My Beloved

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “My Beloved” Matthew 3:13-17

Researchers have found that the most important thing we can do to have healthy, happy, caring children is to love them.  Brain scans conducted over time at Washington University in St. Louis indicate that children with loving and supportive parents experience greater growth in the hippocampus.  That’s the region deep within the brain that is essential for memory, learning, and handling stress, all crucial factors in creating adaptive, resourceful human beings. 

Parental love is also critical for the development of self-esteem. Richard Filson and Mary Zielinski conducted landmark research in the 1980s at the University of Albany.  They learned that the most significant factor in a child’s development of healthy self-esteem is parental love and support.  Regardless of the child’s ability or aptitude, encouragement, attention, and constancy of love equipped children with a sense of competence and resilience.

Love is good for the health of our children.  Researchers at UCLA have found that children who experience low levels of love and affection, especially those who are abused, are at significant health risk, not only throughout childhood but also later in life.  Children who feel at-risk and little loved are exposed to toxic levels of stress that can affect every system in the body. Adults who emerge from an unloving nest are at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness.

Dr. Barbara Frederickson of UNC Chapel Hill has determined that the experience of a loving childhood makes us better people.  Love enhances the social awareness of our children and their feelings of connection to others.  Well-loved children are more likely to have healthy relationships and feelings of oneness with others.  Children who have early loving relationships with their parents grow up to be more compassionate adults, better able to share love, empathy, and caring with those around them.

The social and scientific evidence is clear, children thrive on love.  They need our attention and praise.  They need our encouragement and kindness.  They need our willingness to engage, teach, and support. Our capacity to love our children makes a huge difference in every aspect of their lives.  When you consider the implications, our nurture and care have a powerful impact not only upon the child, but also upon our world.

In our gospel lesson today, we hear the voice of God, calling from the heavens as Jesus emerges from the waters of his baptism.  God sounds a lot like a good parent, doing all those things that it has taken researchers 2,000 years, countless hours of observation, and plenty of brain scans to figure out.  God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved. I take delight in him.” 

That theophany is a holy affirmation that Jesus belongs to God—God’s child, specially loved, a source of joy, deserving of praise.  As Jesus was baptized in the muddy Jordan, he hadn’t even begun his ministry.  Not one sermon had been preached.  Not one miracle had been worked—no lepers or paralytics healed, no demons cast out or blind eyes opened.  Jesus had not changed the water into wine, walked on water, stilled the storm, or multiplied the loaves and fish.  All that ministry and mission would lie ahead of him. 

Truly, in the eyes of the first century world, Jesus hadn’t done a darned thing to deserve God’s love.  On the banks of the Jordan stood a poor pious carpenter from a backwater town in Galilee.  But apparently Jesus didn’t have to do anything to earn God’s love.  God’s limitless and overflowing love was simply there in abundance, sailing down from the heavens, calling over the waters.  I like to think that as Jesus basked in that holy love, he found that he was filled with love, and he longed for his neighbors to also know their belovedness.

If, as all four gospels suggest, Jesus’ baptism is the point of departure from which his ministry would spring, then the most important faith lesson that we can ever learn is that we are loved.  Yet we live in a world where many of us are estranged from the belovedness that all the researchers say we need to thrive, grow, and be whole.

We may come from families where our parents were too stressed out, worn out, or down and out to share the sort of open and abundant love that researchers believe we need as children.  In our experience, love may be conditional, dependent upon the neatness of our room, the grades on our report card, or how well we perform on the athletic field.  Our love and trust may have been ill-used by a hyper-critical parent, or a significant other who has broken our heart, or a best friend who betrayed our confidence.  We may feel little love from our peers in a society where the measure of our worth isn’t determined by how God sees us, but by the size of our paycheck, the car we drive, or the title we bear.  Sometimes, we feel unloved because we haven’t been very loving ourselves, and we can’t imagine that others would still love us.  We’ve hurt others, sinned, or rejected God’s love for us. 

