January 7, 2024

"Trusting our Belovedness"

Luke 3:21-22

We are coming to the end of our Advent/Christmas season. We began from a place of weariness, with the phrase, "The thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices," from the song "O Holy Night." We conclude this Christmastide with the focus of trusting in our belovedness. Joy is rooted in the fact that we belong to God. Belonging happens in the gift of baptism, where God claims us as beloved offspring. We will unpack this idea that we are God's beloved momentarily. First, let's spend some time with the story of the baptism of the Messiah.

In today's scripture passage, we hear an abbreviated story of Jesus' baptism. Jesus enters the Jordan River to be baptized by John. This moment is the culmination of Elizabeth and Mary's meeting, a fulfillment of prophecy regarding both infants they carried. John prepares the way for Jesus, who fulfills his role as the Messiah. In Luke's version, John takes a backseat in this narrative for some reason. Compared to Mark's Gospel, which says Jesus was baptized by John, or in Matthew's version, where John says to Jesus, "I need to be baptized by you, not the other way around," Luke makes little mention of John. In the prior verses, Herod locked John up in prison. Verse 21 acts as a postscript- Even though John was imprisoned, before that, all the people were baptized by John, including Jesus.

What was the significance of Jesus' baptism? What did it mean? There are three significant purposes for Jesus' baptism. Unlike the other people gathered around John and baptized by him, Jesus' baptism was not a baptism of repentance. Scripture tells us that Jesus was without sin. So the first meaning of his baptism was this: It was an echo of things to come. It was a picture of His future baptism on the cross, where He would identify with sinners, take their sins upon Himself, and justify them through His suffering and death.

The second meaning of Christ's baptism comes as he is anointed with God's Spirit. As Jesus is praying, the heavens part and the Spirit of God comes down as a dove. This anointing of the Spirit is an anointing of his role as the Messiah. It also signifies the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry, which the Spirit of God would empower to share good news, heal others, and be an ultimate example of God's love.

This morning's focus is on the third meaning of Jesus's baptism. The voice of God then wraps Jesus in joy and affection. "God says, You are my son, the beloved. With You, I am well pleased." I particularly like the Message version of this passage. "You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life." (MSG 3:22). Can we trust that, if we too have been baptized, God says the same thing to us? (Insert name), God says, "You are my son, the beloved. With you, I am well pleased." "(Insert name), God says, You are my daughter, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life." Can we see ourselves as God's beloved?

It is difficult for us to do so, especially in this weary, fearful, and sometimes insensitive world. In speaking of the gift of baptism, theologian Henri Nouwen wrote, "It certainly is not easy to hear that voice in a world filled with voices that shout: 'You are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless; you are despicable, you are nobody-unless you can demonstrate the opposite.' These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That's the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection."

That self-rejection comes to me this time of year as I consider and reconsider making resolutions- to eat less, work out more, lose weight, read more, sleep better, pray longer, etc. I notice all my faults and reject whoever I see staring back at me in the mirror. I loathe those parts of me that I see as imperfect.

Theologian and eating disorder survivor Anne Lamott suggests a different approach at this time of year- away from self-loathing. What your body doesn't need at this time of year, Lamott wrote, "is starvation, chastisement, and too-tight clothing that hurts. Wear forgiving pants! The world is too hard as it is, without letting your pants have an opinion on how you are doing. I struggle with enough esteem issues without letting my jeans get in on the act..."

What if, instead of that dialogue of self-loathing that can come this time of year, we focus on our belovedness of God through our baptisms? Would that provide an inner sense of trusting we are beloved of God, whatever our bodies look like? Can we know deep down and trust that, despite any flaws we or others point out, we are, first and foremost, BELOVED by God.

Theologian Diana Butler-Bass says baptism "…is the moment when we are named and claimed as God's own." If we understand, deep within ourselves, that we are God's own, God's beloved offspring, we can embrace self-respect and peace of mind despite those hurtful words said by former partners, spouses, or parents that have shaped and molded us. In understanding who we are and whose we are through the gift of baptism, no matter what has been said, we can experience the freedom and joy that comes when we trust God, to whom we belong.

Our baptisms, whenever they were, whether they were as an infant, teen, or adult- they were affirmations from God. As it tells us in Ephesians, "We are God's handiwork, created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life." (Ephesians 2:10)

This is my picture of the day I was baptized. I've shown it to you from previous sermons regarding baptism. I keep it next to my computer. Because, especially on those difficult days, I remember who I am and whose I am. I am God's beloved son, and God is well pleased in me, even if others around me are not. You may notice the frame has hearts all over it- reminding me of my mother's love, my grandfather's love, and, most importantly, God's love. This picture helps me trust my belovedness in God.

Rev. Cecilia Armstrong beautifully illustrates her belovedness in God as experienced through her mother. "My mother was a jewel. Every morning she would wake me by singing, 'Hey, good lookin'. Whatcha got cookin'?' Now, momma was not Hank Williams in any way, but her affirmation of me every morning was the start of a wonderful day. Today, I am still fueled by her affirmation even though she is no longer with me. I knew that my mother was my greatest supporter."

What if we can see God in the same way? What if we could look at the story of Jesus' baptism and see it as a tale of a parent encouraging and supporting a beloved child? If that story is true, can it not also be true for us? Can we see our baptisms as an affirmation from our heavenly parent, fueled by our belovedness to bless others? In his book Life of the Beloved, Nouwen wrote, "I must tell you that claiming your own blessedness always leads to a deep desire to bless others…It is remarkable how easy it is to bless others, to speak good things to and about them, to call forth their beauty and truth, when you yourself are in touch with your own blessedness. The blessed one always blesses."

Let's take that analogy from Rev Armstrong a bit further. Can you imagine God singing that refrain from the Hank Williams song? "Hey, good lookin. Whatcha got cookin? How's about cookin' something up with me?" God calls us good lookin because we are created in God's image. God asks us to remember the call on our lives by asking what we've got cooking- what are our plans for the day? How does God's Spirit lead them? Finally, we are commissioned to cook something up with God- that is, we are to work through God's Spirit to bring glimpses of the kindom through doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.

As you head out of worship this morning, a basin with water is next to the exit. I invite you to remember your baptisms by dipping your fingers in the water and making the sign of the cross on your foreheads. There is a bit of water from the Jordan River in the water, holding the memory of that day when John baptized Jesus. Remembering your baptisms this morning, know that God finds delight and joy in you. You are God's beloved. May you go from this place and trust that fact so that you can cook something up with God and be a source of God's joy for the world around you. Alleluia! Amen.