A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston Salem, N.C .
January 13, 2013
Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
There is a world of difference between believing in God’s love and experiencing God’s love. The most famous verse in the bible—John 3:16—says plainly that the reason God gave us Jesus was because God loves us. From Genesis to Revelation the scriptures declare a hundred different ways that God showers us with his steadfast love.
Most of us say with our mouths we believe in that love. But our hearts are not so sure. In the deepest levels of our soul many of us doubt God loves us for at least two reasons:
1) We’ve messed up far too badly in the past.
2) We’re certain we must earn God’s love because that’s been our experience everywhere else.
These heart felt doubts prevent us from experiencing God’s love. And we have lives full of guilt and anxiety to show for it.
I used to think that the mystics of the Christian faith were religious freaks who hid away in candle-lit rooms of monasteries to escape the world. Now I understand that mystics are simply people who are not satisfied until they have direct experience of God. It’s not enough for mystics to believe in God’s love. They long to experience it, and are willing to arrange their lives so they will. This explains why I find myself increasingly drawn to Christian mysticism. I no longer want to just believe in God’s love. I want to experience it.
And both of our scripture passages today give me hope that I can. Remember—the Israelites the prophet Isaiah addresses have broken the Ten Commandments a thousand different ways, to the point that now they suffer in exile. They have messed up so badly that no one could blame God for saying he was sorry he ever created them or made them his chosen people in the first place, and he wanted no part of them in the future.
But that’s not what God says. God reminds the wayward Israelites that he created them, and formed them, and redeemed them, and called them by name. He promises to be with them as they pass through the waters and walk through the fire.
Why? “Because,” he says “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Friends, do you understand what this means? It means nothing you have done in the past erases or even reduces God’s love for you. You may be the worst sinner this side of Jerusalem, but you are still precious in God’s sight, and he loves you.
Now, even if you don’t struggle with guilt over your past, you may worry that you can never earn God’s love. And frankly, love that has to be earned is love you can never trust.
During my sabbatical leave I spent a week in a Franciscan retreat center on a private retreat. The only time my solitude was interrupted was when I spoke with a spiritual director. And part of what we worked on together was how profoundly my view of God had been shaped by my mother, God bless her, who in an attempt to push me to be my best turned me into a performance-driven perfectionist. That week I saw more clearly than ever how my need to succeed made me doubt God’s love for me, apart from a perfect performance.
This explains why the story of Jesus’ baptism means so much to me. Notice that when Jesus is baptized he has yet to do anything of significance for God. There’s been no teaching, no miracles, no spellbinding performance for the Kingdom. And yet after Jesus is baptized God says in a voice from heaven, You (Jesus) are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.
Do you see, friends, what this means? It means before you and I do anything for God, we are his beloved sons and daughters, and he treasures us not for what we’ve done, but for who we are.
This is not to say that our sins or our good works don’t matter, because of course they do. But bad works don’t eliminate God’s love, and good works don’t earn God’s love because God’s love is unconditional, here to stay, as the fundamental reality of our lives.
Water is a good reminder of the steadfastness of God’s love. In scripture water symbolizes all manner of things. Water stands for chaos, or the threat of destruction, as in Isaiah 43. In the New Testament, John the Baptist immerse people in the Jordan River to cleanse them of their sins. The gospel of John speaks of the Holy Spirit as a spring of living water welling up inside us. And the book of Revelation returns to a river of life flowing from the throne of God.
Early Christian writers often imagined the Christian life as living in water like fish. That’s why the Greek word for fish, or ichthus, became a code word for Christians. So one way to imagine the Christian life was as a fish swimming in the divine waters of the Holy Spirit.
David Benner suggests Christians can learn from an ancient story of the Sufi religion that speaks of fish spending their days anxiously searching for water, failing to realize they are in the midst of water the whole time. Their distress is suddenly eliminated when they open their eyes and see where they really are.
And here is the point. We need to open our eyes and see that we are surrounded by a sea of Perfect Love. We Baptists have spent lots of time and energy haggling over the meaning of water baptism. We treasure water baptism, and well we should. But along the way we may have missed the even larger point that from the moment we were conceived we were baptized in God’s love. That means we can stop thrashing about in the water of his love, as though we could somehow earn it. The good news is we can float on the river of God’s love, and ride in the current of his mercy all of our days.
So how can we experience God’s love and not just believe in it as are abstract reality?
Let me suggest two ways to experience God’s love through the practice of meditation. Down through the ages Christians have felt God’s love as they meditated on icons or image and scripture passage. We have a ready-made “icon” for meditation in this sanctuary, our baptistery. Every time you come into this place, I urge you to take a moment to gaze at our baptistery. Use it as a visual reminder that you have been baptized in the ocean of God’s perfect love. Let the cross in the baptistery remind you that God paid the supreme price of his son as a ransom to redeem you from your past so you might have a future with him. Let our baptistery be a reminder that God’s unconditional love is the fundamental reality of your life.
Then I suggest you meditate on Isaiah 43:1-4 every day for the next seven days. I don’t mean you should think about or study or analyze the passage. I mean you should sit with it, read it slowly, and let its words soak into the very marrow of your being. Resist the urge to hurry. Instead, leisurely allow these words to wash over you like a morning shower. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just be with God. And trust God to do the rest.
I want to conclude today by doing what I just described with you as a form of congregational meditation. Listen again as for the first time. And let these words wash over your soul.
Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
He 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 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 shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
And honored, and I love you.