I believe that among the most powerful and telling words found in all the gospels are those spoken from heaven above at the moment of Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I had to do a little digging to find it, but it was still there in a folder buried deep within my file cabinet: a hand-written note that was placed in my seminary mailbox way back while I was a student there and just beginning my very first assignment as student pastor of a little church up in Northern Maine. The note was from one of my professors, the director of field education for Bangor Seminary at the time; and in nearly indecipherable handwriting it read as follows: “Dear Mike,” (in those days nobody called me Michael!) “I wanted you to know that… I learned that Anita (the former student pastor of the church I was serving) has received many Christmas greetings from folks at Houlton which include commendation of your work as their pastor.” And then, below this, he added these words that I’ve never forgotten: “Since the pastor too often hears only the negative stuff, I thought you ought to know that some good words are being spoken.”
Well, over 30 years later, he turned out to be right on both counts: in this vocation, you do hear all the negatives, trust me; but oh, what a blessing it is to hear those good words! That little note meant a great deal to me back then, and even now the memory of it warms my heart. But lest you think I’m talking merely about the nature of pastoral ministry or even one young pastor’s need for praise, understand that this is a blessing that runs much broader and deeper than that! In fact, I would go so far to say that the one human desire that binds us all together, the one wish that every one of us share is a deep yearning for affirmation: which is to be accepted and appreciated, to be valued by others as someone who is worthwhile; and above all, to know that you are loved, without hesitation or condition or limit.
And what we learn in this brief yet incredible moment of the gospels; when Jesus comes up, dripping wet, out of the water of the River Jordan and the skies opens up before him with “the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him” is the very picture of the God who is the Lord of Affirmation; for this is the God who says to Jesus and to the world – as well as to you and me – “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
You know, the thing that I always remember about this note is that at the time I received it, I really hadn’t done anything yet! I’d been their pastor in Houlton for only a matter of a very few weeks: I hadn’t yet had any chance at all to prove myself in the task of ministry; there hadn’t even been enough time yet for me to really mess things up! The fact is, I was untried, untested, green and wholly wet behind the ears: however you’d care to describe it, folks; that was me! And yet, here I was; already the recipient of love and appreciation offered up in abundance from these good people, all without even having really stepped out all that far along the pathway; this pathway of faith and ministry that I’d walk with these people over the next five years (in the larger sense the same pathway I’m still walking 30 years later). As I look back on it now I realize just how very blessed I was to have begun the work of Christian ministry with that kind of affirmation!
Well, likewise understand that this divine affirmation of Jesus of which we read this morning took place before Jesus’ public ministry had even begun; prior to this there were no lessons or parables that came from Jesus (at least none that we know about); none of his disciples had been called, there’d been no acts of healing or other miracles as of yet, and of course, this was long before the events of the Passion. Matthew only devotes a few scant verses to this at the beginning of his gospel (Mark and Luke both record it in similar terms), but it is nonetheless a singular and significant moment in Jesus’ life and ministry: that before anything else, first there’s affirmation: God’s own powerful word that “with you I am well pleased.”
And if we correctly understand that God intends for the meaning of this moment to extend to you and to me; then, friends, we also come to know that our baptism in Christ’s name represents God’s affirmation of us as well!
Let me explain that: you see, most of the “good words” we hear in this life come to us after the fact: we did a good job, we crossed the finished line, we “earned” the kudos and the accolades that come our way along the respect that goes along with them. But the glory of God, friends, is that God speaks those good words before anything has been said and done; before there are successes in life, and before there are the inevitable failures that come about as a result of our weakness or sin. What we’re talking about here is the cornerstone of grace; the hallmark of Godly love and the radiant sign of the power and ability of God to create and sustain new life, to soothe the soul and empower the spirit. This is how we can be called children of God, because God has already affirmed our inherent worth in His sight.
