The Gospel writer Mark tells us that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, talking not about himself but about one who was “more powerful than I who is coming after me.” “I have baptized you with water,” he says, “but [the one who is to come] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
And sure enough, Mark tells us, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Which is to say that Jesus came out of nowhere. Nazareth was the kind of town that most people of Jesus’ day would have never heard of. It wasn’t on anybody’s list of top ten places in the Middle East that you would like to see before you die. There’s no mention of it in the Old Testament, so there wasn’t any expectation that a future messiah would come from there, or anywhere else in the district called Galilee.
The Gospel writers Matthew and Luke at least have the good sense to tell birth stories about Jesus, about how he was born in Bethlehem, a place in the right part of the region, that everybody would have heard of, and about which there were plenty of expectations about a future ruler coming from there just like King David had come from Bethlehem centuries before.
But not Mark. It almost seems important to Mark that Jesus comes out of nowhere.
So the story is that this guy comes out of nowhere. Like many others, he gets attracted to John’s exotic preaching and baptizing at the river Jordan, and he himself, again, like many others, presents himself to John for baptism. But when he is baptized he has this amazing experience. As Mark describes it:
As he was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Then, by the way, Mark tells us that he was immediately driven into the wilderness to face temptation.
Now isn’t that sort of backwards? Doesn’t it make more sense for Jesus to have gotten this great affirmation from God after he passed the test of the temptations? But that isn’t how the story goes.
The story is that this guy came out of nowhere, decides to get baptized by an obscure prophet, and God called him his beloved.
Now you may want to conjecture that he must have grown up being pretty much perfect for God to say he was well pleased with him. But that doesn’t seem to be important one way or the other for Mark. He doesn’t tell any stories about Jesus’ perfection, or anything else he has done to deserve God’s favor.
He just says that this guy came out of nowhere and God called him “beloved.”
Now that’s important for you and me. Why? Because John the Baptist tells us that Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that pronounces Jesus beloved to God. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into God’s belovedness by the Holy Spirit.
We are baptized into Jesus’ baptism. That means that we receive the same Spirit as Jesus did. And this is true whether we come from somewhere or from nowhere. And it is true whether we have successfully met our temptations or not. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of belovedness.
We don’t have a baptism this morning, but let’s think about our own baptisms. Most of us were baptized as babies or very young children. I am always struck by the things we say about a child who has been baptized. In the introductory words about baptism in The Book of Common Prayer we are told that we believe the bond established by God in baptism is indissoluble, cannot be broken. And there is no asterisk at the end of that sentence that gives the “fine print:” Cannot be broken unless you do one of the following awful things.
And immediately after we baptize someone we anoint them with oil of chrism and say what I think are the most amazing liturgical words we ever say: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
When we baptize a baby it is easy to believe these words because the child before us is all innocence. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know this will not always be the case. Babies become “terrible two’s” and eventually they grow up to be teenagers, and then they become adults like us.
It seems easy to say when a baby is baptized that she is a fit receptacle for God’s own Spirit, and as a recipient of God’s Spirit she is being pronounced “beloved.” She’s so cute, who wouldn’t want to call her beloved?
But we are not just saying it for this moment. What is happening, we say, is forever. And they are not words of wishful thinking; we say them because we believe them to be true.
You are God’s beloved forever, we say, knowing full well that, like the rest of us, he is going to do things in the future that will make it dubious that he is deserving of that title.
And it doesn’t matter, we are saying. Because it is not about deserving or not deserving anything. It is not about whether we’ve been good enough to deserve God liking us or not.
It is about being beloved.
It is not true, at least with God, that you get what you deserve. Quite, in fact, the opposite. It is news so good that it is just about unbelievable, and I would be the first to admit that the church doesn’t always talk that way. We’re afraid that we might go out of business if we didn’t have to keep telling people to behave themselves so that they can go to heaven.
But we should not be primarily in the business of teaching people to be good. We should be, we are, in the business of telling people that they are beloved, and encouraging one another to act in the world as if that were true.
The church is not in the business of helping make people good enough that God will love them. We are in the business of announcing that people are already beloved by God, and helping to make and keep them so confident in that reality, that they seek to do good.
I hope you can hear how amazing that news is, and how counter it is to most of our natural inclinations to think about life, much less church. And I’m here to tell you today that it gets better than that. Because even after those moments when I do not seek to do good, when sometimes I do precisely the opposite, when I betray my belovedness, I always get another chance. All I have to do is make the slightest turn towards God and say, “I’m not doing so well, but I want to do better.” That is the simple meaning of repentance. And God says, OK. You’ll never stop being my beloved; that is my promise to you for ever.