Listen to our service and sermon below:
I’ve learned a lot over the last year about how desperately powerless a person can feel in the face of disaster. I’ve learned a lot, too, about how the very systems and institutions that are supposed to be there to help in such situations can instead further disempower and depersonalize us. I’ve learned that the worst kind of powerlessness is not the kind that has to do with my own life but with the lives of the people I love the most. And I’ve learned that sometimes “powerless” can feel less like a temporary state of being and more like an identity. Who are you, really, if you don’t have any power?
The Bible has a lot to say about power, and it also has a lot to say about identity. Our story starts: “In the beginning…” It begins with God, but also with chaos – watery black nothingness. Fathomless dark. The void. What is that void? Is it power? Is it lack of power? Is it unrealized power and potential? The story doesn’t say. The story just invites us to imagine the emptiness, the nothingness, there, at the beginning.
And over this deep dark, the Spirit of God hovers. And then – a voice. God speaks, and with a word, creates. Let there be light!God says. And there is light. God speaks the universe into being. And God sees that it is good. And each next day unfolds like that. God speaks the world into existence, and it is good.
Naming is an act of creation. What we call things has the power to shape what they actually become. The names weare called, or that we call ourselves, also have that power. If our experiences tell us we are powerless, then how can we be anything more?
It might not be far from the truth to say that the whole story of Scripture is a creation story – the naming of new realities, the making and remaking of the world, a story that continues to take hold and play out in our lives, too. This morning’s Gospel story, the baptism of Jesus, is a kind of creation story, too. And like all good creation stories in the Bible, it involves someone being named. This time, it’s Jesus.
He comes to the River Jordan, where John is baptizing people. The people there are getting washed in the river, turning from their old ways, rising from the waters to embrace a new life. Luke tells us that these people were filled with expectation. They were there at that river’s edge looking for something, hoping for something, needing something new to happen in their lives. The four gospels never explain why Jesus sought baptism, too, but they all agree that he did.
Luke’s focus is not so much on the baptism itself but on what happens next. Luke tells us that after all the people had been baptized, and after Jesus also had been baptized, Jesus was praying. Luke is the only of the four gospel writers to note this detail. In this Gospel, it is the first thing Jesus does after coming up out of the water, and throughout his Gospel, Luke will show us Jesus praying.
In this instance, while he is praying, the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And a voice comes from heaven, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
There are things that will happen after this moment that will make it look like this man is not Beloved at all. There are things that will happen that will make him seem like a powerless victim. There are names people will call him that do not match the one he is given there at the river. One day, this man will be nailed to a cross and over his head his executioners will hang a mocking sign calling him “King of the Jews.” But none of that will erase the truth of the words God speaks over his life: Beloved, Pleasing, Son. He rose from the waters to that name. And he would spend the rest of his life rising fromthat name, knowing who he was and what he came for.
The power to create was in that voice from heaven, and in those words. By that same power, Jesus would go forward in freedom and with courage to love, to serve, to teach, to listen, to heal, and to lay down his life. He knew who he was and he knew his power. Because of that, he had no need to prove himself or defend himself. He had no need to try to control people or even circumstances. He had no need to exercise any power but love. The name God pronounced over him there at the river would be the undoing of all mocking claims others would make. And it is by his name that all destructive powers are defeated. He knew exactly who he was – Beloved, Pleasing, Son of God – and so he lived by that power.
And after rising to his name, after rising to his power, here is how he used that power: he laid himself down. He laid himself down in human life with us and alongside us and for us. He showed us that true power givesinstead of grasps.True power comes alongside others, to empower them, too, rather than imposing itself on others, to strip them of their control. True power is not afraid to get down in the mess and chaos of real human life. True power comes from knowing that its beginning is love and its end is love. In other words, true power starts with knowing oneself as beloved, and the end of true power – the whole point of it – is to extend that belovedness to all. In true power, Jesus laid himself down for our sakes. And then he lifted us up.
He lifted us and lifts us still into the reality of our identity. His name is our name: Beloved, Pleasing, Child of God.
Those words come not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. They come not as an approval of our hard work and success, but as the ground of our being. They come not as the goal of who we are trying to become, but as the beginning of who we already are. They are not something we have to try to achieve, but something we have to choose to believe. Child of God. Beloved. That’s you. That’s me. That’s power.
But. How can we believe it? How can we rise to our true identity, which is our true power? When our experiences tell us we are powerless, when the institutions we deal with seem to actively dismantle what power we do have, when the voices in our heads tell us that we are not enough, then how can we believe otherwise? How can we trust the name God has already given us?
