January 13, 2019

Claimed and loved by God

Passage: Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-22

In today’s gospel lesson, we have Luke’s very short account of Jesus’ baptism. 30 years have passed since his birth, and the time has come for Jesus to begin his ministry. Earlier in chapter three we have the pre-baptism story of John the Baptist – Jesus’ cousin – preparing the way. He was the voice of one calling in the desert: prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. John told people from all walks of life to repent and turn their lives around. He baptized crowds of people…and because of his powerful message people were wondering if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered everyone who wondered by telling them that one more powerful than he would come. John’s ministry of preparation was coming to an end…and Jesus’ ministry was beginning.

Jesus began his public ministry in the midst of the people around him. Luke doesn’t tell us very much about Jesus’ actual baptism, but what he does include is the detail that Jesus was with the people the day he was baptized. We assume that his cousin John baptized Jesus, but Luke doesn’t include that detail. Matthew and Mark clearly state that John baptized Jesus…but Luke includes the detail about John rebuking Herod – and Herod locking John up in prison. So, either someone else baptized Jesus – unlikely since the other gospel writers state it was John…the one who had been preparing the way. Or more likely, Luke included the historical detail about Herod and Herodias and John’s imprisonment to reinforce the cost to John of confronting Herod and Herodias. This is the last event in John the Baptist’s public ministry of preparing the way…and it cost him his freedom and eventually his life.

Luke then focused on the baptism of Jesus and included three details. Jesus was baptized with the people – an important note for it signified that from the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was in the midst of the community. Jesus spent time in prayer – an important note for it signified Jesus’ deep devotion to God. And Luke notes that it was at that moment of prayer that the heaven was opened…the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus…and with loving, tender words, God said: “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.”

Luke focused on the words from God to Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved;with you I am well pleased.” Words of love spoken by God the Father to his Son. Intimate words that show the depth of that love. Jesus was claimed and loved by God…from the beginning…before Jesus had preached his first sermon…before he had healed his first leper…before he called his firstdisciple. Jesus began his ministry and continued his ministry knowing that love…knowing who and whose he was…knowing that he had nothing to fear…not even death itself…because God loved him. He was God’s own loved son.

And that message of love…that power of love…is what Jesus repeatedly demonstrated. Knowing that he was claimed and loved by God…it freed him to love without limit…to serve…to forgive…to call people to God…to tell them…do not fear…for you too are claimed by God…and loved by God.
What a gift. To be claimed by God. To be loved by God. What a gift. God freely, and without any merit on our part, chooses us and accepts us. In describing God’s grace, the protestant theologian Paul Tillich simply says: ‘accept that you are accepted.’

The promise of love…the message of acceptance… the power of the release of fear…is what the church should be proclaiming day in and day out. But that is not always the message of the church. Too many people live without the knowledge that God loves them. Too many people live thinking they
are not good enough for God. Too many people live in fear. And fear should never be the message of the church.

Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah. Words that Jesus himself would have known by heart.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. You are precious and
honoured in my sight…and I love you. Do not be afraid, for I am with you.

There is such a need to share the promise of God’s love and release from fear in this day and age when fear seems to rule the day. Too many people live in fear…are overwhelmed by fear. The message the church should be sharing and living is that when we pass through the waters and walk through the fire…that God will be with you. God offers us not the safety of avoiding or escaping from the challenges in life…but God promises that we won’t ultimately be overwhelmed or consumed by the fear that so easily entraps us. That is the message that the church should be sharing. Sometimes we forget that, and we make decision out of fear. We hold back…we judge…we condemn. But that should not be the way. The way is Jesus, who was claimed by God and loved by God. That same love should always rule the church. When love – God’s love and God’s claim – are set aside…then fear sets in and fear rules. But we are claimed and loved by God…not fear! The church must first and foremost be a reflection of God’s claim and God’s love.

As we reflect on God’s claim and love for us, part of that reflections should be our relationship with one another as children of God…claimed and loved by God. It is good to reflect on our place in the community of faith…in this particular community of faith…and why God has placed you here with this group of people.

This past week I was looking for some resources on church renewal, and I pulled down off my book shelf the book “Pathway to Renewal – practical steps for congregations”. (authors: Daniel P. Smith and Mary K. Sellon). Within the book are a series of exercises for congregations including a set of questions (page 163) designed to help people reflect on the purpose of church and each members’ experience of faith. And their faith stories. I’m going to share the questions with you. After I ask each question, I will pause for a few moments to allow you some time to reflect.

1. When did you feel closest to God this week? When did you feel furthest away?
2. How did you first come to this church? What was your experience? Why do you stay?
3. What would be different for you if you weren’t a Christian?
4. When did you first sense that God was real? What difference does that make for you today?
5. What are you most grateful fort today? What are you least grateful for?
6. If this week has had a message to you from God hidden in it, what’s the message?
7. If God is giving you a single word to guide you today, what’s the word?
8. Whom did you meet this week who seemed like an agent of God?
9. Where did you see God at work this week?

This is the second Sunday of the new year 2019. At the beginning of the year it’s good to take time to reflect on the good news that we are claimed and loved by God – always and forever. And it’s good to take time to reflect on how God is calling us to share that love with others.

As we continue our journey of faith, remember that God goes with each of us…that we are never alone…therefore we need not fear. The gift of love that Jesus experienced on the day that he was baptized stayed with him through the rest of his life here on earth. That same love is with us today.
So go forth knowing that you are claimed by God and loved by God. Go forth and be with and amongst the people, as Jesus was. Take time to share the message that we are claimed and loved by God with another. Take time to share a word of love today. Amen.