Here is one of my all-time favorite sermon jokes. Some of you have heard it before, but it has an infinite number of possible punch lines. A young Sioux Indian says to his mother, “Tell me the story about how my big brother, Soaring Eagle, got his name?” The mother nostalgically answers, “Well, it happened like this… just after he was born, your father stepped outside and the first thing he saw was a majestic eagle circling in the sky overhead and this is how your brother got his name.” The child then says, “Tell me the story of how my sister, Leaping Deer, got her name.” “Well, it happened like this,” the mother responds, “Just after she was born, your father stepped outside and the first thing he saw was a beautiful deer jumping gracefully over a thicket of shrubs.” “And mother,” the little boy says, “tell me how I got my name.” The mother scoops him up in her arms, looks him in the eyes, and lovingly says, “Well, Kitty Coughing Up a Hairball, it happened like this…”
One of the on-going features of being human is the quest for identity. Who am I? Who should I be? Most of us borrow from a wide variety of images and inspirations to construct some kind of identity to which we aspire. We imagine we should have the body of a swimsuit model or NFL quarterback, be as successful as Bill Gates, and as charismatic as a late night talk show host. Our homes should look like Martha Stewart’s, our parenting skills should be as magical as a dog whisper, our charity should emulate Mother Teresa, and our inner peace should rival the Dali Lama’s. Maybe you set your sights a little lower, but you get the idea. When it comes to constructing an identity, the human tendency is to set the standard impossibly high.
Perhaps the answer is to aim lower, but even this approach ignores a fundamental question: we must decide if we are going to try to achieve our life or receive it. We must settle for ourselves a question as old as the scriptures: do I earn my salvation through hard work and good moral behavior or do I receive it as a free gift from God? Do I merit what I get in life or does all come through grace? Do I make myself into who I am or receive my identity from the God who knows me through and through?
On the first Sunday in Lent we always encounter the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation. They are set next to each other as a companion to the first three chapters in the book of Genesis. In chapter one of Genesis, God brings forth creation and at the end of each day pronounces pleasure at what has come to pass. At the end of the sixth day, after the creation of the human family, God is said to be very pleased. And then in chapter three, the humans encounter temptation. Will they trust in God to provide all that is good and necessary or will they reach beyond their bounds to look for these things in ways other than God has provided? Whereas Adam and Eve succumb to temptation, Jesus does not. He lives as God intends for all of us to live. The blessing he receives from God, Paul says, he passes on to all of us.
I want you to notice something very important from today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is baptized and as he comes up out of the water he sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending on him in the form of a dove. And then he hears a heavenly voice say, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” With you I am well pleased!
In Mark’s gospel, this episode takes place at the absolute beginning of the record about Jesus. There is no mention of the origins of his divine birth. He has not yet resisted temptation. He has done no miracles. He has not healed anyone. He has not taught a single parable. He has confronted no corruption. He has forgiven no sin. He has not yet offered himself to death on a cross. Jesus, at this point in the gospel story, has achieved literally nothing. And yet it is precisely at this point God pronounces Jesus ‘the Beloved’ and says, as God said of Adam long ago, “with you I am well pleased.”
God loves, not because we have done something lovable, but because God loves. God gives, not because we have done something to deserve it, but because God gives. God forgives, not because we confesses and repent of sin, but because God forgives.
Think about the things that matter most in your life; things like family and friendships and health and a sense of calling or purpose in life. The blessings that matter most to us have come to us not through our own achievement, but through the grace of God. They come to us as gifts of love from a God who loves us because God loves us.
If you make achievement your goal in life then your constant companion will be complaint, because you can never achieve enough and you will never be rewarded as you believe you deserve. But if you make it your goal to receive your life from God, you constant companion will be gratitude for all God is giving to you and doing through you.
Look at Jesus. He did not earn God’s love at Baptism. He received it. And because he received it, he could give it to others. Give it freely. Give it abundantly. It is no different for us. If we believe we earn God’s love through what we achieve, than we will be able to offer only our own love and offer it only to those who merit it from us. Imagine how this will come to color our children, our spouse, our friends, even the people whose lives we tangentially touch. But if we receive God’s love, we will have the love of God in us and it will pour from us onto and into everyone we know.
Over these five Sundays in Lent, we will hear again the ancient stories of God’s covenant love for us. The Hebrew word for this love is hessed. It is most often translated as long-suffering. Don’t get too caught up on the suffering part, as if God is at pains to put up with us or to tolerate us. The idea of hessed is God’s love is sure, certain, unshakable, unconditional, freely offered, and freely received.
This being human is a hard thing. There is something inside of us, a temptation if you will, suggesting to us we must make something of ourselves. It hints God’s love and affirmation are conditional on what we do, on what we accomplish, on what we achieve. “Be worthy,” we hear a voice say, “and I will be well-pleased with you.” That voice, as loud and clear as it may be, is not a voice from heaven. The voice from heaven is the One saying, “You are my child, my beloved, and with you I am well-pleased.” This is our true and heavenly identity. We do not make it. We do not earn it. We receive it and live into its blessings every day.