The Beloved

You know how it works when someone asks you if something is a threat or a promise, right?  Like if you get really mad at someone and you snap at them, “If you don’t knock it off, I will leave right now” and they snark right back, “Is that a threat or a promise?”  Oh, the days are surely coming when my children will use such a line against me, just as I used it against my mother before me.

Matthew 3:1-17

You know how it works when someone asks you if something is a threat or a promise, right?  Like if you get really mad at someone and you snap at them, “If you don’t knock it off, I will leave right now” and they snark right back, “Is that a threat or a promise?”  Oh, the days are surely coming when my children will use such a line against me, just as I used it against my mother before me.

But I swear this is actually about the text we just read.  Look back to what John the Baptist said to those who came to his wild awakening out on the river banks: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  We tend to hear these words as a threat – or at least we presume that he meant it as a threat.  See, what John is doing here is a really new, really dangerous thing which might indeed threaten some people.

Baptizing as we know it would not have been a faith practice as anyone at John’s time would have known it.  Ritual washing in living water – that is, a river or a lake – was a common practice in Judaism in John’s day and is still today.  The practice is meant to take someone who has become ritually unclean – for instance, because of a skin disease or contact with a dead body – and restore them to ritual cleanliness.  This allows the person to return to community life, including a regular worship life in the temple.

What John is doing here on the banks of the Jordan River is something new and different.  He is, in his own words, baptizing with water for repentance.  The word “baptize” comes from a Greek word that just means dip or immerse, so he’s basically dipping them into the water as an act of repentance.  This isn’t a ritual cleanness, this is some kind of spiritual cleanness, a washing away of sin.  The people are coming to John, admitting their wrongs, and getting immersed and cleaned to live lives that demonstrate this repentance.  It’s possible that he’s doing it without any kind of temple authority or oversight, which is maybe why the Pharisees and Sadducees show up: they want to see what this wilderness weirdo is doing that all these crowds are coming to him and not the temple.

And that’s how we get John’s threat: “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  He’s reminding those in power that they aren’t nearly as important as they want to think they are.  Part of their role as leaders, scholars, and church authorities is to remind people of what God has done in the past and what that means today.  They claim their connection to Abraham as a reminder of their established place in the community.  But John threatens them.  You think you’re so special just because you were born into the right genealogy, the right race, the right nation?  Bad news: God can create the right kind of children out of the rocks you’re kicking down the dusty path in front of you.  You’re not any more important or powerful than anyone else here.

John is threatening the authorities.  He’s reminding them that God is in charge, not them, and God is doing a new thing.  John is doing the dangerous work of a prophet, challenging the accepted systems of power and calling people back to devotion of God alone.  As such, he threatens those who are in charge, because he reminds them that it’s not about power, it’s about God.

But there’s something else in John’s statement, something meant to invite us.  It’s a threat, but it’s also a promise: God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.  In other words: the family or race or tribe or creed into which you were born doesn’t matter.  God is the one who makes you into a child of Abraham, an heir of the promise, a member of God’s chosen people, a beloved child of God.  It doesn’t matter who you are.  God promises to claim you as a part of God’s own family, no matter what, with no effort on your own.

That’s what baptism is, ultimately, just like we see at Jesus’ own baptism.  Jesus is claimed as beloved by God when he comes up from the waters of baptism.  He enters the water in humility, setting aside everything he is, and lets God’s word do the work.  This is what we believe about baptism, too. God claims Jesus as God’s own beloved son in baptism, but also, God claims you in the waters of baptism.  The promise is for you, too.  Baptism doesn’t depend on your goodness or righteousness.  God is able to raise up children of the promise from stones.  Imagine what God can do with you.  That’s a promise.

The world around you says, “You are not loved unless…”.  You are not loved unless you’re part of the right denomination.  You are not loved unless you are thin enough.  You are not loved unless you advocate for the correct political party.  You are not loved unless you have the right skin color.  But that’s not at all what God says about us in our baptisms.  God doesn’t say “you are not loved unless”.  God says, “you are loved, therefore”.  You are loved; therefore, you are God’s beloved child, part of God’s own family.  You are loved; therefore, you don’t have to earn your keep.  You are loved; therefore, you can share that love with others.  You are loved; therefore, God sends you into the world that needs you.  It’s not about the stuff you should do to be worthy.  It’s about already being worthy, so you can act not out of fear but out of love.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season after Epiphany, the time when the church considers what it means to be a follower of Jesus and how Jesus is revealed in the world.  For the next seven weeks, you’re going to hear us preach variations on the theme of what it means to be a beloved child of God where faith meets life.  In the gospels, Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his adult, earthly ministry in teaching and healing.  You are invited to consider the question that I love more than any other: so what?  When we hear this Sunday that John baptizes Jesus, declaring that God can make beloved children out of anyone or anything, and when we hear that God’s voice declares Jesus beloved, so what?  What does this mean for how you will live your life?

It means that you live as John challenges us to do: bear fruit worthy of repentance.  You, beloved child of God, you have been claimed and cleaned in the waters of baptism.  You don’t have to do a darn thing.  You are loved; therefore, you get to boldly live that love.  You don’t have to make life into a righteousness competition where you demonstrate your superiority to God and others.  You are loved; therefore, you will show forth that love in your life, not because you have to, but because you can.  Because you get to.  Because you are God’s child, the beloved, and with you God is well-pleased.  That is a promise.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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