Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Baptism of Jesus (C) - January 10, 2010

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Will you pray with me?

Creating, Sustaining, Redeeming God, I invite your Holy Spirit to move in this place, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts may bring us into your Light, O God.

Amen.
The day after Thanksgiving, just a few days after I'd agreed to preach this Sunday, I was at a dinner party, and one Jewish woman asked, "Why did Jesus need to get baptized?  Wasn't he, like, The Man?"

"Therein lies a tale," said one of the other Christians in the room.

Which tale we are told in the Gospel of Matthew:
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John.  14But John tried to deter Jesus, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

15Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness."  Then John consented.  (Matthew 3:13-15)
Okay, so it still doesn't really answer the question.

My NRSV says, "Righteousness, right conduct in accord with God's will as revealed in scripture."

So I still don't know why Jesus was supposed to be baptized.

John Howard Yoder says: Before Paul and the new humanity, even before Jesus, baptism also meant repentance and cleansing.  It meant "You can leave your past behind." (Body Politics, page 41)

This is a useful formulation for me -- the idea of baptism as marking a new start.

In their book The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan posit that it is not that some of the Gospels are missing some of the years of Jesus' early life but that "all the years are missing until the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus" (40).  They posit the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as overtures to the story of Jesus' adult life and ministry, as parables rather than historical accounts.  I'm not going to get into a discussion of the birth narratives here, I merely mention it to provide the appropriate context for that line that so strikes me -- "the story of Jesus begins---as it does in all four gospels---with John's baptism of Jesus."

The birth narratives have marked Jesus as special in various ways, but here Jesus is publicly marked out.

“You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

You know this baptismal liturgy from the many times Tiffany has told this story -- "You are a bright, brilliant, beloved Child of God.  And you are beautiful to behold."

Jesus is named and claimed by God, undeservedly.  This is a moment of grace -- not something we earn.

God says to Jesus, "with you I am well pleased," but there's no indication that Jesus has done anything particularly to merit this.  Luke tells the story of young Jesus in the Temple, but other than that Jesus hasn't done anything to earn this distinction.

Something I read recently commented on the fact that Jesus is marked as Chosen before the temptation in the wilderness.  While we might expect someone to not be publicly named as Chosen until after a period of testing, God makes a commitment here -- at the beginning of the story in some of the Gospels, certainly at the beginning of Jesus' adult life as recorded in the Gospels.

The Isaiah passage we read echoes this -- God says, "I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you" (Isaiah 43:1-2).  The hearer is named as redeemed, with no indication of merit or even a reason.

This reading opens Chapter 43 of Isaiah.  The preceding chapter, Chapter 42, closes with, "Who gave up Jacob to the spoiler, and Israel to the robbers?  Was it not God, against whom we have sinned, in whose ways they would not walk, and whose law they would not obey?  So God poured upon them the heat of God's anger and the fury of war; it set them on fire all around, but they did not understand; it burned them, but they did not take it to heart."

The people Israel have turned against God, and God has punished them, and they still haven't gotten the message.

"But now thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear."

We remember that exhortation "Do not fear" from the Christmas story, right?  "Do not be afraid.  For I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be for all the people.  Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior."

"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And now, you will conceive and bear a child, whom you will name Jesus.  This child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High."

"Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife Elizabeth will bear a child and you will name the child John.  You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at this birth."

When God speaks to you, it usually means your life is going to get turned upside down -- so opening with "Do not be afraid" makes a lot of sense (though Mary at least got a "Hello").

No one cautions Jesus not to be afraid.

I think because Jesus chose this.  Divine messengers and messages are usually reported as coming to people who aren't particularly seeking them, but Jesus is stepping into this baptism with full knowledge of the sort of path that lies ahead.

This is Jesus' coming out.

John has been proclaiming and enacting a baptism of repentance -- calling people to return to God, to begin a new chapter in their lives, preparing the way for the coming of One who will begin a new chapter in the life of the world.  So when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized, John says, "What do you have to repent of?  You are the Holy One, the Child of God.  You should be baptizing me, so that I may follow you."

But Jesus recognizes the necessity of this baptism.  We don't know what stories Mary and Joseph told their firstborn about the angels, the shepherds, the magi, Simeon and Anna at Jesus' presentation at the Temple -- even what stories were told about Mary's visit to pregnant Elizabeth, or any of the other stories Jesus and John might have grown up hearing about themselves and each other.  But in whatever way, Jesus has spent three decades preparing for this moment.

In Acts we read that Peter and John went to Samaria and prayed for the people there that they might receive the Holy Spirit "for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus."  I've come to be a big proponent of believer's baptism (rather than infant baptism), but at the same time I'm not fond of the privileging of the moment of personal conversion (accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior), so I really like this idea that yes, these people had accepted the word of God, had been baptized in the name of Jesus, but their journey was not complete -- God was still working on them.

Whatever commitment we make before God and others, it is not the end of the journey.

John even tells those gathered at the Jordan: "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming [...] who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Our baptism in water is an outward marker of our commitment to begin a new chapter in our lives, but it is our baptism with the Holy Spirit that sustains us throughout that journey.

After Jesus is baptized, "the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove."  I have this image of a six-foot-tall dove descending and enveloping Jesus is an embrace.

And indeed, we are beloved both spiritually and physically.

The Incarnation reminds us that we most fully encounter God in humanity, and the physical act of baptism reminds us that we are an embodied people.

So I invite you, as you move throughout this week, to remember your belovedness, to be attentive to the movements of the Holy Spirit, and to to live each moment as if you are a new creation in Christ -- because you are.

Amen.

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