Sunday, January 13, 2013

Claimed and Called: Beloved - Sermon(Isaiah and Luke)

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, which means that we also celebrate our own baptisms in Christ.  And  there are basically three things I want you to know about baptism, about Jesus’ baptism and about your own:
You are called by God –

                Your identity comes from God –

                                You are named by God --

That, in a nutshell, is the Christian life.
You are called by God.  What’s that mean? 
It means that God is the one who initiates our relationship with him.  God is the one who gets things started.  God is the one who creates us, who continually re-creates and renews us.  God knows us, God loves us, God redeems us through God’s Son, and God fills us with light and life through God’s Spirit.    That’s what it means to be called by God.
If your childhood was anything like mine, you had a lot of freedom.  It’s more difficult today; we are much more alert to danger, and many children – mine were included in this – are much more restricted in how and where they’re allowed to go without supervision.  But back in the fifties, in rural Ohio, the world was ours.  Once we had bikes and reached the age of about ten, my brothers and I were free to roam wherever we pleased.  (Perhaps we would not have been quite so free had our parents known just how far afield we went.)
And what was the one thing that reined us in?  It was the voice of a mother or father, calling across the fields or, in the city, down the block, calling us back for dinnertime or bedtime. 
W didn’t have to do or be anything in particular to be called home.  We didn’t have to have been good – in fact, sometimes we hadn’t been good at all.  We didn’t have to be clean, or well dressed – in fact, we almost never were.  We didn’t have to want or ask to come home – in fact, we were seldom paying any attention to the time, and we usually wanted to keep on with whatever it was we were doing.  And we didn’t have to bring anything with us – not a good report card, or a freshly caught fish, or money, or any other form of achievement or contribution – to be called in for dinner or a bath. 
We were called because we were part of the family.  Because we were loved.  Because we were wanted.
So it is with God.  God calls us and claims us as pure, free gift.  And our baptism is the sign and seal on that very simple and very profound reality.
Oh, we might do a lot of things in response that make it look like it was all our idea.  We might, for instance, think that we need to get all shined up in our best clothes in order to be baptized – but it’s baptism that makes us clean and shiny.  When we welcome Jesus into our hearts and our lives, we are able to do so because he was already there; he creates in us the inclination to open our lives to him,  and it’s his presence in us that causes us to long to greet him.  We might think that we need to do or be or achieve a certain something in order for God to call us– but no.  Our parents right here call us because we are part of the family, because we are loved and wanted – and how much wider and deeper and broader is God’s love for us!  We get things backward sometimes –  but in God’s scheme of things, we want to do and be and achieve for God because God loves us and saves us, not in order to get God to love us and save us.

“I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”   So the prophet Isaiah tells us.  “I have created you; I have formed you; you are precious in my sight and I love you.”  God’s redemption, God’s call, God’s love – all free gift.  You are called. 
And you are given your identity by God – what does that mean to us?
That might be harder to grasp than it sounds.
We are accustomed to understanding our identity as coming from the sources of this world.  We get our names  from our families.  In our culture, our last names usually come from fathers and husbands – and those names themselves come from occupations and places by which people were identified many centuries ago: the smith, the barber, the miller, the hill.  Our first and middle names are chosen for us by our parents, and often reflect people or places or things meaningful to them.  Think of all those early Puritan names reflecting virtues: Charity, Hope, Prudence.
Sometimes we receive identities in the form of nicknames – for good or ill.  And sometimes we are identified by others in terms of what we do, or where we live: She’s a nurse; he lives in Sullivan.
How often do we remember that our first and most important identity comes to us from God?  That it is God who claims us long before our jobs do, or our friends, or even our parents?
Teenagers often speak of the need “to find themselves.”  Literature is filled with stories of individuals who set off on journeys, seeking, ultimately, to discover who they are.  Even if these heroes and heroines did not initially intend it, their journeys become opportunities for the formation and establishment of identity.  Think of The Hobbit – has anyone seen it yet, or read the novel? Bilbo Baggins sets off to seek treasure guarded by a dragon, and in the adventure quest that follows, he is honed and matured into a man of experience and wisdom.  Even if the journey of self-discovery itself is a matter of compulsion rather than choice, we understand identity to be developed through its trials.  In The Hunger Games, the heroine Katniss, forced to engage in almost unspeakable violence in order to survive, grows as a woman of courage and loyalty and self-sacrifice.
And yet, our Christian story tells us that even the identities forged in these demanding, challenging, risky journeys are not our ultimate source of identity.  The poet T.S. Elliot, in “Little Gidding,” one of a group of great poems addressing issues of time and salvation, tells us that

"With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

The end of our exploring, of the lengthy and arduous journey we make, will be a recognition of our starting place, and our starting self – because our identity, because who we are, is a gift bestowed upon each of us by God – long before we ever journeyed forth.  “You are precious in my sight and honored and I love you” – so expounds the prophet Isaiah.  “You are my Son” – so comes the voice of the Spirit as Jesus rises from the waters of baptism and the heavens open above him.   
We are called by God, and we are given our identity by God – and that identity, that name, that calling is – Beloved.  Each of us is named Beloved.  Each of us is a beloved child of God.  “You are my Son, the Beloved” – those are the words relayed to us by Luke, the Spirit’s words to Jesus, and the Spirit’s words to us.
What is it, to be beloved of God?  To be beloved is to be gifted with love, by love – and for love.  To be beloved – it’s an interesting form of the word, for it’s a past participle, which means that it refers to a completed action.  If we are beloved: it’s completed, finished, achieved – by someone else, by God.  We don’t have to do or be anything else to be beloved by God.   We don’t have to choose God – God has chosen us.  We don’t have to check off a list of requirements or accomplishments – there’s no Scouting badge or report card for God’s love.  God’s love has already been given to us.
When we baptize someone, whether a baby or a child or an adult, we use the person’s first names – and not their last – because we know that their last name has been given to them:  Beloved child of God.  Our calling, our identity, our very name, is a completed reality, and has been since before we were born.  The God who, as Psalm 139 tells us, created our innermost beings and knit us together in our mother’s wombs, has always, from the time we were first imagined, claimed us, called us, and named us Beloved. 
This is a magnificent faith – itself a gift – that we are God’s beloved.  We sometimes take it for granted, I think.  We forget that in past times – think about the pantheon, the cluster, of Greek and Roman gods, for instance --people have imagined gods of vengeance, of petulance, of arbitrary claims and gifts.  Sometimes those gods are generous and kind; at other times they are selfish and capricious.  Gods made in the image of human beings, rather than vice versa.
But the God we know – ours is a God who drenches the universe in love.  Ours is a God whose Spirit’s first recorded words to the Son who represents God to us and us to God are “You are beloved.  My beloved.  My beloved child.” 
Ours is a God who tells us from the start, You are gifted by love, in love, and for love.  Ours is a God who offers us an identity in Baptism: Beloved Child.   Theologian John Leith tells us that “[i]n baptism the child’s name is called because our faith is that God thought of this child before the child was,  that God gave to this child an identity, an individuality, a name, and a dignity that no one  should dare abuse.  Human existence has its origin  . . . in the will and the intention of the Lord God, creator of heaven and earth.”
And so: this love-crazed God of ours who creates this love-drenched universe tells Jesus, as he is about to step out onto the world stage of his ministry, and tells us, who follow him and are called to the same world, bathed in the love of God and begging for us to make that love known by our own words and deeds:  You are called.  You are named.  You are beloved.



  1. "...we think it is our idea!"
    Oh...does that ever preach. Love the direction you went with this.

    1. I think there were some folks distressed to hear that it wasn't their idea, and that their own level of achievement is not at stake.