January 8, 2023
Baptism of Jesus, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
The sequel to Avatar came out in December, called “The Way of Water.” I have a feeling if I saw it, it would have given me today’s sermon. But I didn’t. I remembered a scene from the first “Avatar,” The story was a bit complex. Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine inhabits the body of one of the natives of the planet, Pandora, by becoming an avatar, a genetically modified image that looks just like them. Initially, he is part of the military’s work to extract resources from the planet that will eventually destroy it. However, he comes into contact with a beautiful, evolved culture that is in stark contrast to his own. Of course, he falls in love with one of the natives and he bonds with their beautiful life. After an epic battle at the end, Jake is stripped of his avatar, and he is exposed to the poisonous air of the planet, and his lifeless legs make him unable to get a mask. When his love sees him as he is, not as the avatar, she says, “I see you.”
Her voice is filled with love in this moment of vulnerable exposure.
On the day of his baptism, when Jesus begins to give himself over to the calling that had been echoing like an angel chorus in his imagination, the heavens open and Jesus has an experience of being seen by God, “You are my beloved child. I am pleased with you.”
All four gospels tell this story so it must have been significant for Jesus and the early Christian movement. On that day, in the Jordan River, heaven and earth bonded in Jesus own spirit. I don’t think Jesus’ divinity means that he was perfect, or that he didn’t have doubts or made mistakes or even was able to resist all the embedded assumptions of his culture. I think his holiness came from the clarity of identity, his ability to see and be seen by God.
Being a messiah meant living out of the belovedness of God, both as internal guide and as a map for building a world.
Because he trusted that he was beloved, he could see others as beloved, his gaze and touch a healing presence in their lives. Because he trusted that he was genuinely beloved by God, he didn’t need all the marks of status or positions that society provides. He could give himself away freely. Because he was beloved, he could find the beloved place in every human, particularly in those who weren’t necessarily labeled as beloved by the community around them. His belovedness found the belovedness of the other because it wasn’t a quality that had to be generated by some great act or great word. It was a quality that was given freely and lovingly by God.
If you think about it, most of our problems come because we can’t trust that we are beloved. We use others to try to prove to ourselves that we’re lovable. We put ourselves at the center of everyone’s attention because we desperately want an affirmation that we think we don’t have. We run around caring for everyone else so that they will care about us. We stay in our heads rather than let ourselves feel. We follow the rules religiously, often applying them harshly to ourselves and those around us. Fear rather the love becomes our roadmap.
All of it because we can’t trust these words that God has been speaking over creation since that first moment when humans became afraid of their vulnerability, afraid that they would be seen by God and judged, rather than loved. The entire Biblical witness is response of God to humanity’s fear: You are loved. You are mine. You are my child, my beloved. With you, I am well pleased.
At the 10:45 service, we’ll begin to speak those words to Otto, child of God. Already God has been whispering to him through the voices of his parents. Today God begins to use us to add to that chorus. God will not stop, even on his death day, when God will be delighted to welcome him home.
I suspect we will need to continue to remind him, to tell him again and again that his moments of fearful vulnerability, his mistakes, his inner voice that ends up sounding a lot like culture’s judgment, do no have the final word over him. God’s favor does.
Jan Richardson reports a story by Pastor Janet Wolf in Tennessee. She’s the pastor of a church filled with marvelous diversity. One member explained the congregation by saying that “some are crazy and some think that they’re not.”
A woman named Fayette found her way to the congregation. She lived with mental illness and lupus and without a home. She joined the new member class. The pastor described Baptism as the “holy moment when we are named by God’s grace with such power it won’t come undone.”
This grabbed Fayette’s imagination during the class. Fayette would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” “The class,” Janet said, “learned to respond, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she’d say, and then we could go back to our discussion.”
The day of Fayette’s baptism came. This is how Janet describes it:
“Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.
Two months later, Janet received a phone call. She writes: Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the county hospital. So I went. I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, ‘I am beloved….’ She turned, saw me, and said, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and….’ Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, ‘I am beloved, precious child of God, and…’ She looked in the mirror again and declared, ‘…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!’
God loves us with such power that it can never be undone.
It cannot be undone by what we’ve done. It cannot be undone by what is done to us. It simply cannot be undone…ever.
This is how Jesus’ ministry began. It is how our life begins again. And it is, today, how this year will begin, how ministry begins for Otto. Oh, that we could all trust it as much as Fayette, as much as Jesus. It would be so beautiful it would take your breath away.
 Janet Wolf’s story is from The Upper Room Disciplines 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room).