But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name,
you are mine.
Luke takes his sweet time getting to the baptism of Jesus. Matthew and Mark move swiftly to the beginning of Christ’s ministry, but Luke meanders. He tells us about Jesus’ parents, and Mary sings a song, and then Jesus’ aunty Elizabeth sings a song, and there are priests and prophets in the temple who also sing songs, and then there are shepherds, and there is even middle school Jesus bantering with pastors and professors. Luke winds his way through Jesus’ origin story as if he has all the time in the world. There’s no rush, Luke seems to say. We’ve got all day.
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work.
Luke 3:21-23. Year C. Gospel text for Sunday, January 13
Before Jesus does a second of ministry, before Jesus heals and walks on water and talks with women at the well, before He has accomplished a gosh darn thing – God is already pleased with Him. And God cannot get more pleased with Him.
When Jesus turned water into wine, God was pleased but wasn’t more pleased. When Jesus fought down demons in the wilderness with words and hunger, God was proud but not more proud. When Jesus did word play with powerful people and won, God was delighted but not more delighted.
Before Jesus accomplishes any of His mission, God sends Him out with the blessing of full acceptance and delight.
This moment of God’s unconditional love makes some of us uncomfortable. We’re suspicious of unconditional love, and we assume that it only works if someone is already, well, Jesus. Of course Jesus gets unconditional love, because Jesus is perfect.
Gosh, if we just sit around thinking about unconditional love, we’re gonna be useless, and selfish, and self-satisfied.
Conditional love has made us thin, successful, powerful – it’s gotten us good grades and promotions and into exercise programs and book deals.
The “shoulds” have been the fire in our belly for a long time. Letting them go is terrifying, because they have motivated us to do so much.
Today, though, as we prayerfully consider the baptism of Christ on this Sunday in Epiphany, I’d invite you to wonder – have the “shoulds,” and the conditional love that propels them, helped you love your neighbor more?
And does anything matter except loving our neighbor?
When you walk through the water,
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.”
Isaiah 43:2. Year C. Old Testament text for Sunday, January 13
Conditional love fuels us with fear and shame and raw need. That can be helpful in getting us to accomplish more. It keeps us moving, pushing through the world to be better and fight harder and accomplish more.
But God doesn’t call us to accomplish more.
God calls us to love more.
What fuels us is what we pour back into the world. If fear makes you move, you’ll spread fear. If shame makes you move, you’ll spread shame.
And if love is in your belly, you will spread love to everyone you bump into whether you are “succeeding” or “accomplishing” or not.
Christ told us that the whole Law and the whole Prophets are summed up by “love your neighbor as yourself.” No matter what you’re succeeding at, how many words you wrote this month or how many hours you logged or how many emails you wrote to very important people – nothing matter except how well you loved your neighbor, systemically and individually.
If you are running off of shame or fear, than you may get a lot done. But I promise you that you are spreading that shame and fear everywhere you go, whether you intend to or not.
So sure, shame works if the goal is to “get shit done.”
And sure, fear works if the goal is to “not fail.”
But if the goal is to love your neighbor, and screw success, power, winning, a promotion, a book deal, a bigger house, a better school district –
Then we have to begin at the river, hearing the voice of God tell us that before we accomplish a thing, and even if we never accomplish a thing, we are Beloved.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Beloved, have you lost sight of the goal?
Have you lost sight of the person next to you?
You’re the only one who knows where your love-blindspot is, Beloved, and I can’t tell you. You’re the only one who knows how you’ve gotten sidetracked by being right instead of loving your neighbor; by being popular instead of loving your neighbor; by being successful instead of loving your neighbor; by being safe instead of loving your neighbor; by being pure instead of loving your neighbor.
I don’t know what you’ve traded loving your neighbor in for.
I do know, though, that you can’t love your neighbor unless you put aside shame and fear driven methods of succeeding and let yourself, warts and all, exist as Beloved – without any accomplishments and without any preening and without bringing a damn thing to the universe.
When you start your ministry with your Belovedness, your ministry will always rooted be in the the Belovedness of the world, and you will “love because He first loved you” (1 Jn 4:19).
And loving our neighbor is our only calling.
You are Beloved.
Go and love the world.