9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 26th February 2012 at Southwater Community Methodist Church, West Sussex.
Have you ever been told by someone that they love you? Isn’t it a wonderful, magical experience. There’s something really affirming about hearing from another human being that they love you. We all crave love, whether it’s the love of a partner, or a parent, or a friend or a child. Life without love can seem bleak. If we feel as if no one loves us, we can feel disconnected from the world. Love gives us the assurance that we are good people, that we are not alone, and that we have value in the eyes of our friends and family.
Have you ever told someone that you love them? It sounds like the easiest thing to do, and we’re all aware of the impact our words can have on someone. Sadly, saying “I love you” is something that many people struggle with. Men, in particular, often struggle to say those three words, perhaps because they perceive feelings as something very feminine, perhaps because they were rarely told by their fathers that they loved them. I think women, in general terms, are much better at declaring their love, whether it is to their parents, to their children, or to their friends.
Whether or not you’ve ever told someone you love them, whether or not you’ve ever been told by someone that they love you, there is an incredible verse in our reading today in which God declares his love for his son, saying “you are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This verse is incredibly powerful, and we’ll spend some time this morning reflecting on this verse and the significance it has for us today.
That, in fact, is our first point; God is not just pleased with Jesus, he is pleased with us too.
In our Gospel reading this morning, Mark introduces us for the first time to Jesus. In verse nine we see Jesus coming from that most unlikely of places, Nazareth in Galilee, to be baptised by John the Baptist. His baptism represents the start of his earthly ministry. Just us for Christians baptism represents a commitment to loving and serving God, for Jesus baptism signifies that he is beginning the journey that will ultimately lead him to the cross.
Jesus’ baptism also represents his equipping for the role he has in front of him. Mark describes how as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw heaven being torn upon and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. It is interesting that the Spirit should take the form of a dove, a bird which symbolises peace. Jesus was not going to be some militaristic leader. Jesus will conquer, he will save, he will lead his people to freedom, but not in the manner which was commonly understood. Jesus was the servant king who conquered not through violence but through love. It was his love for God and for all God’s people that meant that he defeated death and brought hope to all who believe, across time and space.
Jesus’ baptism also represented a moment of approval. As the dove descended, Mark tells us that a voice came from heaven, proclaiming “you are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Here we see God’s unconditional love flowing out of heaven towards his son Jesus. At this point Jesus has not started his ministry. He was yet to preach, to heal, to drive out demons, and to teach. He has yet to conduct miracles. He certainly has not gone to the cross by this stage. Jesus had probably lived a relatively normal life in Nazareth with his family, perhaps working with Joseph, his adopted father, in his carpentry workshop, maybe alongside his brothers. Yet despite this, God still proclaims his love for his son. He still tells him that he loves him. This is true unconditional love; love for love’s sake, love for who Jesus is rather than what he has done.
It is this verse that really stands out for me, for two reasons. It shows the love that God has for us, but it also gives us a model as to how we should love.
Verse eleven shows the love that God has for us, and the kind of love that this is.
If we are baptised, believing Christians who seek to follow God, then God regards us as his children, as his sons and daughters. This proclamation from heaven is directed not just as Jesus, but also at us.
God says to us, “you are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
And just as God loves Jesus for who he is, not for what he has done, he loves us for who we are. He unconditionally proclaims his love for us. He does not love us for what we have done. He loves us for who we are. He knows everything about us, the good stuff and the bad stuff, and yet he still loves us. Even when we disobey him or turn from him, he still loves us. There is nothing that we can do that will separate us from the love that God has for us.
What’s more, he is well pleased with us. When we serve him effectively, follow his commands faithfully, and display his love always, he is pleased with us. But even when we let him down, when we neglect and reject him, when we disobey him and dishonour him, he is still well pleased with us. Why? Because his love for us is unconditional. It is not dependent on anything we do or say, anything we refrain from doing. He loves us because of who we are.
