Henri Nouwen is one of the most beloved Christian writers of our age. He has a way of speaking directly and deeply to the human heart, offering words of encouragement, challenge, and hope. I begin each day reading a meditation drawn from his works. After hearing Henri’s voice every morning for several years, I find it hard to wake up spiritually without it.
So, one of his biographies says, it may seem strange that some of our most uplifting thoughts come from someone who suffered a lifelong struggle with feelings of inadequacy and loneliness and despair. At a time of great anguish in his life, Henri decided to start every day in solitude and contemplative prayer. The eventual result was an epiphany, a revelation of God’s presence and power. He came to a striking realization that guided him the rest of his life: “You are the Beloved of God.”
This became his life message. He writes: “All I want to say to you is ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being: ‘You are the Beloved.’ ”
Henri heard these words spoken to him wordlessly in prayer. Jesus heard them spoken aloud to him by his heavenly Father, though whether they were a roar or a whisper we cannot say.
Jesus is about 30 years old when he learns that his cousin John is calling Israel to repentance and baptism. Jesus knows that it’s time for him to reveal himself to the world. So he heads for the Jordan River, where John is dunking all who come to him seeking a renewal of purpose and a new direction in life.
Jesus has no sins to confess, but he does feel the need to repent. That is, he needs a new direction; he needs to turn from one way of life to another. He needs to put the quiet life of a Nazareth craftsman behind him and stride boldly into his future.
What happens next is not visible or audible to John or to other onlookers, at least according to Mark’s version of events. That means that we can know about it only because Jesus spoke of it later. He told others about it because it’s an important moment in his life. It’s a powerful affirmation of who he is and what his mission is. It’s a personal epiphany, a fresh expression of his identity, a new way of seeing things into the future.
As he is coming up out of the water, he sees the sky ripped open. Can you imagine the immensity of it? And he sees the Spirit of God descending upon him like a dove. Can you hear the flutter of wings and imagine feeling the small feet coming to rest on you?
And he hears that voice from heaven. Maybe it’s roar. Maybe it’s a whisper. All we know is that he hears it clearly. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism is a pivotal moment in his life. He remembers and cherishes this divine affirmation for the rest of his life. It’s what sustains him during three grueling years of ministry, walking, constantly walking, from one place to another, announcing the coming of God’s kingdom. It’s what sustains him during the good days as well as the bad. It’s what sustains him when he is betrayed, condemned and suffers an awful death on a cross.
He remembers the words: “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” God’s affirmation to Jesus at his baptism echoes throughout his life.
Like Henri Nouwen, what I would like you to understand today is that when you were baptized, whether you heard it clearly or not, God said something similar to you.
What I want you to understand today is whenever you recall or renew the act of your baptism, God says it again, whether you hear it clearly or not. God says: “You are my beloved child.”
No matter what other people say about you, no matter what society says about you, no matter what other churches say about you, this is the core truth of your life. As Henri Nouwen puts it, “Your true identity is as a child of God.”
This identity sets you free, Henri says, because it “is anchored beyond all human praise and blame. You belong to God, and it is as a child of God that you are sent into the world.”
If you dare to believe this, then you realize that you were sent into this world for just a little while to discover your true identity and claim it and help every other human being do the same.
Oh, you’re a sinner, some object. Big deal. Everyone else is, too. That’s why it’s so important for you and for everyone else to realize that “sinner” is a secondary identity, an acquired identity, a false identity in the sense that it’s not your true identity, who you really are. Your core identity, who you really are, is a child of God.
You may find this hard to hear, harder to understand. If you’re still making new year’s resolutions, then your top resolution of the year should be this: Know that you are beloved of God and claim your status as a child of God.
It will change your life. It changed Henri Nouwen’s life. It even changed the life of Jesus. Let this affirmation change your life today. You are the Beloved. Amen.
This message was delivered electronically January 10, 2021, to Edgerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas, from Mark 1:4-11.