2020 Vision: To See Ourselves
by Louise Westfall
One of my favorite sights is that of the congregation on Christmas Eve, raising lighted candles, shining out in the shadowed sanctuary. Your faces are only partially illuminated, but the wonder and joy of the silent, holy night are unmistakable. One year the church I was serving decided in the interest of safety to use battery operated candles instead–the kind you switch on at the base. So instead of the gradual increase of light, one moment it was dark, and then with the flick of a switch, the whole sanctuary was actually quite bright. It just didn’t work (and the next year we returned to real candles). Live flame does pose some risk, but maybe that’s part of its power: it costs something to defy darkness. The light of a single candle is small and fragile. Hope grows when we share the light with one another.
Welcome to a new year! Inspired by the perfect vision suggested by its number–2020–how might we adjust our view beyond the beauty of Christmas Eve into the unknown? Today we’re going to look inward at who we are. In two weeks, we’ll look outward at the mission to which God has called us.
Compared with soft candlelight, a cold January morning makes us look different. But maybe we need that clarity to flourish in the every-day world, where challenges await us and reality has hard edges. Our Scripture lesson is a new year’s story, the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry among people. The baby of Bethlehem has returned home to Galilee from forced exile in Egypt and grown up as the son of Joseph and Mary. His cousin John (known as “the baptizer”) has made some startling prophecies about the one who is coming to set things right. Get ready by turning your lives around!–is his fierce message. And then, this. A reading from the good news according to Matthew, in the third chapter at the 13th verse. Listen for God’s Word to us. [Matthew 3:13-17]
This is my son, the beloved…
The heavenly voice declares Jesus the beloved son of God. Sometimes we interpret this saying as unique to Jesus, identifying him as someone unlike anyone else. But I wonder if it’s more true to say Jesus was unique because he accepted and lived into his identity as God’s beloved son fully, unlike any other person, before or since.
“Beloved Child” is a name that echoes throughout Scripture. The Word of God declares prophets and rulers as “my chosen ones, in whom my soul delights.” The covenant is established with the “children” of Israel, naming them all as sons and daughters of the almighty God. The Divine/Human relationship is characterized as the intimate and loving one between parents and children. As with good parents, discipline is part of the relationship too, setting boundaries, making laws, correcting bad habits, nurturing growth through learning and practice. Forgiveness and reconciliation play an important role because…well, we’re not perfect. But hear me on this, friends: the God of the covenant loves with an everlasting love. There is no infidelity, no mistake, no rebellion that can make God go away. Instead, the bedrock of Judeo-Christian faith is God’s promise: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned; For I am the Lord your God. . . you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you. [Isaiah 43:1-4]
Jesus showed--from his baptism onward--that God is not distant and aloof. No, God comes alongside us, gets down in our business, and shows us who we are.
No one demonstrated this unconditional love better than Jesus. Right from the start, Jesus identifies with the rest of us. He gets in line to be baptized–even over John’s objection! Jesus showed–from his baptism onward–that God is not distant and aloof. No, God comes alongside us, gets down in our business, and shows us who we are. Friends, Jesus’ baptism words are for us. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved son. We learn from Jesus what that identity means: we’re all connected in a way of life marked by love.
I heard a remarkable story on the Moth Radio Hour of a woman who had forgotten who she was, and how she was reminded. Auburn Sandstrom was in a dark and desperate place. Actively using street drugs, estranged from her husband, she feared for the safety of her baby son, that he would be removed from her care. She says the possibility of losing him was the only thing that scared her enough to pick up the phone and punch in the number of a Christian counseling hotline her mother had given her months before. A man answered, and she blurted out, “I got this number from my mother to use in a crisis…could you talk with me?” She could hear him shift position and respond readily: “Yes, yes. Thank you for calling. What’s going on?” And then for the next four hours, he listened. There was no judgment, only kindness. “Tell me more.” “Oh, that must have been painful.” Auburn found herself pouring out her hurt, telling her truths. “He stayed with me the whole night,” she said, and as the sun rose she begin to relax, to experience the peace that passes understanding. She tried to express her gratitude as the phone call neared its end, and asked “How long have you been a Christian counselor?” “I’m glad it was helpful,” he responded, “and don’t hang up, but that hotline you called? It was a wrong number.” She didn’t hang up immediately, but never learned the man’s name, and never talked with him again. It took a while longer for her to get into recovery. But that night, she says, “I learned that there is love in the universe, unconditional love, and some of it was for me. In the deepest night of despair and anxiety it only takes a pinhole of light for all of grace to come in.” [Moth Radio Hour podcast, December 19, 2019]
A tiny flickering light…the touch of water on your forehead…the transforming power of connection…conduits of grace that help us see who we are, and who everyone else is, and how the realization of that identity leads us deeper and more truly into love. So we start the New Year by remembering. By taking the risk of letting God in and being renewed by the promises of light and life, and the invitation to share. By hearing again God’s blessing: You are my beloved. You are my beloved.