The verses in the scriptures about Jesus’ baptism are very few in number – each gospel has an account of Jesus’ baptism, but all of them combined amount to just a couple paragraphs. And yet, I think it is such an important passage, and this day is one of my favorites in the liturgical calendar. I think it’s important, Jesus’ baptism, because of the questions we have to answer about it, and the main question is why? Why does Jesus get baptized?
Why? That’s a question John also seems to have for Jesus. He seems surprised that Jesus comes for baptism, and would prevent it if he could, at least at first. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, John has been baptizing as a symbol of repentance – a symbol of turning back to God from our wanderings, and being forgiven and reconciled to God and one another. Why would Jesus need this? He hasn’t wandered off God’s path. He’s God’s child. He’s God made flesh! Jesus answers John: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” By this answer John is convinced. He baptizes Jesus, and as Jesus rises from the water, the heavens open, the Spirit of God, like a dove, descends on Jesus, and a voice is heard: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
John is convinced by Jesus’ answer, but we might wonder what exactly he heard in Jesus’ words. Jesus says, “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Righteousness is one of those words that shows up in the Bible hundreds of time, and yet, we don’t really actually have a good grasp of it. It’s a broad concept – you could write a whole book about what biblical righteousness is, but you can think of it more simply as “right relationship,” particularly with God – a person who is righteous is a person who is living like God wants them to live – their actions are just and justified, and their living is pleasing to God. One early English bible translator called it “rightwise” or “rightways.” Jesus is baptized because his baptism shows that he is doing what is pleasing to God, Jesus says.
But I think Jesus’ baptism is an act of righteousness because it also establishes his right relationship as God-with-us. That’s what we just celebrated in Christmas – Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus’ baptism is an act of righteousness because it is a symbol of the new hope for our right relationship with God – Jesus is God with us, our relationship with God put to rights because Jesus comes to be one of us, with us. As we are baptized, so Jesus is baptized. He’s with us. Fully immersed in our human condition, one with in our grief, sorrows, joys, and triumphs.
I think Jesus’ baptism is a scene that acts out what we believe about the sacraments. In our traditions, from our Presbyterian and Methodist foundations, we celebrate sacraments as acts that Jesus commanded we repeat that communicate God’s grace to us. The sacraments are symbols of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, at work. We use this language about other rites as well, the language that tells us that some of our symbols of faith represent to us God’s grace. In a wedding, when I bless wedding bands, I say that “these rings are an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Though marriage is not a sacrament, we certainly consider it sacred, and so I think we can use that language to understand the sacrament of baptism: Baptism is an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, the free gift, offered to us by God. It’s the outward way we remind ourselves of what is always true, but sometimes forgotten by us: God loves us without condition and without end. Jesus is baptized because his mission is to make God’s love visible in our lives, and teach us to make God’s love visible to others by our actions, by our right living, by our being righteous.
Today, the focus of this service is not my words, but our actions together. Today I invite you to renew the vows taken at your baptism, to remember that God loves you, that God is with you, and that we are called to partner with God to make God’s love visible to others. When I say today, “remember your baptism and be thankful,” many of you of course can’t remember your baptism – but I ask you to remember that someone already stood up for you to claim that God’s love was made visible in your very life – by the fact of your existence, others can see that God is love.
We gather at the beginning of a new year together, in this church, this community, this world. It seems too easy to look at the world and only see acts of separation, of hatred, of violence, of selfishness at work. Somehow we forget what Jesus came to show us, that God is with us, what purpose Jesus lived and died and lives in us for. But what if, this year, we concentrated on making God’s love visible? What if our words and actions all pointed to God’s love? What if, in our relationship with others, we acted towards them, treated them in such a way, that what they got out of our interaction was an overwhelming sense of God’s love for them? Imagine how people might live differently if they never doubted God’s love.
Following our time of renewal this morning, we’ll sing a hymn by one of my favorite hymnists, Ruth Duck – a hymn for baptism called, “Was, O God, Our Sons and Daughters.” As we prepare our hearts and minds, I invite you to hear words from the last verse of this hymn: We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born. By your grace, our lives we offer. Recreate us; God, transform! Let that be our prayer – Recreate us God. Transform our lives. And let us make God’s love visible in our lives, and the lives of all whom we meet. Amen.