Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved,* with whom I am well pleased.’ Those who have listened to my preaching the longest know that I struggle with the theology surrounding baptism. Somehow, when I was a child, I got it in my head that baptism was a Christian club card. It was the pass…the secret handshake…that got you into…I’m kind of embarrassed to say this…that got you into heaven…and I was raised in the United Methodist church...my mom was raised in the Baptist church and my dad was raised, loosely Catholic…so who knows where I learned that particular view of baptism.
I’ll remind you, I was not baptized as an infant. My parents preferred infant dedication and believer’s baptism…so I was baptized at age 14, on the same day that I was confirmed. By then, I was old enough to have way too many questions about the church and Christianity to be all that comfortable getting baptized into a club that I really didn’t understand…and I didn’t really know what I was getting into…but, at the same time, I didn’t have the chutzpah to take a stand against my family, who, if my memory is even close to accurate, held the attitude “What’s the big deal, Jean, you drama queen. Just do it.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, I loved being the youngest of five, but there were moments when the family system was just too enormous to buck. So, I did it…I joined the club.
God forgive me, I think I got it all wrong. In fact, I’m positive I got it all wrong. And so, as with most sermons, this is as much for me as for you.
The baptism of Jesus is important enough to be told in all four gospels. There are differences in each story, but the basic threads of the story are the same. Jesus seeks John the Baptist out. John has been in the desert calling folks to repent their sins and change how they are living and then offers baptism as a ritualistic way of entering this new life. Jesus goes to the Jordan River to find John so that he can be baptized. God speaks a word of approval as Jesus comes out of the water. That part of the story is told in a variety of ways. And then, following his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted.
As you know, there has been an abundance of scholarship produced on the historical Jesus in recent decades…resulting, I think, from discoveries of literary resources and archeological finds, noteworthy of course being the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in the 50s. Princeton New Testament scholar and Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls project, James Charlesworth, calls this abundance of recent scholarship a “chaotic creativity” in Jesus research. To which I say, “Amen, it is about time.” The church needs chaotic creativity if it is to let go of its medieval thinking and reform to become vital and relevant as we move into the future.
I bring up the notion of chaotic creativity in research because there is a plethora of commentaries and articles and sermons written on the baptism of Jesus. Every nuance is worked over. Was he a devout Jew in the tradition of radical Israelite prophets, a charismatic teacher, a wandering sage, an itinerant cynic, or yet another of the healers and miracle workers of his time. There is evidence for all of these profiles…yet, there isn’t enough evidence to land on any one of them with any confidence.
One of the commentaries put it this way, “Jesus of history continues to be elusive, and sometimes acts in ways that present problems to the traditions that have grown up around him.”
One such tradition is Jesus’ decision to be baptized by John. Baptism was something Jesus intentionally sought out.
What’s the big deal, you might be asking yourselves? To get at that, we need to take a little side trip to look at two basic approaches to understanding Jesus and all that he did. This will sound familiar.
If you have hung around churches…well, maybe preachers…you will have likely heard the term Christology…it is a cousin to Theology. Both are usually connected with the adjectives high or low. A high Christology emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. So, when you are in conversation with people who continually focus on the divinity of Jesus…that he was indeed the immaculate conception of the immaculate conception of God himself…and that he was without sin…and that his birth, life, death and resurrection was all preplanned and simply executed when the divine nature we call Jesus came to earth….(I’ve even heard people say that the cross may not have been as painful because Jesus was really God and God wouldn’t have felt pain the way we do.)…that is a high Christology.
Low Christology emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. I have a low Christology. I believe Jesus was of God…the light of divinity shone through him and others recognized it…I am persuaded that there was something about him that was compelling and truthful and trustworthy…hard to find the right words. But, a low Christology has more of a focus on his teachings and how he lived his life.
Frankly, I think we need to come up with new terms…because contemporary Jesus scholarship pushes beyond this simple distinction…high and low Christology doesn’t really describe our relationship with Jesus anymore, but for the purposes of this discussion of baptism, let’s work with these two definitions.
If you have a high Christology, then you will likely struggle with why Jesus wanted to be baptized for the repentance of sin…because he was sinless. People with high Christology’s tend to preach about John’s uneasiness in baptizing Jesus, because John somehow knew he was sinless…which was then punctuated with a heavenly exclamation point when God speaks from the heaven as Jesus is baptized.
