Do you have a favorite sports team? I do. Some of you probably do too. You ever think of how strange that is, to have a favorite team. Because the players on those teams they often change. So, really your favorite team has more to do with the clothes of that team than the players. I mean right now most Packer fans love Aaron Rodgers, he’s their favorite quarterback, but can you imagine him suddenly playing for the Bears? I can already hear the boos – like when Brett Favre played for the Vikings, right?
Now, I get it though we have favorite teams. In fact, much of what we do in life revolves around this idea of favorites. We have favorites. We have favorite clothes. Favorite food. Favorite brands and, yes, even favorite people. And, okay, to be fair, we maybe don’t always label someone as being the “favorite,” but I’m sure you do prefer certain people, over others. At the same time, we all like when we’re the favorite. We like being loved and followed, And, in a way, you can see this on a larger scale in our society too. As a society, we are always having this debate about who or what is, was, and should be the favorite. We do this in all kinds of areas of life, and right now especially in our discussions about race, about gender, and about politics.
And, again, the truth is everyone wants to be the favorite. Many think they should be the favorite. And, if they’re not the favorite, well, everyone takes that a little differently. Some will yell and complain that it’s not fair that they’re not the favorite and maybe demand they should be, a few will just give up and say they never had a chance to be the favorite, and still others will look for ways to improve and earn the favor and praise that makes them the favorite.
Which brings me to this other point about being the favorite. My daughter, Cora, will often tell me that I’m her favorite, but then two minutes later I’ll hear her say that my wife is her favorite. But that doesn’t work, because, by definition, there can only be one favorite. Only one person, one thing, can be the favorite. So, how does that work with God? Who is God’s favorite?
If you go back and look at our gospel lesson, you see that familiar story of Jesus’ baptism. This is always a cool story to me. I love picturing Jesus standing there in that water, having that water poured over him (or maybe he was dunked in the Jordan?) and then the Holy Spirit comes over him as a dove and the booming voice of God the Father proclaims, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” You ever wonder why God said this?
Well, if you were here at Christmas time – and last week too – in our readings Jesus was quite young. He was in diapers in a manger, and last week he was around the age of two fleeing with his parents to Egypt. Now, suddenly – oh! – Jesus is all grown up. Thirty years have gone by, and Jesus is about to begin his public ministry. So, looking back at thirty years of Jesus’ life, what does God the Father say about Jesus? “This is my son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” What does God confirm with those words? That the guy down in the water there, Jesus, that’s his Son and he’s pleased with him; Jesus was his favorite.
Which makes you think, if your parents looked back at the last 30 years of your life, if you’ve even been alive that long, what would they say about your life? Children, teens, people younger than me, what would your parents say about just the last year of your life? Your parents might say they were proud of you, but do you think they were always pleased with you? I doubt it. It could be that some of us were/still are major disappointments to our parents, and we’ve never heard them say that they’re proud of us. It could also be that our parents are a bit of a disappointment themselves – they’re not good parents.
So, here is the perfect Father, here is God, and he’s looking at Jesus, his Son, and he’s pleased. Thirty years in and Jesus has his Father’s love, he’s perfect. He’s the favorite and, more importantly, God the Father says it out loud, “I’m pleased with him.” Now, why is it so important that God did this, that he publicly approved of Jesus? Because that approval has everything to do with us. Let me explain.
If you look at our lesson for today from the book of Acts, the apostle Peter is at the house of a man named Cornelius. This is a strange encounter. These were two people from opposite ends of the spectrum. Cornelius was a Roman Centurion. Peter was a Jewish Apostle. And Cornelius had come to believe in God but, as he looked at the OT, he recognized that he didn’t fit in with the Jewish people, their customs, their diet, wasn’t his; He was different. So, through a variety of visions, God brings these two together, so that Peter can say this to that man who desired to be one of God’s favorites. Here is what Peter said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism 35 but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. 36 You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”
Do you sense Peter’s own surprise as he speaks these words…”I now realize how true it is…”? What is Peter starting to realize? Well, for so long, God was the God of whom? “Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.” He was the God of the Israelites, the Jews, they were his chosen people. They were his favorites. But now listen to what Peter himself is led to say ”God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation…”
Peter realizes that if you want to be God’s favorite, if you want his love and his peace, you won’t find it here in what you do, in what you say, how you dress or look, or because you just so happen to be a descendant of the right person. There isn’t with God an “in” crowd and a “cool” group. God does not show favoritism to the rich, to any particular race, or gender, or class of people. You can’t buy him with abundant generosity, and you can’t fool him with acts of piety. You can’t play the victim and demand he owes you one, and you also can’t ignore him because ultimately you kinda need him. And, so it is, in one short sentence, Peter takes all these temptations, all these thoughts on how to earn God’s favor, win his attention, become his favorite, he takes all of this thinking, and he puts it aside and simply says, “No, God doesn’t show favoritism. He accepts everyone.” But, look a little closer, he accepts everyone who does what? Look what Peter says.
