Baptism of Jesus © Jan L. Richardson
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 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. 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The transition out of the Christmas season does not feel particularly smooth, instead it feels more like a jolt. Last week we were still surrounded by the greens and signs of the new life born in Christ. Last week we were still with the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes in his mother’s arms. We were still following the star with the magi, offering our gifts to the innocent babe. Perhaps, if we imagined Joseph and Mary, just a few months later, taking the infant Jesus to the church and having him baptized in the midst of congregation of the faithful, perhaps today would make sense.
But the baptism of Jesus was in some ways very different than the sweet, somewhat idyllic moments we share here at the feet of the chancel steps. By the time we catch up with Jesus at his baptism he is in his thirties, and his cousin John has long been living on insects in the desert and preaching fiery sermons about repentance.
John the Baptist preaches “prepare the way of the Lord” and “repent!” He lambasts the Pharisees and Sadducees for coming to be baptized and accuses them of hedging their bets, saying to them, “lead a life worthy of repentance…”
John was intense, he was passionate, he was…not particularly nice… And it is in the midst of one of these sermons, when John the Baptist is lighting into the religious leaders of his day, calling them out on false religiosity, when Jesus approaches the Jordan for his own baptism.
Perhaps the last thing that John expected was to see Jesus there – the one who needed no repenting – coming to be baptized in the Jordan. Perhaps the last thing he expected was the man who would baptize with the Holy Spirit coming to be cleansed.
John the Baptist responds with deep reluctance when faced with the opportunity to baptize Jesus in the Jordan: “I need to be baptized by you! And you come to me?!” John has been baptizing and preaching on the banks of the Jordan River. Matthew’s gospel is the only one that shares this little dialogue between John and Jesus, and yet there is something that feels authentic about it.
John’s aversion to this act seems natural…it doesn’t really make sense…Even when Jesus tells him he must do it to fulfill all righteousness…still, it’s not exactly clear what Jesus is up to. And yet in spite of his hesitancy, John and Jesus bow down in obedience to the will of the God who has set them forth on their journeys. In spite of any reservations or doubts, in spite of confusion, John says ‘yes.’ John says ‘yes’ and the skies open up and a voice from the heavens says, “this is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
It is a moment of truth. Paved with humility, it is a moment when we are shown, without a doubt, that this man Jesus is the One, the Christ, the Messiah, the One who is beyond our imagining. In this way, the baptism of Jesus is unlike any other baptism that has happened before or since. John’s insistence of his blamelessness, God’s naming of Jesus as God’s son, marks Jesus as more than just a really good guy. It marks Jesus as the incarnate God come to save.
And yet in other ways, all moments of baptism are connected with the baptism of Jesus, incorporating his cleansing in the Jordan River as well as his death and resurrection. In our own baptism we join in this “new life”; We are “cleansed” and then “claimed and named as God’s own beloved children.” While the voice may not come from the heavens, it instead comes from the congregation who affirms God’s love for each of us and welcomes us into the family of God. It is the moment that marks our true identity – above all else, as God’s own child. It is a moment of transformation that changes everything.
Carrie was a young teenage girl, around thirteen or fourteen, who struggled with all the normal stuff that being a thirteen or fourteen year old girl brings. But along with the normal stuff came a bit more. Her parents had gone through a difficult divorce a few years before I met her, and at least some of their troubles were the result of religious differences. The oldest in her family, she was aware of more – aware of what was lost, aware of how much she now shouldered, aware of how fast she had had to grow up.
As I got to know her better I was met with her skepticism if not cynicism about religion in general. We had some long discussions about the very different ways that people approach faith, and how we all negotiate the complicated paths before us, how our own choices need not replicate our parents’. It was, in fact, very complicated and in many ways very painful.
Carrie’s family had decided to wait to have her baptized, wanting it to be her own choice as she grew in age and matured in faith, and so as we discussed her possible confirmation, we discussed this too – the baptism that would happen at the time of her confirmation. She was, true to her nature, skeptical and cynical. One of her concerns, as you might imagine for any young teenage girl, was the fact that she would be singled out in front of everyone, looked at and scrutinized by her peers and the congregation. But then her concerns turned to the truth of it all, whether or not she really believed in any of this, what might happen if she didn’t. It was clear to Carrie that her mother really wanted her to be baptized and confirmed; it was also clear that she might be making a step away from her father if she went through with it. There was heavy weight on her decision, perhaps more weight than any 14 year old should bear.
When Carrie made the decision to go forward in the church, I have to admit I was surprised. I think it was within 36 hours of her Confirmation Sunday. I wasn’t hesitant, exactly, certainly nothing like John the Baptist’s response to Jesus. It was just that I was fully aware of her doubts and concerns, fully aware that just a few hours before she had told me she wasn’t going to go through with it, fully aware of the hours in between those conversations filled with time with her somewhat persuasive mother. And yet, in the wake of her ‘yes’ – how could I respond with a ‘no’?
