Text: Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
These are the descendants, the sons and daughter of Zimmie and Lela Floyd: Howard, Ray, Sod, Jack and Lillian. Their descendants numbered ten. From Lillian, the only daughter, came two descendants: John Donald and Robert. From John Donald came two more descendants: Allyson Don and Nancy Ellen. These are the descendants of Zimmie and Lela Floyd in the land of New House, in the county of Cleveland, situated in the state of North Carolina.
Well, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as “These are the descendants of Noah’s sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth; children were born to them after the flood.” Then we read the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth. Chapter after chapter detailing every descendant of Noah. I had forgotten until I looked back this week how many verses in Genesis are dedicated to linage and genealogy. Remember all those begets that you hated to read in Sunday school? Names and places that were and still are practically impossible to pronounce. And, if you were like me, you sat there wondering why? Why are these names so important? Does it really matter who begat whom?
But it’s not just the genealogies, lineages, or the begets that beg the question of “Why?” when it comes to some of the biblical content. We can ask the same “why” question of the whole book of Deuteronomy and Leviticus and all of those Sabbath, priestly and purity laws that the people were to follow. Passage after passage like: “You are children of the Lord your God. You must not lacerate yourselves or shave your forelocks for the dead…You shall not eat any abhorrent thing. These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roebuck, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope, and the mountain-sheep. Any animal that divides the hoof and has the hoof cleft in two, and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat. Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cleft you shall not eat these: the camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not divide the hoof; they are unclean for you.” Leviticus continues with those famous passages about not eating anything in the seas or the streams that does not have fins and scales, i.e. shrimp; or Leviticus 19 that says “…you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials.” Why do the biblical writers take up so much space with things such as begets; and what animal you can eat and not eat dependent on how their feet are formed; or whether you can wear you cashmere sweater with your leather belt and blended spandex pants. Why?
Maybe one response to the “why” could be that the stories recorded in the pages of the Bible are first and foremost the stories of a people seeking to shape and define their identity. Specifically, they are attempting to establish their identity as a people of faith living in a secular world. Maybe not secular in the ways we think of that word. But for certain they were living in a time when different deities and powers called for their devotion and allegiance. And they needed some way to remember and recount their identity from the very beginnings of their narrative: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and every living creature. And God created humankind in God’s own image, male and female, God created them. And from there the beginning pages of scripture list the descendants as told by the creation story in the Christian Bible. Not simply to take up space or drive us crazy but to connect us to the one who created us; to connect us to one another; to connect us to all of creation; to shape and define our spiritual identity.
Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke’s telling of Jesus’ baptism continues the narrative that seeks to shape and define us as a people of a particular faith—our spiritual identity. The first seven verses of Isaiah 43 is one of the most beautiful sacred writings in all of literature. “But now thus says the Lord, the One who created you, O Jacob, the One who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the deep waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame will not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One, the One to bring you wholeness…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” At the very heart of the prophet’s words is our spiritual identity as a people. We are God’s people. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter, no matter, no matter, we are God’s beloved people and God will not abandon us, ever. No matter how out of control the world around us may spin, we need not fear for God will bring us to wholeness. We are not, as the world would tell us, what we do. We are not, as the world would tell us, what others say about us. We are not, as the world would tell us, what we have. We are the beloved and being the beloved means we need not fear a world consumed by greed and power and violence and hate and consumption. Yes, we may experience brokenness but we are not broken. We are redeemed by the One who calls us, simply yet profoundly, the beloved!
I want to be careful here. I don’t believe the world is a bad place. The world is a beautiful place, it is God’s creation. But the voices of the world, including Christian voices, very often send us messages that are counter to proclaiming our beloved status. And honestly, there are places in the Bible that seem to forget that we are all God’s beloved. But when we look for the thread that runs from Genesis, to Leviticus, to the Gospels, the thread that holds the narrative together, we find God’s love. This world often runs counter to the peaceful commonwealth God envisions, but it is this world that we live in. And with all the challenges we face in our world today, perhaps our most sacred task is that of living in it as people who truly believe and act as beloved people. How do we live a spiritual life in a very secular world? We do so by living into our identity as God’s beloved. No matter what might happen in the world. No matter what waters we pass through or fires that threaten to consume us. No matter how down we might feel about ourselves or how destructive humankind might act, we are the ones to give witness to God’s love and compassion and hope. First and foremost, we must continue writing the story, shaping and defining our identity as Beloved people.
Henri Nouwen writes these words to his friend Fred about living the life of the Beloved:
As those who are blessed, broken, and given, we are called to live our lives with a deep inner joy and peace. It is the life of the Beloved, lived in a world constantly trying to convince us that the burden in on us to prove that we are worthy of being loved.
But what of the other side of it all? What of our desire to build a career, your hope for success and fame and our dream of making a name for ourselves? Is that to be despised? Are these aspirations in opposition to the spiritual life? Some people might answer “yes” to that question and counsel you to leave the fast pace of the big city and look for a milieu where you can pursue the spiritual life without restraints. But I don’t think that’s your way. I don’t believe that your place is in a monastery…or the solitude of the countryside. I would say, even, that the city with its challenges is not such a bad place…The world is only evil when you become its slave. The world has a lot of offer—just as Egypt did for the children of Jacob—as long as you don’t feel bound to obey it. The great struggle facing you is not to leave the world, to reject your ambitions and aspirations…but to claim your spiritual truth and to live in the world as someone who doesn’t belong to it.
I believe deeply that all the good things our world has to offer are yours to enjoy. But you can enjoy them truly only when you can acknowledge them as affirmation of the truth that you are the Beloved of God. That truth will set you free to receive the beauty of nature and culture in gratitude, as a sign of you Belovedness. That truth will allow you to receive the gifts you receive from your society and celebrate life. But that truth will also allow you to let go of what distracts you, confuses you and puts in jeopardy the life of the Spirit within you.
And so with Nouwen’s words, and with all those begets and Sabbath/purity/priestly laws that seem to mean very little to us at face value, and holding onto that thread that runs throughout the biblical narrative—that thread that shapes and defines our spiritual identity as Beloved—hear the words Jesus heard at his baptism, “You are my daughter/my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
You may have walked into this sanctuary today not feeling very much like the Beloved. For certain, we all have days when we don’t feel loved or beloved. Especially on those days, when the world’s worries and challenges have a tight hold on you, grab a hold of that thread that holds together our faith narrative from beginning to end: You are God’s beloved!