This is the sermon I preached at Second Presbyterian Church on Sunday. May it remind you that you are loved, through and through.
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Matthew 3:13-17: Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’
“I love you through and through. I love your happy side, your sad side, your silly sad, your mad side. I love your fingers and toes, your ears and nose. I love your hair and eyes, your giggles and cries. I love you running and walking, silent and talking, I love you through and through, yesterday, today, and tomorrow too.”
These are the words of my favorite children’s book, I Love You Through and Through, by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak. I’ve bought more copies of that tiny board book than I can count; every newborn child in my life has received that book as a “welcome to the world” present. Before I meet them, or hold them in my arms, I send them that book. Before I know them or hear their little cry, I love them, through and through.
Prior to seminary, I worked as a nanny for two young girls—ages 2 and 4 when I began there. The toddler, Michelle, loved this book—“fu in fu,” she called it—and she insisted on hearing the words to “fu in fu” before every nap and every bed time. “I love you through and through, yesterday, today, and tomorrow too,” were the last words this child heard before closing her eyes each and every day. I don’t know if she knew what the words meant, but she knew they brought comfort. She knew they were important.
In our scripture story today, God says just what this book says: “I love you through and though.” Not in those words exactly, but something similar and just as poetic. “This is my son, the Beloved,” God says, “with whom I am well pleased.” Beloved. Be loved, through and through.
The story is among the most well known in our faith; we’ve all heard it countless times and seen countless depictions of the river, the dove, and the savior. The story of Jesus’ baptism gives us the beginning of his ministry. So far in the Gospel, Matthew has told us of Jesus’ long genealogy—the important and even scandalous family roots from which our savior grows. He’s given us the heartwarming story of Jesus’ birth and the tragic story of his escape to Egypt. He’s told us the words of John the Baptist, Jesus’ and cousin and prophet. But here, for the first time, Jesus’ own story truly begins. It’s at the Jordan River that we first hear Jesus’ voice. It’s at the Jordan River that we first see Jesus act—do something, rather than have something done unto him, and his first act is surprising.
If we could imagine Jesus’ first act of ministry, what would it be? I think I’d put the feeding of the 5000 first. It’d be a solid start to Jesus’ life—with a message of abundance of grace and sharing of resources. Or maybe a miraculous healing would be a good place to start—set the tone for the healing power Christ’s presence from the very beginning. John the Baptist would have had Jesus begin by preaching hell fire and brimstone—sorting out the hypocritical riffraff within the believing community and baptizing the world with fire.
But none of those things is Jesus’ first act of ministry. His first act is to be baptized. His first act is to be loved. “Beloved,” God says. “In him I am well pleased.” Before Jesus has fed the 5000, before he has healed the sick or given sight to the blind, God is pleased. Before Jesus has given his famed sermon on the mount, before he has done anything, he is called beloved. Before he has done radical acts of love, Jesus is loved. The first act of Jesus’ ministry is to receive love, through and through.
That’s the first act of our ministry, too: to receive love, through and through.
Maybe young children are better at that than teens or adults—better at being loved through and through. Through and through is vulnerable. To be loved through and through means to be known through and through, and there are parts of ourselves which we’d rather not have known. Maybe we’d rather be loved and known most of the way through, part of the way through on certain days, and just call that “good enough.”
But that’s not what the story says. That’s not what God does. That’s not what we do. To be called beloved is to be loved, through and through, even those parts that seem unlovable.
We talk a lot about giving love, about loving our neighbor and doing acts of love. Each of our church committees and councils gathers each month to discuss ways to serve the church and the world—to discern the best ways to love. We could preface each council title with the phrase, “The committee of Second Presbyterian Church for showing love by…” mission, advocacy, worship stewardship, congregational care, arts, education, the list goes on and on. The mission of our church is to show love, and we’re working hard at it. But it’s also more than that. It’s also to receive love—to be loved, through and through, by God and by one another.
Let’s imagine we had a committee on receiving love—a group of people who just got together to remember that they are loved. Where would they meet? What would they do? I think they’d meet here, at the font. I think they’d just spend time remembering their baptisms.
At Jesus’ baptism, God says, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” All those things were true before Jesus touched the waters of the Jordan—Jesus was just as loved before and after his baptism, and all those things are true for us before and after our own baptisms. But the baptism brings a visible sign of that invisible grace. In baptism, God’s love is ritualized and enacted—made tangible through the water and the love of the gathered community. In baptism, the spirit binds us together in extraordinary ways, through ordinary water. In baptism, we are loved, through and through. And in baptized communities, we are called to love one another, through and through.
“I love you through and through, yesterday, today, and tomorrow too.” It’s my favorite line of my favorite book. When I give this book to infants, I always write a message to the child in the front cover, a note telling them that I love them and God loves them, too. I also write a note to the parents—a note telling moms and dads that I love them, and God loves them, too. God loves their happy side and their sad side, their silly side and their mad side.
Before we love, we are loved. That’s why we gather around this baptismal font—that’s why we pour water into it each and every week. To remember who and whose we are—beloved children of a loving God; loved even when we feel unlovable. Through the waters of baptism, we remind ourselves and one another that we are claimed by a God who knows us, we are bound to a community who cares for us, and we are loved, through and through. And when we know we are loved through and through, we cannot help but love others—yesterday, today, and tomorrow, too.