The Baptism of Jesus.
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:1, 5-8, 11; 13-17
Barbara Z. Barnes
Many years ago I went on a study trip to Israel. One day we traveled for hours through the barren desert to arrive at the Jordan River. The surprise for us was how muddy and brown the Jordan River itself was. But along its banks life was flourishing, green and lush.
So it’s entirely fitting that John the Baptist, who lives in the dry desert, brings people to the Jordan river to initiate them into new and flourishing life. But it must have been daunting for them to be submerged in its fierce current and muddy waters.
Jesus too comes to the Jordan to be baptized. Picture the scene as he arrives. Sunburned John, with fierce eyes and wild hair, standing in the muddy waters alongside a crazy assortment of humanity. Because John has drawn crowds from all over, and from every condition of life. People from far away Jerusalem, the central city. And from all of Judea, a huge province. As well as from all the region along the Jordan. And also from every condition of life. Luke says there were soldiers who policed the people on behalf of the Roman Empire which was oppressing them. And tax collectors who preyed on the people, extorting more money than the taxes owed, keeping the rest for themselves. Brian Blount sums up why they were so hated: Tax collectors and soldiers were considered “Roman pawns, thieves, extortionists, and informants.” They were despised and despicable. But there they are, in the river for baptism, along with the people they prey upon! Matthew tells us, “There were “many pharisees and sadducees too”. We know about them. How many biblical stories have we heard of these religious functionaries proclaiming their own righteousness, their superior knowledge of God’s will, while being petty and cruel to those who didn’t meet their exacting standards. But they are there, too, along with all the riff-raff — The throngs of hungry, hurting, needy people who know their own petty crimes and weaknesses, and sorrows and failings.
THESE, all of them, are the people Jesus enters the river to be baptized with!! No wonder John tries to stop Jesus from getting in the river and identifying himself with them, maybe being mistaken for one of them! But Jesus says, “Let’s do this!” For it is fitting in this way to fulfill all righteousness! So Jesus climbs down into the roiling, muddy river alongside all these scoundrels and cheats, these sinners and betrayers, these sorry people who’ve made a mess of their lives and hurt others. Jesus is baptized with them and alongside them. It’s outrageous to us, really! But not to God!
For when Jesus does so, the heavens open in revelation and he hears a voice, confirming who he IS and the WAY he has chosen. This word he hears combine a word of identity: “You are my beloved son,” with a word of approval: “with whom I am well pleased”. The first phrase comes from the crowning of a ruler, and the second from the prophet Isaiah’s words about a servant who suffers for the sake of the people.
So this word at his baptism confirms Jesus’ ministry in the model of the suffering servant who brings God’s just and compassionate rule. We heard the details in our Isaiah reading: the servant will be a light to all people, bringing forth justice, opening people’s eyes to truth, and freeing them from desperate circumstances. In his baptism, Jesus is sent out into the world, to love and serve all who are desperate, needy, and hopeless.
So, what about us? As always, when we read scripture, we listen for the word that is meant for us, at this moment in time and this moment in our lives. How might this text speak to us today? What word might we need to hear? So, in order to listen carefully for that word TO US, we ask, Where do we find ourselves in this story? Where do we identify? In this story, who are WE?
We are not Jesus, of course. But where do you see yourself? Perhaps there are two main possibilities, and maybe both are true at the same time.
1. First, we are among those who have come to follow Jesus. To learn from him and to choose his way in the world. That’s a good part of why we’re here as a church community, today and every week.
So every year at this time we’re reminded that it’s this event, Jesus’ baptism, that launches his earthly ministry of love and justice in the pattern of the Suffering Servant. In a similar way, our baptism into the life of Christ is the beginning of our own call to ministry. The ministry to which each of us is called, every one of us. No matter who we are, or in what stage of life or what circumstances. We all have something to offer, a ministry that’s needed by others. Needed out in the world.
The particular ways we serve may vary throughout our life, according to our circumstances, but we continue all our lives to seek to live with the love and justice of Jesus in the way that is meant for us to do at this moment. Using whatever background, experiences, life knowledge, skills and personal characteristics we have. So WE come to the river to learn how to follow Jesus, and to discover our particular calling, which may or may not overlap with our paid job. Whoever we are, wherever we are placed in life, we offer ourselves to others who are suffering in body, mind or spirit. In the pattern of Jesus.
