Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:21-22 Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Elizabeth M. Deibert 10 January 2016
I do not often cry. I almost never cry at weddings or at funerals. I almost never cry in counseling sessions or arguments, even though they sometimes produce a lot of sadness and angst in me. I do sometimes cry watching sappy movies, and I often cry in worship in Montreat. Last week it was when the leading musician dropped out and I heard the voices of 800 college students singing praise to God and I rejoiced to think, “the church will live on, because these young adults have faith.” I heard it was the highest attendance at any Montreat College Conference ever. Montreat is the Presbyterian Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina. I cry there because it feels like home; it is the place where I rest with my family. I get to sit in the pew there without responsibility to lead. God speaks to me lovingly there, heals me where I am tired and discouraged, and tells me I can rest, even if briefly. Truthfully I did not want to leave there on Tuesday. But I also heard the call, the more urgent and compelling voice of God speaking to as I drove home and faced the jolt of January. The message I hear now: “Get going. Be disciplined. It doesn’t matter how tired you feel. Be the minister I’ve called you to be.”
The thing is – all of us need to hear both calls – the call to rest and the call to work. The call to receive love and to give it. The call to care for self, and the call to deny self, in order to care for others.
Are you hearing both calls? Sometimes I worry that some of you only hear the obligatory one to serve. If you don’t know how completely beloved you are, then you will work to earn God’s favor, always feeling you are not good enough, even though God has told you that you are precious and chosen. You have this gift already. Today’s scripture readings are the reassuring call, the loving call, the one that reminds you how special you are. If you had a difficult childhood, if you have experienced deep personal rejection, if you are feeling that you must always be the responsible one – that people depend on you completely and you cannot rest, if you think that God could never completely and unconditionally love someone like you, then hear these words of reassurance:
But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. 5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; 6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth-- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." (NRS)
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (NRS)
God who created you, formed you, redeemed you, and called you wants you to know you belong to God. You are safe. You can rest. You can trust. You can cry. You are precious and honored. God absolutely adores you and in the wonder which is You, God is glorified.
This message of God through Isaiah first came to a people who were scattered and beaten down by foreign countries. They were weak and tired and worn.
When the text says in verse 3, I give other nations, other people in exchange for you, this is the Israelites way of seeing themselves as beloved, as special, as chosen. If someone pays a ransom for you, you know they care. Now faithful Judaism understands this chosen-ness to be for the sake of all the other nations, but narrow-minded Jews and Christians read into this text an exceptionalism that makes us more important than other people, as if God does not care as much for them. It’s like in families where a parent shows love for one child by saying how much they value that one -- more than that horrible brother or sister of yours. That’s not pure love. Pure love – God’s love – is for all the children, all the people, all the nations.
That’s where the Christian Gospel and in particular in the Incarnation is helpful. We know that God so loved the whole world, that God gave the Son. We know that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us – that the light was the life of all people. As Shannon preached last week, we know that Jesus had toenails, that by being one of us, God proved that all people matter. Black people matter and brown people. Gay people and straight people. All people are among God’s beloved. That’s why our message is so compelling and must get out. The message is NOT that God is mad at you, so get right with God. God is not yelling at you. God is pleased with you, embracing you in your pain, and telling you that you are so very special.
You are beloved of God, precious in God’s sight, treasured. Before you can live fully and die well you need to know this. Roberta Bondi, says it in her book, Ordinary Time: Healing the Wounds of the Heart: Before anything else, above all else, beyond everything else, God loves us. God loves us extravagantly, ridiculously, without limit or condition. God is in love with us. God is besotted with us. God yearns for us. God does not love “in spite of who we are” or “for whom God knows we can become.” God loves us hopelessly as a good and healthy mother loves her baby. God love us, the very people we are; and not only that, but even against what we find believable, God even likes us. (adapted, Abington Press, 2001)
Nobody else can love you like God loves you. Don’t even ask them to, because you will be so disappointed and they will be so burdened by your expectation. Oh, sure, we are all called to love like God does, but if you are waiting for a human being to fill up that empty hole in your soul, you will be waiting forever.
You can get a little piece, a glimpse of God’s infinite love from the way others love you. Others can help you to grow in faith, hope, and love. But God’s love is the prescription for your pain. God’s love is the strength for your weakness. God’s love is the healing for your heart. In Stephen Ministry we say, “People are caregivers, but Christ is the curegiver.”
If you are numbing your pain with alcohol or drugs, know that God wants to heal that pain with love, unconditional love.
If you are desperately seeking the comfort of food until hate yourself for overeating, God wants to be your ultimate comfort food – sweeter than honey.
If you are working too hard, trying please others, trying to keep everybody happy, God wants you to hear: “Beloved, I am already well-pleased with you.”
If you are entertaining yourself with activity after activity so you do not have to think about the emptiness in your heart, be still and know that God loves you.
If you think you are never good enough, if you feel useless or like a failure, then hear how precious you are in God’s sight – just as you are.
Speak to yourself as God speaks to you – carefully, lovingly, and with reassurance that everything will be alright. And speak to others, as God speaks to them – carefully, lovingly, and with reassurance that they are treasured, precious, and valuable children of God. The criticism may get a point across, but it will NOT make a person whole and at peace. God wants us to know how much we are loved and from that place of comfort, assurance, and healing we can grow and fulfill our calling. God is calling your name with a loving voice and with kind and compassionate eyes.