrinking violets. Living as God’s Beloved takes courage: courage to shine the light of love on systems of oppression so justice can grow in their place; courage to change the way we live so that future generations will have any way to live; courage to accept the mission to witness to God’s love pouring into and out of every heart. This love binds us all together in a web of mutuality, what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “single garment of destiny.”
This destiny brings us to the third element of God’s words to Jesus at his baptism: “With you I am well pleased.” God’s delights in God’s beloved children. Isn’t that good news? That’s our destiny, to be God’s joy. Every once in a while I’ll be watching my children do something – draw or read or dance or build with LEGOs or whatever – and a special smile steals across my face. It’s a smile that happens only when I’m delighting in my children, and the joy that comes with the smile is so palpable and beautiful. In those moments, I think I’m tapping into the way God feels when God delights in us. This joy is deeper than happiness. This joy is the thread, the tissue, that connects us back to the relationship we have with God as God’s children.
God’s words to Jesus send him on his mission and are indeed a microcosm of the mission that God sends us on too. God is restoring all things back into right relationship with God; that is, a relationship of belovedness and delight. We participate in this mission through living out our baptismal promises with God’s help: to be part of the life of the faithful; to change our lives when we realize we not living in lifegiving ways; to proclaim God’s love and see belovedness in all people; to work for justice and peace; and to sustain the wonders of God’s creation.
When next you kneel before God in prayer – eyes closed, hands held palms up in your lap like a little bowl – hear God say the same words God spoke to Jesus as the dove descends. And hear in them a mission of love. “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”