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January 9, 2021
I got curious recently about how New Year’s resolutions originated. There’s conflicting information out there, but some historians trace their beginnings back to the Babylonian Empire.[i] In 2000 BC the Babylonians celebrated the new year during a 12-day festival at the start of the farming season. They would plant crops, crown their king, and pay their debts. People often resolved to return the farm equipment they had borrowed from their neighbors.
The Romans eventually adopted the practice of having new year’s rituals, shifting those to January 1 on their calendar. January, a month named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, one looking back for reflection and one looking forward to new beginnings. Later, in the Middle Ages, medieval knights would take time at the dawn of a new year to renew their vow to chivalry by placing their hands on a peacock.
Resolutions in this country were often religious or spiritual in nature. People in the early 1900’s sought to have a stronger moral character or to resist temptations to earthly pleasures. But in looking at a list of the most common resolutions from 1947 and from today, I noticed some commonalities. At least three resolutions appeared on both top ten lists: Get healthier. Lose weight. Save more money. Lose weight moved from the #10 resolution to the #1 slot. Being more religious or going to church more often disappeared from the list altogether.
It’s worth asking what voices are shaping our resolutions. I should no longer be surprised – and yet I am – by how the ads in my online feeds are flooded at this time of year with all kinds of products and programs that promise to help me lose weight, get organized, and change my life in countless other ways, usually as quickly and easily as possible. The suggestion seems to be that I am an absolute disaster in need of immediate intervention. So many of these ads prey on our innate insecurities. They whisper in our ears: “You are not good enough. You are not a good person or partner or parent or student or friend. Your body is definitely not good enough.” Those voices are insidious, and as much as we try to ignore them, they can often leave us feeling inadequate, unworthy, unloved.
Today’s gospel begins with telling us that the people were “filled with expectation,” in this case the expectation that their long-awaited messiah might finally have arrived. They longed for the liberation that the messiah would bring, freedom from the various forms of oppression that they had long faced, an assurance of protection in the midst of danger. They’re so eager for the fulfilment of these promises that they think John might be their guy. But of course John points to Jesus, the true messiah, who shows up to begin his earthly ministry.
That ministry begins with baptism. In Luke’s account we don’t get too many details about the baptism itself, which suggests to me that we often fixate too much on the logistics of baptism more than what is actually happening in that moment. The Gospel of Luke focuses more on what happens just after the baptism – heaven opens, the Holy Spirit descends, and a voice from heaven says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The same thing happened when you were baptized. God said: “You are my child, and you are beloved. Nothing can every change that.” I wonder what would happen if we could hold on to that voice more clearly than all the voices telling us how we fall short.
I’m not saying that we should ignore opportunities to be healthier and happier. If you are trying to repair a relationship that is broken, if you want to bring more energy to your daily life, if you seek some calm in the midst of the chaos, by all means set those goals and be intentional about pursuing them. But don’t believe for a second that you have to do any of those things in order to be more loved by God.
Our spiritual lives can be central to all of those pursuits. Notice that Jesus hears that voice from heaven most clearly when he is praying. He’s still dripping with the waters of his baptism, and as he prays, he is reassured: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Whenever Martin Luther felt emotionally or spiritually tormented (and that happened a lot), he would often say to himself: “Baptizatus sum”…I am baptized.”[ii] He reminded his tortured heart that he was a beloved child of God, and it comforted him.
Professor and Pastor Henri Nouwen dedicated an entire book to reflecting on what it means to be beloved, using the story of Jesus’ baptism as his inspiration. He addresses the book to a friend, and in it he observes that friendship is all about giving to each other the gift of our Belovedness.[iii] Nouwen acknowledges how vital it is to take that voice that breaks into the world – “You are my Beloved” – and to hold it within us, even as the voices in the world shout at us and try to make us feel unworthy.
What might it look like if we lived so that our friendships and other relationships gave each other the gift of our belovedness? What if we everything that we did and said honored the belovedness in each other, so much so that those other voices that are trying to sell us quick fixes are silenced? They no longer get to drown out the truth that God loves each of us in an unshakeable way.
I want you to hear this morning the same words that Nouwen wrote to his friend, which are these: “All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being— ‘You are the Beloved.’” Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[iii] Nouwen, Henri J. M.. Life of the Beloved (pp. 30-31). The Crossroad Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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