You are Beloved

You are Beloved

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 13, 2019

Baptism of the Lord

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22; Isaiah 43:1-7


Like most everyone in the world, preachers love to be loved. But wanting to be loved can get a preacher into trouble. There is danger in being less prophetic than God asks us to be. What if we make someone angry? What if someone doesn’t like us anymore? Fearful, we may let sin slide, and be tempted to preach the cotton candy gospel, or resist speaking the truth—even when it is in love.



Feeling a need to be loved is not a problem for John the Baptist (which may be one of the many reasons I love him so). John just tells it like it is—no tiptoeing around this or that. “That’s a sin against God—so STOP it!” Does he offend King Herod? Of course! How about the Romans? Absolutely! John levels his wrath against anyone he deems unjust or immoral or just plain lazy. You might say that John the Baptist is an equal opportunity offender. With wild hair, with his bizarre diet, and with living out in the wilderness, it is unlikely that John has retained the social graces required to live with “normal folk.” But none of this matters to John, who seems to walk a thin line between being prophetic and being utterly mad.



While John’s behavior is great theater, it is much more than that! Thousands come to hear his rants—many follow up with baptism. Whenever I think of all those people wending their way down to the Jordan River, I can’t help but recall a similar scene in the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou.” People line up…one after the other…and there they go into the river to be drenched with the cleansing waters of baptism—hoping against hope for a new start. Such great expectations! That’s what the people carry in their hearts in the movie. And it is what the people carry in their hearts as they approach John. In fact, Luke tells us they are wondering in their hearts if John might actually be the Messiah. Could he be the one? As if stopping the very thought in its tracks, John sets the record straight. “I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”



“O John, say it isn’t so! You can’t mean you are going to step down. You can’t mean you are going to give it all up. You’re just getting started.” But step down is exactly what he will do when the time draws nigh, which should come as no surprise since John has always known his place in the world—even before his birth. Luke tells us, you will recall, how John leapt in his mother’s womb when she approached her cousin Mary, who was carrying the Christ Child. Even then, John was filled with joy at the nearness of Jesus. And now, once again, John leaps for joy at the thought of finishing the work he’s been called to do and turning it over to the true Messiah.



We get another glimpse of John’s character from the Gospel of John when some of his disciples approach him to inquire about this Jesus to whom people are flocking. John responds with such humility,” You yourselves are witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him’…He must increase but I must decrease.”[i] For John, success is not about drawing a crowd or gathering a following. It is not about filling the pews or overflowing the coffers. For John, success is serving the One who is coming after him, the Messiah, the Lord. It is about being faithful to the end.



These days, though, success is defined differently—mostly in financial terms. And the worship of success causes countless people to spend their lives trying to achieve the unachievable. Although we live in the land of the “pursuit of happiness,” for too many Americans, it’s just that—a pursuit. There is no end—really—to the chase of the almighty dollar. Someone once asked John D. Rockefeller, “Mr. Rockefeller, how much money is enough?” and he replied, “Just a little more.”



In the eyes of the world, even in 1st century Palestine, John the Baptist was not successful, especially once he lost his head—literally. But then, neither was Jesus, for Jesus had a different viewpoint altogether. We can tell that by the words he spoke at the Last Supper. With his friends gathered around and a bountiful table spread before him, with bread and wine, “This is my body,” he said, “broken for you…this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins…” Doesn’t sound like much of a success, does it? And then, from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani,” he cries. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”



The good news known as the gospel turns the world’s notion of success upside down. John the Baptist gives up his place for the Righteous One coming after him. Jesus gives up his life for rabble-rousers like those disciples who abandon, deny, and betray him.



I invite you to hear once more these words from Luke, “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.”



