September 6, 2020
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
There are many accounts in the Hebrew scriptures of people being surprised. The Bible is filled with this reaction, toward what God is up to in the world or how human beings are responding to it. Sarah’s pregnancy was a surprise. The bedridden man’s recovery was a surprise. Maybe my favorite surprise in scripture is when Jesus turns water into wine during a wedding feast. But, I think it’s safe to say, maybe no one in scripture has ever been as surprised as John was on the day of Jesus’ baptism.
This morning’s passage might be a familiar one to you. It takes place at the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry. He is an adult, having been raised in and around the temple and now he is embarking on his three-year career of healing, performing miracles, and teaching about the kingdom of God. The character of John the Baptist is introduced right before this passage- that wild, disruptive prophet with clothes made out of camel hair, and a diet of locusts and wild honey. Needless to say, John wasn’t super popular with the religious elites of the day. He was feral- according to the scripture, he just showed up one day out of the wilderness and began calling them a brood of vipers and calling them to repentance and saying that rocks had more redeeming qualities than they did, and generally messing with their sense of superiority. There was something compelling about John, though, some reason why people were drawn to him. In fact, people were so drawn to John that they traveled from far and wide to be baptized by him.
And then Jesus shows up. And John just can’t believe it. Somehow John recognizes that Jesus is different. It is widely thought by scholars that John and Jesus were relatives. So John may know Jesus as a man, a cousin, someone who has come over occasionally for the Seder meal. But John recognizes something else about Jesus. This carpenter, this man who has not yet done anything to warrant special treatment, is coming to John to be baptized and John already knows that authority is being turned upside down. That Jesus, somehow, should be the one doing the baptizing. John recognizes that Jesus, in the world he is used to, should be the one with the power in this situation.
But Jesus says no, actually, John is the one who he has come to see. John is who Jesus seeks out, at the Jordan, to fulfill this ancient and holy ritual of baptism. As Jesus goes into the water and comes back up, supported by his relative John, something happens. The very Spirit of God, like a dove, descends to Jesus. The dove alights on him, and the heavens open, and God begins to speak.
There are a few different things happening here that are worth looking at. This passage is filled with symbolism- callbacks to earlier stories, images that would be startling to the ancient consciousness. First of all, if baptism is for repentance and the public absolution of sin, why on earth would Jesus need to be baptized? In Christian theology, Jesus was sinless…the physical manifestation of divinity. So why the baptism? Was it necessary?
Jesus is showing his complete identification with the people. John has been preaching a gospel of power- of a great redeemer to come and rescue the oppressed. Of one who will sweep the temple clean of all the bad actors, all of the false religion, and create a new world order out of the ruins. This story tells a different gospel. Yes, Jesus has come to show the people a new way to live, a new kin-dom filled with justice and where everyone has what they need. But if Jesus is going to rescue the people, this is how he will do it…by humbly identifying himself with God’s people, by sharing in their suffering, living their life, and ultimately dying their death.
In many ancient stories, water represents chaos, violence, instability, uncertainty, and darkness. Like the stories we read a few weeks ago when Jesus calms the storm and walks on the water, we can understand the act of baptism as submergence into the very thing that terrifies, but that also might bring us a new understanding of what God is up to.
When Jesus emerges from the water, the story tells us that the Spirit alighted on him like a dove. In Hebrew understanding, the dove symbolizes peace. Like the flood story, when the dove returns to the ark, the dove here embodies the Spirit of peace that will characterize the kin-dom. Not a spirit of judgement, of retribution, or of violence, but of the divine upending of existing power structures and systems that oppress.
The Divine voice that calls out when Jesus rises from the water doesn’t follow the usual script. In the Hebrew tradition, when a person was considered unclean, they were required to take a mikva…a ritual bath that absolved them of their sin and restored them to union with God and their community. John’s baptism ritual followed a similar understanding- sinners would go down into the water and emerge absolved of their sins. When Jesus arises, though, God’s words are not words of absolution or forgiveness of sins. God’s words are words of identity. This is my son. I am pleased with him. I love him.
God’s declaration of love and pleasure in the very sight of his son calls back to the very beginning of the Bible. In the creation poem, God makes the sun and moon, the water and the land, animals and fish, and finally human beings. And, after each creative act, God calls what God has made good. It is good. It is very good…the original blessing.
So perhaps what we need, what I need to hear today, in the midst of the swirling waters of 2020, is that we are beloved…that we do not need to do anything to be identified as a child of God. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more, no ritual we must perform or standard we must live up to, to arise out of chaos and hear Spirit declare that God is well pleased with us.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of performance. The way our world works is so capitalistic and predatory that we can come to understand God in that way too. If we do all of the right things, if we confess our shortcomings enough times. If we try to be different people, people who can handle things like an inept political leader and a global pandemic and cancer and loneliness and children at home with a little more grace. Who can be a little more like Jesus. But this story tells us that Jesus is like us. Jesus identifies with us in our suffering, and shows us what God really thinks of us. We are loved, and God sees who we are, right now, and accepts us completely. And the ironic thing about it all is that it is only when we can grasp our own inherent goodness and value that we can ever begin to love others. When we know we are loved we can do all sorts of things with a different energy. We feed people and visit people and give our money and love our children and vote our values not because we’re afraid we won’t be loved, but because we know we already are. The chaos of the water is real. The systems in place that give preference to the ones with power are real. But the words of the Divine cut through all of that and call us up and out of the water. We see the Spirit alight on us, we see Her winds moving around us, and we are invited to hear God call us beloved. May you remember that this morning. May you go out into the world with this story in your heart. May you see yourself as God’s beloved, in whom he is well pleased.