1/8/17: I Am Beloved, Matthew 3:13-17
I Am Beloved
First Lesson: Isaiah 42:1-9
Second Lesson: Matthew 3:13-17
Rev. Scott Dickison
Jan Richardson is a writer and pastor, and tells a story passed along from her friend Janet Wolf, who used to serve as the pastor of Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Hobson UMC is a diverse congregation that includes, as Janet describes it, “people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets; and, as one person who struggles with mental health declared, ‘those of us who are crazy and those who think they’re not.’”
Years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to this church. Fayette lived with mental illness and lupus and was without a home. She joined the new member class, and the conversation about baptism especially grabbed her imagination. During the class, Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class would respond as they had learned, “You are Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’” And Fayette would say, “Oh, yes!” and the discussion would continue.
Finally, the day of Fayette’s baptism came. Fayette went under the water, came up blowing water from her lips, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And the church called back to her, “You are Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” And Fayette called back to them, “Oh, yes!” and suddenly they were all awash in God’s love.
Two months later, Janet received a phone call.
Fayette, vulnerable as she was, had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. Janet went down to the hospital to see her. When she came to her room, she saw Fayette from a distance, pacing back and forth. When she got to the door, she heard as Fayette softly repeated something to herself over and over. She got a step closer and heard what she was saying, ‘I am beloved, I am beloved, I am beloved…” As she said the words, Fayette turned and saw Janet standing there. She looked at her said, “I am beloved, precious child of God,” and then catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair disheveled, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn and dirty, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God,”—and now looking at herself in the mirror declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!” (1)
Of all the beautiful words in the Bible—and the Bible is a book filled with beautiful, beautiful words—there is perhaps none more beautiful than the word “beloved.”
It’s a word so beautiful, so holy, we scarcely hear it said or written outside of Scripture.The way it rolls from the tongue, the way the voice lilts at the end, not “beloved” (which too is beautiful), but “Belov-ed.” Something ancient. Something mystical. But of course, what makes this word so beautiful is not simply how it is said, but what it means. What it declares, which is that you are loved. How powerful that is? Is there anything more powerful?
Scripture tells us it was how the early church addressed and spoke of each other, as “beloved,” or “God’s beloved.” It’s how Paul addresses the church in almost every one of his letters: “To God’s beloved in Rome,” “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immoveable, always excellingin the work if the Lord.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is anything of excellence or worthy of praise, think on these things.
And the letters of John, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And we should—the word “beloved,” after all, first comes to us in the New Testament not on lips of Paul, or any of the disciples, or even Jesus, but the lips of God here in this third chapter of Matthew. As Jesus was coming up out of the waters of the Jordan River, a voice comes down from the heavens and rests upon him saying, This is my Beloved Son, of whom I am well-pleased. They’re the first words God speaks to Jesus, and even more than this, they’re the first words God speaks to anyone in the Gospels, and so they are God’s first words to us: You are my Beloved, I’m so proud of you.
How powerful, how beautiful, how necessary it is to know that you are God’s beloved. That this is who you are in the eyes of God, and so this is who you are. Before you are anything else, and despite what you do or what is done to you, this is who you are first: you are “beloved.” This is the promise of Scripture, the promise of faith—the promise, in fact, upon which all the other promises rest: that you are God’s belove, that all people are God’s beloved. All the rest of it: forgiveness of sins, communion of saints, life everlasting—all the rest of it depends on this one truth of belovedness. If this isn’t true, than the rest of it can’t be either. But if this is true, then the rest of it has to be.