As I pondered this text a few things caught my attention. First, the phrase, “when all were baptized.” Jesus, who of all people does not need to have his sins washed away, enters the water WITH the people. He identifies with everyone who is broken and frightened and sinful to the core. One scholar notes, “I like to consider this [act], his first miracle; the miracle of his humility. The first thing that Jesus does for us is go down with us. His whole life will be like this. It is well known that Jesus ended his career on a cross between two thieves; it deserves to be as well known that he began his ministry in a river among penitent sinners.”[ii]



Another thing strikes me about Jesus’ baptism. Imagine that you are on the bank of the River Jordan with this strange looking John the Baptist and people all around. You expect things to go along as they have—people enter the water, John rants at them about their sinful ways, maybe he offers a prayer, and then he baptizes them. They return to the bank dripping wet to consider their life from henceforth. Simple enough! But when this fellow in front of you enters the water, something extraordinary happens—from the heavens a voice booms, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” So here is my quirky thought: If you are next in line, what in the world do you do? Do you run? Do you stick around? I wonder.



The voice from heaven—now that must have been something to hear! Oh, to hear it again! On this topic, Henri Nouwen wrote,



Many voices ask for our attention. There is the voice that says, “Prove that you are a good person.” Another voice says, “You [ought to] be ashamed of yourself.” There also is a voice that says, “Nobody really cares about you,” and one that says, “Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.” But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear.[iii]



That still small voice that says, “You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you,” is the voice I yearn for us to hear as we approach the font this morning, touch the water, and embrace the new life that is ours. Hallelujah! Amen!



[i] John 3:28-30

[ii] Dale Brunner, Lectionary Preacher Workbook, ed. Carlos Wilton, 61.

[iii] Henri J. M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

*Cover Art by Ira Thomas, used by permission

Home by Another Way

Home by Another Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 6, 2019
Epiphany of the Lord
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12



For years, you and your buddies have gathered once a week at a local eatery for breakfast. It’s such a good time to catch up and enjoy one another’s company. Over time, strong friendships have developed—good friends are hard to find. But on this particular morning, with holiday obligations and all, only you and Tim, a relative newcomer to the group, show up. It’s just as well, you think, for you have a honey-do list a mile long: take the Christmas decorations to the garage, break down boxes for recycling, take Janice’s gift by since she was sick and didn’t make it by the house… You and Tim get your coffee and breakfast and amble over to sit at your “reserved table” and you begin swapping stories, like the one about the Christmas fruit cake that, sure enough, showed up again!



It doesn’t take long, however, for the conversation to come to a lull, because it doesn’t take long to realize something is troubling Tim. Finally, not one to mince words, you ask straight out, “So, Tim, how are things, really?” He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Things are tough. Sally and I’ve been married for 10 years—some good—some not so good. Lately, it’s been more of the “not so good” years. To tell you the truth, Sally wants a divorce. Last year she wanted us to go for counseling, but I refused. No way was I going to share private matters with a stranger. But now, I don’t know. I’m beginning to wonder if I should have done things differently. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s too late for us. I just can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t know where to turn.”



You listen carefully. You don’t know Tim too well, but he strikes you as a good guy, and you hate to see anyone going through hard times—especially around the holidays. You take a sip of your coffee—and then another—buying time to ponder what to say, how honest to be. You remember that time in your own life when things got tough. And you remember how your church family prayed for you and encouraged you. For too long the road ahead looked bleak, but somehow a new path opened, a path that took you home by another way.



Several years ago, James Taylor and Timothy Mayer composed a song entitled “Home by Another Way.” It tells of the wise men of old who traveled from the East to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem. It begins, “Those magic men the Magi, some people call them wise, or Oriental, even kings, well anyway, those guys. They visited with Jesus; they sure enjoyed their stay. Then warned in a dream of King Herod’s scheme, they went home by another way.”



