The Baptism of Jesus
Many of you know that I spent this last week at Sky Lake, which is one of our conference camps, down in the Binghamton area. Pastors are supposed to take some spiritual renewal time each year, and this was mine. I spent the week doing some worship planning, thinking about the ministries of the church, and spending some time in prayer and reflection with God. While I was there, I was thinking about my own time as staff person at Camp Aldersgate, some 22 years ago now.
As soon as I was old enough, I applied, and spent a summer lifeguarding and working in the kitchen. The staff was made up of young people mostly between the ages of 16 and 25, aside from some of the older year-round staff, which is pretty typical. And it’s a pretty intense experience. You’re with this group of people all day every day for a summer, and most of the people are, like you, at the stage in life where you are trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become. It’s a time of making some pretty major life decisions. And when you’re all going through that together, it can be intense and meaningful and life-changing. One of the hardest things to remember, though, when you part of a tight knit group like that, is that even though you have such deep connections with the friends you are working with, and even though you are loving your time with your team, it isn’t your experience that is the one that matters most. It isn’t your satisfaction, or you feeling great about how things are going that matters in the end. Everything that you do is for the campers who come to spend time there, learning about God, learning about who Jesus is, and how they can get to know Jesus, and draw closer to God. Camp is for them, not for the staff. And so if the staff is having the best time of their lives, but the campers aren’t, then the great experience of the staff is worth, well, nothing much, because the camp is not serving its purpose. That’s tough to remember when you are a young adult on the brink of all these significant life changes and decisions. And yet, the life-changing experience that many campers have every summer will tell you that (at least most of the time) the staff remembers what they’re all about.
I was thinking about this this past week: times when our purpose, our mission, is not for ourselves and our own benefit as much as it is for someone else, for others. I was thinking about that when I was wrestling with our text for today. Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s a day when we remember that Jesus was baptized, and we reflect on what that means for us. And as I think about his baptism, I keep asking: who is it for? What purpose does Jesus’ baptism fulfill? Is it for himself? Is it for others? How? It’s nice to remember a meaningful event in Jesus’ life, but why is it meaningful, and what does it have to do with us now?
Jesus’ baptism is an important event for us to think about for a few reasons. First, it is one of very few events in Jesus’ life that are recorded in all four gospels. That tells us that it was significant – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all write about it. It’s also the starting point of Jesus’ public ministry. We’re not sure about much of what Jesus was doing between the time of his birth and the time he came to John to be baptized. But his baptism is the beginning of everything we do know. Once he is baptized, Jesus spends time in the wilderness, and then from there, it’s three years of preaching and teaching and healing and ministry seemingly non-stop until he is arrested, executed, resurrected. So for Jesus, his baptism marks a beginning, something he feels he must do as he begins the work he came to do.
Baptism wasn’t a brand new thing, though. It wasn’t created by John the Baptist. When we read about John baptizing people, he wasn’t doing something unfamiliar to the people. The literal meaning of the word baptism is “to be dipped” or “immersed” in water. Baptism was a cleansing ritual, a rite of purification that people would participate in when they wanted to make a new start. When John begins calling the people to repent, that is, to make a 180° turn around in their life, to get going back on God’s path, it wouldn’t have been surprising that baptism was the ritual that was paired with their act of repentance.
What John does is add his specific meaning to baptism – he explains that he is baptizing for repentance, in preparation for the coming of God’s reign on earth. And he notes that Jesus, too, will add meaning to baptism – a baptism with, John says, “Holy Spirit and fire.” Eventually, the apostle Paul and the early church will add more layers of meaning to baptism – baptizing in the name of the trinity: in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Holy Spirit. Our particular faith traditions add layers of meaning to baptism too. In some traditions, baptism is a decision-making moment when a person commits to being a follower of Jesus. In our tradition, we emphasize God’s action in baptism. We celebrate baptism as an outward sign, the public celebration of God’s grace at work in our lives and our acceptance of that grace, or, in the case of those who cannot accept it for themselves, a commitment from family and sponsors to nurture them in the knowledge and love of God, that they may someday confirm those vows themselves.
