January 12, 2020
I want to begin with a confession: I do not really understand Baptism. Perhaps that is not a good thing to say as a Pastor, but it is the truth. Yes, I can tell you plenty about the theology of Baptism, the many different meanings it conveys. I can talk about controversies around Baptism—debates about whether infants should be baptized or only adults who profess faith; whether Baptism must be done a certain way: by immersion or sprinkling or pouring to be efficacious. I get Baptism intellectually, historically. I there is something mysterious about Baptism that is hard to capture.
Part of it may be that many of us who were baptized as infants have no memory of the experience. Whereas Communion we celebrate and share every month and year upon year, letting that sacrament shape us and mold us, Baptism happens just the one time, and even witnessing a Baptism of someone else is not a frequent occurrence.
All that and you add on today’s passage of Jesus’ baptism. In some ways it can be read as a straightforward anointing of Jesus at the start of his public ministry. But let’s think back to the first Sunday in Advent when we heard about what John the Baptist was preaching as he was out baptizing at the Jordan river. He was baptizing for the forgiveness of sins and he had some fiery rhetoric to go with it: brood of vipers, unfruitful trees shall be chopped down, chaff will be burned up. “Repent, be Baptized, or else…” John seemed to be preaching.
That is the context of Jesus showing up to be Baptized. It is strange then that Jesus would be here. John even points this out. “I should be baptized by you! Why are you coming to me?”
At the crux of this question is the core meaning of Baptism. John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins and repentance. This remains, to this day, one of the meanings of Baptism. The water suggests a cleansing. Just as we wash away dirt or grime, so too as we let go of sin we are “cleansed.”
There is a pattern to this: people are living or behaving in ways that are unjust or unholy, they recognize and desire to change, the commit to doing so and are baptized by John as a ritual to seal the transformation. The old self is gone, and the person is “reborn” in a sense. There are instances where this can be a very powerful, life-changing frame for looking at Baptism.
Yet, if Jesus is Baptized and we are to believe that Jesus is free from sin or corruption or injustice, we are left in a conundrum. Why does Jesus seek out John to be Baptized then? This understanding of sin, repentance, cleansing does not hold up. (I almost said it doesn’t hold water, but ugh, bad pun).
Jesus tells John that it is to “fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness often carries a denotation of what is just, what is right. Jesus wanted to fulfill that which is right and just. What Jesus is doing is wild like a river.
Have any of you ever been in a river before? Or even waded in a small creek where there was a steady stream of water?
I can remember on one canoe trip to the boundary waters, we came to a portage between two lakes where there was also a stream that ran seventy five yards or so alongside the portage. We were going from the lower lake to the upper lake, and while most of our group just did the portage, my canoe mate and I decided we would leave all our packs in the canoe and just pull it up the stream, wading through the water. It was deep enough for the canoe to ride, but not deeper than mid-calf in the deepest spots.
Still, it was surprisingly challenging. The water, though relatively shallow, was forceful. It pushed against us and rippled and bounded over rocks. There were deep pockets where you’d step forward and suddenly be up to your thigh. At one point I lost my footing and fell to my butt in the water, but because of the force of the stream, I was pushed backward and ended up soaked most of the way up my shirt. By the time we had hauled our canoe out in the upper lake, we were drenched. All our fellow canoers were ready to go, like “what took you so long?”
Water is wild. It is hard to tame. It has an energy and life all its own.
This Baptism of Justice, of righteousness that Jesus goes into is in a river. Swift and flowing, not a discrete amount of water poured into a font just so.
Upon coming up from the water, a vision like a dove descends upon Jesus and a voice from the heavens declares: “This is my beloved son/child, in whom my soul delights.”
When this happens, Jesus and God and the Spirit are taking the meaning of Baptism and making it something much more wild. They are bursting the dam of sin and shame, ending the idea of a trickle of forgiveness.
Baptism does not have to just mean repentance for sin, which takes the idea of wrongness, badness, mistakes, screw ups as its starting point.
Jesus shows all those who are there, he shows us:
Belovedness comes first. It is before us, with us, and beyond us. Baptism then is the sign and seal of that belovedness. It reminds us of the un-erasable imprint of God’s love for us. Jesus is showing us precisely that. “You do not have to be good,” as the poet Mary Oliver says. “You do not have to walk for miles on your knees repenting.” Jesus is demonstrating that Baptism is a gift, not a burden. It is God’s expression of love and delight in calling us her own, unconditionally.
It opens the gates and gushes forth. God delights in you. The baptism is a sign and seal of that belovedness that exists from the beginning. It is a confirmation and claim that God delights in us. We will accept the goodness and grace and call of that. It opens it up for all people to know this truth about God.
From his baptism, Jesus goes on to begin his ministry. He takes the knowledge of God calling him beloved and puts that into action. He responds to God calling him beloved by living that reality daily.
That is the good news for us: that God delights to call us her beloved. Can we accept this radical love? Can we believe that indeed God does delight in us? When we claim that blessing that is extended, when we accept that we are loved as we are and received fully by God, then there is nothing left to do but join Jesus in fulfilling all righteousness, in living such radical love, and proclaiming the unconditional love of God for all people.