You Are My Beloved, Epiphany 1 (C) - 2007

January 7, 2007

What does it mean to be God’s chosen? What does it mean to be God’s Beloved? The four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ baptism a bit differently, but a core truth emerges from all of them: that Jesus is God’s chosen one, God’s beloved son. A voice from heaven belonging to God or God’s Holy Spirit declares about Jesus or directly to him: “You are my beloved.”

Mark and Luke report the voice speaking directly to Jesus: “You are.”

The Gospel of John says that John the Baptizer saw the Holy Spirit descend and remain upon Jesus as witness of a promise given to John: this is the Beloved, this is the chosen one in whom God is well pleased.

Matthew uses the same assurance in the third person: He is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

In any version, this is an affirmation, an acknowledgement, and the tender approval of a son by his father. It is also, as the scholars tell us, an act of will—to be beloved—not an evidence of feelings.

We can dare surmise that either Jesus reported this event to his disciples or that there were eyewitnesses, like John the Baptizer, who saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove, or who also heard the voice saying these remarkable words of affirmation and approval.

But why did it take so long for Jesus to make this decision to become public with his understanding of the character of God? In that first century, which afforded a much shorter life span, thirty years was a very long time.

All the gospels agree that Jesus’ public ministry begins with this open and public baptism in the Jordan river. Even his cousin John is shocked that Jesus wills to be baptized by him. A careful reading shows us that this was a momentous decision and that Jesus must have prayed about it for a very long time before appearing on the bank of the river and asking John to baptize him.

The story also reveals that John knew that he was destined to be a pro-dromos, the marvelous Greek appellation for John: the one who goes ahead on the road to open the way for another person, “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” as Gabriel had promised to John’s father Zechariah. Yet even John did not know exactly who was more powerful than he, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. He had no idea it would be his very own cousin. Oh, it is very possible that his mother and father had prepared him, but the wondrous events of these two men’s births—John’s and Jesus’—were in the distant past. People forget the stories they hear in their infancy and childhood. Reality has a way of interfering and making the stories appear as myths or as the fantasies of loving, partial mothers.

They both must have been told they were chosen by God for a specific ministry, but in that religious environment, most males probably were told the same thing. However, what we do know about them is that these two cousins never wavered from their chosen path. John grows up and chooses the difficult way of the desert and an ascetic way of life—he becomes a voice crying out in the wilderness. Jesus chooses a ministry that thrusts him into the midst of people and their suffering. John’s choice involves enormous humility. He says clearly, “I am not the one you are waiting for, there is one greater than I coming after me.” Jesus’ choice involves servanthood, a ministry of healing and of teaching, the proclamation of God’s kingdom in the midst of an occupation by the greatest earthly power, the empire of the Romans.

Both of their ways lead to violent death. Ah, the chosen of God, the beloved of God! What a terrible end awaits them. Did the two of them, on that day when one baptized the other, when a voice broke through the silence between God and humanity to proclaim love and favor, did they suspect that they would die violently—they, the favored ones, one calling for repentance, the other offering a new way to look at God and life?

If they did suspect, nothing in their few remaining years showed that they abandoned their chosen path in order to avoid early death.

John’s life is filled with courage. Some would call it madness, to criticize a king like Herod, but John, the voice crying out in the wilderness, had no choice but to call sin by its name and to stand up to a king and his family, unafraid. He was convinced that sin led to death for the sinner, and he didn’t have much sympathy for those who rejected his call to repentance.

Jesus’ life is supremely courageous in his challenge to both the religious leaders of his own nation and the power of Rome over his people. His proclamation of the kingdom of God was proof enough that he was not afraid of either powerful group. He starts his public ministry with the symbolic death of baptism by water and ends it with the actual death of his physical body.

What does this story say to us?

Jesus’ thirty years of preparation before his public baptism remind us that it takes time to get ready for God’s mission. How many countless hours did Jesus spend in prayer? What study, what thought, what agony he must have undergone before appearing in front of John to ask him to baptize him. It is never too late for any of us to say “yes” to God.

The courage of both John and Jesus calls us to repent from fear, to turn our backs to the voices that urge us to be cautious. Justice must be proclaimed, even at the cost of endangering our lives. The chosen of God, the beloved of God are not guaranteed happiness and prosperity, but life in him who calls us to himself. Oh, to hear the words “With you I am well pleased.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema