January 13, 2019: "Being the Beloved"

January 13, 2019                                                                           Rev. Rhonda Blevins

Being the Beloved

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

______

A family was riding home from church one Sunday. It had been a joyful morning—their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning.  Suddenly, about halfway home, the little boy burst into tears. When his parents asked what on earth is wrong, he sniffled out the answer: "The minister who baptized me said I would be brought up in a Christian home. But I want to stay with you guys!"

 Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Today we reflect of the baptism of Jesus, an event chronicled in all four gospels, suggesting that this was a core event—a primary story told in the early church as they reflected on the life and ministry of the one they revered.

 ·         In the Gospel of Luke: we learn that Jesus was praying, but doesn’t tell us who baptized Jesus.

·         In the Gospel of John:  We hear John the baptizer referring to Jesus as the “Lamb of God.”

·         In the Synoptic Gospels: The voice of the Spirit says, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”

 That’s what I want to focus on today. Jesus, Son of God, is also called the Son of Man (or Son of Humanity). In other words, Jesus is the archetype for each of us. So as we hear the voice of the Lord proclaiming Jesus as the “beloved,” maybe there’s a message for us as well.

 A book that has had profound impact on me—one that I’ve read several times—is a book called Life of the Beloved by Father Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was a prolific writer of the spiritual life. Along the way, he befriended a young journalist, Fred, who was a secular Jew. This surprising friendship blossomed over the course of many years—the journalist would sometimes read Henri’s writings and edit for style and form—but his response was always the same: “Not for me,” Fred would say. Then one day Fred had a request, “Henri, why don’t you write something for me and my friends?” Translation: “Your writings assume an interest in or connection to faith or spirituality. Write something for a secular audience.” Father Nouwen took him up on it, and the result is this little book, Life of the Beloved. Allow me to read an excerpt from the chapter entitled, “Being the Beloved”:

Ever since you asked me to write for you and your friends about the spiritual life, I have been wondering if there might be one word I would most want you to remember when you finished reading all I wish to say. Over the past year, that special word has gradually emerged from the depths of my own heart. It is the word “Beloved” . . . being a Christian, I first learned this word from the story of the baptism of Jesus . . . “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests on you’” . . . our many conversations led me to the inner conviction that the words, “You are my Beloved” revealed the most intimate truth about all human beings . . . Fred, all I want to say to you is “You are the Beloved,” and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—“You are the Beloved.”[1]

 When I read these words from Nouwen, they resonated deep within me, and I knew in my place of deep knowing that these were some of the truest words ever written. And it is so simple, and yet so difficult. If it’s that easy, what happens to us? If we are truly the beloved, why do we walk around, as Brene Brown says, “the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history?”[2]

 Here’s how Nouwen describes the problem in a sermon that I am repackaging for you:[3]

 Envision a line, running left to right. This line represents your life. On the left is the date of your birth. On the right . . . there’s a bucket that your foot happens to kick.  This line is all we have. That’s it. It’s a small window, a tiny opening into creation and the space/time continuum. And the primary question on the line is, “Who are we?” Whether we’re 10 or 110, this is the question we try to answer our whole lives.  We find our answer to this question in three ways: 

 1.      “I Am What I Do.”  This is very real.  When we do good things, when we have success, we feel great. When we fail, we get depressed. Then we grow older, and maybe we can’t do much anymore, but we say, “Look at my trophies! Look at my accomplishments, my business successes, my philanthropy, look at my kids or grandkids!” But when this determines our identity, what happens is that when we do good things, when we succeed, we feel great. We’re happy.  But when we fail—when we fail to realize some dream or goal—we feel bad.  Up and down on the roller coaster—feeling great, feeling miserable—when our primary identity is “I am what I do.”

 2.      “I Am What Others Say About Me.” This is so important to us.  When other people say good things about us, we feel good about ourselves.  But when people say bad things, when they talk about us behind our backs or criticize us, we feel sad. As a preacher, folks often have very nice things to say about my sermons. I might hear 100 compliments—but it’s that one criticism I hear. That’s the one I take to heart. I know I’m not alone in this. Criticism can cut deep when people speak ill of you, if your identity is based on “I am what others say about me.” Up and down on the roller coaster.

