To be truly and deeply loved is perhaps the most profound experience that all people long for, whether they realize it or not. Knowing you are valued and cherished can free you to pursue a purposeful life that involves loving others with the same love you have received. To the contrary, not experiencing real love can be detrimental in many ways. The God who is Love created us to live in and out of this same love.
Love, in fact, is foundational to God’s relationship with Jesus, as the story of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3:13-17 shows. To be sure, this text reflects several aspects of Jesus’s identity and forthcoming mission. He is God’s promised Messiah, the One anointed with the Holy Spirit who will in turn baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). He is more powerful than John the Baptist but nonetheless presents himself to be baptized by John into order to identify with the sinful people he will save (3:15; 1:21). But the climax of the scene comes when God declares of Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17).
Before Jesus proves to be faithful Son of God by resisting the devil in the wilderness, before he begins to fulfill his messianic mission, God declares his unconditional love for him. Being God’s beloved Son fundamentally defines Jesus. Accordingly, Jesus does not do God’s work in order to earn God’s love. Instead, divine love is what motivates and sustains Jesus’s ministry of love to those who are hurting and those who will hurt him, culminating in his death on the cross.
Matthew’s Gospel in particular highlights the hostile nature of the world that Jesus came to save. King Herod threatens Jesus’s life from the moment he is born, so that God directs Joseph to take his wife and adopted son to Egypt for refuge (Matthew 2). When Herod can’t find Jesus, he has all the children Jesus’s age killed near his birthplace. Despite the serenity of our nativity scenes, Jesus’s early days are characterized in Matthew not only by divine protection and a caring family, but also by irrational violence that seeks to destroy him and others. Before Jesus can save anyone else, he first needs to be saved.
It is important to view Jesus’s baptism and the proclamation of divine Sonship and favor in this context. Being God’s Beloved does not spare Jesus from the many trials and injustices of human life. But being grounded in his true identity strengthens him to endure these in love and give new life to the world.
As we emerge from the Christmas holiday season, I am aware that people’s experiences vary of what is supposedly a joyous time. Some spend the holidays surrounding by the same loving family and friends who support them throughout the year. Some spend the holidays in shelters with strangers. Others find the season to be bittersweet as they remember the loved ones they have lost or long for the loving parent they never had. Many children spend Christmas in foster care, longing for a permanent home. Thousands will age out of the system each year without ever being claimed as someone’s beloved child.
Of course, people in all these challenging situations can live meaningful lives. But what a difference it makes to know that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God calls us all into intimate relationship with God as Loving Parent who will never forsake us! As with Jesus, our vocation to love and serve others flows from this reality.
This is a powerful message in a time when so many labels other than “beloved of God” seek to define us and realities other than divine love seek to claim us. In the United States, many regularly label themselves and others as “conservative” or “liberal,” fueling divisions based on political party affiliation or one’s stance on contentious issues. Someone may have thousands of “likes” on social media while at the same time feeling lonely or even unloved. Advertisements tell us that we need to change our bodies, vehicles, or lifestyles to be truly happy or acceptable. And our never-ending “to do” lists remind us that we are constantly failing to live up to our own potential and the expectations of others.
You, Working Preacher, are not immune to these forces. Although you trust that your calling is from God and you are sincerely seeking to live it out faithfully, you too may think at times that your best efforts are not enough. There is one more pastoral visit you could have made. You could have polished your last sermon a little bit more. Perhaps your congregation or own family has faced a devastating event that you never saw coming and that seems to obscure God’s presence. As Jesus knew all too well, serving God does not insulate you from pain.
So, hear God’s baptismal promise to you again today: you are God’s beloved. Period. Your worth and identity come from God’s abundant love in Christ, as does your vocation. Remember that divine love fuels this vocation rather than being contingent on how well you carry it out. You are never alone, although at times your calling may feel lonely. Rest in the truth of God’s lavish, unconditional love for you that you share with others each week. Be refreshed knowing that your value is not measured by the size of your congregation and their offerings, or even by positive responses to your sermons. You have been called and claimed by the love of God in Christ. And the same Spirit who anointed Jesus continually empowers your preaching and ministry.