January 13, 2019
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Just like any other day, on that particular day, there was a big crowd down at the river’s edge. I’m not sure whether there was an actual line where each person waited patiently for their turn. Or whether people were milling around in a big clump and wading into the water as the spirit moved them. But I do have a fairly clear picture in my mind of where they were waiting.
I’ve never been to the Jordan River myself, but people who have been there describe the water as anything but clear. Muddy, dirty, polluted, the water in the Jordan River is hardly pristine looking. And because the water is muddy, it’s safe to assume the banks of the river are muddy as well. So this big crowd of people was standing in some degree of mud down at the river’s edge.
There were a lot of people at the river waiting to be baptized, mainly because John the Baptist spent his days preaching repentance to large crowds. And some of the people in those large crowds were the kind of sincere, peaceful, upstanding citizens you would expect.
But down by the river there was also an assortment of people you might not expect. Soldiers, tax collectors, rabble rousers, and various other unsavory characters. In the end, however, it didn’t matter to John the Baptist who was there. John did not discriminate…anyone who happened to be in the vicinity heard an earful of his loud, passionate preaching. Repent, turn your life around, clean up your act, change your direction. And by the way, do all these things as soon as I finish baptizing you.
Well, another person down at the river’s edge that day was John’s cousin, Jesus. And the writer of the Gospel of Luke gives us the impression that Jesus was standing there, either in line or milling around in the crowd, alongside everyone else. Luke doesn’t indicate that Jesus being there was a surprise to John…some kind of spur of the moment decision by Jesus. Instead, we picture Jesus blending in and waiting to be baptized just like the rest of the people.
When we read Luke’s account of this one particular day when Jesus was baptized, here’s how it unfolded. Jesus listened to John preach repentance along with everyone else. When it was Jesus’ turn, he waded into the water and got wet, just like everyone else. And John baptized Jesus the same way he baptized the soldiers and the tax collectors and the rabble rousers. Which is to say, precisely the same way as everyone else…
At the end of the story, however, the thing I wonder about is why. Why did Jesus the Messiah, the one who was named Prince of Peace and Savior among other exalted titles. The one whose birth was glorified by God and trumpeted by angels and witnessed by shepherds and punctuated by wise men bearing gifts. Why did Jesus go down to the Jordan River to be baptized one day the same way all those other regular, ordinary people did?
It couldn’t have had anything to do with Jesus needing to hear John’s message. I mean the tax collectors and the soldiers and the other assorted characters. Chances are good their behavior warranted some repentance. Some of them needed a fresh start, a way to cast off the burden of their own sins and turn from the error of their ways. Some of them presumably had every reason to get themselves right with God.
Jesus, on the other hand, never fell short of his God given calling. Repentance wasn’t something Jesus had to pay any attention to, at least personally. Jesus didn’t need a new start or a fresh beginning. He was already headed in the right direction, covered by God’s grace and walking in God’s light. Why then did Jesus have to be down at the river’s edge in the mud and the muck waiting patiently for his turn to wade into the water with John the Baptist? To put it another way, wasn’t Jesus special enough to warrant a baptism that was a little grander, a little flashier…if nothing else, maybe a little more private?
Luke never addresses the question of why Jesus was baptized the way Luke describes it. On the other hand, Luke does offer a few compelling details. Jesus waited his turn and when the moment came for his baptism, he responded by praying. And as soon as Jesus started praying, the heavens opened wide. God’s Holy Spirit flew down and rested on Jesus like a dove. And a divine voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In other words, “with you I am delighted…”
There’s a reason why this morning’s Scripture lesson occurs soon after the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. As far as messaging goes, the story of Jesus being baptized is sort of like a Christmas sequel. Just as Christmas reminds us that in the baby Jesus born in Bethlehem God’s love was made visible, likewise today’s story reminds us that in the adult Jesus baptized in the Jordan River, God’s love was made visible.
In the end, it’s not that Jesus stood around on the banks of the Jordan River because he needed to repent or because he had strayed from being the One God called him to be. Rather, Jesus stood there and waited to be baptized because God wanted him to be one of us. Truly human. Not just like us. Actually one of us.
And in this case, Jesus being one of us meant waiting in line and holding the cloak of the man in front of him as he walked into the river. High fiving the woman next to him as she made her way back to the shore. Embracing strangers who suddenly felt like a family because all of them shared a common experience through John the Baptist and the gift of that Jordan River water…
In addition to being the first Sunday after Epiphany, today is also known on the Christian calendar as “Baptism of Christ” Sunday. And it’s important to bear in mind that Jesus was baptized with tax collectors and soldiers and regular people in the hope that the same way Jesus became human, the opposite would also come true. You and I might become more Christ-like even in our human weaknesses and shortcomings.
It’s also important for us to bear in mind the great assurance of God this day. The same voice of God that spoke words of affection to Jesus in the Jordan River speaks words of affection to you and me. God speaks to us this day and every day saying, “you are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter. You are my beloved child. I knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have written your name in the palm of my hand. You belong to me and I belong to you. ”
The reassuring voice of God can be hard to hear and hard to believe. There are so many other voices around us telling us who we are and who we are not, how much we are worth or how worthless we are. And sometimes the voices around us are cynical and even destructive. They tell us we are not beloved. We are not enough. And no one could ever really delight in us.
But I encourage you to do something for yourself every day during this Epiphany season. When you go to bed tonight or wake up tomorrow morning and you look in the mirror as you brush your teeth or comb your hair or wash your face or whatever you do as part of your daily routine. Pause for a second, stare at your own image in that mirror, and repeat God’s promise as though you really mean it. “You are my beloved and with you I am delighted.”
Make it a habit over these next weeks, a mantra if you will. If you know you are facing a tough day ahead. If the day before your children didn’t listen to you or your boss didn’t support you. If you’ve generally been feeling exhausted and unappreciated and taken for granted. If it seems like no one understands the stress you are under and the burden you are carrying with you. Hold God’s words in your heart and keep them close to your lips. “You are my beloved, and with you I am delighted.” I guarantee it will remind you who you are and it will remind you whose you are.
Knowing the deep love God has for each one of us is the message of the story of Christ’s baptism. When we trust God’s love for us, it has the capacity to change our lives. Even more than that, when we trust God’s love for us, it has the capacity to change the entire world.
You and I are created in the image of God and loved by Jesus Christ more than we even know. May we begin to live as though we know it and believe it. Amen.