Sunday, January 12, 2014

God's Beloved

We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus,  the feast of his Holy Name, and the feast of the Three Kings, the Epiphany.  There is a danger in celebrations which focus entirely on Jesus as a baby.  Our remembrance of His birth should lead us to consider the life and death of the person whom the baby grew up to be.  Often, we get too emotionally caught up in the music, the art, the joy of the wonderful Christ Child and his mother.  What should be the beginning of a journey becomes a place where we get stuck.  If our joy centers only on a memory, then we miss the challenge and true meaning of Christmas.

In the Gospel of Mark, Matthew and Luke, for the first Sunday after the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus is one of the first events recorded about his public life. Some folks find it troubling that Jesus was baptized.  If the only purpose of John the Baptizer’s ritual was a cleansing from sin, that would seem to clash with  the belief that Jesus was without sin.  In Matthew’s Gospel, even John the Baptizer is troubled by Jesus’ request for baptism:  “I need to be baptized by you,” he says, “and do you come to me?”  Jesus reassures John, saying: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteouness.” All three of the Gospels subtly allude to passages from Psalm 2:7: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you...’”; and in Isaiah 42:1: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him...”  Jesus would have been quite familiar with those texts.  He accepts his vocation to be God’s servant, to do justice and to set things right. That can be accomplished only if Jesus accepts and affirms a relationship with people who are aware that they need to be made right with God.

Conceived and born of a human mother, Jesus became our brother.  In his baptism he now affirms that he is truly one with us as we are, not just as we should be.  There’s a lyric in the familiar Christmas carol, “O come, all ye faithful”, which says “Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb.”  The more amazing truth is that Jesus abhors not the water of baptism and all that it implies of our need to be cleansed and healed and made right with God.

A Jesus who would have entered the human experience only when it was good and right could not have touched us as we really are.  A Jesus who enters our lives without changing them is only play-acting.  What we need and what God has given to us is the Son of God, “the Beloved”, the One who constantly enters our lives at their worst, and renews and restores them.

In Jesus, God is revealed as one who is determined to get involved in the messiness of humanity. This leads Jesus at once into temptation and into a ministry of teaching where some people reject his message. It leads him into a ministry of healing, even though some people do not always appreciate his efforts.  Eventually it leads Jesus to imprisonment and to the Cross.  Jesus responds to the call of the God whom Isaiah knew.  Like the prophet himself, Jesus knows that God gets involved with real human beings, and Jesus himself can respond in no other way.

What about us?? Think for a moment about what happens when a child is adopted into a family.  If the child is asked: “When were you adopted?” he or she can cite a specific day and year.  But that isn’t really when the adoption happens.  Adoption happens when the child begins to relate with the people of the family day after day. It is then that the child makes a choice: “I choose these particular people to be my family: my father, mother, brothers and sisters, regardless of their shortcomings and failings.”  Becoming part of a family, or assuming the family name is a long, slow, creative process.

Baptism is much like adoption.  It happens at a specific time and place and on a specific day.  For example, my baptism took place on March 14, 1937, at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, in Dayton, Ohio. However, baptism doesn’t really become effective until I deliberately risk to live out the promises of Baptism.  In Jesus, God calls you and me as a son or daughter through baptism.  Can we intentionally take the risk of responding to that call?  And to what, precisely, does God call you and me?

In particular, God calls you and me to live among others. By virtue of being adopted children of God, we are thereby brothers and sisters to one another.  Sometimes that is a source of immense joy.  But if you have lived in a family with sisters and brothers, you probably know that it is not at all like sharing a plate of fresh cookies on the back porch in the sunshine!

There is a story about a little boy who fervently prayed these words during Sunday school: “Dear God, please bless everybody except Tommy.”  The teacher assured the boy that God understood that the little brother of the boy was often difficult to live with, but that God still loves Tommy very much.  “Then he’s a mighty strange kind of God,” said the little boy.

Isaiah, John the Baptizer, and Jesus all found that God calls us into relationships which involve risk and cost, sometimes with people we would perhaps never choose as our friends, much less as our sisters and brothers! But, then, our God is a funny kind of God, funny enough to love and welcome all of us. 

The struggle to live out our baptism isn’t so much one of choosing between good and evil, as one of choosing between patterns which lead to greater love, compassion, acceptance, and unity, or of choosing patterns which do not lead to these things.  Stealing, for example, is evil.  Hardening one’s heart against the poor is evil; murder is evil; allowing people starve to death is evil.  But so also is to deny anyone the chance to continue to grow; or to believe only the worst about others.  You and I can honestly say that we’ve never killed anyone.  On a scale of virtue between 1 and 10, that would rank as a 10.  But what about the times we have “stuck the knife” into someone by means of a cutting remark or an angry glare? What about the times we expect people to meet our own unreasonable expectations? What about the times when we dismiss people simply on the basis of some insignificant or selfish standard of our own?  “Dear God, please bless everyone except this person or that person.”  Each of us has a “Tommy”.

In calling us into relationship with his Father, Jesus calls us both to be made right ourselves and to become part of God’s desire to call all people, all of life, into right relationship.  If we pretend we’re already in such a good and right relationship with God, and pretend that we do not need healing, then we are in fact refusing God’s love.  
To keep our relationship with God as a private matter, only between God and me alone, is not an option.  God cannot and will not be so confined.  If you invite Jesus to dinner, you need to be prepared for him to show up with his other friends.  And you never know whom Jesus will bring with him: perhaps someone “interesting” or sophisticated,  someone who is “our kind of person”.  But then again, he might just bring “Tommy”.

In baptism you and I are given to one another, called to live in relationship, because that is the way Jesus chooses to extend his love and grace in the world.  We are each the “Beloved” of God, and we too are called to be a “light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind”, to release those bound up in darkness and hopelessness.  May our very funny God be as “well pleased” with you and me as God was pleased with his beloved Son, Jesus! 

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