“Love changes everything” – a sermon for the Baptism of Christ

Luke 3.15-17 and 21-2

“You are my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This is one of my favourite lines in the gospel.
It opens up all sorts of questions:
about what it means to be beloved,
about who God loves, and how,
about what place Jesus’ belovedness has in his life and ministry,
as well as in his death and resurrection.

The first thing to notice is where this passage, the baptism of Christ,
comes in the narrative of Jesus’ life.
It is the first thing Luke tells us about Jesus’ adult life.
It comes before the temptation in the wilderness,
before all the miracles and parables,
before Jesus heals anyone or teaches anything,
before he begins to proclaim the kingdom of God,
and before – long before –
he sets is face towards Jerusalem for the last time.
This is important.
Jesus is beloved before anything else
before anyone knows who he is,
before he has done anything to ‘deserve it’,
he is loved.
I wonder how often,
when the going got tough,
Jesus would remember those words:
“You are my beloved”.

We too are beloved before anything else.
I have often heard it said that God loves us not for what we do,
but for who we are.
I don’t think that’s true.
And it’s just as well that it isn’t,
because who I am might not be very lovable,
I might be selfish or unkind, or quick to judge,
but still God loves me.
Many of us – probably most of us –
struggle sometimes to believe that we are loveable,
which is why I am very glad that God’s love does not depend on who I am,
any more than on what I do.
God loves us not for what we do,
nor for who we are,
but for who God is.
God is love, and therefore God loves us.
Our belovedness does not rest on our own nature,
but on the perfect, unchanging nature of God who is love.

Our first calling is to be loved.
It was Jesus’ first calling too.
At the very starting point of his ministry,
Jesus is not called to be the messiah,
the Good Shepherd, the wise rabbi or the saviour,
though undoubtedly he is called to be all those things,
but here he is called beloved,
called to be loved,
as the source from which everything else flows.

We too are called first to be loved,
and our more specific callings, as a carer, or a teacher or a priest,
as the person who has time to listen to their neighbours over a cuppa,
or always has room for one more at our dinner table,
whatever our own particular callings
they all flow from this original calling
when God calls us beloved.

Our first and greatest vocation lies in our baptism
and in knowing our own belovedness,
everything else flows our of that:
love of God, love of neighbour,
acts of service, and a passion for justice.
“We love because God loves us first.”

There is a paradox here, as there so often is at the heart of the gospel.
We are loved for our own sake,
loved utterly and freely,
no strings attached.
But we are also loved for the sake of the world.
Our relationship with God is not transactional.
God’s love does not demand anything from us, any sort of response,
but rather the love we receive must overflow into the love we give,
and so God’s love flows through us into the world.

When there is so much work to be done,
so much wrong in the world to be put right,
so many of our neighbours who need to know that love in really practical ways,
taking time to know and to rest in the love of God
can seem like a nebulous or selfish thing –
but it isn’t.
That sense of our own belovedness, that experience of God’s love
underpins all that we are and all that we do,
just as it undergirded Jesus’ own life and ministry.
In order to be prepared to truly love our neighbour
we need to continually seek to understand what it is to be loved,
what and who love is in God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Knowing ourselves as beloved enables us to see others as beloved,
to see in them the image and likeness of Jesus,
whom God calls beloved.

Opening ourselves to love is a risky business.
It makes us vulnerable.
But we find a model for that vulnerability in the incarnation –
Jesus shows us not only what it is to love,
but also – and first – what it is to be loved.

Being beloved is not the soft option.
In a world which tells us we have to be good enough,
clever enough, slim enough, rich enough,
that we need to earn things for ourselves,
it is profoundly countercultural and challenging
to say that we are beloved,
that I am loved and you are loved,
not because of our own merits,
but purely and simply because of who God is.
That is grace, and it is radical.

There are some verses missing from the middle of today’s gospel reading.
In those omitted verses, we hear about Herod imprisoning John the Baptist.
In the midst of Jesus’ baptism we hear in the fate of John
a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own passion and death.
It is no accident that Luke chooses to draw the two together in this way.
Only in the light of Jesus’ relationship with the Father,
as demonstrated at his baptism,
can we make sense of his death and resurrection.
Only out of a deep sense of his own belovedness
can Jesus face with love
the pain and betrayal of his passion.

And so it is with us.
Julian of Norwich wrote “before ever God made us, he loved us”.
It is only out of that profound, foundational belovedness
that it is possible for her to go on to write her much more famous words:
“all shall be well, and all shall be well,
and all manner of things shall be well”.
If it were up to us to earn or to achieve our own
individual and collective wellness,
the idea that “all shall be well” would seem glib and offensive
in a world where all is far from well.
But when we understand God’s love for us and for all creation
as the basic underlying truth of the universe,
then we are free to hear and inhabit those words very differently.

“Love changes everything.”
Knowing ourselves to be God’s beloved children
changes how we approach life, our neighbours, the world.
It equips us to live differently,
to embrace the stranger,
to love the enemy,
to challenge injustice,
and to hold out God’s offer of hope in a world which needs it more than ever.

So let us pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit
to open our hearts and minds
to hear and know for ourselves
the truth that we too are God’s beloved.