This week’s blog discusses Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, exploring the significance of the type of baptism, the relationship of the baptizer to the one being baptized, and the gravity of the choice it represents when we are baptized. The scripture text is taken from Matthew’s gospel.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus’ baptism marked the public beginning of his faith journey and his ministry. In Jesus’ time, the baptism of repentance (which is not the baptism we practice as Christians) ritually called people and the whole nation of Israel to turn away from sin and to turn toward God. They were called to give up self sufficiency and to seek God. It is the beginning of a journey that belongs to everyone who would live a life depending upon God.
In Faith and Real Life, we focused on three elements of that journey. First, though Matthew firmly locates Jesus in the Jewish tradition and announces his parentage as God himself, he reports that Jesus seeks the ‘baptism of repentance’ from John. It doesn’t matter who your parents are or how firmly you have been raised in the tradition, each of us must claim the faith as our own. We do not gain it by osmosis. Nor did Jesus. Though he could not know where it would lead him, Jesus chose to live a life in conversation and connection with God. The baptism of repentance marked that decision.
This is not an easy decision and it is one that runs contrary to the ways of the world. I have a client who is a high functioning alcoholic. He is a respected businessman, a devoted family man and provides well for his family. It doesn’t happen often, but every once in awhile, things really go south. A couple of years ago, he awoke in the middle of a winter night on the sidewalk of Peachtree street. He had no memory of how he got there. The incident scared him but he refused to go to AA and was adamant that he would not let this happen again. He was insistent that he could manage his life and that he wasn’t really like other alcoholics. He stayed in control for eighteen months. Then, last month, he was found passed out on the street again. But this time he had been assaulted and robbed. Again he had no memory of what or how any of this happened. And unfortunately, again he insists he can manage this on his own. Acknowledging that his way almost certainly won’t work is too hard for him. It may kill him.
Though an extreme example, the behavior is really very common. Most of us cling to patterns that we know won’t work. Have you ever actually changed the mind of a political opponent? When threatened or confronted, our human response is fight or flight. Our human, our sinful response, is to polarize. But no matter how understandable, no matter how human, those patterns fail. They reflect an insistence upon our way—but that way leads to a political discourse based upon volume, stridency and self righteous certainty. God’s way requires listening, collaboration, and reconciliation—even when threatened. Those are not skills that come ‘naturally’. But the very first step is repentance and it requires giving up our certainties to leave room for God.
The second thing we noticed was the exchange between John and Jesus about whether or not John was ‘qualified’ to baptize. At first it seems a bit odd that Jesus, the Son of God, the man without sin would seek to be baptized. But the ‘oddness’ of Jesus’ request is largely a function of our perspective. We know the end of the story. We know the divinity of Jesus. We forget the human Jesus who had to struggle and grow. Knowing the end ot the story can make it hard to remember what it was like for Jesus to begin the story. In our day, Jesus’ unity with God is a given but there was a process through which that unity was revealed.
By the world’s ‘righteousness’, the novice does not bless the mentor. But God’s righteousness is different than ours. God’s way of valuing people is different than ours. God loves because we are his children—not because of our learning, position or piety. As we are to learn later, Jesus consistently honors and includes people that the society did not notice or who the society actively rejected. The spiritual life means trying to see the world and people as God sees us—not how the world does. Jesus seeking John fulfills God’s righteousness and challenges ours. It is one thing to repent, to give up our way of viewing the world and it is another to begin to see others as God sees us. Jesus models that new way.
Finally, we can choose to give up our sinful ways. We can choose to seek to see the world as God sees us but ultimately, it is God’s activity that makes it all possible. “ A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Every faith journey is made possible by God’s love. In Jesus’ baptism, it is embodied by the dove and the divine pronouncement. Without that loving presence, the command to love is an idealistic set of ‘oughts’–which we can only fail. It is the difference between loving someone because you ‘should’ and loving out of gratitude. It is the difference between being told you are loved and actually feeling that love.
But once received we are transformed. That is how Jesus was able to begin the ultimate faith journey and it is that abiding presence with him that allowed him to face the wilderness and his walk to the cross. We need that same love in the midst of our wilderness.
May each of you know you are God’s beloved child with whom he is well pleased. That’s something you can rely upon. Rejoice. Let it be so.
PS Since this week’s sermon is based upon the lectionary Psalm reading for this Sunday, I am adding a few verses from it. I hope you can see the connection in the texts. We will talk about it in FIRL.
1 Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;
worship the LORD in holy splendor…
10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;
the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.
11 May the LORD give strength to his people!
May the LORD bless his people with peace!