Jesus reaches out to the lost and the lonely and the left behind. Remember how he focuses on each person before him: the paralyzed man, the pharisee, the woman with bleeding, the Roman Centurian, the tax collector, the Syrophoeician woman, doubting Thomas, the ill, the lame, the lost, the lonely, the grieving, the despairing, the children, the ones near death. He relates to each one personally even as he seeks to change the conditions that hold them captive.
We who follow him are called to do so too! Among all these conditions of life there are some we discover WE are particularly able and equipped to address. Knowing that others of us in the body of Christ are carrying out their ministries with different people and groups, addressing other conditions of life. We support each other in our varied ministries.
As we each discover and follow our particular calling, we try to meet every person who crosses our path or comes to our attention with respect and compassion. For we follow the pattern of Jesus, which means we can disagree with but not despise people we meet who think and behave and believe differently from us.
So where do we find ourselves in the scripture? First, we are people called to follow Jesus into the muddy and sometimes dangerous waters among the crazy assortment of humanity. We are called and sent into our particular ministry through our baptism into the life of Christ.
2. But maybe you, like me, find that’s not the only place you find yourself in this story. Maybe we don’t only come to the river to join up with Jesus and to follow him out to address the needs of the world. Maybe you are in a time when you are come to the river in your own need. For we are not only ones called to serve, we are also ones in need ourselves. So we look more carefully at all the folks in the river, that crazy assortment of disreputable folks. They are people with gifts but also with needs, people who have hurt others deeply and also been deeply hurt, people with fears and regrets and also hopes and yearnings. And we know they are us and we are them. When we join Jesus in the river of life, we do so, not only for their sake but for ours! We are not only ones called to address others’ needs, but ones bringing some need of our own.
We may have strained or broken relationships, or things we are ashamed of and sorry for. Terrible grief or persistent anxiety. A scary diagnosis or a scary challenge ahead. We may have suffered physical, emotional, spiritual or moral injury. We may be living with things we have a limited ability to change, but that break our hearts. We need comfort, we need forgiveness, we need hope. And, we need strength that is more than our own.
So we come to the river for our own sake too. To draw life from the source of all life. To bring our need to the compassionate heart of the one who can hold us close and bear the weight of our lives. Our merciful God who says to us too, You are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son.
Some of you may remember a story about Henri Nouwen I’ve shared before, but it bears repeating because it speaks directly to this aspect of our text. Years ago, I heard him talk about a turning point in his life, that occurred in his middle years. One icy winter, he was walking along a road in the midst of a snowstorm that was steadily getting worse. Behind him came a huge snowplow, whose driver didn’t see him, and the plow hit him hard and threw him a distance. He was badly injured, near death. While he lay hovering between life and death in the ICU, he had an extraordinary experience. Something, he said, like being lifted and cradled and held fast in the love of God. And he had an overwhelming experience of himself as being beloved by God in a way he could feel. He told us, “I had written and taught and affirmed the love of God my whole life, but I had never experienced it with such reality and power. Now, he said, I know beyond all doubt, how beloved we are, each of us. And he looked around at all of us in the room, and said, “You are beloved in that same way, each of you. If you can learn to trust your belovedness, in the midst of all the wounds of life, you will have enormous inner freedom. Trust the truth of your belovedness.” It’s a profound word that can change our lives and heal our spirit. Knowing “you are my beloved daughter, you are my beloved son.”
So, two ways we might enter the story of Jesus’ baptism today. We have likely not heard a voice or see a vision, as Jesus did. But in our own baptism we too are both embraced in love, AND commissioned in our baptism to the work of love and justice.
And as we are sent out, remember: We belong to a community of beloved brothers and sisters on the journey, and we take turns holding each other up. A whole community of people who are learning to give and to receive, to proclaim and to seek, to lead and to follow. It’s what it means to be fully human. To live in between our freedom and our limits. This complicated but glorious state of being human. And together we go out into the world to work for justice and compassion and peace among all of God’s other dearly beloved sons and daughters.
May it be so. And may we do so with joy!