This should be a cause for celebration for all of us, that the creator God knows and loves us all, regardless of what we do or do not do. For the many who have not experienced the unconditional love of a parent, though, this is particular cause for celebration.
Perhaps you did not have the love of an earthly father. Perhaps you grew up without knowing your father. Maybe your father was distant and seemed unloving. These are particular challenges for our society. Yet through all these challenges we can be assured that we have a father in heaven who is desperate to shower unconditional love on us. We do not need to earn his love or seek to please him. He already loves us.
Verse eleven also provides us with a model of how we should love.
If God loves us unconditionally, we too should love unconditionally, and, perhaps more importantly, not be afraid or worried to show our love, or tell people that we love them.
If we allow our friends and families to think that we only love them because of their accomplishments, then we devalue that love and could end up harming those that we love. This is conditional love, not unconditional love. It’s also worth remembering that accomplishments, positions of prestige and honour are not always permanent.
Claire, my wife, is a doctor. I am very proud of her success in her chosen career, but if I allowed her to think, even subconsciously, that I only loved her because she was a successful doctor, then this could be very damaging for our relationship. Claire might worry about what might happen to our relationship if she was made redundant. Would I still love her? What if she decided to take a career change, and decided to become, say, a biology teacher. Would I still love her?
The answer to these questions is, of course I would. But if she felt that I would love her less because of her change in position, my love is not truly unconditional. If Claire felt that she had to continue in her career because it was the basis for my love for her, she could well end up getting hurt.
The same is true for our children.
I realise I speak with no experience of parenting myself here, so if you are a parent, feel free to tell me I’m completely wrong at the end of the service if you wish, but if parents allow their children to think that their love for them is based solely on their achievements, then our children could potentially be harmed by their perception that our love for them is conditional.
If we place too much emphasis on a child’s success at school, how will our child feel if they fail an important exam?
Or if our child is accomplished on the sports field, will they feel that our love for them will be diminished if they lose a game?
Or if we seem too excited by the prospect that our child may become a successful lawyer, or brain surgeon, will they feel that our love for them will be lessened if they decide that they want to be a hairdresser?
We put all kinds of pressure on each other in our society today. It is a tremendous risk that others think we love them only for what they do, their accomplishments, and not for who they are.
We need to reflect on the love that God displays to Jesus in this passage – true, unconditional love based on who Jesus is, not what he has done.
God is not afraid to declare his love for his son, and neither should we be afraid to declare our love – to our children, to our families, to our friends.
God is delighted to be able to tell his son that he is well pleased with him, even before Jesus began his ministry. We should take the time to display our pleasure in our family and friends, just for who they are, no matter what they have or have not done.
Remember that statement in verse eleven as Jesus is baptised.
“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Draw comfort from these words in the days and weeks ahead.
The second point I want to consider today is Jesus’ stay in the desert, particularly pertinent to us today, on the first Sunday in Lent.
No sooner does God proclaim his love for Jesus enters the desert for forty days and nights.
Interestingly, if we look at verse twelve, it is the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus into the desert, the same Holy Spirit that descended on him like a dove when he was baptised.
I’m sure there are many of us here today who feel that we have spent time in the desert. Probably most of us have had times in our life when we’ve felt alone and neglected. I know I have. It may be difficult to comprehend as we go through the difficult patches in our lives, but it may well be that just as the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, God has sent us into the dark valleys of our lives. Jesus left the desert stronger, with a renewed sense of his mission and a heightened love for his father, due to the reliance he had to have on him. The same is true for us; God does not send us into the desert to destroy us, but to build us up, to draw us to him, and to improve our lives when we leave the desert.
The truth is, of course, that whilst there will be moments in our lives when we feel stuck in a particularly dry, bleak desert, our entire lives are being lived in the desert, the spiritual desert of twenty-first century Britain.
Every day it seems that Britain becomes a drier desert, with the nourishing, living water of Jesus being scorched all around us. People are laughed at for their beliefs. Some find themselves facing difficulties at work because they choose to wear a cross. Prayers are banned in council meetings. There’s much talk of militant secularism sweeping our land.