 3.      “I Am What I Have.” It’s OK to be grateful for everything we have. “I have good parents. I have a college education. I have my good health. I have a home and a little money stuck away for retirement.” But what happens when someone dies? What happens when we lose our health or our property or the stock market takes a dip? If we define ourselves by “I am what I have,” these kinds of losses take away that identity as well as the security we find therein. We may then slip into an inner darkness, maybe even depression. Up and down on the roller coaster.

A lot of our energy goes into these 3 self-identifiers. And what happens when someone praises us and we have all of our stuff and we do a good thing? Our mood is good, and we’re riding high! But then we face some loss, or someone criticizes us, or we fail at some goal we set for ourselves, then the dark cloud comes over us. Up and down our whole lives go along tussled about by all of the many changes that inevitably come our way. 

 Most of our mental work is to stay above the line. We call this “survival.” We pour our energy into holding on to health, status, or property. But we know, with no small amount of angst, that it all ends in death anyway. That state where we no longer DO anything, we no longer HAVE anything, no one SAYS much about us any more.  Then all of it seems futile doesn’t it? 

 THAT’S BECAUSE THIS WHOLE THING IS WRONG! This is not who you are. This is not who I am.

You may remember that right after Jesus’ baptism, he went into the desert for 40 days to be tempted by the Devil. Consider HOW Satan tempted Jesus:

1.      Turn these stones into bread—prove you can DO something! 

2.      Jump from the temple—think of what they’ll SAY about you! 

3.      Kneel before me and all that you see will be yours—you’ll HAVE it all! 

Jesus knew that was all a big lie—the greatest lie! Many (most?) of us, however, buy into this lie, causing us to enter into relationships of violence and destruction.  

Jesus was able to resist these temptations and reject the great lie because Jesus . . . Knew. Who. He. Was.

 Jesus’ intuited, “I know who I am, because before the Spirit sent me to be tempted, the Spirit came to me and said, ‘You are my beloved child, upon you my favor rests.’” His identity was sure. And get this: that same truth applies to you and to me.  God is saying to each of us, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

 It’s that voice that Jesus clung to his whole life.  People praised him and rejected him. People shouted “Hosanna” and they crucified him.  But Jesus held on to the truth—whatever happens, “I am the Beloved of God!” and that is WHO I AM. 

If there’s anything you get from me . . . whether I’m your pastor for 1 year or 36 . . . what is said of Jesus is said of you. Right now, hear the Spirit telling you, “You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. On you my favor rests.” When you have that knowledge as the driving force of your life . . . when that truth defines you . . . you can then live in a world where people praise you or reject you or laugh at you or spit on you. You are the beloved, not because of what people say, but because that’s who you were before you were born. “You are my beloved.” It is critical for you to hear this truth, not with your head, but with your heart.  Hear it so your whole life can be turned around! 

 Once we can begin to accept this truth, the finite line (with a beginning and with an end) becomes more like a circle as we realize that we are born in Christ and we die in Christ. And that all of it—our whole chronology—fits neatly in the palm of God’s eternal hand. With this awareness, we start discovering that all that we do here (on the line) is nurtured through the knowledge that we are the beloved.  Of course there will still be rejection, praise, loss . . . but we no longer live as if we’re searching for our identity. We now LIVE as the beloved daughter or son of God. Pain, sorrows, successes, anguish, failures . . . all of that will be lived as one who knows the truth of our belovedness. It doesn’t matter what the world throws at us when we let go of all of the lies about our identity and accept our birthright as beloved daughters and sons of God.

 I close with some beautiful prose from Nouwen—may you hear and claim the truth therein:

 You are mine and I am yours.
You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.

I have molded you in the depth of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.

I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.

I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you

with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.

I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.

Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.

I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst.

I will not hide my face from you.

You know me as your own as I know you as my own.

You belong to me.

I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse…yes, even your child…wherever you are I will be.

Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.[4]

[1] Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. New York: Crossroad, 1992, 25-26.

[2] Brene Brown, “The Power of Vulnerability,” TEDxHOUSTON, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability?language=en.

[3] Nouwen, “Being the Beloved,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8U4V4aaNWk.

 [4] Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 30-31.

Debbie Wilson