4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
-Mark 1: 4-11
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus. In my parish church, St. Paul’s, we’re blessed with a virtual explosion of baptisms. Sometimes it feels like we don’t have time to dry off between services! So because we’re Episcopalians, we try to keep things neat and tidy – a few dollops of water on the forehead, a drop or two of oil, both quickly wiped off with a towel. It reminds me of the old commercial – “A little dab will do you.”
But every once in a while, a baby will take charge and remind us that baptism is intended to be messier than all that, the gift of new life breaking into our lives. And I’m always thrilled when that happens – my glasses get pulled off, the baby tries to dive into the font, or maybe the water just suggests something very basic to the baby and… When things like this happen, they kind of remind me of how messy Jesus’ baptism must have been.
Imagine the scene: Crowds of people gathered in the mud and muck of the river Jordan, elbowing their way toward this wild man with hair matted by locusts and honey, people from every one of the margins of society.
John baptized sinners, and in Jesus’ time, sinners were those who had some misfortune befall them – lepers, people with disabilities, impoverished widows, people “possessed” with demons, people without a home or a meal – the last, the lost and the least, the ones who spent their lives falling down and getting up, and then falling down again.
They came to John to repent of their sins, to be washed clean in the waters of baptism, to be reminded of God’s presence on their journey.
And this was familiar to them. Baptism, and various other purification rituals, were an essential element of praxis for faithful Jews.
So into this motley crowd steps Jesus, one of maybe hundreds baptized that day, patiently waiting his turn. Is it any wonder that John is shocked? In Matthew’s gospel, John blurts out, “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”
He couldn’t believe that Jesus, who was without sin, who was God, for heaven’s sake, would make himself equal to all those social outcasts, and ask to be baptized. This Jesus, who put himself right in the middle of the messiest situations imaginable, was simply not the Messiah John expected, nor the God – distant and judgmental – that John knew.
So why did Jesus – who was without sin – choose to be baptized?
The evidence of how early Christian communities offered and prepared for baptism suggests that they saw a whole new meaning in baptism, apart from ritual purification. Christian baptism was, in effect, an affirmation of the basic covenant between God and God’s people; not just a periodic demonstration of repenting for our sins, but a once and for all fundamental commitment to continuously conform our lives to God’s will, and not our own. That’s the origin of the bold promises we make at baptism, and that we repeat at every baptism in which we participate.
So just sit back for a moment – or better yet, fasten your seat belts and put on your crash helmets, as author Anne Lamott warns us – and listen to how absolutely outrageous these promises are in the context of our 21st century lives:
- to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God;
- to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God
- to renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God;
- to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior;
- to put your whole trust in his grace and love;
- to promise to follow and obey him as your Lord;
Whew! But wait, there’s more:
- to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers;
- to persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord;
- to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ;
- to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- and (finally!) to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of all human beings.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear those promises again – the basic commitments to live a Christian life, I feel overwhelmed by inadequacy.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? The only chance we have is to acknowledge that none of these promises can be fulfilled in our lives without God’s grace, God’s confidence, and God’s strength – it’s the only shot we have.
I think there may be a second reason, beyond redefining baptism, that Jesus chose to be baptized by John.
Maybe it’s the same reason Jesus was born in a trough reserved for cattle, as a homeless immigrant; the same reason this king of ours was crowned with thorns instead of gold and precious jewels, and hung on a cross.
Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that there’s no place so messy, no situation so hopeless, that Jesus is not willing to jump right into the middle of it with us, to offer us strength and guidance, to help lead us back to safety, to bring us home.
Maybe it’s because Jesus has never been the kind of savior to cheer us on from the sidelines, to shout directions at us from some safe place of his own. His style has never been to save himself the grief, the pain, the death, by insisting that we come to him wherever he is.
No, whatever our situation, Jesus loves each of us so much that he walks right into the middle of the muck of our lives, so he can lead us to life eternal. He has always led us from our midst, joining us in the water, in the skin, to show us how life is to be lived.
Today’s gospel message is loud and clear; “Fear not,” says Jesus, “there’s nothing too messy in your life for me to get involved in. There’s’ nothing you can say or do or think that can separate you from me and from my love. It’s simple – just open your heart, and let me into the mess. So that together, we can figure out how to live a life of great meaning… and great joy.”