When trying to explain why Jesus was baptized, those with a high Christology tend to settle on the idea that Jesus did it so that he could fully identify with those he had come to redeem. He didn’t really need it…because he was sinless and perfect, but lowered himself and accepted the gesture to get closer to those who had sinned. That feels a little off…maybe even a bit manipulative to me…but that is because I have a low Christology.
With a low Christology, Jesus’ baptism makes sense to me. Regardless of how the divine nature shone through him, he is living in the same world that we are and he was tempted, just as we are…therefore, his seeking out John at the Jordan feels like a decision point…a turning point.
Now, I felt like I was getting closer to understanding baptism…but, ironic as this may sound, to get even closer, I knew I had to take a step back…away from the written word and all that has been written about it through the ages…I needed to step back to attempt to reflect upon what the authors of this story of this event are trying to tell us in this narrative.
To step back, we remind ourselves that the Gospel writers were writing 40-70 years after Jesus died. He died in about year 30. Mark was written in the early 70s, Matthew & Luke in the early 80s and John around the year 100. These are not eye-witness accounts.
So, what are they trying to tell their readers? What are they trying to communicate to us? What do they want people to know about Jesus through the telling of the story of his baptism?
The good English major in me says, “Take a look at the climax of the story.” And so we look for the climax of the message in this narrative and we land on the latter verses, where suddenly the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends, and a declaration is made from heaven: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I think the authors of the narrative on baptism wanted to convey the point that Jesus was called and commissioned by God…Jesus was answering God’s call to go deeper and deeper into community…for the sake of community…and I think the authors are telling us that his call and commissioning by God gave him the courage and strength to face challenge upon challenge in the forty days that followed…and the next three years of his life. Baptism isn’t about becoming a Christian or getting into heaven. Baptism is about responding to God’s call to live your life in a life-giving way…to live your life deeply in this life, right now, right here…and to trust in God’s call.
Paul Tillich says that Jesus is the only one who has been completely true to the voice he heard at his baptism. Jesus gave everything – his dreams and deeds, his labors and his life. Jesus gave himself to God’s people, taking his place along side and in community with hurting people. Baptism was Jesus’ call and commissioning to ministry.
In the end, Jesus does not die of old age. He dies because he took his baptism seriously. He lived his call even to his early death.
How seriously do you take your baptism? How seriously do you take God’s call on your life to be an agent of change and transformation?
Some of you may be thinking, “Wow, I never thought about baptism this way…maybe I need to get rebaptized.” It’s not uncommon for some people to want to be rebaptized…they want a do over. I could be one of those people, because I didn’t get it when I was baptized. I had it all wrong.
If you get longtime pastors around a table, every once in awhile you will hear a story about someone who has asked to be rebaptized. They say something like: “I was baptized as a baby, but I drifted away. I didn’t live my life right. I want to start again. Can I be rebaptized?” I heard the wisest response from a retired pastor who responded, “The problem is not with your baptism. Your beginning was fine. Now you need to live out what you have started.”
Baptism is just a beginning…and baptisms, like most beginnings, find their meaning after the event. Starting, by itself, is often of little consequence. Beginning is usually easy. Finishing is often the hard part.
I have a favorite quote from retired basketball coach, Bobby Knight, who is not my favorite coach. Knight was asked a question about a player who did a great job of coming off the bench and really performing. The question was, “When will he get to start?” Coach Knight responded: “You don’t understand how it works. It doesn’t matter who starts. It matters who finishes.”
When it comes to baptism, it is as if we are handed a map, but then we have to take the trip…and it will take our whole life to finish the journey. It takes our whole life to answer God’s call.
And what does it mean to be baptized? To be called by God? If we are true to our baptisms, we must awaken our ears to hear anew…we must open our eyes anew to see the way things really are. We must struggle with what is right and what is wrong...what is important and what is unimportant.
People who answer God’s call tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes…love wastefully in a world that rewards the selfishness and greed…make peace in a world that fights…serve in a world that wants to be served…prays in a world that waits to be entertained…and take chances in a world that worships safety. As one commentary put it, the baptized…the called…are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event.
And today is just a new beginning, a fresh start as you answer your call and answer the question, “Why am I baptized?” As we go from here, may we let the ears of our ears awaken and the eyes of our eyes open so that we might know more deeply and respond more trustingly to God’s call on our lives…because we are God’s beloved in whom God is well pleased. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.