John’s focus, though, was clear: this baptism was a sign of repentance in preparation for God’s coming reign. So one of the big questions we have in this text is “Why does Jesus need to be baptized?” In fact, John even asks this question. He says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” After all, if baptism is a sign of a commitment to repentance, then Jesus doesn’t fit in. Our understanding of Jesus is that he is without sin. He is God-in-the-flesh, even as he is fully human, so he doesn’t need to repent. But John was hearing people’s confession of sin as they came for baptism. Why, then, does Jesus get baptized?
He responds to John’s question saying, “Let it be so for now; for it is proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Frankly, that’s not immediately a very helpful response is it? What does it mean that his being baptized “fulfills all righteousness?” First, Matthew, throughout his gospel, is particularly interested in showing that Jesus is a fulfillment of the messiah promised in the Hebrews scriptures. This conversation between John and Jesus that we’re sort of eavesdropping on is a way for the gospel-writer to tell us that Jesus is the messiah, even if he isn’t what we were expecting. Second, Jesus says he fulfills “all righteousness.” Righteousness means justice, being set right in our relationships with God and others. When we’re in right relationship with people, we experience God’s justice, God’s wholeness. That’s righteousness. So Jesus says that his being baptized is a part of the process of bringing about justice in the world. How does his baptism achieve that? Well, his baptism is a sign of affirmation for the message John has been sharing. Jesus may not need to repent, but it’s his public proclamation that this is the mission he’ll be about – the one John describes – announcing the arrival of God’s reign right into the middle of our world and our lives. Jesus getting baptized is a way that Jesus can publicly claim the vision John has already been telling folks about. John’s been calling people to bear good fruit in their lives, and Jesus is going to show them how to do it. God doesn’t call us to repentance and leave us alone on the journey, in the struggle. Jesus is with us, leading us. He claims our journey as his by joining us in baptism. Finally, Jesus says, “Let it be so for now.” His wording suggests that this baptism is something he does that is the right thing for just the right time. Whatever Jesus was doing before, now is the right moment, God’s time, for Jesus to begin to act. His baptism announces that to everyone. And when Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s voice is heard, as God’s Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” God’s words are confirmation of John’s message, and Jesus’s baptism, and Jesus’s claiming of his identity and path.
So, why is Jesus baptized? I think, like everything he does, it is for us. He pours out his life for others. His purpose in the world is not to serve his own interests, but to be hope and light for the world. We’re not baptized because Jesus is. Rather, Jesus is baptized because we are, and his purpose is to join in fully with our lives, that in so doing, we have someone to follow, who leads us to the heart of God.
Today, as we remember baptism, and we remember how Jesus, too, was baptized, immersing himself in our world and our struggles and our wilderness journey, I hope that we can see this time, this remembrance, this reaffirmation of our faith as an act that helps prepare us for the mission to which God is calling us – whatever that turns out to be! Just as Jesus’s purpose is to serve others, that’s our mission too: living for others. And that’s the purpose of our church, our community of faith. We can be lulled into thinking that we exist for our own comfort. We come here for our strength, our learning, our comfort, our support. Indeed, I hope we find those things as we gather as a community of faith. But the church exists not for the comfort of those who have already come to know God and commit to being disciples, but for those who are still searching and seeking, for those who don’t even know they’re looking for something yet.
This act of renewing our baptismal covenant reminds us that we know who we are, and who we belong to. We are God’s children. We belong to God. God claims us. We remind ourselves of who we are in God so that we have strength to go out and serve others. This act of renewal also reminds us that we’re not alone. Baptism is not a private act. It’s an act of community. Jesus’ baptism joined him to the people among whom he would minister. Our baptism, our remembering our covenant together reminds us that we are a congregation, a community of faith. We can’t be the church alone. We can’t follow God by ourselves. We need God, and we need each other. This act of renewal is our way of saying to God that we’re ready. We’re all in. We’re with Jesus. His mission is our mission. We’re ready to follow.
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, “Wash, 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. We’re ready. Amen.