I Love You Best

Baptism of Our Lord 9 January, 2022

Isaiah 43:1-7;  Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Rev. Dr. Deborah Meister, ODM

My grandmother Sheba lived into her name. Like the Queen of old, she was a huge and vibrant spirit, unconstrained by convention, who loved lavishly, traveled widely, asked awkward questions, learned voraciously.  She had no weak enthusiasms, only passionate ones, and we, her grandchildren, were among them. To be with us, she would climb any mountain, wade through any patch of briars, bring the most amazing bling, laugh and laugh and laugh.  She lit up a room and lit up my heart, and, each time we had to leave one another, she would hold me close whisper in my ear, “I love you best.” That, of course, broke the Cardinal Rule of Grandparenting, but I would hold those words in my hand like a treasure. They would warm me when I was lonely, give me courage when I was frightened. Now, of course, I hope that she whispered that to each of her grandchildren, because it would be true: the love we have for each person is the love only they can evoke. But it’s also true that there are times each of us needs to hear those words — I love you best — and to believe them, as spoken to ourselves alone. Perhaps this is such a time.

Today’s readings bring us to the heart of divine love. Let’s begin with this passage from Isaiah, to which I have returned for sustenance again and again. I don’t usually delve much into questions of Biblical authorship, as ancient ideas about authorship do not align with our own in easy ways, but for Isaiah, it’s important. It was common for the disciples of a philosopher or poet or scientist to write under that person’s name, much the way that paintings are sometimes attributed to the “School of” Michelangelo or Raphael.  Scholars believe that three prophets wrote under the name of Isaiah, and that their combined ministry spanned centuries. Second Isaiah, who is believed to be the author of the words we heard this morning, wrote during the Babylonian exile. In other words, he was speaking for God to people who were displaced from the lives they had hoped to have, and who were faced with the challenge of making lives in a land they could not have imagined, and where they would not have wished to be. To make matters worse, they knew that they could not even return home in a simple way; Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the only option left was to find a way to live where they were until they could build something entirely new.

To those people, whose predicament evokes our own, God says, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by your name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through mighty rivers, they will not overflow you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned…for I love you.”  I love you. I love you. (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4) God is making a set of extravagant promises, but more than that, he is speaking his love for this people, claiming them, once again, as his own. Isaiah speaks our deep belonging to God. Against all the troubles of our time, God assures us that we have not been abandoned. That we are not alone. That we are not unprotected. There in the middle of Babylon, where everything tells them they are not at home, God is whispering to his children, Fear not; I love you best.

But what does it mean to be loved by God when the problems which surround us will not go away? When we were toddlers, our parents could kiss our boo-boo’s and we would believe those kisses took the pain away, but God’s love is not going to cancel climate change, nor is it likely to magic away the pandemic. There is a gap between what God could do with divine power, and what God chooses to do, and our lives fall squarely into that gap. We sometimes yearn for a God who will just make things right, but we live in a world in which God gives us space for freedom. Sometimes, it doesn’t feel like a very good plan.

The writer Morris West imagines a scene in which a man comes, claiming to be the Christ, and asks the Pope to validate his claim. When the Pope begs for a sign, the man reaches out to a little child who lives with Down’s syndrome, places her on his knee, and begins to feed her bread and wine. Then he says, “I know what you are thinking. You need a sign. What better one could I give than to make this little one whole and new? I could do it, but I will not. I am the Lord, and not a conjuror. I gave this mite a gift I denied to all of you…She will never offend me, as all of you have done. She will never pervert or destroy the work of my Father’s hands. She is necessary to you. She will evoke the kindness that will keep you human.”[1]

She will evoke the kindness that will keep you human. In place of magic, God entrusts us with a task: the task of becoming human beings. Not just people who look like humans, but real ones, people whose lives are centered on God and who draw enough grace from those divine wellsprings to be able to live lives of mercy. To give to others what they need, not only in times of abundance and ease, but even when we are frightened and tired and worn. To be able to show kindness then, which is when it really matters.

Remember: We are not alone. In the scariest of times, God has promised that God will not abandon us. And with that divine presence comes a different kind of strength. Isaiah continues, in the words of the King James, “since thou was precious in my sight, thou has been honorable.” (Isaiah 43:4)  Most translations say, “you have been honored,” but the King James gets at a deeper reality: God’s love changes us. What we could not not do alone, we can do with God. What we could not become apart from God, we can become with God’s love.  The mystic San Juan de la Cruz writes,

When You regarded me,
Your eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
For this You loved me again…
Grace and beauty have You given me. [2]

And so we come to Jesus.

This baptism scene is amazing. It’s easy to envision it as so many painters have shown us: clear blue water under a soaring sky, but — let’s be honest: that’s not the Jordan. What Christ waded into was a trickle of water arcing across a parched land. And it was dirty! He wades in and stands there amid the soap suds from people’s laundry, the dirt from people washing their bodies and their animals, the leftover food crusted onto the pots they had washed, the filth they had excreted from their bodies, just stands there before his cousin, the prophet, the one who came to call us all to repent. He stands there for each one of us, for all of humanity, stands in the filthy water of our lives seeking the mercy and grace and forgiveness of God. And John pours the water upon his head, or pushes him in until he is utterly submerged, and Jesus emerges dripping as from the womb, and the heavens are opened and the Holy Sprit descends upon him like a dove, and a voice comes from Heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17) (Fear not. I love you best.)

This love — this extravagant divine love — is given to Jesus before he does anything to earn it. This is the start of his life’s work, not the end, but he begins as we do: utterly wrapped in the love of God.  This love is not something we need to earn, and it is not something we can lose. The ethicist Gene Outka reminds us, God’s agape love “involves permanent stability.” It is “neither partial nor fluctuating.” God’s love means we are not expendable, not ever. Neither are our neighbors. God will never reduce us mere things. In God, we live and move and have our being.[3]

Jesus wades into all the stuff of our lives as a sign of the mercy which has already been given to us. Jesus stands there to reveal what, in God’s eyes, we are: beloved — not because we are so amazing in our selves, but because God has made us to be loved.  And so, amid all the challenges of our lives, the only way out is through: not to escape to a more perfect world, but to plunge into the waters of our lives over and over again, daring to live more deeply, entering the mess in order to redeem it and to be redeemed.

St. John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (I John 3:2) And so we have hope, even in the darkness.  We have love, even when we cannot see it. We have God’s own Word that we are not abandoned, not alone, not unprotected. We have God on our side, and by God’s grace, we can do hard things. We can show mercy where mercy is most needed. We can be kind, even when we ourselves are in fear. We can make our way through this land made strange.  We can both listen to and follow Jesus, because in him, all paths lead to home.

[1] The Clowns of God, p. 366.
[2] Spiritual Canticle, XXXII-XXXIII.
[3] Gene Outka, Agape: An Ethical Analysis. Also, Acts 17:28.

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