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Who Tells You Who You Are?

In his book “Letters to a Young Doubter,” William Sloan Coffin says that when he was chaplain at Yale, he would get requests from seniors to write a letter of recommendation to some “highfalutin” school like Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School.
He mostly wrote about their character and integrity rather than their academic achievements or potential, which to some was not totally satisfactory. Coffin describes it this way:

Never mind that I enumerated some sterling extracurricular qualities. Never mind that in order to be accepted into Harvard Law or Columbia Medical School you had to be in the ninety-seventh percentile and to graduate ninety-eight. Just because I didn’t say they would be in the ninety-ninth percentile, they felt they had somehow failed.

Coffin concludes, “Such is the power of higher education to tell you who you are!”

I think that if Jesus had not been listening to God and open to the leading of the Divine Spirit, he may have been pressured to conform to John the Baptist’s expectations.

John refuses to let the people shape his understanding of who he is and what he is called to do. He knows his place in the redemptive scheme. He does not pretend to be more than he is. His work is one of preparation for someone greater.

But, according to Luke 3, John clearly has some expectations about the kind of work the greater one will do.

The greater one, he says, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He will use his winnowing fork to thoroughly clear the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17).

In Luke 3:9, he says, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” It’s pretty clear what John was expecting Jesus to do.

Jesus’ readiness to be baptized by John could, initially, be interpreted as his willingness to embrace John’s agenda. He certainly was ready to identify with John’s movement and John’s call to repentance.

Luke describes John’s baptism as a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). John is calling the covenant people to renewal, and Jesus is willing to take his place with his people who are turning away from their sins to God.

Here Jesus has an experience. He hears the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). I would call this a mystical experience.

Almost all mystical experiences, no matter how diverse and unique, share two common elements.

There is an indescribable sense of connectedness and union with all reality, and there is a profound experience of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.

You don’t have to have a mystical experience to know that you are loved unconditionally, but such experiences burn them into our consciousness like nothing else. I suspect Jesus had a number of such experiences.

Jesus’ assurance of being loved and affirmed by God gives him the confidence to embark upon a different path than the one John expected.

He didn’t feel any need to conform to John’s expectations. He followed the Spirit down a different path.

Jesus’ mission would not be one of separating the wheat and the chaff as John hoped, but one of breaking down the barriers that separated the wheat from the chaff.

Jesus would welcome and embrace the chaff and invite them to eat at his table, much to the chagrin of the religious establishment and to the disappointment of John (see Luke 7:18-23).

Jesus’ sense of “belovedness” and “chosenness,” which sprang from his intimate experience of God as Abba, did not make him feel more precious or valuable than others.

Rather, it assured him of everyone else’s “chosenness” and “belovedness,” too.

Instead of making us feel superior or more valuable than others, our awareness of being chosen and loved by God should unconditionally open our eyes to see the “chosenness” and “belovedness” of all people.

This is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that everyone else is chosen, too. God’s love is not only unconditional; it is inexhaustible.

Sometimes, when I am quiet before God and invite the Spirit to allow me to share in the passion of the Divine for our world, I think of all the little children who will be so severely hindered and wounded in life because there was no one there to be the Voice of God telling them how much they are wanted and loved.

Maybe we can find ways to be the Voice of God to one another. From time to time, we all need to hear the voice of God saying to us, “You are my beloved daughter or son. You are loved with an eternal love.”

We all need to feel and know in our deepest core that God’s love is not earned or achieved; it’s freely given. God’s love is greater than all our sins and failures. 

Chuck Queen is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. This column first appeared on his blog, A Fresh Perspective.