Life and personal experience wear us down, leaving us alienated and estranged, forgetful that we are beloved.  We fail to understand that God’s love is always there for us.  In our baptisms, God whispers to each of us, “You are my beloved child.  I take delight in you.”

The love of God that surrounded Jesus at his baptism was the great and driving force of his ministry. Jesus was all about love. He taught his friends to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  On the night of his arrest, Jesus instructed his disciples that they must love one another as he had loved them.  Jesus reached out to the world, his every act a miracle of love.  He dared to love those who were little loved: the sinner, the outcast, the Samaritan, the Roman slave, the uppity women.  You might even say that Jesus poured himself out in love, God’s holy love shining through him to heal and redeem our broken world.  Truly, the beloved son gave his life, so that we might know that God loves us enough to die for us. God’s love is always there for us in abundance, sailing down from the heavens, calling over the waters of our own baptisms, living and breathing in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

If we page ahead to the end of Matthew’s gospel, we hear the risen Lord giving a final great commandment to his friends, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  The theologians and masters of church doctrine like to debate what Jesus really meant with his imperative for Christians to go out there and baptize.  They teach that in baptism we are cleansed of our sins, grafted into the body of Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Those are good things to know.

But as your local theologian on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, I believe it could be a whole lot simpler. 

I like to think that the Lord’s great commandment to go forth and baptize was all about love. In this world where too many people know too little love, Jesus wanted folks to know the immeasurable love of God that he experienced as he stood in the waters of the River Jordan and heard that holy voice, claiming, affirming, and loving him.  Jesus longed for the world to know God’s love, for the world to know his love. If they followed his great commission, then the disciples could be a little like spiritual parents, going forth to make that much-needed holy love known to a world hungry for it. The Lord envisioned baptism, like an unstoppable tide of love, sweeping over our world, from 1st century Palestine, across the Roman Empire, and down through the centuries to this day. 

On this baptism of the Lord Sunday, allow me to act in loco parentis.  May we hear the holy words that we all need to have healthy brains and bodies, sound self-esteem, and caring relationships.  This is God’s promise for you, “You are my beloved child. I take delight in you.”

Resources:

Karyn Wiseman. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 12, 2014. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Warren Carter. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 8, 2017. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Stephanie Crowder. “Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17” in Preaching This Week, Jan. 12, 2020. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Jim Dryden. “Mom’s Love Good for Child’s Brain” in The Source, Washington University in St. Louis. Jan. 30, 2012. Accessed online at https://source.wustl.edu.

Ronald B. Filson and Mary Zielinski. “Children’s Self-Esteem and Parental Support” in the Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 51, no. 3. August 1989, pp. 727-735. Accessed online at www.jstor.org.

Enrique Rivero. “Lack of Parental Warmth, Abuse in Childhood Linked to Multiple Health Risks in Adulthood” in UCLA Newsroom, Sept. 30, 2013. Accessed online at https://newsroomucla.edu.

Maryam Abdullah. “With Kids, Love Is in the Little Things” in Greater Good Magazine: Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life. June 18, 2019. Accessed online at greatergood.berkeley.edu.


Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


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Remember Your Baptism

Qasr el Yahud, West Bank Territory, 2017

On the second Sunday in January, Christians remember Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. I’ve visited two baptismal sites in the Holy Land. Yardenit in the north, near the Sea of Galilee, has plentiful, clear water that invites the pilgrim to jump in for a rite of baptismal remembrance. Qasr el Yahud in the south, near the Dead Sea, isn’t nearly so inviting. By the time the Jordan reaches Qasr el Yahud, the river has been hard at work, irrigating fields and orchards. I’m told that, until a few years ago, raw sewage was sometimes pumped into the river, making your remembrance unsafe. Nowadays, the river is relatively clean, albeit muddy. The vegetation along the banks is thick and resounds with the twitter of birds. This photo was taken at the end of April on the Israeli side. It was a blisteringly hot morning. Three new Christians were preparing for baptism. Across the river, Jordanian worshipers also gathered for baptismal remembrance. Soldiers in uniform, on both sides of the Jordan, kept watch with rifles at the ready.


Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”–Luke 3:21-22