By the water of baptism, we are shown unconditional love and are marked as God’s own beloved forever, each and every one of us daughters and sons with whom God is well pleased. That’s why we rejoice in the church when someone comes forward in faith to receive this “sacrament of welcome” as their own, and that is why we celebrate as we do when a young family stands at the front of this sanctuary to present their child to be baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. Indeed, when we “do baptisms” in this place, we are in fact acknowledging and professing what God has already done, which is affirming them as creations of love and people of promise. We are proclaiming and celebrating God’s great and welcoming love, a love that is offered up to us prior to anything else we may have done and or may yet do. This is love that is unquestioning and unfailing, without any of the boundaries and conditions that you and I have the tendency to place upon it; and it’s love that’s wholly and fully demonstrated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and renewed with each and every new day by the touch of His Holy Spirit.
I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved the sacrament of baptism, because what an incredible way to start out in this life, whether we’re talking about that of a newborn baby, or of any one of us who have made that great confession of faith and thus have begun life anew. What a thing to step out on a pathway of faith, knowing with every fiber of your being that before you’ve even taken that first step, you’ve already been welcomed home!
And that’s exactly how it is for us, beloved; for this is the God who says of Jesus, and of you and me, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And there’s one more thing about this, friends; something important… just as it is true God begins his relationship with us by affirmation; just as God continues to affirm us daily by his care and nurture, through gentle guidance and with an encouraging word, it is also true that God calls forth from us the same kind of love to pass on to others.
I cannot begin to tell you the numbers of persons I have met in my work and along my life’s pathway – men and women, children and youth – whose very lives have been defined by the utter lack of affirmation in their lives; so many people who have rarely, if ever, known what it is to be accepted and appreciated and loved by the people around them. The old and familiar maxim that if a child lives with criticism, he or she learns to condemn; if a child lives with hostility (or ridicule or shame), then that child learns to fight (and to be withdrawn and to live their lives out of a false assumption of guilt); all of this holds painfully true for so many of us; perhaps, I dare say, even some of us who’ve come here to worship this morning. There are indeed those who have become so weighed down by the utter sorrow of not having known the affirmation of those around them that they dare not open themselves to God’s! And that is tragic for many reasons; first because God does indeed affirm us, and that is a terrible thing not to receive (!); but also because affirmation is the first step in answering that call to affirm others!
Let me ask you: how many good words get left unsaid? How many times have we rushed out the door to get somewhere without telling the people closest to us that we love them, or have parted company in the midst of a heated discussion without somehow saying that despite the fact that we disagree on this one point we still can’t imagine a life without them near to us? How many times have we thought about saying something encouraging or nurturing or even life-giving to someone we thought might need it, but then backed off because it required some risk or vulnerability or some embarrassment on our parts?
What we’re talking about here are missed opportunities for affirmation, the chances we’ve lost along the way to share what we’ve received by God’s love! And that should never happen; to put it biblically, “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:11) And it’s when we have the grace to let our guard down; when we actively seek to love one another by word, but most especially in action, it’s then that we truly answer God’s call; and moreover, it’s how you and I together become a Christian community. It’s love – God given, Christ nurtured and Spirit inspired – that makes us a church in this place. LOVE, as simple and as all-encompassing as that.
With each passing moment, you see, God turns to us and affirms just how very much we are loved. What we need to do is to “re-turn” to God so that we might, in faith and love, affirm others. We need to show our families, our friends – and even the people beside us in the pews (!) – the same kind of affirmation as we have received. And might I add that we need to do it before being asked; we need to show our love before those around us demonstrate worthiness or the lack thereof; and yes, before other words get spoken that cause hurt rather than healing.
God has been there for us from the beginning. As the song we’re about to sing puts it, God was there “to hear [our] borning cry, and there when we grow old.” The question is, will we be there for one another with that same kind of love? I hope and pray that it will be said of each of us that we were.
May the Lord guide us in lives of true and loving affirmation.
And may our thanks be unto God.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry