Date: January 15, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 3:13-17
Scripture Reader: Clewis H.
Sermon Title: “Beloved!”
You can also listen on Podcast from iTunes and Spotify. Search for “Podcasting from Rev. Bob Jon.”
Sermon: "God of Rest" – Podcasting from Rev. Bob Jon
When it comes to baptism, there are many ways to celebrate it based on the different theologies and traditions. In the Baptist Church, it is customary to immerse in the water completely. In the Orthodox church, people immerse in the water three times to symbolize the Trinity. As you know, in the Methodist or other mainline churches, we sprinkle or pour the water. Throughout my ministry, I thought that I had seen all kinds of baptisms until a couple of years ago when I saw the news of a priest in Tennessee doing the baptism in a pandemic style: using a water gun to baptize the baby. Thankfully, according to the Catholic news, it was a staged picture meant to be funny. The water in the water gun was not holy water, and the water was squirted at the dad, not the baby.
In today’s reading, Jesus appeared at the Jordan River and came to John, who was baptizing people. John was shocked to see him because he thought that he was not worthy to baptize him. So, John tried to stop Jesus and said, “I cannot baptize you. Istead, it should be you who baptizes me.” If baptism is for the sinners, as taught by St. Augustine, why did Jesus come for baptism? Douglas Hare, a New Testament scholar, comments that Jesus willingly came for baptism because of his solidarity with sinners. He says, “The one who will save his people from their sins must consecrate himself to his vocation by joining the sinful multitude in the waters of the Jordan. Although he is the Son of God, he “takes the first step on the road to Calvary” by being baptized.
By being incarnated and baptized, Jesus stands in solidarity with us in knowing what it is like to suffer hunger, pain, and sorrow. He understands what it feels like to be betrayed by those we love and heartbroken by them. He understands what it is to be us. He knows our temptations as he was tempted in the wilderness. He knows our loneliness, as his disciples and friends abandoned him in fear. He stands in solidarity with us. And when Jesus was baptized and came up from the water, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased.” God calls Jesus, “Beloved.”
Beloved! What a wonderful word to hear from another person. In 2008, I was taking a preaching class at the seminary. It was my turn to preach that day. I do not remember what I preached or what text I preached from. After the class, a classmate came to me and wanted to hug me, saying, “You called us “Beloved” You are the first person who ever said that in the pulpit in my life.” I was puzzled by what she said. I did not even know where it came from at first but realized later that I intuitively adopted the word from Union United Methodist Church in Boston, where I was nurtured by its wonderful congregation. The senior pastor, Martin McLee, always addressed the congregation in his sermon, “Beloved!”
As I look back my experience with Union, I can see that it was extraordinarily caring to be called beloved, especially when you do not feel loved or respected in society. Union is a predominantly African American congregation. Many of them still remember the days of the Civil Rights Movement, racism, and lack of opportunities. I still remember when Bill stood among the congregation and said, “I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody, about somebody, who can save anybody.” Although people often experienced denial, ignorance, unjust treatment and rejection in society, being regarded as nobody, when they came to the church and knelt before God, they heard God called them somebody. That they are God’s “beloved.”
Henri Nouwen acknowledges that in our life, we often struggle with who we are. We often feel like we are not beloved children of God. Sometimes, we feel we are not appreciated for our work. We feel not acknowledged properly for the sacrifice we make for others. Of course, we have freedom to respond anyways we can – often with resentment, anger, or frustration. But Nouwen comments, “You are not what others, or even you, think about yourself. You are not what you do. You are not what you have. But choose this incredible truth. As a spiritual practice, claim and reclaim your primal identity as beloved daughter or son of a personal Creator.” It is not your possession, accomplishment, or beauty. But you all are beloved children of God.
Howard Thurman was a theologian and civil rights leader who was dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University in the 1950s and 60s. He was also a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. In his autobiography, Thurman shares a story about his grandmother. When he was 12 years old, he presented himself to the deacons so that he could be baptized. After some time of questioning and answering, the chairman asked, “Howard, why did you come before us?” He said, “I want to be a Christian.” The chairman said, “But you must come before us after you have been converted and have already become a Christian. Don’t come back until you can tell us how you are converted.”
He went home and told his grandmother what had happened. She took him by the hand and went back to the church, and said, “How dare you turn this boy down? He is a Christian and was one long before he came to you today. Maybe you did not understand his words, but shame on you if you do not know his heart. Now you take this boy into the church right now – before you close this meeting.” And they did. On that Sunday, Thurman was baptized as Halifax River in Florida, surrounded by people who sang, “Oh, mourner, don’t you want to go, Oh mourner don’t you want to go, Oh, mourner don’t you want to go, Let’s go down to Jordan, Hallelujah.”
The essential meaning of baptism is this. God embraces us as we are and calls us God’s beloved. When we feel like we are doing everything for our jobs, our families, our marriages, our children, and our health, there are times that we are still failing. No matter how hard we try, we still feel not loved. We do not feel respected for what we have done, and all the sacrifices we have made. But the baptism of Christ teaches us that God calls us God’s beloved not because of what we have done, but mainly because of who God is. God loves us as God’s children unconditionally. That is called the grace of God, the gift that comes to us, not the result of our works.
And it is very important for us to hear the message of Jesus’ baptism in the beginning of the New Year. Jesus spent his youth with his parents until he turned 30. He set out in his journey filled with hardships and eventually the cross in Jerusalem. But first of all, he came for baptism, where he was reminded of his identity, who he is – He is the beloved of God. As we begin the new year of 2023 filled with many visions and plans for our families and our church, we are aware that there would be many challenges. There will be times when we would be stretched in our perspectives and experiences. The way of Christ does not guarantee a trouble-free road. Instead, Christ calls us to be faithful by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. And the first step for us is to renew our identity – that we are beloved of God.
And this is what I believe God is calling us to do in our community today. By meeting our neighbors, serving them, feeding them, clothing them, and healing them, God wants us to be God’s voice for them, calling them, “Beloved.” When people are disinherited, suffer physically and emotionally, feel isolated, or denied in their image of God, God wants us to remind them who they are and to whom they belong. “You are the beloved of God.” When we sit at the table with them, break the bread, and hold their hands, we realize that the kingdom of God is right here with us on this earth. So, this morning, I invite you to turn to one another. Please repeat after me.
“You are beloved by God,
no matter who you are,
no matter what you have gone through,
you are beloved of God.”
 Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew, 21.