sermon preached at St Margaret’s Newlands
Isaiah 42: 1-9
Acts 10: 34-43
Matthew 3: 13-17
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
These are the words that God says to Christ at his baptism. But I always think that they are also words that God says to each of us: “This is my son, this is my daughter, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Or as Isaiah has it, in a passage that was surely meant by the gospel writers, by Matthew, by Mark, to be called to mind: “this is my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Chosen by God. Beloved by God. That is the good news that we share as we join today to celebrate the Baptism of Christ. We are all, each of us, beloved by God.
Do we feel that way? It can be difficult, as Henri Nouwen writes: “It is a real struggle to claim our belovedness. … Our identities are so wrapped up in the structures and the spirit of the world we live in that we live as though we were who the world says we are: rich or poor, able or disabled, good or bad, emotionally stable or vulnerable.” These are so often categories that defie us by what we are not that it can be hard to affirm what we are. We may be so attuned to what seems not to love about ourselves that it is hard to remember, to realise that God loves us. There are often times when we can’t grasp our chosenness. As Henri Nouwen reflected, “The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am the chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved from all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.”
Being Beloved by God is not an end in itself. That affirmation of being God’s beloved, expressed at his baptism, was the starting point of Jesus’s ministry. And that sense of being beloved by God should be a starting point for us too.
But a starting point to do what? We can see that Isaiah’s chosen one of God is the Messiah who will transform the world: “he will bring forth justice to the nations; … open the eyes that are blind, bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” He will “establish justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.” The words spoken at Jesus’s baptism identify him with this prophecy, point to him as the one who will transform the world. But this is not Jesus’s task alone: rather that transformative, redemptive task is what we too are called to through our own baptism.
That means, as Karoline Lewis powerfully reminds us in a reflection on this passage, that baptism is about much more than just ourselves:
remember … that baptism is also about who the other needs you, and them, to be. To be present in the wilderness. To tell the other of God’s words from heaven. To proclaim that baptism cannot just be about the self, but is about living life as being the light of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now.
Desmond Tutu also reminds us of the way in which the love we receive from God flows through us to others:
We who are freely loved and thus affirmed are meant to be as God for others, to seek to work for a world which has been preserved for the enjoyment of all. God longs that we, who are aware of our infinite worth, will see in one another the image of God.
That vocation – to be God, to be Christ for others – flows out of the knowledge of your belovedness. We are reminded of this by the introduction to the confession: “We love because God loved us first.” It is not always going to be comfortable and it may take us to places that we did not want to go. Indeed, our vocation, for Benjamin Mann, is:
a school of charity and a means of crucifixion. Your vocation is the means by which your self-serving ego will die in order to be resurrected as the servant and lover of God. This is all that we can expect; but this is everything – the meaning of life, all there really is.
It is important to grasp that we don’t need to do any of these things to earn the love of God. Rather, when we know ourselves to be beloved, the love of neighbour, the transformative love for the world, will overflow to others and in so doing will challenge and transform us in our turn. And perhaps when we live out that love, when we help to make to world a little better for someone, we may also gain a better understanding that we are precious to and beloved by God.
This is another way of saying that baptism is the primary way in which we are marked as called by God to share in God’s mission to the world. Responding to that calling, which is rooted in our being beloved of God and responding to that experience, may offer moments of self-revelation, but Benjamin Mann emphasises that we should not expect it to give us all the answers to all our questions, or to make everything make sense:
Discernment is not about finding the hidden, magic key that will unlock your life and solve the riddle of your being. When you figure out what you ought to do with your life, and begin to do it, you will be just as much a mystery to yourself as you are now. Your daily confusions, recurring frustrations, and deep puzzlements will remain. Life, even life illumined by faith, will be an enigma – at least as much as before. …
My vocation is where I will learn to let go of my questions, carry the cross of my problems, and be mysteriously fulfilled even when I am not happy.
Being held in the love of God may take us to places that are not at all comfortable, as Rowan Williams reminds us:
If you want God, you must be prepared to let go of all, absolutely all, emotional satisfactions, intellectual and emotional. … If you genuinely desire union with the unspeakable love of God, then you must be prepared to have your ‘religious’ world shattered.
Being beloved of God may take us to a place beyond certainty where we experience the love of God in quite a new way.
Desmond Tutu reiterates that none of this is about earning God’s love:
Many of us have thought that we had to impress God in order for God to love us, in order for God to accept us. We have thought that we needed to achieve our acceptance of God through our own efforts – to impress God that we were deserving of His divine love and approval. We seem to think that God is somehow hostile to us, setting impossible standards for us to attain before we can hope to be accepted.
But God is not like that. God’s love and acceptance
are not based on merit or achievement on our part. No, it is a love that is prevenient, that goes before, that precedes any achievement or effort on our part.
As Luther emphasised, grace is a free gift of God, an abundant free gift of God. And grace is the true expression of the love of God.
Do you feel that love? No? Rowan Williams suggests that we may need to cultivate stillness and presence to God:
The real problem in prayer is not the absence of God but the absence of us. It’s not that God is not there but (nine times out of ten) that we are not. We are all over the place, entertaining memories, fantasies, anxieties. God is simply there in unending patience, saying to us, “So when are you going actually going to arrive? When are you going to sit and listen, to stop roaming about, and be present?”
Can we stop and allow ourselves to be bathed in the love of God? It is in those moments, affirms Rowan Williams, that “the overwhelming joyfulness of God begins to impinge on us.” And that for Henri Nouwen is the fulfilling of vocation: “to enjoy God’s presence, do God’s will, and be grateful wherever I am.”
May you know that you, each of you, are God’s beloved. And may you respond to that knowledge in loving, joyful service.
 Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the signs of daily life (SPCK 2013), 139.
 Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.
 Karoline Lewis, “You Are All My Beloved” (2017), online at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4790.
 Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands (Bloomsbury 2014), 97.
 Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (Darton, Longman & Todd, 1994), 97.
 Tutu, In God’s Hands, 71-72.
 Ibid., 72.
 Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK 2016), 81.
 Ibid., 85.
 Nouwen, Discernment, 107.