Scripture: Mark 1:9-15
This year, as we pass through the Lenten season, I hope to guide us in some serious reflection about the way we live out our lives as the Body of Christ in the world.
As a general theme, we are moving “from ashes to fire”—that is, from the ashes of Ash Wednesday (when we are reminded of our mortality and the ways Christ is to live through us) to the fire of Pentecost (where the Spirit moves and works in and through us in powerful ways that change the world).
More specifically, our Lenten worship will be reflecting on the question of what needs to die in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. What unhealthy obstacles block the path of progress in our Christian lives and in our efforts to advance the kingdom of God?
After Easter and moving toward Pentecost, we will consider what needs kindled in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us. What do we need to breathe life into if we are really going to embody Jesus the Christ and advance God’s mission of love?
Today—as we focus for the first time on the question “What needs to die?”—we realize one thing that needs to die is our denial that we are the Beloved of God.
For many of us, this story of Jesus’ baptism is really the first place in scripture that we encounter the concept of the Beloved of God, so it is here where we begin.
It is a remarkable story that most of us have heard so many times that it seems quite mundane. But consider the extraordinary elements of this story:
Jesus the Messiah—the Christ—seeks out baptism by John, even though we know John’s baptism was a sign of repentance.
There’s this heavenly vision of the sky opening, the Spirit descending like a dove, and the booming voice of God.
And about that booming voice: In a clear reference to Isaiah 42:1, God expresses love and satisfaction for Jesus, —but Jesus hasn’t even begun to claim his identity yet; he hasn’t done anything.
The affirmation that Jesus is loved by God is immediately—immediately!—followed by one of the most intense periods of wrestling and temptation of Jesus’ life.
And then when Jesus does begin a ministry of sorts, it isn’t a bombastic, charismatic, miracle-working juggernaut of evangelism; rather, all Jesus seems to do at this point is take up where John the Baptist left off upon his arrest.
Every one of these remarkable elements is worthy of consideration and reflection, but it is those words of God to Jesus that capture our imaginations today.
Jesus is not called Beloved because of anything he has done—he hasn’t really accomplished anything yet.
Jesus is not called Beloved on account of the miracles he has worked, or through the healings he has wrought, or on account of all the people who believe in him, or any of that—because none of it has happened.
Jesus is called Beloved by God
simply because that is who he is.
In the same way,
we are called the Beloved of God
because that is who we are.
We are the Beloved
More than 40 times in the New Testament alone, followers of Jesus are referred to as “Beloved.” Like:
here: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:” (Romans 1:7 NRSV)
or here: “To those who are called, who are beloved by God the Father and kept safe for Jesus Christ:” (Jude 1:1 NRSV+)
or here: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children,” (Ephesians 5:1 NRSV)
or here: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12 NRSV)
In Romans 9:25, Paul says that we are living into the fulfillment of Hosea 2:23, stating:
As indeed [God] says in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” (Romans 9:25 NRSV)
That’s us. We are the Beloved of God, and that love has been demonstrated for us through Christ in such a selfless, self-sacrificing way that we still struggle to come to terms with it all these years later.
God doesn’t love us because……[fill in the blank]
God doesn’t love us in spite of……[fill in the blank]
God loves us. Period. End of sentence.
We cannot do anything to make God love us less. Nor can we do anything to earn the love that God so extravagantly lavishes upon us.
Nouwen & Our Resistance to This Reality
But for all sorts of reasons, we humans—and even those of us who profess to follow Jesus—we struggle to claim to the love that God offers us. We resist living into our identity as the Beloved of God.
Spiritual author Henri Nouwen has written a small book on the subject, called (appropriately) The Life of the Beloved. Early in the book he says:
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection.” (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p.31)
Expanding on this, Nouwen continues:
“Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.” (Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, p.33)
Speaking of his own life, Nouwen says that he lived a long time without claiming this as his core truth. He says:
I kept running around it in large or small circles, always looking for someone or something able to convince me of my Belovedness. It was as if I kept refusing to hear the voice that speaks from the very depth of my being and says: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’ That voice has always been there, but it seems that I was much more eager to listen to other, louder voices saying: ‘Prove that you are worth something; do something relevant, spectacular, or powerful, and then you will earn the love you so desire.’ Meanwhile, the soft, gentle voice that speaks in the silence and solitude of my heart remained unheard or, at least, unconvincing. (Life of the Beloved, p.33-34)
I don’t know about you, but Nouwen’s words speak to a delicate place in my own heart and life. There is always this voice inside of me:
pointing out my failures,
comparing me unfavorably to others,
reminding me of how I undermine myself;
telling me I’m not good enough,
or smart enough,
or talented enough,
or gifted enough,
or spiritual enough,
or connected enough,
or responsible enough,
or disciplined enough,
or fit enough,
or consistent enough,
or committed enough,
or visionary enough…… [BREATHE]
Trust me: there’s more; I’m just running out of breath.
That voice is usually so loud that I can’t even hear myself think.
But I’m reminded of 1John 4:1, where we read: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” ( NRSV).
And I just know that the “spirits” John is talking about aren’t necessarily the things outside in the world that are interfering with God’s mission of love and life. I believe that the instruction to “not believe every spirit” speaks in a powerful way to the voices inside ourselves as well—voices that deny that we are in fact the Beloved of God.
Unity as a Sign of the Spirit
This is something that needs to die in my life. And with the death of this denial comes room to live into our core identity as persons loved—truly loved!—by God.
But it is not (of course) enough to point out a problem. We need to know some concrete steps in moving forward in this new way of living as God’s Beloved. In his book, Nouwen will use the communion imagery of being taken, blessed, broken, and given as metaphors for how we do this. But as he concludes, he offers a piece of wisdom that seems to be just the kind bite-sized, baby-Christian-manageable food that I seem to need to be successful in letting God change me. He says:
Living the spiritual life means living life as one unified reality. The forces of darkness are the forces that split, divide, and set in opposition. The forces of light unite. Literally, the word “diabolic” means dividing. The demon divides; the Spirit unites…
There is no clearer way to discern the presence of God’s Spirit than to identify the moments of unification, healing, restoration, and reconciliation. Wherever the Spirit works, divisions vanish and inner as well as outer unity manifests itself. (Life of the Beloved, pp.134-35)
As I look around our community, the world, and cyberspace, there seem to be innumerable opportunities for this Spirit-work that flows out of knowing that God loves us.
But will we accept God’s invitation to participate in this mission-work of building God’s kingdom?
Will we reject the divisive, false-prophet voices that arise within us and tell us we are not good enough?
Will we stand up to the divisive rhetoric and ideology of our world and practice unity and wholeness in our community and beyond?
Will we discover the unity and freedom of resting in the loving arms of the God who loves us so?
The decision is left to us, church. May we discover the wisdom, courage, and love that empowers us to choose the path of Jesus the Christ.