The part of our reading that never ceases to amaze me is what happens immediately after Jesus’ baptism itself. While Jesus 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.’”
In this moment, when Jesus is about to begin the public ministry that leads inevitably to his crucifixion, God the Father speaks from heaven as if to remind Christ of who he really is—not just another man, not even just another prophet of God, but the very Son of God, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.
Next week we will baptize little Isabelle Fleming. It should be a glorious service. But, although anything could happen, the Holy Spirit is not likely to descend in bodily form. No voice is likely to come from heaven. Because we are not God’s children in the same way that Jesus was and is, we are not likely ever to have such a dramatic endorsement as Jesus receives in our reading.
That is true and important. But it is also true that in baptism, we are knit together by the power of the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. In baptism, we are united with each other and with Christ himself. In baptism, we are adopted as God’s beloved children, God’s children by grace rather than by nature, but God’s beloved children nonetheless.
And that means that we can hear this story as applying to us. We can hear what is said to and about Christ as if it is said to and about us.
The Holy Spirit may not descend on us in bodily form. But the Holy Spirit does indeed descend on us, just as John the Baptist promises.
And we may not hear a voice from heaven proclaiming that we are God’s beloved children. But in Christ, God’s beloved children is who and what we are.
This is good news that we cannot hear too often.
At some level, we all know it is true. And yet, at another level we have a hard time believing it. We can’t quite accept the fact that God loves us, often because we don’t feel all that loveable. And because we don’t feel loved by God, we look for substitute love elsewhere. And when our substitutes fail, as they inevitably do, we act out.
Last week I had the odd experience of acting out, and knowing that I was acting out, and somehow still being unable to stop myself. It was pitiful!
One of my peculiarities is that I don’t like to use the dishwasher in our house. That is OK, but I also don’t like other people using our dishwasher. For a long time, Carrie and I took turns doing the dishes, and we had a running power struggle over whether or not she would use the dishwasher on her turns.
Finally I agreed to wash all the dishes. I don’t mind washing dishes, and Carrie does more around the house than I do anyway, so it seemed fair. Most of the time, everybody is happy.
But last week, I forgot to do the dishes one night. The next morning, while I was meditating, while I was theoretically praying and communing with God, I overheard Carrie puttering around in the kitchen and, to my horror, putting dishes in the dishwasher.
Because this is a weirdly intense thing with me, I wanted to rush into the kitchen to intervene. But I didn’t want to stop my meditation. So I sat there, stewing. Any actual communing with God was clearly over, but I waited for my timer to ring. When the timer finally went off, it was too late. The dishwasher was running.
I was steaming. Even in the moment, I could tell that my anger was totally unreasonable. After all, Carrie had done me a favor. But she hadn’t done it like I would have done it. And somehow that struck me in that moment as a serious sign of disrespect. Now, I say what is obvious. Carrie had not shown me any disrespect at all. She was just taking care of a chore that needed to be done, my chore that I had left undone.
Still, I was angry. What I gradually realized was that my weirdly exaggerated anger stemmed from a common form of insecurity. I was forgetting that I am God’s beloved child. I was depending on Carrie for my sense of self-worth. When Carrie appeared to show me disrespect, I felt threatened, and I reacted with anger.
Thankfully there is an antidote to that kind of insecurity and anger. The antidote is to remember that we do not depend on other people for our self-worth. We are beloved children of God. No one can add anything to that, and no one can take that away.
When we know that we are loved by God, really know that we are loved by God, we can rest in God’s love. And then, when people do things that irritate us, even if they mean us great disrespect, even if they want to humiliate us, still we can stay rooted in the love of God and respond in appropriate ways.
Unfortunately, all too often we forget about God’s love. And so we suffer from insecurities that make us hyper-sensitive and incline us to act out. This happens all the time, and, I think, to all of us.
It happens in families, as with me last week, because people love each other and are therefore vulnerable to each other.
But you see exactly the same thing in all kinds of places. Another driver cuts us off and instead of feeling mildly irritated at the slight inconvenience, we react with rage at what seems like a slight. People flame each other on social media. In political conversations, a simple disagreement over policy can feel like a bitter personal attack, even among elected officials who ought to know better.
Every time we feel an exaggerated anger at minor slights, we can know, precisely because our anger is exaggerated, that a lot of it comes from our own insecurity.
And I say again, the antidote to much of that anger, the anger that seems to be tearing apart so many families and communities and even our nation as a whole, is our Gospel story. We act out because we don’t feel loved or loveable.
And yet the heart of the good news is that God loves us. God loves us, and God’s love is totally reliable because it is based in God’s own nature and in what Christ has done for us. As a result, we don’t have to wonder if we are loveable. The answer is we are lovable. We know we are lovable because God does in fact love us.
My prayer for us is that we can truly hear the words of our Gospel as addressed to us. I pray that we can rest in God’s perfect love. I pray that we can live out of God’s love, without fear, without weird sensitivity, without irrational anger. I pray that we can be agents of God’s love in a world that is so profoundly insecure. And I pray that in the name of Jesus Christ, the perfect manifestation of God’s love for us all. Amen.