We find ourselves in a spiritual desert just as Jesus found himself in a physical desert.
Just as the Holy Spirit sent him into the desert, we too are sent by God into this desert.
We are not alone, however. Through all the devil’s temptations, during the danger Jesus felt from wild animals, God’s angels were with him. Mark records how they “attended” him which suggests that not only were they with him, but they supported him and cared for him through his trials.
As they were with him, so too they are with us. We may not recognise them as angels, but I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation in which we’ve needed support or help, and it has been given.
We may find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness. We may find ourselves at different points in our lives feeling as if we are in a personal wilderness. Throughout it all, though, God never forgets us. What we should not forget as we confront difficulties in our own life is that remarkable statement from God in verse eleven, “you are my child whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Also worth remembering is the remarkable truth of the good news that Jesus came to bring all people, and it is this that we will look at in our third point today.
We’ve already seen that this passage comes right at the very start of Jesus’ministry, which started after John the Baptist was put in prison. The very first words that Mark records Jesus saying, at the start of his ministry, are, “the time has come, the Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Some people think that the call to repentance, to turn from our sins, is bad news. Some would have you believe that it is the “bad” things that make life enjoyable, and that living a Christian life is a dull business. Yet Jesus calls on people to repent and believe the good news.
One writer has summarised the good news that Jesus brings into six key points:
It is good news of truth, because in Jesus we can see what God is like.
It is good news of hope. Jesus brings hope where there seems to be none.
It is the good news of peace because the sin that wars within us has been conquered by Christ.
It is the good news of God’s promise, because he is a God who is ready to give more than we are to ask.
It is good news of immortality, because we are on the way to life rather than death.
It is good news of salvation, the power to live victoriously and to conquer sin.
Never let anyone tell you that the Christian life is somehow lacking, because being a Christian means having life to the full as we look forward to eternity in heaven with our God.
Never let anyone tell you that Christianity is something other than a force for good, because there is nothing at the root of our faith other than goodness. Anyone who sees anything other than God’s goodness is not seeing authentic Christianity, but a warped version of it, distorted by those who claim to believe.
Jesus does, however, make a demand on our lives, and we see this here in his first statement.
He calls on Christians to repent.
Jesus calls on us not just to say sorry for the wrong things that we do but to turn away from wrong doing, to turn our backs on sinfulness. At times this may be difficult. Sometimes it may seem almost impossible. But the promise of goodness that lies before us if we truly repent far outweighs anything that sin may offer us.
As we strive to truly repent we need to hold on to that amazing statement:
“You are my child, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
We may struggle. At times we may fail. Regardless, God still loves us unconditionally.
Jesus also calls on us to believe.
This demand is simple, yet at the same time difficult.
At its most simple, we are asked to believe that Jesus is who he says he is, and that the claims he makes are true.
Yet in a society that in which secularism and atheism seem to be getting stronger by the day, in which Christians are portrayed as fantasists who cling on to fairy tales, in which religions are blamed for all the wrongs in the world, it can be hard to cling on to our faith and to believe there is anything other than what we see before us, let alone that there is a God who loves us so much he sent his son to die for us.
Throughout it all, though, hold on to that statement from God:
“You are my child whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
So as I draw to a close this morning, let’s just reflect on the three points in this morning’s Gospel reading.
God loves us and is well pleased with us, not because of what we’ve done but because of who we are. He loves us unconditionally. Let’s accept that love and try to model it ourselves, loving the people in our lives unconditionally.
We live in a spiritual desert, and there will be times when that desert seems particularly bleak. But God has sent us into the desert, not to harm us but to build us up. He is always with us, and will protect us in the desert.
Finally, do not forget that incredible message from Jesus. We are called to repent, and to turn away from our sin? Why? Because the kingdom of God is near. We need to trust in Jesus, trust in the statements that he made and the actions he undertook, trust that there is a loving God who sent Jesus to die for us, and trust that we can have hope in a future far better than anything we’re currently experiencing.