January 13, 2019 – Remembering who we are


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“REMEMBERING WHO WE ARE”

By Rev. Victor Kim
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
(01-13-19)

 

The priest and author Henri Nouwen, who once taught at the University of Notre Dame and the Divinity Schools at both Yale and Harvard, spent the final decade of his life living and ministering among people with mental disabilities at the L’Arche Daybreak community near Toronto.  Nouwen wrote that he learned a great deal from people with disabilities about what it means to be the beloved.  Many of the people he lived with heard voices, voices which told them that they were no good, that they were a problem, that they were a burden, that they were a failure.  They heard voices that kept saying, if you want to be loved, you’d better prove that you are worth loving, you’d better show it.[1]

I would venture that you don’t have to have a mental disability to hear such voices.  All of us have heard these voices in our lives at some point or another. Sometimes they are the voice of someone we know, a parent, a spouse, a sibling, a colleague.  But often they are the voices that reside within us, in our hearts, in our souls.  It’s the voice that says to someone growing older, you’re no longer useful, you’re a burden to your family, it would be better if they didn’t have to worry about you.

It’s the voice that says to someone who is ill, you’re never going to recover, you’re always going to be sick, and you’re a drain on the system.

It’s the voice that says to a divorced person, you’re a failure, why are you so difficult to love, do you really think you deserve another chance at love?

It’s the voice that says to a single person, what’s wrong with you, why doesn’t anyone like you; you’ll never find your match.

It’s the voice that says to a person struggling with their sexual orientation, you are unacceptable, you are a deviant, and you’re not welcome.

It’s the voice that says to a kid struggling with school, why are you so dumb,

you’ll never be as smart as your friends, no wonder you’re not popular.

It’s the voice that says to someone who is unemployed, how could you lose your job, you’ve failed at providing for your family, you’re a disgrace.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. 

We all live as broken people. There is a fragility which is inherent in our human nature and so apparent in our human relationships.  Those relationships which bring us the most love and joy also are the source of our greatest pain and anguish.  And all of us have known the disabling pain of thinking that we weren’t worth loving.  So perhaps it’s appropriate that near the beginning of every church year, in this season of Epiphany, which means revealing or revelation, that the scripture text brings us to the account of Jesus’ baptism.  The baptism of Jesus is recorded in each of the gospel accounts.  Along with many others, Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan. And when Jesus was baptized, our text from Luke’s gospel account tells us that heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven declared, you are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Jesus is the beloved of God; he is the one whom God loves and the one with whom God is well pleased.

The account of the baptism of Jesus raises the age-old question, why? Why was Jesus baptized?  We know from Matthew’s gospel account that John the Baptist tried to deter Jesus, saying, why do you come to me?  I need to be baptized by you!  And that sense of unease regarding Jesus’ baptism did not dissipate quickly in the early church.  In fact, in one of the gospels that were floating about in the early days of the church, the Gospel of the Hebrews, Jesus denies any need to repent and seems to get baptized in order to please his mother.  We need to remember that Jesus may have been the son of God, but he was also the son of a Jewish mother!

There are two answers that are most commonly presented regarding why Jesus was baptized.  The first comes from the words of Jesus himself, who said to John,it is proper for us in this way, meaning his baptism by John, to fulfil all righteousness.  Jesus was baptized because in his words, it was the right thing to do. Jesus, fully God, was, we confess in the mystery of faith, also fully human, and as such, he did not place himself above any aspect of the human experience.  It is not only Jesus’ righteousness as the divine that saves us, it is also because Jesus embraced completely his humanity and yet kept the requirements of righteousness, which he alone among humans has ever done. And so, in the book of Hebrews we read of Jesus being our high priest, but not one who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but who in every respect has been tempted as we are, and yet was without sin.

Which leads into the second reason for Jesus’ baptism, which is his identification with us and his example for us.  By his baptism Jesus showed his solidarity with all people, with all our faults and failures, with all our brokenness and pain.  Is it any wonder that not long into his public ministry, Jesus is ridiculed by the religious leaders as a friend of gluttons and sinners?  With his baptism Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with us in our fears and anxieties.  He intentionally takes sides with people in their neediness and declares that God is biased in their favour. So again, as the writer of Hebrews declares, let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace in our time of need.  Jesus’ baptism embodied God’s coming kingdom that welcomes people without exception or condition.[2]

The great Reformer, Martin Luther, was also someone who was often plagued by a sense of his own unworthiness.  To fight off his despair, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, Martin, you have been baptized.  When we administer the sacrament of baptism we conclude by saying, remember your baptism and give thanks.

