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January 17, 2017, 8:37 AM

Beloved


Matthew 3:13-17  CEB
13 At that time Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan River so that John would baptize him. 14 John tried to stop him and said, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
15 Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
So John agreed to baptize Jesus. 16 When Jesus was baptized, he immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.17 A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
 
Beloved
 
Dearly loved…Beloved. God calls Jesus ‘the dearly loved,’ or ‘the Beloved’ twice in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is here, at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he stands in the Jordan River with the water of his washing still dripping from him. The second time is toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, close to his crucifixion, as he stands on Transfiguration mountain with the light of glory radiating off of him. Beloved—dearly loved, precious, adored, cherished, treasured. Beloved is a rare word. It speaks of an intimate relationship. It isn’t a word we use much. It’s special. Beloved is a term of endearment we reserve for those who are closest to our hearts: parent, spouse, child, sibling, a friend who is more like family. Beloved is for those people we love and know well enough that we can use those loving names—sweetheart, honey, dear, love.
 
So, as God speaks ‘Beloved’ into this moment, it seems very, very intimate. At first glance it seems like we are listening in on a very intimate exchange of love within the Triune God as Jesus accepts his commission and is revealed as the Messiah, the Savior and Redeemer. But look at what God says again, “This is my Son, the Beloved, my chosen delight.” That last little bit is hard to translate. In the Greek the words are trying to convey that emotion you feel when you gaze at your beloved and are filled with emotion. “This is my Son, the Beloved, my chosen delight.” It sounds like God is not speaking directly to Jesus, though Jesus certainly hears this loving words. No, God is speaking to John the Baptist, to the crowd, to the readers of Matthew, to us. “This is my Son, the Beloved…for you.”
 
In this intimate and holy moment in the waters of the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness, God offers Jesus to us as the ultimate grace, the ultimate unconditional gift. “This is my Son, the Beloved, for you.” And in that understanding, of God offering God’s Beloved, God’s Son, God’s Self, to us, we begin to see that this word—beloved—is meant for us as well. “This,” God says, “this is how much I adore you, how much I cherish you. This is my Son, my Beloved, for you, my dearest loves.” Sometimes I can catch a glimpse of this holy and sacred truth, this holy and sacred good news, this love that God has for me, for you, for all the lovely earth creatures fashioned in God’s holy image. I catch a glimpse when I look at my beloveds, at Doug or Devyn or Aidan, and am filled with such incredible love for them. And in that moment it occurs to me that what I’m feeling is just a trickle of the love that God has for us. It can take your breath away.
 
However, when I catch this glimpse and then catch my breath, I am also left struggling with my own response to such love. I know up here (taps head) that I am to love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind, and all my strength. But I have to ask myself, can I in turn call God my Beloved? Love among us earth creatures can be tricky. My beloveds are physically present in my life. I can see them, touch them, talk with them and hear their responses. I can interact with them daily in a very tangible way. They are part of the fabric of my day-to-day life, a part of my identity, almost part of my DNA. But God is not so tangible. God is often known in a much more abstract way, which can make it hard to view God as Beloved. That reality seems even more real in this season of Epiphany.
 
Epiphany is this season we celebrate between Christmas and Lent in which we hear some amazing stories of Jesus appearing and being revealed to God’s people and all creation. The season begins with the story we heard last week of the visiting magi and an amazing star in the sky that revealed to the scientists that a king had been born. Today we hear the story of the heavens opening up, the Spirit of God descending, and God’s voice booming from the heavens. Next week Jesus will appear on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and walk right up to some fishermen and call them into a new life. We will spend time on the mountain with Jesus as he preaches his famous sermon that begins with beatitudes. The Epiphany season ends with that Transfiguration mountain and another “Beloved.” We will be surrounded with all of these stories of tangible, intimate moments where Jesus reveals himself to his disciples and the crowds. Perhaps if I, if we, could experience just one of these moments for ourselves we too could gaze heavenward and cry out “Beloved” to our God.
 
I was mulling such thoughts in my head when I encountered a beautiful and powerful blog by Debie Thomas on the Journey with Jesus site entitled “This Places, Deep Water.” Thin places is a term coined by the Celtic church for those moments when the separation between earth and heaven seems to thin and we can touch, for a moment, the divine. In the blog, Debie challenged this tendency to want to wait for an experience of epiphany to hit us, for in this waiting we often get distracted by worldly things and miss any chance of epiphany. Debie challenged that Epiphany is not something we wait to experience, it is something we practice. We practice opening ourselves to an encounter with the divine, and this very practice opens us and makes us more receptive. Practice focuses our attention and our lives so that we are more aware of God’s work already happening around us, those thin places already in our midst. How very Wesleyan this is. Our founder, John Wesley, had three simple rules for those who wish to follow Jesus: Do no harm, do good, practice—stay in love with God—attend to the means of grace. Wesley taught that we stay in love with God through engaging in practices that helped us to connect and focus on God—worship, prayer, study, fasting, service.
 
Last week we spoke about the fact that the church is a living entity—the Body of Christ—and we are all parts of that amazing Body. And as a living organism, the Body of Christ, the Church, has a life cycle. One hundred and eighty six years ago, First United Methodist Church was born as First Methodist Episcopal. We had some toddler years, and then elementary years. We grew into adolescents and then in to adulthood. We reached a full maturity and a peak of physical activity, but now we find ourselves in decline. But we are the Body of Christ, the Easter Christ. Resurrection is a part of who we are, and rebirth, and new life, and new creation. We can infuse our DNA, the blueprint of who we are, with that new life and new vision that Christ has for us. A vital part of that DNA is the A, for Affection—a passion and devotion for our God and for one another—Beloved. We must practice staying in love with God. We must practice calling God our Beloved. And we must do this through more than worship and prayer together. We must come together in study and small groups. We must learn again the spiritual practice of fasting—giving something up to make more room for God. We must be actively engaged in serving one another and the larger community and world. We must practice through ordering our lives to purposefully make time to build our relationship with God. As we journey through Epiphany and into Lent, let us commit to embrace service, study, prayer, worship, and fasting together, as the Body of Christ.
 
In just a few moments, we have the wonderful joy of coming to the waters of baptism. As we come I hope and pray we will hear God whispering ‘Beloved!”—of Jesus, to us. As we touch the waters may we encounter one of those thin places where God’s kingdom becomes real and we are kissed by grace. And in response, may we commit ourselves to a more intentional practicing of staying in love with God, of calling God our Beloved in return. Amen.

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