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Where do you begin your story? Matthew’s gospel begins Jesus’ story with a genealogy and Luke begins with a birth. John begins much further back,….in the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…..Mark’s gospel begins with the beginning of the Good News and Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan. I’ve been thinking about writing an adoption memoir, and one of the things I learned in my writing class is that where you begin matters. It sets a stage for the reader. It frames your story.
I likely won’t begin my book with the morning of November 12, 1968 at the hospital in Spokane. Even though my birth certificate would say that was the beginning of the Good News of my life. The current draft begins four years ago, on a cold February morning, as I walk up the steps to knock on the door of my birth mother’s condo.
Where would you begin to tell the story of your life?
In Mark’s gospel, our story begins with baptism.
It doesn’t matter when or where you were born.
It doesn’t matter if angels and shepherds and wisemen appeared.
It doesn’t matter if you were born to a wealthy family or a humble one.
It doesn’t matter which side of any border you were born on or what your politics are. It doesn’t matter your gender, race, or ethnicity.
In the book of Galatians, Paul describes it this way:
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
Our story begins in baptism. Our unity begins in baptism. Jesus shows up to be baptized by John in the river Jordan. And just as he was coming up 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.” We don’t know who all heard the voice.
Was it just Jesus? Did John hear it so that he’d know he’d finally baptized the one whose way he had been preparing? Did the crowds hear the voice? We all need to hear that voice, ripping the heavens apart to tell us we are loved. We need the crowds to hear it too. Because too many people do not know they are beloved by God. Don’t tell the other preachers I’ve told you this, but they say preachers have only three sermons in them. Good preachers may have five. And each week we give you different versions of our three sermons, using different texts and stories to tell you our message.
One of my three sermons is rooted in this text. In baptism, just as God’s voice cries out from the heavens about Jesus, so does God’s voice cry out that we are God’s beloved children in whom God is well pleased. You are God’s beloved child, in whom God is well pleased. I hope you will hear this message from me, in my preaching, in my living, and in my ministry. You are deeply beloved by the God who created you. As are the people sitting next to you. And the people you wouldn’t sit next to. You are deeply beloved by the God who created you. Which doesn’t mean you’re perfect, but it means you were created in love, and love allows us to see the imperfections of each other as ‘endearing traits’ rather than ‘character flaws’.
I once used a pinch pot Elliott made in early elementary school to illustrate to someone who came into my office after I preached this text, and he asked how we can be loved by God even though we are far from perfect, even though we make mistakes, even though we hurt the ones we love, even though we don’t always resemble our best intentions. How could God love us when we’re a hot mess, is basically what he asked me.
I held up this pot and asked if he’d ever made a piece of art. He said he had. I asked him if his art was perfect. He said it was not, but he made it and so he still loved it. There you go, I said. That’s how God loves you too. We are God’s beloved, if imperfect, children. God delights in us, not because of our successes and accomplishments, but because we are God’s own creation.
After that conversation, he said he wanted to be baptized because he wanted to join in that, to be able to hear God’s voice calling him beloved. That was thirteen years ago. Now he’s an elder who is learning what are his three sermons God has given him to preach. You are God’s beloved child. In you God is well pleased.
Can you believe that is true in your life?
Can you believe it is true in the lives of other people?
Of course, as soon as Jesus hears that voice announcing that he’s beloved, he’s driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days, so we shouldn’t equate being beloved with having an easy life, devoid of temptations or challenges. As soon as we discover we are beloved, we get sent out into the world, holding that message close to our hearts to carry us through the trials and tribulations. Through it all, our status as God’s beloved children never changes. And as soon as he’s back from the wilderness, and after John is arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
John’s message of repentance gets picked up by Jesus, which is perhaps a reminder to us that we don’t have to be the first person to have the message, we just need to pick it up and pass it on. And then Jesus immediately starts calling disciples. We’ll hear some of those texts in the coming weeks, as people leave their fishing nets, their families, and their comfort and start following Jesus. What made the first disciples follow Jesus? What made you decide to follow Jesus?
My story began when I was baptized, but I don’t remember that day. I was a baby, like Joey who we baptized this morning. It continued in Sunday School classes, youth retreats, Sunday worship, and confirmation when I was 14. But I think I really and truly followed Jesus when I heard the voice of God telling me I was beloved, at the moment I couldn’t quite believe I was lovable. I was in college, trying to come to terms with an unplanned by me pregnancy. And I was sitting in the empty sanctuary of a church, a place where I had come for actual sanctuary, hoping to drown out the chorus of voices in my head telling me I was bad, I was a sinner, I was unworthy to be loved. And I don’t know quite how to describe it, but in that moment of feeling deep self judgment, I heard God’s voice, or I felt God’s voice inside, telling me that I belonged to God, that I was loved by God. Hearing that voice didn’t make everything magically better or easier for me. But it helped. It grounded me. It became the lodestar for me to follow when life kept trying to draw me off course. And it also helped that the voice of acceptance and love I felt from God was confirmed by the actions of the church in whose sanctuary I was sitting, was confirmed by the acceptance and love I experienced from my family, my friends, my college community. That’s what made me follow Jesus. When you know that God loves you truly and deeply, what else is there to do but share that love?
When we can truly inhabit God’s love for us, then we can see God’s love for other people too. Because if God can see me as a beloved child, and be well pleased in me, despite my foibles and mistakes, then there’s room for God to love the people around me, and the jerk cutting me off in traffic, and the people who don’t vote like I do, and who don’t look like I do, and the people from other countries, and, and, and…..God’s voice from heaven, whether the whole crowd heard it or not, fell on the whole crowd, like rain from the sky falling on a parched earth after a drought. I think our job as followers of Christ is to help people be able to hear that voice that tears the heavens apart to tell us we are loved. Because there are lots of voices out there telling us other things. There are people preaching hate and exclusion. There are industries built up to convince us we’ll only be lovable if we lose that weight, wear these clothes, drive that car, vote for that politician, have a million followers on instagram.
Whose voice are we going to hear?
I don’t want to make it sound like an easy choice, because I know it isn’t. Can we hear God’s voice calling us beloved, silently and invisibly from the heavens when the loud and visible voices in the world tell us we aren’t enough, we aren’t worthy? It isn’t an easy thing. And we can’t make the decision for other people either. But we can keep doing what we can do to show people they are loved. We can be like John the Baptizer, baptizing people into the life of faith and pointing toward Jesus with our words, our actions, our lives. We can keep working to help people be safe, housed, fed, cared for, and welcomed and valued in society so that they can be in a posture of stability from whence they might be more able to hear God’s voice calling them beloved.
This week, I invite you to listen to the voices you hear. In your daily living, on the news, in your social media consumption, in your own spirit. Observe them, without judgment. Just observe. And see how they fit up against the voice of God, tearing the heavens apart to proclaim your belovedness. I’ve acknowledged it isn’t an easy choice, but it is a simple one. Do we listen to the voice of God who created the universe and spun the whirling planets and created us in all our varied gifts, beauties, and quirks OR do we listen to some guy on the internet? Do we listen to the voice of God who created the world with a Word, and who knit us together in our mothers’ wombs OR to some weight loss ad? Where does your story begin? And whose voice are you letting write the chapters now? The psalm with which we opened worship says this:
The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. God makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
Friends, that same voice created you and declares you beloved.
Glory. Glory. Glory.
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up 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.”
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