And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”                                                                                               

-Mark 1:11

(Preached on Sunday, January 07, 2018)

What voices are you listening to as the New Year begins?  There are plenty of voices of gloom and doom warning of impending disaster.  They blare at us from our newspapers, televisions, radios, and social media.  They are joined by other voices pointing out all the ways we are flawed – too fat, too skinny, too old, too young, too ignorant, too educated, too conservative, too liberal, too secular, too religious, too rich, too poor.  They tell us how we can become healthier, prettier, more successful, more lovable, win more friends.  These voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them and live our lives according to their dictates.  They lead us directly into a great trap: the trap of self-rejection.

Self-rejection leads to complaints, jealousy, anger, even violence.  Self-rejection leads us to work 70 hours a week to prove we are worthwhile, that we are needed; to gain enough money to buy more things to establish our worth; to receive the accolades of colleagues and bosses and peers and to demonstrate that we are somebody.  Self-rejection leads us to diet all the time; to obsessively engage in fitness programs; to undergo surgery to change our appearance – all to prove our beauty, our desirability, our worth.  Self-rejection leads us to focus all of our attention and our energy on ourselves, our betterment, our improvement, to lifting ourselves up, instead of on building community, helping others, serving the greater good and the truly needy.  And all of this because we listen to the negative voices that surround us and beat us down.

But there is a voice speaking to us that has a different message.  It is a positive message, a life-enhancing, life-empowering message for each one of us.  And it is always there, speaking our name, speaking a powerful truth to us about ourselves.  It is the same voice which Jesus heard as he came out of the river Jordan following his baptism.  This voice addressed Jesus directly.  It was an intimate, personal affirmation – not a public-address broadcast of his true identity.  This voice gave Jesus energy and life.  It spoke the eternal truth to him about his being: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well please.”

That same voice, that same message, is there for you and for me today.  Just as Jesus heard that voice at his baptism, that voice calls to each one of us at our baptism as well.  Whether you heard that voice literally or not (and I did not), that is what is being said to you at that moment of baptism.  Baptism is God’s work, not ours.  It is God’s gift, not our achievement.  Baptism is a public demonstration of God’s grace – God’s adoption of each one of us into God’s family.  At our baptism God said to each one of us, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” 

Life has a way of wringing us out and we forget our “beloved” identity as adopted children of God.  United Church of Christ pastor and Stillspeaking devotional writer Donna Schaper recently shared how her younger brother, now past 50 years old, one day called her and asked for his linen and frilled baptismal robe.  It had hung in the coat closet of Donna’s house for decades.  Why did he want it she asked, all his children are grown?  Because, he said, he wanted it near him.  Why? she asked again.  “I want to remember that I was presented to God and that God took me in.”  But why now? wondered Donna.  “Because,” he said, “life has become very hard for me.  My first wife and my first child are angry with me again.  My second wife just hit my only son.  My third wife is tired of hearing me talk about my first and second wives.”  Aha.  Life becomes too much for many of us, many times.  It is never too late to remember our baptism – “Bapismatus Sum” – as a touchstone of all of God’s promises.

The great Reformer, Martin Luther, had many times of doubt and despair in his life and he said that the only thing that kept him afloat during those times was to touch his forehead again and again and to repeat the words: ‘Baptismatus sum, baptismatus sum … I am baptized, I am baptized.’

We too have been presented to God.  And God accepted the present of us.  This is the glorious good news Jesus came to announce.  It was the message affirmed to him over and over again in his life, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  And his mission was to share that message with everyone else.  To remind us that life is a gift.  That each one of us is unique, known by name, and loved by the One who fashioned us.  Unfortunately, there is a very loud, consistent, and powerful message coming to us from our world that leads us to believe that we must prove our worth, our beloved status, by how we look, by what we have, and by what we can accomplish.  We become preoccupied with “making it” in this life, and we are very slow to grasp the liberating truth of our origins and our finality.

Henri Nouwen reminds us: “You and I don’t have to kill ourselves.  We are the Beloved.  We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us.  That’s the truth of our lives.  That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself.  That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved.’”

As simple as this message is for me to offer you this morning, it is not simple or easy to remember and fully embrace.  I know, for I still have real difficulty fully embracing and living this truth in my own life.  It is not that I don’t believe it.  It probably has something to do with the way I was raised; and how my parents before me were raised; and how their parents before them were raised; going back who knows how far into my family history.  I have always struggled with self-rejection and self-acceptance and with fully embracing the truth that I am “beloved” by God.  But I have had moments of feeling fully embraced and awash in the love and light of God’s favor.  Those moments, brief as they have been, give me hope to keep striving to fully remember and accept the message that I am “beloved” by God.

Let me offer you some simple steps I have found that, when I remember to embrace them, have helped me to remember the truth of my own baptism and to better hear that voice of God calling me “Beloved.”

  1. Seek to deepen your awareness of God’s presence in your life. Fully expect to encounter God, looking and listening for signs of the holy – in beautiful palm trees rustling in the breeze, in a friend’s laugh, in the satisfaction of a well done task.
  2. Enjoy as much beauty as you can. Rejoice in it!  Take a long, loving look at a child or an older person.  Walk on the beach.  Go to a museum and savor the art.  Listen to music.  Appreciate the beauty all around.
  3. Live each day deliberately. Become self-aware and deliberate.
  4. Do what you are doing, but really do it. Live present to the moment.  Do whatever you do with your whole heart and mind, not with part of it while you do something else.
  5. Take a moment at the beginning of each day to offer your day to God with all its joys, hurts, frustrations wonder, and routine. Ask to be shown what God wants you to see today.

This is a New Year even though it is filled with many of the old problems and old attitudes.  Listen for a new voice this year.  Listen for the message of love.  Listen for all the ways that God endeavors to speak to you.  Our God wants good for us and wants us to have life in its abundance.  Jesus came to bring that message of love and hope, so that we don’t have to listen to those negative, downbeat voices.

Remember your Baptism!  All those other important things – family, home, health, jobs – they’re precious and wonderful.  But your baptism is foundation, it’s fundamental, it undergirds everything else.  No matter what changes in your life, God’s love in Jesus for you will never change.  Everything else can be taken away, but God’s love for us in Jesus is a given.  That’s what our baptism is all about.  It is the moment when the voice of God spoke those words over us: “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”