Monday, January 11, 2016

Precious and Beloved

A note: I'm off to a preaching workshop this week (read about the neat history of the conference here), so I don't have time to add pictures this week. Given yesterday's Seahawks' game, I know that the prayer life of Washingtonians has strengthened. However, given next week's game time of 10am, here is yesterday's sermon for some nourishment of the soul.

Baptism of our Lord, Year C, January 10, 2016
Luke 3:15-22 15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 
 21Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I love you. You are mine. You are precious in my sight.
These are some of the most tender and intimate words used in the Bible to describe God’s love for God’s people. This reading is a favorite for baptisms and for devotional reading, and it sounds so beautiful and comforting that we might miss some significant and powerful meaning behind the words.
This chapter of Isaiah was written for a people in exile, after they had been carried into captivity, conquered by the Babylonians. They were a broken and forlorn people who worried that God had abandoned them.
In the ancient world, if you were in debt or taken in to captivity, slavery was the inevitable result. To be freed from slavery, someone had to pay for your release- and this was called redemption. To redeem someone meant to pay for their very life.
This was the promise that God made through Isaiah- that God had not abandoned God’s people but instead promised, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” They were not abandoned and they were not worthless. Instead, God considered them worth entire nations, including Egypt, the symbol for wealth and power in the ancient world. God says, “I give nations in exchange for you. You are precious in my sight.”
That word, precious, in English and in the Hebrew for which it is translated- those words mean “worth a price.” Precious isn’t just sweet- it means, “I’m willing to pay a ransom. You are worth something.” The people in exile were worth something because God loved them, even when they wondered if they were lovable or worthy. God treasured them, even at their worst.
In the New Testament text, in which we hear about Jesus’ baptism, we hear the words from the voice from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved. With you I am well-pleased.” God says, “You are mine. I love you.” It’s an echo of God’s words to the people in Isaiah.
Like the people carried off in to Babylon, there are times when we will doubt whether we are loved or lovable, when we will wonder if we are worth anything. These times often come when we are broken- by a hard year or a hard life, or when we realize the depth of our own sinfulness. We’ve made a mess of things, and can’t see a way out.  As we say in confession, “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”
How do we get out? We are stuck in a pit with slippery sides. If we try to climb out, our footholds crumble beneath us, the walls cave in. There is no hope of getting out on our own.

But in baptism, we are claimed by a god who loves us, who names us, who will not leave us. We fall into the pit, but God does not leave us. Instead, God sends Jesus to be with us, to rescue us, to stay by our side.
God looks at us and calls us beloved. God sees our distress and rescues us. We are enslaved, and God calls us precious. God redeems us from sin and death, and what is the price of our redemption? The wealth of Egypt and Seba could not compare to the price that Jesus paid in giving his very life on the cross.
If you have ever doubted that you are worth God’s love, know that when you entered the waters of baptism, God promised to be with you. If you have ever wondered about your worth, know that God says you are worth God’s very self.
Rivers will not overwhelm you, fire will not consume you. You, beloved child of God, are precious in God’s sight, and God has redeemed you because God loves you, more than you could ever imagine.

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