St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
January 8, 2017
Year A: The First Sunday after the Epiphany – the Baptism of Our Lord
Well, Happy New Year, everybody!
I know that a lot of us were happy to see the end of the old year, a year that for our country and the world was stained by what felt like more than the usual amount of anger, hatred, cruelty, and violence – a year that for many of us personally was marred by worries about finances and health – a year that was shadowed by deep misgivings about the future.
But, last week, with a mix of relief, fear, and hope, we turned the calendar page, over a million (obviously crazy) people gathered in Times Square for the ball-drop, and at least some of us came up with some New Year’s resolutions.
It’s been fun seeing some people posting their resolutions on social media, listing their determination to be kinder, to quit smoking or to cut back on drinking, to take better care of their mental and physical well-being.
With a mix of annoyance and amusement, some regular gym-goers have reported bigger crowds than usual, as people try to fulfill their resolutions, or just try to shed those extra holiday pounds.
And, some of those regular gym-goers have cynically said they can’t wait until next month when the crowds will inevitably thin, as people settle back into their usual patterns, our usual lifestyle.
Since most of us don’t really follow through on them, it is easy to be cynical about New Year’s resolutions, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with taking an inventory of what we need to work on physically, mentally, and even spiritually.
There is, however, a big spiritual danger with these resolutions, and it’s a danger that was pointed out last week by a prominent Lutheran pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber, who wrote:
“Gentle reminder: nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”
This is so important: “…nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”
You know, it’s risky to say anything is impossible for God, but, we’re all friends here so I’ll say it, it is impossible for God to love us any more than God already loves us.
God’s love for us is perfect and complete.
God’s love for us is perfect and complete whether we’re mean or kind, cheap or generous, hateful or loving, whether we smoke or if drink too much, whether we flunk out of school or have a perfect report card, whether we go to church every Sunday or choose to sleep in more often than not, whether we’re dead broke or doing just fine, whether we carry around some extra pounds or go to the gym religiously, pardon the expression.
Nothing we do or don’t do can make us more worthy of being loved because God’s love for us is already perfect and complete.
We are beloved.
It’s the start of a new year and it’s also the start of a new church season.
On Friday we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, epiphany, a word meaning “manifestation.”
We remembered the story in the Gospel of Matthew of the wise men from the East traveling to pay homage to the newborn king of Israel by presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – not such great gifts for a baby, I guess, but appropriate for a king.
It’s an epiphany – by telling this story Matthew makes the point that Jesus is a gift not just for the people of Israel, but a gift for non-Jews, for the gentiles, for the whole world, for us.
If you remember the story, after presenting their gifts, the Magi head back home to avoid Herod. And then, Joseph is told in a dream that the furious, frightened and rampaging Herod is looking to kill the newborn king, so he should take his wife and the child to safety in Egypt - which he did and where the family stayed for a time until the coast was clear and they could return to Israel, and live in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth.
And, that’s it. That’s all Matthew tells us about the childhood of Jesus. And, he’s completely silent on the young adulthood of Jesus, those many years of becoming a person, the years of Jesus figuring out who and what he was, years that are lost to us.
Instead, Matthew jumps ahead and picks up the story with what we heard today, with Jesus coming from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan.
And, we’re told that, just as Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and then there were words from heaven:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
It’s another epiphany, a manifestation maybe for the other people at the Jordan that day but almost certainly an epiphany for Jesus who now knows for sure that he is the Beloved.
Jesus is beloved.
But, here’s the thing, and it’s easy to miss because we are, after all talking about Jesus: notice that Jesus hasn’t begun his public ministry, yet.
Since we’re talking about Jesus, I assume that, during those long lost years of childhood and young adulthood in Nazareth, Jesus was loving and was faithful, maybe so loving and faithful that he stood out from the other boys and men in town, but maybe not. We don’t know.
But, before Jesus begins his real work, before he takes up his ministry, before he has done any of the amazing things that we remember, before he gives away his life, before all of that, God tells him that he is beloved.
Jesus is the Beloved. Jesus is beloved.
And now, learning in the water of baptism that he is beloved, Jesus has the strength and courage to get started, to begin his work of resisting temptation, of teaching and healing, of loving the hard to love, of challenging those in authority, of giving away his life in service to others.
And, the same is true for us.
As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written, “God loves me as I am to help me become all that I have it in me to become, and when I realize the deep love God has for me, I will strive for love’s sake to do what pleases my Lover.”
It’s a new year and a new season and some of us have made resolutions – and maybe some of us are still keeping those resolutions!
But, no matter if we never step foot in a gym or if we start smoking again, no matter what we do or don’t do, in the water of Baptism we know, just like Jesus, we know that God’s love for us is perfect and complete.
We are beloved.
And, if we’re open to that love, then we really can become all that we have it in us to become.
If we’re open to God’s love, then we really can continue the work of Jesus, really can please God by resisting temptation, by teaching and healing, by loving the hard to love, by challenging those in authority, by giving away our lives in service to others.
Yes, it’s a new year – and, just like last year, and just like always, we are beloved.