Several years ago, I chaperoned a youth group on a mission trip to rural West Virginia where we worked to rehabilitate homes that were in disrepair. We were divided into smaller work groups and my group was tasked with building a set of steps to the front door home, where a couple lived with their three young children.
Well, it just so happened that this family owned a goat that, on more than one occasion, tried to eat the paper that contained the instructions for building the steps. It’s a good thing that there was a contractor in our group as well; otherwise, I could have accused someone of a very mean joke otherwise.
In any case, this goat was the family pet, not just a farm animal. So when I asked the children if the goat had a name, one of little girls replied, “Yeah, the goat’s name is Be-loved because he should be loved.
Of course, that immediately made me think of the story of Jesus’ baptism and the heavens that tore apart, and the Spirit that descended like a dove, and the voice that came from heaven that said, “You are my…goat…the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Now, I do wonder if the goat’s name were a teaching moment on the parents’ part. I imagine the kids throwing rocks and swinging sticks such that the exasperated parents gave the goat a name to gently remind their children how they should treat it (genius!). But the truth of the matter is that I found it very sweet, the idea of loving a goat this much, even one that ate everything in sight, including my building plans.
And I absolutely loved how the girl turned the noun beloved, as in “my beloved,” into an imperative verb–BE LOVED! It makes me wonder if that command in verb form gets closer to the way God really feels about Jesus, about baptism, and about us. That all of this is about trying to convince us to be loved and to live as if we believed it.
The story of Jesus’ baptism, the source of that voice that came from heaven,at least for me, presents all sorts of questions. John the Baptist’s prediction that the one coming after him–Jesus–would baptize with the Holy Spirit, for example, is confusing, since Jesus didn’t actually baptize anyone, which the exception of a few references in John’s gospel. And what’s the purpose of Jesus’ baptism anyway? We say there’s one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but surely Jesus did not need such forgiveness. Some say that this voice that came from heaven was important in his own sense of identity, which I believe is true, but even more than that, and like everything about who Jesus was and what Jesus did, his baptism was for our sake.
This history of baptism is complicated, but what we know is that whatever John the Baptist was doing in the wilderness prior to the baptism of Jesus was different than what happened at Jesus’ baptism and what baptism has become since then. In other words, Jesus’ own baptism changed baptism for the better, and the clearest was it changed was by this voice that came from heaven to call him “the beloved.” The wonderful yet mystifying truth is that because Jesus was baptized, each one of us gets to claim the identity of “beloved” for ourselves. You–each one of you–is God’s beloved child.
That sentence–that you are God’s beloved child–should cause each of your jaws to drop. It is an astounding truth. What happens, though, is that it’s such an easy sentence to throw around that it often remains a voice from the heavens for Jesus alone, far removed and without many implications for how we live our days. The process of discovering the truth of it, however, turns the noun into a verb and plunges us head first into a lifetime of discovering what, exactly, it means to be loved and living as if we believed that our being loved were the only truth that ever mattered.
My guess is that everybody has somebody they love. And my other guess is that when you think of that person, you have some desire to successfully communicate the depth of your love to him; thoughts about how you wish that person would live if only she knew just how much you loved her. You would gift her with things to help her understand how much she means to you. You would long for him to love himself as much as you love him, or to see in himself what you see in him. You would want her to find joy and purpose in life and to drink of all the goodness there is to discover. You would want others to see exactly why you delight in him. You would want to prevent or limit her suffering, and you might even be willing to take her place in that suffering. Am I right? Isn’t this what you would like for your beloved?
Now, hear me again when I say to you, YOU are God’s beloved, and so all that you would want for the person you love the most, God wants for you, and even more.
The challenge is that there are so many other competing voices out there and that those competing voices that tell that us we’re not good enough and therefore are not worthy of love, can too easily drown out the voice from heaven that matters the most and the voice that is Truth. That’s partly why to be the beloved–to be loved–is an active verb.
I imagine the wheels of God’s mind turning so fast as God brainstorms how to convince us of that truth. Send the words written in a book? Check. Send my Son to Earth? Check. Speak to him in baptism so that my voice will resonate in every baptism? Check. Show them how I suffer when they suffer by suffering on the cross myself? Check. Promise forgiveness? Check. Defeat death forever? Check. Give them bread and wine to eat by which they might be reminded? Check. Give them the supportive community of the church? Beautiful sunsets? Laughter? Check, check, check. You see? God is at work constantly trying to convince us of what we have such a hard time being convinced of. Yes, we really can be that hard-headed.
The other reason it is an active verb is because we are that hard-headed. While to be loved might seem like passive verb, a one-sided action, we are constantly rediscovering that love, brushing off the dust that covers it up, and learning how to live as God’s beloved children in this world. And believing you are loved really does change the way you live. Famed-theologian Henri Nouwen says that living as the beloved children of God that we are takes four things specifically. It means realizing that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken, and that we are given.
To be chosen means that God really did choose us; we are not accidents or coincidences. God chose to create us and God rejoices in us.
To be blessed literally means to have good words spoken to and about you. Being blessed sustains us. It means that we can celebrate God’s love for all people without worrying that God’s love for us will be diminished in any way. There really is enough to go around. And if you need a blessing, please, by all means, come ask for one. I have plenty of good words to speak to and about each one of you.
To be broken acknowledges another truth, as strong as the truth of being chosen. Though we are broken in various and unique ways, to claim that brokenness and to place it under a blessings is also part of what it means to be loved. Yes, you are broken, but so am I, and that brokenness often has a way of leading us to a deeper understanding of love for it does not mean that we are any less loved because of it. Can you imagine if we really lived as if that were true?
Finally, to be given acknowledges that we are a gift–that God has a created us for a purpose that probably has something to do with serving all people and striving for justice and peace in the world, to echo our baptismal promises. Connecting your gifts with that purpose may be one of the greatest joys yet to be discovered, if you haven’t already discovered it.
If a goat in rural West Virginia can be loved, then, by all means so can you. You are God’s child, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. On this day when we celebrate the baptism of our Lord, on this, the first Sunday in the new year, it might be a good thing to work on in 2018–being loved and living as if we believed it.