One of the things that I have struggled with throughout my life is love. I have a hard time receiving it and, to be honest, there are times when I have difficulty sharing it with others.
Much of my difficulty with love is rooted in some deep hurts in my life. It is hard to feel the sting of not being loved by those who were unwilling or unable to do so. I have felt the painful rejection of friends, and even family members. The loneliness of connection, for an extrovert, can be quite difficult. My own hurts and pains, throughout the years, have created a wall that makes it difficult at times to receive and experience love.
It is painful for me and, to be honest, a reality that we all confront. In one way or another, we have all been hurt by love. As a result, we all struggle with love at some level, either in its giving or receiving. All of us know what it feels like to be rejected. We have struggled with sharing our thoughts with someone close to us. We have been hurt, broken, saddened, and frustrated by our attempt to share love or receive love. Writer and theologian Eugene Peterson writes about our desire for love. He says, “In no other human experience do we fail so frequently, get hurt so badly, suffer excruciatingly, and get deceived so cruelly as in love. Still, we continue to long for it, dream of it, and attempt it.”
It’s because we know how much it means to us when love is both fully given and received. This doesn’t mean, however, that our pursuit of love does not impact our relationships with others. It does. One of the most basic aspects to our identities is that we are people made for relationships. We are continually seeking affirmation and acceptance from those closest to us. When we do not receive love or feel like it is not there, it hurts. The lack of love, both given and received, impacts our ability to experience a deep and meaningful connection with others.
We see this at work in our personal relationships, but our difficulties with love affect our relationship with God. We have a hard time experiencing God’s unconditional love for us, because we have a hard time sharing and receiving love ourselves. In our minds, we know that God loves us, but in our heart, we feel something different. Our relationship with God is sometimes defined by a classic seminary assignment where students are asked to draw a picture of how they see God. One of the dominant pictures, and one many of us may have, is that God sits on a distant throne looking for a way to judge us or to share his disappointment with us.
Yet, the picture of God that we receive from Scripture is that of a loving Father who loves us unconditionally. The God we see and relate to is the God who loves us freely and unconditionally, because God is the truest essence and reality of love. As we move forward with our “Resolution 2015,” this word, “love,” is what we want to focus on today. It is a word we see in our passage from Mark 1:4-11, especially verse 1:11. As we seek to grow closer to God this year, we want to see God speaking these words to us: you are loved. We are loved, desired, and wanted by God. We are his very children.
This is what we see developed throughout this great passage in some of the introductory verses of Mark’s gospel. Mark doesn’t give us much of a reflection on Jesus’ birth or indwelling. He gets right to work, expressing what it means that Jesus is the Son of God and the work he came to do to share God’s love for all people.
We pick up the story at the Jordan River. It was at this river that John the Baptist would baptize others. He was a prophet who came to announce a message of repentance and baptism for all. John called people to repent of their sins, turn away from the life they had to accept God’s life for them, and receive the cleansing water of baptism. People came from throughout the land, from Judea and Jerusalem, claiming the life God desired for them and receiving the water of the Jordan River as a sign of this new life.
Among them was Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God. He was an unlikely person to come to the Jordan River to seek baptism. John rightly responds to Jesus’ presence by saying he is unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. Yet, Jesus pursues John and the water from the Jordan River. Much has been discussed and written about this act by Jesus at the Jordan. Why did the one who had no sin come to receive this rite, which recognizes the desire to live a new life with God?
He did it because baptism is also a rite of identification. In receiving baptism, Jesus identifies himself with the very people he came to love. He took on the water as a way to walk with us in every aspect of our lives. It also identifies Jesus as the Son of God. He is the one whom we have anticipated and expected. He is the one who came to express the very love of God through his words, actions, and deeds.
As Jesus comes out of the water, there is a voice that is heard from heaven. It is a voice that is meant just for Jesus, announcing that Jesus is God’s son. It also says something else. The voice says that Jesus is loved by God and God is pleased with him. There is an announcement of a connection and relationship where the voice of the Father is heard by the Son and confirmed through the Spirit’s presence. Jesus’ identity is revealed even more through this voice. We are told who Jesus is, what he has done, and what he will do pleases God.
Love is the dominant word in that verse. The way that it is used means “worthy of being loved” or “beloved.” It means that God sees something beautiful and holy within us. It means that God sees something of worth and love even when we do not. It is a truth that connects us back to another meaning of that formative passage of Genesis 1:27. God created each of us, not just with various gifts, but also out of the his love. By this, we are God’s very own children. We are God’s sons and daughters. We are loved unconditionally by the Lord and are recipients of that love every day.
God looks at us with a grace and passion that is like the love we have for our own children. Think about our own relationships with our children. We love them unconditionally. There is nothing our children can do that can separate us from our love for them and our desire to have what is best for them. For instance, no matter how many times Noah refuses to eat his dinner, screams at the top of his lungs, or breaks something, it will not change who he is to me. He is my son. I’m going to continue to love him unconditionally. Nothing he will ever do will change that.
That is the love God has for us. He looks at us and sees someone of deep worth and value. Where we see someone who is broken, God sees someone worthy of unconditional love. Where we often see someone full of faults, God sees someone worthy of unconditional love. Where we see someone who could never be loved, God sees someone worthy of unconditional love. We are loved by God, and nothing we could ever do can separate us from this very fact.
God loves each and every one of us. Our baptism is our participation and acceptance of this great love. No matter when you were baptized – whether as an infant, child, teenager, or adult – it is our participation and acceptance of how God sees us as the Lord’s very own. It is our desire to be known by God and to accept God’s love for us. It is an outward sign of water that connects us to inward work of God’s love that redeems, cleanses, and unites us in the hope and joy that is beyond anything we could ever imagine.
At our baptism, we are claiming our identity in our relationship with God. Just as Jesus’ identity was announced at his baptism, so is our identity confirmed and announced at our baptism. We claim the identity that was true about us before our first breath. We are God’s very own. Before we were born, we were God’s, loved by the Lord, cared for by the Lord, and created by the Lord. When we are baptized, we seek to live a new life marked by the love of God and our desire to have everything about us redefined by the unconditional love God has for us and shares with us.
This is a love that we are called to share with others. Baptism is our launching moment into living as sons and daughters of God. It is the beginning of our acceptance of God’s love. We are called to live out our baptism every day by how we live in relationship with others. Some will serve in pastoral ministry. Some will teach. Some will build relationships with the broken. Some will find physical ways to meet the needs of others. But the one thing that is common to us all is this: in response to our baptism, we are called to love others.
We are called to express the very emotion that can be difficult for us to receive and give. The way we do this is by loving as God has loved us. We express to others the love that God has given us. We love others even though we recognize that we will not always get it right. Love is messy and difficult. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to say the wrong things. But that doesn’t stop us from loving others and expressing our love of Christ through our words, actions, and deeds. It doesn’t stop us from living out our baptism through the love we have for one another.
Living out our baptism through love can be difficult. Sometimes we need a reminder of our baptism and of our desire to love others as God loves us. In a moment, we are going to go through a prayer and process that will help us do that. Through the Wesley Covenant Prayer, we will renew our commitment to God and publically profess our desire to be known by God and to express our love for the Lord in all that we do. As well, we will receive a sign of the water as our desire to be identified by God’s love for us and to be daily redefined by this love in how we live and relate to one another.
Baptism is the sacrament of identification. It is the sacrament of love. It is the reminder that God loves us unconditionally, and that God sees us as someone of worth and value. No matter what we have done in our lives, no matter what we think is unlovable about us, no matter what we think God cannot love, God looks at us and says the same words he says to Jesus: “You are my love. In you, I am well pleased.”