There is a theory of love—in the field of philosophy—that says there is a certain kind of love that has the capacity to bestow worth on the beloved. “Love as attachment,” it’s called—Miroslav Volf writes about this beautifully. (2) He says for example, in The Velveteen Rabbit, that classic children’s story, what makes the little rabbit, inexpensively made as he is, so much more valuable than just any ol’ stuffed animal sitting on the shelf, is the love of the little boy. The little boy who takes to it, bonds with it. Holds it, cherishes it, loves it. It’s a love, we’re told that has the power even to make this toy bunny rabbit, “real.” It’s relationship that makes something truly valuable. God’s love is this way. It is an “attachment” kind of love, a love that rubs off on the beloved and makes it something special, something valuable, something real. And since God’s love is for the whole world—for all people, and not just people, but for all of creation—then there is no thing or no person to whom God is not attached. And so all are God’s beloved, and so all are simply “beloved.” Worthy of love. And for all that might be happening in those waters, when we are baptized, we claim this truth of our belovedness for ourselves.
You see, we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ baptism and ours if we think it has to do with us becoming something different. Yes, something has changed in us: how we see ourselves and how we see God—but not in how God sees us. For God, baptism is much more about us accepting who we have been all along, which is our identity as God’s beloved. Jesus didn’t become God’s Beloved Son in whom God was well pleased at his baptism. No. It was in his baptism, in his coming forward to accept his calling, that he embraced who he already was. And the same is true of us. You don’t become God’s beloved in baptism. You were that long before you entered the waters. In baptism you say before God and the people of God that you accept this blessing, that you embrace your own belovedness, and promise to do your best to remember it and live into it all your days.
Martin Luther said that we should remember our baptism as often as we can—every morning when we wash our face, or whenever we encounter water during the day, that we should remember the waters of baptism and the assurance that comes with them, that we are God’s beloved. That despite what has happened since then, where life has taken us, what we have done or left undone—what the world has done to us—that truth, that seal of God’s love washing over us, still remains.
I once heard of a nurse who whenever she would wash her hands, which was several times throughout the day would remember her baptism. As she would move from room to room, each time in what could have been an utterly mundane and monotonous, as she would feel the water wash over her hands she would remember—however briefly—that she was God’s beloved. And that the person waiting for her care was too. And so the mundane and monotonous was revealed as sacred, even sacramental. And isn’t this exactly what happens in those waters? It’s not that the waters or even we ourselves are made holy in that moment of baptism, but that the holiness that is always present, always true, in creation and in us, is revealed.
And there will be times when you don’t remember, or when you won’t. But then there will be times when you will. And there will be even be times when you must. And we’re mistaken if we thing it was any different with Jesus.
One question that tends to come up in the story of Jesus’ baptism is, “Why?” Why was Jesus baptized? The church has struggled to answer this question at times, why it was that the son of God should need to go into those waters same as us, and even here in Matthew, John the Baptist seems a bit uncomfortable with the idea, saying to Jesus, “I need to be the one baptized by you!” But Jesus tells him, “No, no, no. We must do this to fulfill all righteousness”—in other words, “this needs to be done.” In other words still, “I need this.”
I don’t know what the theologians will tell you, but for me, I suspect Jesus needed to be baptized for the same reason we do: he knew that a day would come when the world would tell him something very different about himself. And he would need that memory of how it felt when the water washed over him, when the love of God was outpoured upon him, and he heard those words: You are beloved, precious child of God, beautiful to behold. I am so proud of you.
You are Beloved.
Do you believe this?
God is attached to you, to us, to all people. Impossible as it may seem at times—in us, or in others. There are so many, many voices in the world who would tell us otherwise. But the Christian promise to the world is that it’s true. This is our testimony. A testimony of which we routinely fall short, but it is our testimony nonetheless. And so it isn’t up to anyone to convince us, or persuade us as to their belovedness before God, no, sisters and brothers, it is up to us to see it in them—to look for what God sees, for what God loves. And at times to name it for them, so when the time comes and the Spirit moves in such a way, they will come to know it for themselves. That they will know they are Beloved, precious child of God, beautiful to behold. Amen.
(1) As told by Jan Richardson at her blog, The Painted Prayerbook, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved/. Original story told by Janet Wolf in The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room.)
(2) Miroslav Volf, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, Public Faith in Action, p. 201