When Jesus Was Baptized
I had a professor in Seminary who had a pet peeve about which she was pretty adamant. If you ever referred to John the Baptist, she would cut you off – “That’s John the Baptizer! John the Baptizer, John was not a Baptist.” Now she didn’t have anything against Baptists – she just didn’t want him to be associated with a denomination.
John was not a Baptist. But it is fitting that he be remembered for his profession. He called people to the water. The water of forgiveness – your value as a person preceded your sins, and it will outlast them. The waters of repentance - your mistakes do not define you, they do not own you. You can do better. These are waters of new beginnings. Henry David Thoreau wrote that a person should be like a river, the form is constant, the channel ongoing. But every second the interior is renewed. New water every instant. New beginnings.
John baptized. When I say baptism was John’s profession, it wasn’t his job, he didn’t get paid, but it was full-time. He preached all up and down the Jordan river from Judea to Galilee, from the sea of Tiberias to the Salt Sea, about sixty miles, and always on foot, and according to the Gospels thousands of people throughout that area came to John. That’s a lot of people getting baptized.
One day, Jesus came to the river, and he joined the crowd. He mixed in, you see. He was one among many. Baptized with the same water, the same words, at the same river bank as everybody else, he set his things down in a little pile, and prepared for his turn. Luke tells the story in an unspectacular way: “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” That’s all he says. He could have put more impressive imagery in there, more dramatic emphasis, but he didn’t: “When all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized.” One among many.
John had talked about Jesus before he came, but that was for the purpose of explaining that John himself was not actually the Messiah – people had been asking about that, it seems. The day Jesus actually showed up there wasn’t any fanfare, to speak of. No band playing, no paparazzi, no red carpet going down to the water. If you look closely at the text, there is nothing that suggests anyone at the river that day knew that Jesus was the Messiah, or that anyone besides Jesus saw the holy spirit come down like a dove, or heard the voice of God saying to Jesus, you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. It doesn’t appear that anyone was aware of these things, not even John the baptizer.
John knew the anointed one was coming, and whoever it was, John said he was unworthy to untie the thong of this one’s sandal. But did he know that the long awaited Messiah was Jesus? I think he did not, because later on in the story, he actually asks Jesus – “Are you the one, or should we be waiting for somebody else?” John did not know what God knew about Jesus. Helpful to keep in mind- when you look at some other person, you don’t know what God knows about that other person. Just sayin’ .
That day at the river, Jesus was one among many. “When all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…”
I picture John knee-deep calling out – Next! And Jesus, like the 17ththperson in line, patiently waiting, inching forward everytime somebody else goes in.
In the church world, we don’t have a lot of imagery of Jesus in line, do we? In pictures, Jesus is always at the front, at the center. Jesus is always the VIP in religious artwork. That’s not surprising, people hate being in line, hate waiting for their turn. I went to Walmart yesterday and spent about 17 hours in line behind a person who couldn’t get the computer checkout to work so she could buy some ranch dressing, and as the minutes passed I started re-evaluating all my life choices. What is happening, how did I get here? Standing in line can make an otherwise sane person feel like their life is unraveling. I don’t want to picture Jesus standing in line, lord no.
Many experiences in the world these days are set up to allow you to bypass the line, if you have money. You can pay to be a platimum plus member, so that you don’t have to wait in line, at Disney world, or the airport or what-have-you. You can be a preferred customer, and it’s pricey, but if you pay the big bucks they will let you cut in line. Special treatment for special people.
One day Jesus went down to the river, waited his turn, got in the water, no special treatment, not even for the lord. That’s quite something to think about.
When the all the people had been baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptize… Rich and poor, young and old, the honored and the despised, those who are putting their lives together, those whose lives are falling apart. Same river, same water, same grace for everybody.
Everybody gets to repent, everybody gets to be forgiven, everybody gets washed clean, everybody gets brought through chaos, from death to life. All are welcome, no special treatment, get in line.
When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we share holy communion on Sundays, we come down the aisle in a line, and we get the same thing: same bread, same cup, and each of us is told the same truth: The body, the blood, broken and shed for you. The fullness of God’s grace is poured out for you – for you. Grace is offered to you individually, personally, specially. And that grace is poured out for everybody else, the same as you. The exact same.
Sometimes this is hard to believe, especially when we feel self-righteous, or when we feel shame, self-loathing. It’s bewildering to really ponder that God loves us the same as the worst criminals and the most benevolent saints. But that’s how it is.
Garrison Keiller has written about growing Lutheran in rural Minnesota, and how every adult in his life wanted to make sure he knew that he was not special. He hates the way that kids are taught that they are special these days. As a kid, Keiller’s grandparents had no indoor plumbing; they had an outhouse with a bench that had three holes. So he’d be in there, handling business, and his cousin would just walk in and sit down next to him. Very humbling, right? In this family, everybody knows that everybody’s human. His Lutheran upbringing instilled in him something he calls the democracy of the gospel, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, so don’t think you’re special, because you’re not.
Pain comes to everyone, shame comes to everyone, grief comes to everyone failure comes to everyone. Grace, amazing grace comes to everyone, no first class seating.
Fred Craddock was a very famous preacher and professor – he told a story about time he spent in rehab after a serious injury. Lots of physical therapy and time spent with others, who were also trying to get their bodies to work the way they used to. There were young people and retirees. A victim of a hit-and-run, a contractor who’d fallen off a roof, an athlete whose sport had been taken away for good, a first-time drunk driver, a stroke survivor.
And throughout rehab they had these milestones where everybody had to attempt certain benchmark, milestone activities. They would attempt these things together, as a group. One of the early milestones was simply for each person to stand up from the wheelchair and step over to a shiny steel railing attached to the wall, and using that railing for support, they had to take three steps. Not a big deal to any of these people, before they were injured. But on this day, as they were wheeled into the room, everybody was looking at that bar, thinking, am I gonna be able to pull this off?
Nobody was special in that room. Fred Craddock was a tenured professor. But he wasn’t special. I’m just a guy trying to stand up and take three steps. Everybody was broken. Everybody was trying to heal. Everybody was unsteady, everybody needed help. On that day, some people made their steps, and some people’s legs gave out. And the next day, they all tried again. And the next day, and the day after that. They knew they were the same, they were in this thing together.
The waters that John called people into, the waters of forgiveness, of cleansing, of healing, the threshold waters across which the rescued are delivered, the waters of spiritual birth, from which new beginnings are authored, this water is for everyone. God’s grace is for everyone.
It’s in this ever-present and all-consuming grace that Jesus himself was baptized, at the inauguration of his ministry of justice and mercy and liberation and healing and reconciliation. It takes courage to lead this kind of life. Jesus needed courage, you and I need courage. It is not easy to do the things that are put before us to do.
And so it is good to remember, that the grace which compels us, the grace that sends us, the grace that commands us and demands things of us, this is the grace that first welcomes and receives us, cleans us, forgives us, nourishes us, blesses us, and calls us beloved. Come to the water. It is here for you, and for me. Everyone.