So what was it that attracted Jesus to this wild looking man screaming at crowds of people in the desert alongside the Jordan River? Come to think of it, what was it that attracted anyone? Jesus was clearly not the only one interested in finding out what John was doing. There were people of Jerusalem, people from all over Judea and people from up and down the Jordan River valley who flocked to hear this man calling for change. Fishermen, shepherds, farmers, children, grandparents, soldiers, Jewish leaders, men, women. Maybe they came because they knew something had to change. Maybe they didn’t even need to be told that their lives needed an overhaul. Maybe they were just looking for how. Looking for a recipe for renewal, looking for steps they might take in order to make the necessary changes in their hearts and actions.
Everyone knew the power of the Jordan River. Everyone knew the story of a long ago prophet, Elisha, who instructed Naaman the leper to wash in the Jordan so he could become clean. Being dipped in these waters changed Naaman’s life. The leprous skin which had caused him to be an outcast from his family and his community was suddenly gone, and old relationships could be renewed and new ones made, relationships that had previously been out of the question.
Water from the Jordan River is still bottled and sold at tourist spots around the Holy Land. I bought one on my trip there and have added a few drops of it to the baptismal font at times. If being baptized in the Jordan was the way to a fresh start, people were ready to jump in. They were ready to let those waters soak deep down into their hearts and help them to begin a new way of living. Baptism by immersion like this really highlights the baptismal imagery of dying to the old life (drowning, if you will), and then being lifted out of death into a new, changed way of life. Other Christian traditions who use dunking in a baptismal pool or in a river (in warm weather, I hope!) are able to demonstrate that stark contrast much better than the baptism sprinklers like us. But the amount of water does not really matter. Whether a few drops or a flowing river, the cleansing waters of baptism symbolize washing away the old and beginning again, fresh and new. For anyone. Even for Jesus.
Why does Jesus need to come to John for this washing and renewal? We all know that Jesus is sin free and has no real need for a baptism of repentance, no need to change his heart or actions. John is even surprised, at first refusing to baptize him. In John’s mind, Jesus should be baptizing him. (Did his mother, Elizabeth, tell him about the amazing leap in her womb when she heard Mary’s greeting? Did God provide him with an ability to see this man Jesus as the one chosen by God, as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, as the gospel writer John seems to indicate in his version of this baptism?)
Maybe this was the first step Jesus took to put his feet in our shoes. His entire life was lived experiencing all that we experience, truly making him God with us, Emmanuel. Matthew made that point for us in his opening chapter if you remember. Jesus’ feet picked up dust from the ground just like ours do. He ran into problem people, hesitant people, accepting people and angry people, just like we do. So he too experienced a baptism to signify the change God makes in the life of each baptized one. In being baptized by John, Jesus identifies with the rest of us—with the rest of humanity– from the very beginning of his ministry, even before his public ministry can fully begin, even before his first sermon. It was a baptism of repentance. John called all to repent, for the kingdom of heaven was coming. John was crystal clear—Jews of all stripes, all backgrounds, all economic levels, maybe even all styles of faith practices are in need of repentance. Even he, the baptizer himself, is in need of repentance, of a change in his heart and life. He was ready for Jesus to baptize him, to give him a fresh start.
We understand baptism to be the beginning step in acknowledging that we belong to God’s family, an opportunity to be washed clean of our natural sinful state and begin a life that is different, a life of following Jesus. Baptism is step number one for followers of Jesus of all stripes, all backgrounds, all economic levels, all ages, all types of faith practices. In the Presbyterian Church, we expect parents to seek baptism for their children, neither in a rush, out of fear of bringing the child out into the community before she is baptized, nor with tardiness, waiting for some particular developmental stage when the child will not be afraid of the minister or something like that. Baptism is the outward sign of the inner grace already bestowed upon us. It is a public beginning in the life of faith, either for infants or believers of any age.
But baptism is always a choice. It doesn’t matter if it is a baptism requested by a parent on behalf of a child or by a believer himself. It is a choice to make a change in your allegiance, in your focus, in your way of living. Choosing baptism is choosing change. And it was a choice Jesus made. He intentionally went out to the Jordan River to be baptized. It almost seems that he had just been waiting for John to show up so he could get started. Looking back at least a generation removed from the events of Jesus’ ministry, Matthew is very clear that John stands at a pivotal point in a strong prophetic tradition pointing toward the expected coming Messiah/King. He is the voice crying in the wilderness which Isaiah described, he is the prophet wearing hair like Ezekiel mentioned, he is the forerunner of the expected Messiah, the one who points to the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and cleansing fire.
Jesus chose baptism, and accepted the job God laid on his shoulders. He understands that his ministry will fulfill all righteousness, that he will be the incarnation of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, which are twice repeated in Jeremiah (ch. 23 and 33): “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The Lord is our Righteousness. “ Jesus, the descendant of David, the king who is a savior, in right relationship with God and with others.
Even at his baptism, Jesus chose to put his feet in our shoes. Thus begins the process of atonement which is not completed until he goes to the cross, taking upon himself the sins and the guilt of the world. The baptism is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, a definite turn in the road. He picks up John’s message of repentance and it also becomes the core of his preaching: “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Jesus can speak from experience. He was baptized by John in the powerful waters of the Jordan. He saw the Holy Spirit come down in the form of a dove. He heard the voice from heaven: “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is like an echo from Isaiah the prophet: “Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom my soul is well pleased.”
Maybe you don’t see a visible dove, but I believe the Holy Spirit hovers at your baptism as well. I believe that God is pleased with your choice, whether you are a parent choosing to bring your child up in the Christian faith, or you are professing your own faith in Christ. You can hear the words through the commitment of the congregation to encourage and love you along the way. Starting with our baptism, we begin a journey that continues all of our lives. It is the journey with Jesus, a journey we choose to take, a journey that can be difficult and exhilarating, a journey that can feel like it takes forever or like it flies by. It is baptism that sets us inside the family, gives us a new direction, a fresh start, pulling us into the kingdom of heaven right here on earth, which is the church of Jesus Christ with a little c—meaning all of the body of Christ all over the world. Some of us have no recollection of our baptism—just the stories from our family, or the photos, or the baptismal certificate. Others may remember clearly who was there, what was said and how the baptismal waters felt. Either way, the Holy Spirit was poured over you and the grace filled waters of baptism soaked down deep in your heart.
Remember your baptism and be grateful. Amen.