As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Today we celebrate Jesus’ baptism- and our own.
We begin with the scene in the Bible, as familiar and as foreign as the story is for us. While we repeat this story every year, and celebrate this sacrament multiple times a year, the meaning of baptism still escapes us and we always have to relearn what it means for us.
It’s not like doing your taxes every year; rather, it’s like finding some wonderful little gift box under the tree, left behind after Christmas that you didn’t know was there. And the box contains something small, mysterious and wonderful, more meaningful than we normally consider… and it’s all wrapped up, with instead of wrapping paper, with this odd and ancient story from along the banks of the Jordan River.
John the Baptist is knee deep in river water when he looks up and sees Jesus, picking his way down the bank.
At first, John feels like withholding the baptismal blessing- for an unusual reason. “I need to be baptized by you,” he says, ”and you come to me?”
But John goes ahead and baptizes his cousin anyway. With his arm around his shoulder, John eases him backward into the cool, flowing water, allowing Jesus to experience that brief moment of panic- that little death, and then the sweet rising up into the fresh air of life. Then there comes a voice from heaven: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased!”
Jesus receives the blessing, not by way of John, but straight from the top.
So, why does Jesus even need to do this? That’s what John is still wondering. That’s why his first instinct was to refuse the Baptism. Doesn’t Jesus know that he’s already blessed; that as the Son of God he doesn’t need to do any of this, that since that star hovered over Bethlehem, God’s blessing was his?
So, we’re still left with this gift box under the tree. We know that there is something special inside it, and now we’ve taken a peek at it, but we still don’t quite know what it is. Given that John’s baptisms were intended as a form of repentance, as a cleansing dose given to those who were preparing themselves for a swift and fiery judgment of the world, it does seem a little odd that Jesus would stand in line for such an initiation. – Curious, isn’t it?
(Maybe this is part of what good theology is all about.)
It’s in Matthew’s account that Jesus shares a few words about what is really going on with all this. Jesus’ answer to John goes something like this: ”It is required that you and I fulfill God’s will by allowing me to be baptized.”
It’s not that John’s Baptism is the ‘be all and end all’ of religious ceremonies to be undertaken before Jesus receives the mantle of Messiah-hood; that’s not what is going on. This isn’t a command performance, a prerequisite for the position description. Jesus submits to baptism because he is a certain kind of Messiah; a Messiah not just in word, but in deed. His submitting to baptism for repentance of sin foreshadows his acceptance of the cross (as in our bulletin cover drawing for the day). This is a Messiah who does more than express empathy for our sinful, sometimes painful, human situation.
Jesus enters into our lives and our world, as completely as he was immersed in the river Jordan, going in all the way, for us.
Jesus is baptized, not because he needs to be, but because he wants to be. Jesus sheds his ‘assumed’ identity- as a perfect being who lives above all troubles- to be who he really is, one of us. In baptism, Jesus begins to walk alongside us, taking on the sins, hurts, fears and longings we all share. It is his moment of commitment and consecration.
No longer living apart from the rest of humanity, Jesus chooses a way to walk right into the ways of the world, even into the perhaps questionable apocalyptic ministry of his cousin John, with complete impunity.
It’s not the threatening claims of John’s preaching that Jesus validates with his own baptism, but rather the fact that he’s ready to enter into the messiness of all of human life that makes the difference for all of us.
Jesus’ true identity was claimed for all to see at his baptism, as one who was willing to be seen a sinner; fallible and ready and willing to be renewed and embraced by a power greater than himself. The baptism of Jesus is not as clean-cut a story as we usually make it out to be. It’s a joining in the mess and mix of human life that Jesus initiates in a surprising and everlasting way that jumps out in this account and makes a difference for us in our regular, daily living.
Here’s a story for you…
Behind a friend of mine’s desk, a preaching buddy friend who lives in the outskirts of Scranton, PA, sits a slightly grainy photograph of a seven-year old boy. The photo shows him wearing a pair of glasses, an old Scranton Miners baseball jersey, and his best smile. He pulled the picture out of an old shoe box after Christmas a few years back, spending time with extended family remembering years and memories gone by.
