This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. These are the kind of words that would make almost anyone sit up a little taller if addressed to them by some authority, let alone heaven itself. How much time do we spend with this question about the people in our lives? Are you happy with me? Is everyone ok? Am I ok? Am I enough? It can be a strong motivating factor in many of our decisions, keeping the peace, garnering approval. Jesus doesn’t need to worry about it, apparently. Perhaps this is what allowed him to be so cool headed. So confrontational. God is pleased with me. I am the beloved. What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve often struggled with this passage from the Gospel in the idea that I am supposed to somehow internalize the same message for myself. If I could just believe that I, too, am God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased, so much more would go right with my life. If I could believe that God was happy with me, maybe I wouldn’t be so greedy, so insecure, so anxious. Maybe I would be less concerned with whether people like me and more concerned with what my neighbor really needs. As nice as that sounds, it rarely happens. Part of that is because God’s love and approval can seem so intangible. I blame it on the lack of a voice booming from the heavens in my daily life. When a friend is happy with me I can usually tell, he might laugh at my jokes, or at least give me a consoling pat on the back if the joke isn’t so funny. How do I know if God is happy with me? The birds singing? Hitting all green lights on the way to work when I’ve already left 15 minutes late? I don’t buy it. Another factor at play is that I have a lot for God to be unhappy about. God can be kind of hard to please if you’ve read much of the rest of the bible. This moment at Jesus’ baptism is so amazing in part because aside from calling everything he makes good in creation, for much of the rest of the story God is engaged in one long facepalm. So much so that one book on my shelf, a humorous digest of the entire bible into about 100 pages is simply called, “God is Disappointed In You.” We’re actually kind of famous for getting it wrong, (see the disciples), and I’m no exception. I’m am pretty convinced that the affluence and privilege I enjoy at the expense of much of the rest of the population of the world is actually a great affront to the many laws God has suggested about sharing the abundance of what we have with the stranger and the alien in our land. How do we reconcile a God who wants to be pleased with us with a God who wants to see a world free from violence and corruption?
The short answer is that we don’t reconcile them, Jesus does. In Jesus, we see that God is not waiting for us to earn his approval to show us his love. In Jesus, the disciples learned that for as many times as they got it wrong and messed things up God was never going to abandon them. In Jesus we see that God’s love and God’s pleasure is actually supernatural, actually un-natural in a way, in the sense that it is beyond what we might find in nature, beyond the self-protective instinct, beyond the desperate human concern for self-preservation. In Jesus’ death, we see that God is unconcerned with protecting himself from this final threat, and if God’s love is free from the threat of death, God’s love is free to be given regardless of anything we may or may not have done to deserve it.
This is what we are baptized into. A death which kills death. A death to fear and selfishness. A love which we could never earn or deserve on our own. We are not baptized into God’s approval, which is very good news for us. God’s approval is daunting, because God’s pleasure is in a creation that looks radically different than what we have made out of this world. Bringing about God’s good pleasure means letting go of many of the things which have become pleasing to us. But we need not be afraid, because God’s approval is loosed from God’s love in Jesus. We are God’s beloved world, God’s beloved church, not because we were well-pleasing in his sight, but simply because in Jesus we have seen that God is love. Living into this love, and the promises we make when we discover it, we will then find ourselves transformed in the body of Christ to bring about God’s good pleasure which follows. For us, our baptismal message might be changed to say: This is my beloved child, now let’s get to work.