Preacher: Gareth Brandt, Professor of Practical Theology, Columbia Bible College
I feel almost apologetic, coming in as a guest speaker from another country and speaking on something as basic as what I want to present today. Will this be insulting to the congregation? If so, a 20 minute nap is not necessarily a bad thing on a Sunday morning! I am convinced however that many of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus have lost or at least partially forgotten the foundational truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ amidst all of our doctrinal and institutional deliberations. In fact, a focus on this centre may in fact help us not only with institutional deliberations, but also with a unique male and female spirituality, and our life together in church and community.
Herald Press just recently released my book on men’s spirituality. I need to state at the outset that I did not write such a book out of vast experience in men’s ministry. I simply come as one who has half a century of experience being a man and who has been on a quest to know what it means to be a spiritual man in the Anabaptist tradition. I will not be preaching on what it means to be a spiritual man. I want to begin with a more universal question. What does it mean to be human?
THE DESIRE TO BE LOVED [Luke 2:41-52]
I believe that all creation is inter-related and that all creation praises its creator, but that human beings have a unique relationship with their creator. Genesis 1:27 says that all humanity is made in the image of divinity. I also believe that God is in very essence, love. “God is love” is a foundational gospel truth. To love precludes that parties relate to one another; they are in relationship. To be human is to desire to be in relationship with those outside of our selves. As one who believes that God is creator, I believe that all humans desire to be in relationship with their creator.
We express this desire in different ways. Jesus’ desire to be in the temple as a boy was an expression of his desire for God because to the Jews of the ancient world, the temple represented the presence of God. To desire God is part of being human. God made us for relationship. This desire for love began with God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Love begins in the heart of God because God is love. We desire, we yearn, we hunger and thirst to be loved and to love God.
WE ARE NAMED AS BELOVED [Luke 3:21-22]
Thus we come to our key text for today. Other than the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew, the first event in the life of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels is his baptism by John in the Jordan River. This baptism marks the transition from John’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry and from Jesus’ private life to his public life. It is a pivotal text.
Jesus hears the words, “you are my beloved son and I am pleased with you,” before he has done anything. He has not preached a sermon. He has not performed a miracle. He has not yet cast out any demons. He has not called any disciples. He has not made any friends with tax collectors or advocated for the poor and oppressed. Jesus was the beloved before he was anything. Knowing that he was the beloved of his father became the foundation for his ministry.
Desmond Tutu has said, “You don’t know anything if you don’t know you are beloved.” To know that we are loved unconditionally is at the core and foundation of our identity.
You may have heard other words from your father or others in your life. “You are a weakling. You’ll never amount to anything. You’re stupid.” But these voices are false. We are loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, bosses and friends ever had the opportunity to say anything about us. You are beloved before anything else. Henri Nouwen urges us to “listen to that voice with great inner attentiveness… Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply.”
How we experience being the beloved is where there is some gender difference. Women and men will experience being the beloved very differently. Men, in particular might find this a difficult experience. We won’t get into specific male problems here today in a mixed congregation!
When we are children it is easy to receive love, but as we grow older and more independent it sometimes becomes more difficult to be the beloved, but if we do not first experience being the beloved it will be impossible for us to love others truly and deeply.
CLAIMING OUR IDENTITY AS BELOVED [Luke 4:1-13]
Jesus has been given his primary identity as the “beloved” but immediately after the baptismal texts, the synoptic Gospel writers insert the temptation story. Satan tempts Jesus with alternative identities of self-sufficiency, popularity and power. The foundation of our identities continues to be threatened today.
The Anabaptists of the 16th century were also tempted in the midst of persecution. One of their leaders, Peter Riedemann, wrote from prison- “Love is like fire, which goes out before it really ignites if one puts too much wood on it. But once it really flares, the more wood one puts on it, the better it burns. It is the same with love. When it is first kindled, small troubles and temptations smother and hinder it; but when it really burns, having kindled the person’s eagerness for God, the more temptations and tribulation meet it, the more it flares, until it overcomes and consumes all injustice and wickedness.”
We too, like Jesus and the Anabaptists, are bombarded with the similar lies from the world around us- “You’re no good unless you can do this or be like this…” The truth is, “you are beloved before you are anything,” and as Jesus and the Anabaptists did, we can resist the lies of the evil one that contradict our God-given identity, and when we do, our love burns with holy flame!
SENT ON A MISSION TO LOVE [Luke 4:14-21]
Jesus’ mission is described in Luke 4:18 as he reads from the prophet Isaiah. His mission includes freeing the oppressed, binding up the broken-hearted, healing the sick, giving good news to the poor. Jesus’ mission is to love; to reveal divine love to humankind in the flesh. Jesus’ first acts in the Gospels are acts of compassionate love, and deliverance from oppression.
In Luke 4:19, Jesus proclaims the “year of God’s favour.” This is the year of Jubilee, when all slaves are set free and land is returned to its original owners, so that there would be equality, justice and shalom.
This is the mission that God gave to Jesus and now we also are invited to participate in this mission. But we, evangelists, social activists, church workers, parents, students… sometimes get so consumed with the mission that we burn out because we have forgotten our foundation, our inner core. We have “nothing left to give” because we have never been filled. Bernard of Clairvaux illustrates it by comparing a canal and a reservoir-
“If you are wise you will show yourself a reservoir and not a canal. For a canal pours out as fast as it takes in; but a reservoir waits till it is full before it overflows, and so communicates its surplus… We have all too few such reservoirs in the Church at present, though we have canals in plenty. ...they desire to pour out when they themselves are not yet inpoured; they are readier to speak than to listen, eager to teach that which they do not know, and most anxious to exercise authority on others, although they have not learnt to rule themselves.”
When are filled with the knowledge that we are deeply beloved we can reach out and love others with depth and authenticity. Our life, our love, is the greatest gift we can give to another. To know our selves as beloved is not for our own sake to enhance our “personal relationship with God.” We know ourselves as beloved so that we can fulfill God’s mission in the world. We know our selves as beloved for the sake of the other.
Both women and men need to hear, “You are my beloved son or daughter” even if it might be a unique challenge for men. The children in our families and in our church need to hear and experience “You are my beloved son or daughter.” The special love that Jacob had for Joseph is for all our children. The experience of being the beloved of God is closely linked to being the beloved of our parents or other adults. It is important for all of us to be grounded in this experiential knowledge that we are the beloved of God.
How can we truly and deeply love another if we have not ourselves experienced being the beloved? Being the beloved is the centre point where we are tethered in Christ so that we can face with courage whatever might face us tomorrow, this season or in the coming years.