And so, that morning, Carrie stood before peers and congregation, before her family, and was baptized and confirmed in the church. In some ways that baptism was just like so many others which have occurred amongst gathered Christians everywhere since the time of Christ. And yet, as I prayed for Carrie that morning, as I drenched her with water and led her in answering the questions of faith, I found tears welling up in my throat and eyes. What moved me was the prayer that in that moment she might be transformed with new life, that the faith that brought her to that moment propel her forward in that transformation.
I knew that Carrie needed new life almost more than any other teenager I had met. I new that she needed to be cleansed of the pain and hurt she had borne. I new she needed to close the door on that anger and open a new one toward light and hope. Ultimately it was God’s action and God’s grace which poured out upon her. It was God, who transformed, God who made new, God who claimed her and named her as beloved. I was merely the person who held the water.
I prayed and still pray, that she was and is transformed in Christ. And yet, transformation is a two-way street. It is an ongoing conversation. God claims and names us but in order to be truly and fully transformed we must live out of that naming and claiming. We must live in a way that gives space for that seed to grow. We must let the words and stories of faith become flesh and dwell within us.
Professor and youth ministry guru Kenda Dean recently came out with a book titled “Almost Christian,” in which she details the findings of the first wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion, a massive study on adolescent spirituality in the United States which began in 2001 and is still going on. The findings, to put it briefly, is that young people are not at all hostile toward religion, but are “fine with it.” Those in the study concurred that religion is a “very nice thing” whose main purpose is sculpting nice, moral, caring citizens.
Even so, it’s not “necessary” to make one’s life meaningful or moral. What the researchers have found is that while young people may attend church or youth groups, they may think of themselves as Christians, their faith is more like something they term “moralistic therapeutic deism” – a coupling between ethics, feel-good psychology and a general belief in the existence of a God who doesn’t have very much to do with every day life.
There is much to say about this. But one critical point is that, as Dean puts it, “the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo with astonishing clarity the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them.” That is to say, if teenagers think church is simply about creating nice individuals, it’s because we’ve told them it is.
The question of identity isn’t one that goes away when we are confirmed or when we graduate from high school, or college even. It still lingers when we have our babies or get married or pursue careers. And today – we have all sorts of forces telling us where we belong and who we are: we are bankers or lawyers or doctors, we are mothers or fathers, husbands or wives or independent, single people. We are what we do, we are what we accomplish, where we live or how we vote. Sometimes we are what we drive or what we wear. When is the last time you introduced yourself and you didn’t name an activity or group you participate in? When was the last time you described yourself and one of the first things that came to mind was your faith?
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is of moderate importance.”
In the questions we ask at each baptism, we ask questions of ultimate importance. We ask each baptized person or the guardian who speaks on their behalf about following Jesus. We ask them if they will obey his Word and show his love, we ask it they will turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil in the world.
On the surface, these may seem like nice questions, from nice Christians. And yet – obedience to the one who was born homeless and poor is not nice or easy. This long and complicated path that Jesus walks begins with his baptism in the Jordan – an act that made not a bit of sense – and travels ever more senselessly to the cross. To show the love of Jesus who crossed boundaries of convention to welcome the outcast and the sinner means that that may just be where we follow.
Because when we begin to obey God’s word and show God’s love, then we begin to do things that don’t always make sense. We begin to welcome people who act strange and who say radically loving things. We begin to think less of ourselves and more of our neighbor. We begin to fight for healthcare or food security for all even though it will cost us more from our own pockets. We begin to sit at table with people who speak different languages than our own or who smell like they haven’t bathed in awhile. We begin to try to have conversations with those with whom we disagree, rather than trying to convince them of our rightness. We begin to listen instead of to talk. We begin to love with recklessness and to speak out of compassion instead of out of fear and anger.
The love we are born into in baptism is an active, incarnate love. It is a love enfleshed in illogical grace. And you need only to watch the news for a few moments to see how much this matters, in the every day moments of our lives. You need only to hear of the shootings this past week to see how much it matters. How much it matters that we not speak words that foster hate and violence, how much it matters that instead we live out of that transforming love we know in Jesus. How much it matters that that love take tangible, enfleshed forms in our daily lives. How much it matters that we are called to walk into this world, soaked and wet with the knowledge of our baptisms – of who we are and whose we are – and to see each person we meet with the eyes of the God who says to each of us – this is my beloved, my child, with whom I am well pleased.
May each of us be so transformed and live as though it truly matters – to us, to our children, to the victims of senseless tragedy, to the world. Amen.