Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with* water; but he will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’
Less than a month before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. returned home to Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was there to preach to the community that baptized and ordained him. The title of his sermon for the day was “Unfulfilled Dreams.”
He preached on 1 Kings 8, about a little phrase that the God had spoken to David. David, as we know, never completed one of his biggest dreams. It was Solomon, not David, who built the temple that was David’s dream. Yet 1 Kings has God telling David, “You did well to consider building a house for my name” or in the King James language Rev. King used, “Whereas it was in thine heart to build an house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart.”
Martin Luther King Jr. took this words from God and preached it as it was first heard to David, then to the congregation, but then as pastors so often do, you can just hear in this sermon how he was preaching to himself. We know Martin Luther King Jr. as the hero, as the one whose vision has been vindicated and accepted, even as we imperfectly move toward it. But to him, this glory wasn’t far from assured. Like David, Martin Luther King Jr. knew that his dreams were not likely to be fulfilled.
Yet, what he heard in this scripture, this tiny little overlooked verse, what he wrung out of this text was the promise from God that trying was good enough. That is was about the orientation of our heart, our intention, that God honors. He said near the end of the sermon, “I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s childrens. But I want to be a good man.”
It is almost heartbreaking to hear this, the testimony of a man we know and honor as a great man, standing before his church family and before God simply asking to be known as good.
I’ve read that Americans these days may have left this kind of longing far behind, as we now accept that we are good, maybe great even. That we have an over-inflated sense of self, that it’s a problem of over-confidence than lack-of-confidence. And for churches and preachers this can make it much more difficult to convince Americans that we are, in fact, sinful creatures. In short, we don’t need convincing that we are good, because we know we are.
I have seen this and believe it to a certain extent, but I don’t trust it entirely. Because what we say and do on the surface can often hide our real insecurities. I have seen the longing Martin Luther King Jr. had. This deep desire to be known as good. The desire to be liked, to be loved, to be seen as someone worthwhile, someone good. In fact, overconfidence can be a mask for deep insecurities and a desire to be loved and known and seen as good that we all have. We want to hear these words, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
Of course, these are the words God said over Jesus during his baptism. As Jesus came out from the waters of the Jordan river after joining right in on this wild baptism thing, Mark says the heavens were torn apart. The Spirit descended. And God came right to the river, right to the mud, right to the ragtag group of followers, to John the Baptizer with his camel’s hair clothes, to Jesus, and declared God’s pleasure. This was good. This was worthy of love.
And this was before Jesus even did anything. This is the beginning of his ministry, the very first time we meet Jesus in Mark. Maybe his divinity was worth declaring good. But there’s hopefulness here that God’s blessing comes as an act of grace. Jesus is beloved not because of what he is going to do, but because of who he is. God’s blessing comes as undeserved grace.
We can travel far away from understanding God’s blessing upon the world, upon us, as good. It’s a blessing that comes right at the beginning of creation, in the beginning as Genesis says, when God was creating the world, God continually called what God saw “good.” This, remarkably, included us, the humans. As beings created in God’s own image, as beloved children, we too were called good. But we’re quick to abandon this blessing God gives.
But we have to come back to this, go back to the beginning, go back to the blessing of God, because do people need to hear this. I know this because there are powerful people who continue to lie and tell people that they are not valued. That where they live makes them less worthy. But that’s not of God.
Because in God’s eyes, the people of Haiti are good.
The people of Africa are good.
Do you know why they’re good? Because they are people created in the image of God. Full stop.
Guess what, church? We’ve forgotten this, time and time again, preferring judgment to the knowledge that God loves and offers grace freely, abundantly. That God called our world good. That God doesn’t judge separate from this world, but becomes fully human to be a part of it, and it well pleased with that!
We are good to God and worthy of love.
Here’s the other way we could imagine God. We could imagine God distant from our world. Judgmental of our world. An unmoved mover. Aloof. Elite. Out of touch.
But here, when we come to recount this story of the day when Christ was baptized, we hear anything but. The story goes that God tore open the heavens to send a blessings to earth. That Jesus asked to be baptized, to be brought alongside all of these other people who were seeking a new way of life, to get right in the river with them.
And God was pleased because it was good.
If only we could believe this. If we could believe it about ourselves. What would it mean about how we viewed the world if we believed that we were good? Maybe greater yet, what if we believed those around us were good?
We are witnessing in our society right now such a lack of appreciation of the good that is to be found in others. I think of the world Martin Luther King Jr. inhabited and I think it is no wonder that he sought to be considered good in a world that was telling him he was less than the white men around him. And Rev. King’s dream is still unfulfilled! White privilege is alive and well. Police decisions motivated by fear and distrust, an inability to believe that a young black man could be good, lead to senseless killings. Need I say again how entire countries are dismissed out of hand.
Yet these are beloved children of God!
It is my faith, it is my belief of who God is, it is my study of scripture that makes me want to shout this until all know and understand.
I wish I could sit down with Martin Luther King Jr. and tell him, yes, yes, you are a good man. Because God has come to you and names you as beloved. And you are good.
That I could tell this to all who doubt their self-worth, who have to listen to the other voices that dismiss them, who push them aside who say they are not valued. To let them know that this is not how God sees them.
Today, let the sky open. Let God send the Spirit on those who need to hear that they are beloved, that they are good.