Becoming the Beloved (Sermon)

“Becoming the Beloved”

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

1/9/22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 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.” (NRSV)

Luke 3 begins with John the Baptist roiling human hearts with prophecy and the Jordan River with baptisms.

From the wilderness, his lonely voice cries, “Repent!”

And the crowds ask, How?

         While tailoring specific answers for specific groups of people, John remains consistent: Deal generously, fairly, justly, humbly, and gratefully with everyone—including yourselves.

True repentance is as straightforward and simple as it is complicated and challenging. It’s about far more than admitting and “feeling sorry” for past mistakes. It’s about turning toward and living a new and different life right now. It’s about loving God and neighbor by working for justice for those who are poor, forgotten, and exploited. It’s about stewarding the earth, treating it like we’re borrowing it from future generations—because we are.

Apparently moved by John, the crowds wonder out loud, Could this be the Messiah?

         And John says, No. A different baptism awaits you at the hands of “one more powerful than I.”

         Ironically, the more powerful one of whom John speaks, shows up seeking John’s baptism of repentance—like everyone else. And like almost everyone else in Luke’s gospel, John doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Indeed, Luke suggests that not until Jesus sloshes back up on the riverbank and begins to pray does even he begin to understand that he is the Beloved. And Jesus demonstrates that it’s in living the life of repentance that one really begins to understand and to become the Beloved.

         When John’s listeners ask what they need to do to help make crooked paths straight and rough places smooth, John gives practical instructions. And while those instructions are illuminating and helpful, many of us need more than instructions. And to the extent that rigid theologies often short-leash spiritual growth, we need farmore than abstract doctrine. We need a flesh-and-blood guide who exemplifies the life of the Beloved. We also need that guide to take the next and even more vital step—the step of freeing us to recognize the Beloved within us, within the people around us, and within the earth that sustains us. As God’s Beloved, Jesus redeems us by revealing and releasing the spiritual inheritance of our own Belovedness.

In the early 1980’s, Henri Nouwen, the Dutch theologian and mystic, sat down with a young New York Times journalist named Fred Bratman. Bratman, a secular Jew, had been told that Dr. Nouwen might provide good material for an article. Thinking “potboiler,” but needing a story, Bratman traveled to Yale University where Nouwen served on the seminary faculty. After a tedious and uninspired interview, Nouwen said to Bratman, “Tell me, do you like your job?”

         “Not really,” said Bratman, “but it’s a job.”1

         What do you want to do? asked Nouwen.

Write a novel, said Bratman.

So do it.

I don’t have the talent.

Sure you do.

I don’t have time or money.

Excuses, said Nouwen.

Reality, said Bratman.

         Come here and write, said Nouwen. Yale loves artists-in-residence. I can make that happen.

         Eventually, Fred Bratman did go to Yale to write. He never finished a novel, but the two men became friends. After Bratman’s residence, they visited each other back and forth between New Haven and New York. Nouwen remembers feeling overwhelmed by the noise, the pace, and the angst of his friend’s harried and spiritually unattached big-city life. And Bratman apparently felt something genuine in Nouwen, something he trusted and to which he became willing to listen.

         During one of Nouwen’s visits, Bratman said, “Why don’t you write something about the spiritual life for me and my friends?”

         Like Bratman earlier, Nouwen balked. He had heard that request from friends and family who had left the church or who had never been, and didn’t want to be, associated with any religious tradition. And he had never been able to start that conversation.

“How [do I do that]?” Henri asked.

“‘Speak from that place in your heart where you are most yourself,” said Bratman. “Speak directly, simply, lovingly, gently, and without any apologies. Tell us what you see and what you want us to see; what you hear and what you want us to hear…Trust your own heart. The words will come.’”2

Nouwen eventually sat down and wrote a book for Bratman. And he recalled searching for a word that would remain as a kind of gift to those who had asked for the book. Referencing the story of Jesus’ baptism, he settled on the word Beloved. Nouwen had studied that word. He’d preached and lectured on it. And as he focused on it as a metaphor for spiritual practice, it took on new life. So, he titled his book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.

In the book, Nouwen tells Bratman that the phrase, “‘You are my Beloved,’ reveal[s] the most intimate truth about all human beings, whether they belong to any particular tradition or not…[and] my only desire,” says Nouwen, “is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved…’ Being the Beloved is the origin and the fulfillment of the life of the Spirit.”3

It’s a brief but spacious book, full of grace and wisdom. And it missed the mark.

While Bratman did appreciate that his friend had written honestly and lovingly, the language presumed things alien to him. Failing to appreciate just how far apart their worlds were, Nouwen assumed that his readers would understand God language—how to hear it, how to speak it. And that’s where he lost Bratman and his friends.

Initially disappointed, Nouwen would learn that his book did have transforming effect on many who were familiar with the language of Belovedness. In fact, the book helped Nouwen become a kind of guide to many who wanted to follow Jesus more closely into the challenges and possibilities of a Beloved life.

Nouwen writes that even if Belovedness is a birthright for God’s children, truly becoming the Beloved requires practice. “Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do.”4

The life of the Beloved happens in the often-messy realities of incarnate existence. We become The Beloved by giving water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, shelter to the refugee, clothing to those who are cold, grace to the enemy. We become The Beloved by seeking solitude and stillness in the world’s chaos, by living generously amid the world’s selfishness, and peaceably amid its violence. We become The Beloved by following Jesus—by living as he lived.

And brothers and sisters, that is the repentance of which both John and Jesus spoke.

So, may you be always aware of your own Belovedness, and the Belovedness of everyone around you.

And may you be always aware of Jesus, the universal and eternal Christ, guiding you from within and without.

1Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular Word. Crossroad Publishing, NY, NY, 1992. P. 10. (*All references to the relationship between Henri Nouwen and Fred Bratman come from this book. Only longer quotations are footnoted.)

2Ibid. p. 20.

3Ibid. pp. 26 and 37.

4Ibib. pp. 38-39.

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