Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Promise Forever

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, January 11, 2009: Mark 1:4-11

I dare say that a lot of people would agree with the statement that going to church is about learning how you get what you deserve. And then once you’ve learned that truth, you try very hard to be on the positive side of that deserving, so that when the time comes, God decides that he likes you enough to spend eternity with him.

It turns out, however, that none of that is true at all.

We are told 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, the Gospel writer 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 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. He gets attracted like many others to John’s sort of exotic preaching and baptizing by 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 and God called him his beloved. Now you will no doubt 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 and well pleasing to God. Jesus’ baptism is a baptism into God’s belovedness. And that 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 are baptizing a toddler this morning. It is easy for us to get all sentimental when we baptize an infant or a young child. It is easy for me today because this one happens to be my grand niece. She’s so cute, adorable and innocent.

However, this will not always be the case. And we know that, of course. Babies become “terrible two’s” and eventually they grow up to be worse, teenagers. We know this but we’d rather not believe it today because she is so cute, after all.

It seems easy to say this morning 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 today?

But we are not just saying this for today. What is happening today, we say, is forever. We will actually, literally say that in a few minutes.

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.

You are God’s beloved forever, we say, knowing full well that, like the rest of us, she is going to do things in the future that will make it dubious that she is deserving of that title.

And it doesn’t matter, we are saying today. Because it is not, in truth, 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.

God dared to do this with Jesus before he knew whether Jesus could pass the temptation test or not. If we actually believe that everything we are saying as part of this baptism this morning is true, then we believe God does the same thing with each one of us. When it comes to human beings, God is the great risk taker.

Which is crazy, if you think about it. God, after all, is pretty smart, smart enough to know that this child will disappoint him. That, however, will not make her special. It will simply make her like the rest of us.

Which means that we have to trust at least as much as God does. We have to believe that making her beloved will help make her good, and not the other way around.

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 a second 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.” And God says, OK. You’ll never stop being my beloved.

Little Teagan, welcome to belovedness. And not the kind of belovedness that is dependent on how good you are, but the kind of belovedness that is a promise forever.

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