(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on January 13, 2019, Baptism of the Lord Sunday)
The Voice of Love
This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think about the girl who looked with disappointment at the grade on her returned chemistry test. It was way below what she expected. As she crumbled up the test and stuffed it in her backpack, a gentle shadow fell over desk. Keeping her eyes down, she heard a voice: “Hang in there. I see a future chemist in you. This one grade does nothing to change that.”
This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think also about the boy who stood dejected on the sideline as the final whistle blew. He had missed a great chance, and as a result his team had lost. As he picked up his bag and began to leave, a big hand caught him on the shoulder. He heard a voice: “Chin up! You ‘re a great player, I have no absolutely no doubts about that. Don’t let this game get in your way, because you are full of promise.”
This morning, as I read about Jesus hearing the voice of love that broke through the heavens and told him who he was, I think also about the young man who opened up yet another rejection notice. Not one publisher had shown interest in his work. As he shared the discouraging news with his father on the phone, there was a pause. Then he heard a voice: “The one thing I’m certain of is that you’re a writer. And a very good one. Being published or not, may change how you feel. But don’t let it change who you are.”
What Begins the Story
The world preaches achievement. If you want to be somebody, you must prove yourself. If you want to make it in the world, you must earn your place. You must win. According to the US Department of Education, this is the goal of education: “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness.”
It’s only natural that when we hear John the Baptist preach about a winnowing fork, and about wheat being separated from the chaff, we think in terms of making the grade. Either we make it or we don’t. Either we are good enough, or we aren’t. Either we are the wheat or the chaff.
But I wonder if this isn’t distorting the gospel, if it isn’t imposing the world’s way of thinking on God’s way of thinking. Because when I read just a few verses later, I see something completely contradictory to world’s way of thinking.
When God’s voice breaks through the heavens and proclaims to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” it is not after Jesus has healed the sick or taught an inspiring lesson or preached a great sermon. It’s not after he has performed his quota of miracles. No, in the gospel’s account of things, he’s done practically nothing. His recorded ministry hasn’t even begun. The love of God isn’t a reward. It doesn’t come as a result of any accomplishment. That’s how the world explains life, but I’m beginning to wonder if the world hasn’t got it backwards. Because in the ministry of Jesus, the love of God is at the beginning of the story. The love of God is what begins the story. It’s only after he hears these words from God, that Jesus embarks on an unforgettable three-year adventure that will forever change history.
I wonder then: is it a coincidence that the Spirit descends upon Jesus at this time, anointing him and empowering him for the years ahead? Or is this Spirit nothing other than the love of God, one and the same with the God who declares, “You are my beloved.” Isn't it love that anoints us and empowers us all for the journey of life?
In one of Jesus’ most famous stories, there are two sons. The older son is responsible. He works hard all of his life. The younger son is reckless. He wastes his inheritance. In the world’s terms, he literally is worthless. The twist, of course, is that the son who receives the love of his father isn’t the hard-working, self-made older son. It’s the reckless, worthless, good-for-nothing younger son. Jesus couldn’t emphasize his point any stronger: love is not after, as a reward, as an accomplishment. Love is always first, without reason, without why. Love is the beginning of life.
The Winnowing Fork of Love
“But what about the winnowing fork?” we might ask. “What about the wheat and the chaff?” What about judgment? Is that not also part of the Bible’s story?
It undoubtedly is. But again, I wonder if we’ve been reading it backwards, so conditioned as we are by the this-for-that thinking of the world. I wonder if judgment comes not before a final embrace (or rejection), but rather after God embraces us in love.
For when I think back on my life, I find that the winnowing fork has been most effective in relationships of love—with my parents, with my teachers, with my coaches. When I am loved without condition, when I am affirmed not for what I do but for who I am, the best is called forth from me, and the chaff naturally falls away. Love is what slowly, patiently, painstakingly winnows from us our hurtful habits, selfish inclinations, and unhealthy choices.
God’s Love, Which Is also a Call
“Hang in there. I see a future chemist in you.”
“Chin up! You ‘re a great player. I have no absolutely no doubts about that.”
“The one thing I’m certain of is that you’re a writer. And a very good one.”
These are each in their own way echoes of God’s love, which is also a call. When Jesus heard it, it made him who he was. It began the story of his ministry that we read in the four gospels. And the good news that he proclaimed, if we would believe it, is that God also calls out to us in the same way.
Have you heard it in your own life? How? Has it been through the words of others? Or have you heard it in creation? Or in the words of scripture? Or in the inscrutable depths of your heart? Where in your life do you know God’s love, and how is it calling you more fully into yourself and into the world?
Sometimes it’s hard to hear the call because we are so distracted by earning and achieving. Perhaps, then, it’s helpful to remember that contrary to the teaching of our world we are not called to be successful, to achieve, to win. We are called only to be faithful. What might feel like a setback to us, may in fact be a crucial step on the journey of salvation. (It is a cross, after all, that stands at the heart of our faith.)
Whose love calls forth life:
So often we miss your love
Because we are too busy
Trying to earn it.
Open our ears to hear
Your first words to Christ,
Which are also your first words to us:
“You are my children, my beloved.
With you I am delighted.”
Through the call of your love,
May we be drawn more fully
And into the world.Amen.
 U. S. Department of Education, “Overview and Mission Statement,” https://www2.ed.gov/about/landing.jhtml, accessed January 8, 2019.