We could start the way Jesus did – with prayer. Taking the time to connect with the Source of our power, the One who gives us our true names. The way Luke tells the story, it wasn’t anything elaborate. Jesus didn’t have to go anywhere special or say specific things in order for it to be a real prayer. He just did it, as a matter of course. A habit. If you are looking for one small, practical way to recreate your day, your year, your life, here is where you can start: prayer. (You can call it meditation if you’re afraid to seem too pious. It’s okay. Just try to open your heart and your mind to the present moment and God’s presence in it.)
Another way we can nurture our trust in our true name is by nourishing our memory. That’s actually part of why we gather here every week – to hear our stories again, our creation stories, so we can remember who we are. There are certain stories from our Scriptures that are so important to us that we tell them again every year – the story of Jesus’ birth, the story of his death and resurrection. This, too, is one we hear every year, at the beginning of the year – the story of Jesus’ baptism. The story of how he rose up out of muddy waters and heard his name – Beloved– shouted from the heavens. We come here to listen to stories that remind us who we really are.
The other 167 hours a week, we have a lot of opportunity to forget, and we have a lot of opportunity to rehearse old stories that don’t tell the real truth of who we are and what we’re capable of. It’s easy, then, to start to think our true identity is our job, or our role at home. We think of ourselves as busy or tired or hurting or afraid. We replay the stories of our failures and our fears. But we have to hear and remember the stories of our power, the stories of how deeply loved we are, the stories of how we are the children of God. We have to hear and remember these stories if we are going to be empowered to rise up to our true names and to live the truth of them. That’s what we come here for. These moments we spend together each Sunday – this is our beginning, our new beginning, our chance again to claim and be claimed by the truth.
But what do we do for all those other minutes and hours, when we aren’t in church and we aren’t at prayer? How can we believe in our power and our name, when so much in us and around us runs counter to the truth of who we are and who we’re meant to be? Well, that’s where our community comes in.
Our power is not meant to be a solitary thing. We aren’t called to be heroes. We’re called to be community. Belovedis the name each one of us wears, but it is also our name together, the Beloved Community. And we are crucial to helping each other claim our true, shared identity and power. So we have to commit. We have to give ourselves to the ongoing work of speaking that truth to each other: you are beloved. We have to give ourselves to the work of showing that truth in action to each other: you are so loved.
Over this past year, when I have learned so much about the limits of my power over the circumstances of my life and the lives of others, the biggest thing I have learned the depth of strength and power that comes simply from being well loved by others. It’s a power that is not about changing unchangeable circumstances but about rising up, within any circumstance, together. I can tell you for a fact that this kind of power – the power that comes from being loved by community – this power is life-changing. And if all of us would commit to it, it would have to be world-changing, too.
Four-and-a-half years ago, I took a group of teenagers and parents to Nicaragua, on our first trip to work with AMOS Health & Hope. Our first weekend there, we went to an outdoor church service in Nandasmo, where Pastor Ricardo was baptizing several teenagers in a large concrete baptismal pool. We all crowded around to watch as each teen, one at a time, climbed up and over, into the pool with him. We listened to Pastor Ricardo’s words, we sang, we prayed, as one by one these teenagers went under the waters – buried with Christ in faith, raised to walk in newness of life. And then one person came forward who wasn’t a teenager. She was an older woman, and she seemed nervous. She was helped into the pool with Pastor Ricardo. She was trembling. He said his baptismal words over her and started to baptize her … and she resisted. She was too scared to go under the water. I gathered that she couldn’t swim. She looked like she might cry.
He tried again. He soothed her. He explained to her that it was okay. It was going to be so brief. He said the baptismal words over her and tried to dip her under the water …and she resisted again. She was so scared. He tried again. And again. But every time it was time for her to go under, she just couldn’t do it. She kept trying to believe the pastor, that everything would be okay. She understood rationally that it was all right. But sometimes understanding a thing rationally and trusting your life to it are two different things.
Here is how the woman was finally baptized. Pastor Ricardo wrapped his arms around her. He held her close. He prayed with her. He said his baptismal words. And then, with both his arms still wrapped tightly around her, he plunged under the water with her. They went under together. And they rose up together, too. This is what true power is and what it does – it comes alongside, it companions, it wraps arms around others and goes into the darkness, the difficulty, the chaos, not to fix or control but to accompany, to love, and to rise, together, to one, true name: Beloved. That’s who you are.