He had been encouraged by family and good friends to pull that old picture out of the box and look at it each day; to remember what it was like to be that child, filled with hope, goodness and promise.
For a few weeks, he said, the only response he had to that picture was happiness. The photo was taken in 1962 and the boy in the picture had a crew cut; a real ‘flat top’, with the front tuft of hair pushed up (that’s why he remembers he wasn’t wearing a baseball cap; Vitalis- remember that?)
That, along with the slightly oversized glasses and jersey two sizes too big, made for a fairly awkward picture. Oh well. Those were happy days.
But then, he said, while glancing at the picture over his shoulder one morning, it all came back. My friend shared this with our preaching study group last year and gave us the OK to pass this story along.
In 1962 his family lived in a fairly rural area of Pennsylvania, near Mansfield, way up in ‘God’s Country’, as they call it. There weren’t many neighbors around for him to play with as a kid.
But there were transistor radios, and there was Baseball to listen to in the summertime. There wasn’t anything in the world more important to my friend than Baseball. One day his father returned from town with a brand new baseball bat, ball and glove. “Let’s play ball,” he said.
My friend couldn’t have been more excited, in part because he knew that his father had no interest whatsoever in baseball, or sports of any kind. This was a new thing.
He remembers what happened next as if it were yesterday.
After swinging wildly at a couple of pitches, he decided it would be clever to let a few go by. Somehow, even in first grade, he had learned enough about baseball to know that four balls meant a walk, and he could get on base by saving himself the embarrassment of swinging and missing more pitches. He made the choice to draw a base on balls.
After yet another pitch with no swing, his father huffed, “Well, what’s the point of all of this? If you don’t swing I’m just wasting my time.” He then just rolled the ball in the boy’s direction, turned, and walked back into the house.
They never played ball again, ever.
My friend shared that story, not to elicit sympathy, and certainly not to suggest that his father acted that way just to be mean. Looking back at it over 40 years later he’s realized that his father had brought his own, well, humanness, and brokenness- to his part of the game. There was a reason he did what he did.
Yet it would be difficult to overestimate the loneliness, and emptiness delivered to that kid in glasses.
My friend shared that story because, now, over the course of his nearly three-score years, he has come to recognize that all of us have our own stories to tell, and with them small windows through which we see our lives, and other’s lives as well. There is a real humanness, vulnerability and brokenness that we all have.
The author Terry Tempest Williams says that “We are all healed by our stories.”
Perhaps, through coincidence, familiarity or even grace, this little story might give you a small window into a story that brings insight, and perhaps even the beginnings of a little healing.
What my friend Jim realized in his story- and it’s taken him forty years to realize it, which is, unfortunately, pretty much par for the course; is that he wasn’t alone in his sadness when his Dad walked into that house. There was something else going on.
As Jim learned, our perceptions of God are more often than not tied to our childhood perceptions of our parents/our father… sometimes distant, austere and disapproving. It’s called conditional love. I will love you, provided that you meet my conditions. And if you fail to live up to expectations, that love is withheld.
Making a quantum shift here; our parents are not God. Conditional love is not what God gives us. Jesus joins us, in our messiness of life, just as he joined in the messiness of John the Baptist’s messy message, not because what John was saying was true, but because Jesus came to join us in life.
So, we still have this gift box left under the tree, the gift of baptism, in which is contained the greatest love of the universe, given to — us.
No longer do you or I have to walk around thinking we’re unworthy of love.
On this day of the Baptism of our Lord, we are called to remember into whom we are baptized, and our parents, too. We can all walk away from the waters of baptism reborn in Christ. We can walk out into the world, and we can look in the mirror–and say, “Look at me, I am a child of God. I am beloved, and with me God is well pleased, and with you, too!” Amen.