A few months ago, the Vestry and I did a spiritual exercise. We drew a straight line on a piece of paper, dividing the line into either five- or ten-year increments. Then we drew dots above and below our line, marking major life moments. The happy ones went above – births, marriages, graduations. The sad ones went below – deaths, divorces, bouts of depression. We connected the dots and saw what looked like a hilly landscape – with peaks and valleys. Then, we took a different colored pen, and we mapped the highs and lows in our relationship with God – times when we felt close to God and times when we felt far from God. That line too was filled with peaks and valleys. Some of us found that two the lines moved together – when happy things were happening in our lives, we felt very close to God; when difficult things were happening, we felt distant from God. Others had the opposite experience. In the difficult times, they felt God’s presence the most, and while in happy times their connection to God lessened. Each of us began to see that our spiritual life and our everyday life are connected, perhaps in unexpected ways.
What was interesting about all of our graphs was that all of us had times in the middle – where nothing dramatic was happening, and our relationship with God was pretty neutral – not particularly strong, but also not particularly distant. Those were the times when life was simply ordinary – where life just chugged along. Nothing remarkable stood out in that time, and that was okay.
Sometimes when we look at Jesus life – this God incarnate who took on flesh like ours – we begin to wonder if Jesus’ life is anything like ours. If you step back and recall the lectionary texts we have heard since Christmas Eve, you might begin to wonder if Jesus’ life is not some action-adventure movie. First he is born dramatically in manger; then we hear of fantastic angels and visiting shepherds; then John’s majestic words proclaim, “In the beginning was the Word…”; and then we hear the vivid story of the magi seeking and finding Jesus. Today, some years later, we hear of Jesus’ baptism – yet another extraordinary event in which the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus proclaiming him to be the Son of God. To be honest, for a man who is supposed to be God incarnate, who is supposed to experience this world as we do and through that experience redeem us, Jesus’ life feels very little like ours. We cannot imagine someone telling our life story and finding nearly as many dramatic tales and mountain-top experiences. And yet, this is the way we hear about Jesus – drama, drama, drama!
What we miss in our gospel’s retelling of Jesus’ life is the ordinary. There are all sorts of gaps in the story that we never really get to see. Though we imagine the magi coming to the manger, in fact, Jesus was probably no longer an infant when they finally arrived. And yet, we hear no details of the time between shepherds and wise men. Then, after these magi do arrive, we find ourselves suddenly with an adult-version of Jesus today. Luke’s gospel does give us an account of the pre-teen Jesus in the temple, scaring his parents with his disappearing act; but otherwise, we know very little about the ordinary time of Jesus’ life. The omission of the ordinary can make us feel distant from Jesus. Unlike our spiritual maps, Jesus’ map would be one long plateau of highs where the everyday and the spiritual are constantly in sync, without many low valleys.
Luckily, there is much more incarnation today in our texts than there seems to be at first glance. The way that Luke tells Jesus’ story today makes Jesus’ baptism quite ordinary. He is baptized along with many other people. He is not first in line, and the world does not stop at the moment of his baptism. In fact, when the Holy Spirit does descend upon Jesus, Jesus’ baptism is over, and he is found praying – another ordinary spiritual practice we do almost everyday. Then, Jesus hears those wonderful words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” By simply having those words spoken, we see that the incarnation is a fleshy, human experience. Jesus needs to hear those words just like any of us need to hear those words from God.[i] Jesus needs to know God’s approval, God’s love, and God’s claim on him – needs that we all experience.
Of course, Jesus is not the first person who needed to hear that loving approval. We also hear today of God’s love and care for the people of Israel in our passage from Isaiah. As a people in exile, who have suffered a great deal and who may wonder if they will ever find favor with God again, we hear this lovely passage for them. God’s words for Israel are a healing salve, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” These are words we long to hear throughout life: certainly in those valleys of our spiritual timeline, but honestly, even in the highs and in the normal time. We are all riddled with insecurities and doubts, and we long for the kind of love that can love us no matter what. We need to know that we are fully accepted – something that other humans can rarely express. As one pastor says, “Our sense of belonging comes not from the acceptance of our peers or the status of our communities but from the One who claims us and will never let us go. What makes us worthy is…God’s gracious love.”[ii]
I love you. You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. These are words that we need to hear no matter where we are on that up and down journey of our spiritual life. And these are words that even Jesus needs to hear. That this affirming love comes at Jesus’ baptism is no surprise. In the waters of baptism, “God seals God’s love for us, no matter what we might have done and what might happen. In the waters of our baptism, God gives evidence of what God says to Jesus… ‘You are my [child], the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”[iii]
But like the fact that we need to hear over and over again that we are loved, we also need to remember again and again our baptism: that time when we, as beloved children, covenant together to fully love all God’s children. Throughout the Church year, we reaffirm our baptismal covenant because we need the reminder that not only are we beloved children of God, but also we are beloved children who behave a certain way: proclaiming the Good News, seeking and serving Christ, and striving for justice and peace.
After Jesus’ baptism and the proclamation that he is beloved, Jesus goes out into the wilderness to be tempted. This will be the first of many trials for Jesus. But Jesus holds on tightly to his beloved status – the rock that helps him seek, serve, and share during his lifetime. We too hear those words from God afresh today: I love you. You are my beloved. With you, I am well pleased. Now go out there and love as I love you. Amen.
[i] P. C. Enniss, Jr., “The Power of Approval,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 32, no. 3, Easter 2009, 15.
[ii] W. Carter Lester, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009),222.
[iii] Lester, 222.