Wise men from the East learn about the birth of baby Jesus and travel a long, long way to fix their eyes upon him. Who are these men anyway, and what do we know about them? Well, in the case of the Magi, it’s easy to preach “almost Bible.” It’s easy to get the story askew, deducing things that may or may not be true. For example, in later Christian tradition, the wise men became known as kings, probably influenced by Psalm 72:10, “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts.” Or perhaps influenced by Isaiah 49:7, “Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One… ‘Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord who is faithful…’” Another detail handed down by Christian tradition is that there were three wise men. And how did we deduce such a thing? Well, there were 3 gifts, so of course, there were 3 wise men. Furthermore, did you know that we also have names and descriptions? In a piece written around the year 700, Melchior is described as an old man with white hair and a long beard, Gaspar is young and beardless with a ruddy complexion, and Balthasar is a black-skinned, heavily bearded fellow. Finally, the gifts of the magi have also been interpreted: gold represents an appropriate gift due to a king, frankincense symbolizes “an oblation worthy of divinity,” and myrrh testifies to the Son of Man who is to die.



While all these deductions are fascinating, they should not overshadow what is truly important about the story. The arrival of the wise men from the East represents the Gentile world, in all its racial diversity, who now come to Christ, who now are welcome at the cradle of the Son of God. The magi foreshadow the Gentile Christians of the early Christian community. The magi foreshadow us.



The wise men come…they see…and now they must return home. But how? Will they do King Herod’s bidding? Will they return via Jerusalem and give the evil king a full report? Taylor’s song continues: “…they went home by another way… Maybe me and you can be wise guys, too, and go home by another way. We can make it another way. Safe home as they used to say. Keep a weather eye to the chart on high and go home another way.”



Barbara Brown Taylor notes that it’s time to “rescue the magi from their fixed places in the annual Christmas pageant and restore them to their biblical roles as key witnesses to both the threat and the promise of the Christ child.” No doubt, the Christ child offers promise to the world, the promise of light and hope and love. But this child also poses a real and certain threat. Make no mistake! King Herod is frightened! He investigates and learns that this baby will shepherd the people of Israel. He knows of another shepherd-king—David—loved and blessed by God. Oh no, there will be none of that! Herod knows how to handle messianic movements and revolts. There will be no late-night debates over fiscal cliffs—instead, with lighting speed he orders the slaughter of every baby in town. “That takes care of that!” or so he thinks.



James Taylor’s song continues: “Steer clear of royal welcomes; Avoid a big to-do. A king who would slaughter the innocents will not cut a deal for you. He really, really wants those presents. He’ll comb your camel’s fur. ‘Til his boys announce they’ve found trace amounts of your frankincense, gold and myrrh.”



Of course, we know that Herod is after more than frankincense, gold and myrrh. Herod will stop at nothing less than sovereign reign and power. Herod cannot know, cannot see that this baby will change the world. By him and through him all things are changed. No more will the “Herods” of the world rule. No more will darkness overcome the light. At the birth of Jesus, simple shepherds, angels and, later, the wise men, look upon the child with amazement and wonder. Because now, there is hope. Even in the darkest of times, there is hope for a home that can be reached by another way. It is the way of the cross, the way of Jesus who, as a grown man, will sit with his disciples around a table of simple food and declare, “This is my body broken for you…this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood…” (Sealed in the blood of the Lamb—not in the blood of the Herod’s of the world!) It’s a new day and we can reach home by another way!



So, there you sit at the table with Tim, coffee cup still in hand. And you know that you need to tell him your story. Because in your heart, you know there are times when every man, woman, and child needs a wise friend to point them toward the star that still burns bright. Slowly you tell Tim about a time in your life when the darkness closed in on you. You admit your faith was weak and meager. You tell him about being depressed and nearing despair until some way, somehow, God’s light broke forth in the night sky. The Word became flesh in your life, so that now, you believe that for God all things are possible. You’re quick to add, “That doesn’t mean everything always works out just the way we want. But no matter what—God’s love is with us. No matter what—God’s love is for us—and now, it is possible to go home by another way!”



Thanks be to God. Amen.