“He, God, accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” So, while the playing field might be level – God’s not picking favorites – it certainly sounds like by doing right we can win God’s acceptance and favor, we can earn that peace. But ask yourself, do you always do what is right? Go back to that thought of your parents or guardians looking back at your life. If you brought my parents into this room, and you were to ask them if I always did what was pleasing, I can already hear my dad laughing. Of course, I’m not perfect. I don’t always do what is right. And, if I met your parents, and some of you have parents in this room, I bet they would say the same about you. Here is the other thing, we haven’t even mentioned that the other way to be accepted by God includes fearing him, that is respecting and honoring him all the time – we don’t do that either.
So, this whole favoritism part really doesn’t matter because there is not a single one of us who can own the phrases, “I always do what is right” and “I always fear God.” Who, then, can ever be accepted by God? Who can be his favorite? Well, you’ll notice that Peter didn’t say to Cornelius, “Hey, God has no favorites, but he accepts you, Cornelius, because you’re killing it! You’re doing right. You’re fearing like no one’s feared before! No, where does Peter go next? He says, “You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” Peter takes Cornelius to Jesus whom he says, “God anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power” at his baptism. Why does Peter take Cornelius to that moment?
Because there is the approval that you and I want! There is the acceptance that we can never seem to claim. Jesus had done and would continue to do what was right. God the Father himself declared it to be true. Jesus feared God, respected him, honored him, and so was anointed, baptized, to fulfill all righteousness and die for our sins. And God accepted the sacrifice of his favorite, so that now there are no more favorites. Instead, there’s Peter, and Cornelius, and you, and me – there is us! God anointed his favorite, his Son, who pleased him, to kill him. So, now he can be pleased with you. Now, he can be Lord of All.
And, here is what this does for you and for me. If there are no more favorites, if there is no more pressure on you to make your salvation secure, if you don’t have to scramble around each day looking for signs of God’s love, hoping that he loves you, that you’re his child, if everything instead rests on Jesus, there is real peace.
Look at it this way…Ah, I’m not advocating that your play, but last I heard the Mega Millions Lottery was pushing a billion dollars – a billion (that’s before taxes)! If you by chance had the winning ticket of that lottery and you knew that money was coming your way, and tomorrow you got a bill for say $500. Would you care? No! You got a billion dollars. $500 bucks? No sweat.
Friends, at your own baptism God came to you and said, “You are my Son. You are my daughter. Everything that my son, Jesus, did is yours. You and I, we are at peace.” Doesn’t that change things? Do you think you’d look at life a little differently if you have this assurance, this promise, from God? Do you think the hospital stay, that current rut you’re in, those endless stressful days at work, do you think you’d look at all that differently if you had this promise?
Well, it’s here, real genuine peace in this life and in the one to come. It amazed Peter. It reassured Cornelius. What will it do for you? Because there are no favorites. There is simply Jesus, and when God looks at you that’s who he sees and that’s who you are. You are the one accepted by God who does what is right. And you can say this about yourself because you understand how this relationship with God works, and here is how it works: I don’t have what God desires, I am not his favorite but, in Christ, he supplies all that I need. And I know that for all the things I haven’t done and all the wrongs I have done I can find in Jesus, the Lord of All, forgiveness for me. And so, you also then fear him. You love and respect him, and you do this, again, because your hope rests not in your own faithfulness, or goodness, or the circumstances of your life, but in him, in Jesus.
So, as we enter this season of Epiphany remember, there are no favorites, but there is peace, a universal peace that applies to everyone, but is especially yours, because God was pleased not just with his Son, but to give you his Son. This is good news. And what do we do with good news? Well, like Peter, we share it…with everyone! Amen.