Do you remember yours?

If you’re like most people from a Presbyterian tradition you probably don’t because you would have been a very young baby when you were baptized.  But what are we saying when we invite people to remember their baptism, and what was Martin Luther referring to when he said to himself, remember, you have been baptized?  Surely, we aren’t asking people to remember the details of their baptisms.  We’re not concerned about what they were wearing, who was present, not even the exact wording of what was said.  We implore people to remember their baptisms, whether they were baptized as infants or as adults, so that they will remember that they have been claimed by God, that they have been redeemed by God, that they have been forgiven by God, that they are a child of God.

It’s the voice Jesus heard at the river that day many years ago and in his solidarity with us, Jesus assures us that it’s the voice we hear when we remember who we truly are.  We are God’s beloved.  In a world which so often makes us work so hard to believe that we are deserving of love, God in Jesus tells us, there’s really nothing you can do, or need to do, to become deserving of my love. None of us are really worthy of God’s love, deserving of it, but by the sheer mercy and grace of God, we are told that we are God’s beloved daughters, that we are God’s beloved sons.

Henri Nouwen writes, we need to hear that voice of God, the one that says, you are my beloved.  I have moulded you together in the depths of the earth. I have knitted you in your mother’s womb.  I’ve written your name in the palm of my hand and I hold you safe in the shade of my embrace.  I hold you and you belong to me and I belong to you.  You are safe where I am, don’t be afraid. Trust that you are the beloved, that is who you truly are.  It’s a voice that’s not very loud because it’s an intimate voice.  It won’t compete against all the other voices that make a claim on our lives, but it’s the most important voice we can hear.  It comes from a very deep place and it speaks the truth, our truth. It tells us who we are.  We need to remember who we are. We are God’s beloved children.

When the world tells you that you don’t have what it takes, God tells you otherwise.  When the world defines you by what you do and how much you produce, God defines you by the fact that he chose you and gave his life in Jesus Christ for you.  When the world defines you by your utility, by your health and wealth, by your intelligence and beauty, God defines you by the fact that he created you and he knows every hair on your head and every wrinkle on your face and every doubt in your head and every hope in your heart.  We are God’s beloved children, we are the ones God loves. 

That word, love, gets thrown around a lot these days, often without much thought.  I love my new car, I love what you’re wearing, I love that song, I love that new hairdo, and even the expression of love between people can devolve to become a declaration of routine, just a formality.  But that’s not the way of God’s love.

Remember your baptism and give thanks.  Remember how much God loves you, that Jesus came, not only to die our death, but to live our life. Remember who you are. But please be clear.  Knowing that we are God’s beloved isn’t all about feeling good about ourselves or raising our self-esteem.  The baptism of Jesus set him on a course which would end on the cross.  Knowing that we are God’s beloved, remembering who we are, is meant to set us free, free from our self-centred concerns free to unite us to the one who loves us.  Remembering who we are is not about sentimentality, it is meant to free us to serve, to serve God and the world that God so loves.

To know that we are beloved means that we are blessed.  The word benediction means blessing.  Literally, ‘bene’ means ‘good’ and ‘diction’ means ‘saying.’ To bless someone, then, means to say good things about them. If we are God’s beloved, we also know God’s blessing and we are meant to be a blessing to those who need to have good things said about them. We are to remember that we are loved, so that we can take the brokenness of the world and put it under the blessing of God. Think about that.

Who do you know that needs to hear something good said about them? Who do you know struggling with aging or sickness, with broken relationships, with issues of identity, with school, with work, with so many other things, who just needs someone to affirm them, not judge them? Where can we be the blessing and benediction of God in this world, bringing words and acts of hope, healing and wholeness in the midst of division, fear and fracture?

It will take courage, but that courage comes when we know who we are, when we remember who and whose we are.

You see, our baptisms have never been just about us, they are far more than acts of individual piety.  Baptism is about belonging to the community which is as much in solidarity with Jesus, as Jesus is in solidarity with us.  In our baptisms we share in the resurrection of Jesus, but we also share in his death.  When we remember who we are, when we remember our baptisms, we remember that we belong to a community which desires new life, not only for ourselves, but for the whole of God’s creation.

In this season of Epiphany, the revelation is that we are God’s beloved and we are to remember who we are, so that following the example and path of Jesus, we may bring God’s blessing and God’s benediction upon a hurting and hungering world.  Remember who you are. You are God’s beloved!

Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 13 January 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, “The Life of the Beloved”

[2] Dan Clendenin, The Journey with Jesus