The Gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day, whose theme is the Baptism of the Lord, invites us to consider what we are calling the “bigger” why question.
I suppose the first “why” question is this: why does the church invite us to revisit a place at which we spent two successive Sundays only a few weeks ago, before Christmas, during Advent? Let’s recall what we found then: throngs of people streaming from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean countryside to the Jordan River. They came to hear John the Baptist preach and to receive baptism at his hands. At that time, we sought an answer to the question: “why were they there?” John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To repent means to turn. Turning involves a twofold movement. That is to say, when we turn, we turn away from something as we turn to something else. The people came to John because they wanted to turn from destructive habits, addictions, and poor choices that led them nowhere, or at least nowhere good, because they found that as a result of them they were far away from God. They came because they wanted to turn to God, from whom they sought a new beginning, a fresh start, a second chance, or even a third or fourth or fifth one. In our language we have a saying, which we perhaps hear especially during the first month of the new year: “I want to turn over a new leaf.” When we hear someone make this declaration, we know immediately there is something unwanted in their lives, some obstacle that keeps them from becoming the self they want to be. They want to leave it behind and move in a new direction.
The spectacle of the throngs of people at the Jordan now makes sense. Who among us cannot relate to the motives of these people? Indeed, who among us does not need to be right there with them, perhaps even at this moment?
But the lesson for today adds a new detail. Jesus is there. Now this immediately gives rise to the bigger “why?” question: “Why is Jesus there?” If we are right in what we said about the motives of the people who came to John at the Jordan, it is clear that we cannot say the same about Jesus. He has no past to regret. He has not disobeyed God. He has not offended against his neighbor. In all he does, his motives are sincere; in all he carries out, his intentions are good. He has no need to confess his sins, because there are no sins for him to confess. If we turn to Matthew’s account of this scene, we find John the Baptist just as perplexed as we are, and for the same reason. He says: “Lord, I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” Indeed, how do we account for Jesus’ baptism? Why is Jesus there at the Jordan River? To answer this bigger why question, we have to return to what we learned earlier about the incarnation.
Last time we considered the Gospel of John’s witness to the miracle of Christmas. Only he did not tell us about the Child born in Bethlehem. Instead he told us about the Word, the Word with God, the Word as God. With this Word God spoke all that is into existence. In the fullness of time, he spoke the fullness of his love for us into existence, and that Word became flesh, whom we beheld in Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. In him we see the heart of the Father, because he has come from the heart of the Father. In him, we see God taking on our humanity, becoming one with us without ceasing to be God. In Jesus Christ, God meets us as one of us.
But in this scene, we learn more. We learn that God does not assume a humanity; he assumes our humanity. What do we mean here?
Let us say hypothetically that in Jesus Christ God did assume a humanity to which we cannot relate, a humanity so far removed from ours in beauty and perfection and strength that we can only admire it from afar, if we don’t envy it first. But in this scene God shows us he assumes a fallen humanity, one prone to weakness, ignorance, errors in judgment, temptation, sin, and bondage. In short, the humanity that we share, the one that causes us sooner or later to long for a new beginning, a fresh start, a second chance. In Jesus Christ, God assumes this humanity and makes it his own, out of his great love for us.
So, in this scene, we learn more about the incarnation about which John taught us last time. There is nothing in Jesus Christ we should fear, nothing in him which we should shun as if he were too unlike us to be approachable. Indeed, he comes to us where we are, to show that indeed he is approachable.
Do people find us, who profess faith in him, approachable? For many years, we have seen a decline in church attendance. There are many factors cited to explain this decline. Perhaps we have even read a book or two about it. But what we do discover when we probe into the reasons why the man or woman on the street avoids church?
There are at least two major reasons. The first is this: “Those people are too good for me. I feel uncomfortable around them. They have their lives together. They lead disciplined lives. They are upstanding citizens in the community. I don’t have my life together. Things for me are falling apart right now. I don’t want to be seen by them.” The second is this: “These people seem to be good. But I know they are hypocrites. That is why I avoid church. No one wants to associate with hypocrites.”
But note that in this scene Jesus goes out to the people. He follows them to the Jordan. He does not confine himself to a church somewhere waiting for them to come to him. We meet in a church because we expect that people can meet Jesus there, according to his promise, “where two or three people are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” And our hope as we gather is that people can and will meet him among us. But we do not have exclusive rights to him. We don’t keep him in the church under lock and key. He is sovereign and free. All authority in heaven and on earth has been entrusted to him. He goes throughout this world, even to places where we least expect to find him, like on the banks of the Jordan River, standing with those who don’t have their lives together, with those whose lives are falling apart.
When Jesus steps into the Jordan River to receive baptism at the hands of John, he steps into our place to receive our baptism. This is the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, the baptism that the people at the Jordan sought in their desire for a fresh start. He made this baptism his own, because he made our humanity his own. That is why the great fourth century church father Athanasius could say that when Jesus was washed in the Jordan, it was we who were washed in him and by him.
This is the baptism that he completes on the cross, which is its inner meaning. The term baptism refers to the suffering of the cross in the saying of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:50: “I have a baptism to undergo and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.” It is on the cross that his solidarity with us in our fallen humanity is seen with the greatest clarity.
When Jesus emerges out of the waters of the Jordan, there emerges a new creation, a new humanity. The heavens are torn open and the Holy Spirit appears over the waters of the Jordan. This is the same Spirit that swept over the face of the waters at the former creation. Then the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. Last time we learned that darkness and formlessness is how we experience God in creation. Which is to say that we don’t know God in creation. We said that the creation itself should have sufficed to make us know and praise God as God. But we do not make out the clear and distinct notes in the melody of creation. If we did, we would know God in creation. But in our fallenness we do not. We are deaf to God. That is our condition. That is why when we talk about the grace of God, our hope in Jesus Christ, and the new life in the Spirit to unbelieving friends and family members, it seems to fall on deaf ears.
But where the Spirit is present, God speaks in words that are clear and distinct. It’s not that God doesn’t speak clearly. It’s just that we don’t have the capacity to hear God. It is the Spirit who gives us this capacity. This conviction lies behind our practice of praying for illumination before we read the scripture lessons appointed for the day. In this act, we confess our reliance on the Holy Spirit to make the words in the scriptures understandable to us. We ought always to pray for the Holy Spirit’s help when we are trying to understand what God is saying to us.
With the presence of the Spirit over the face of the deep, God begins to speak the creation into existence. “Let there be light.” The words are clear and distinct.
With the presence of the Spirit above the Jordan River, the words from heaven are likewise clear and distinct. Jesus the new man, the new creation, hears them. “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” These are words that are meant for him, the only Son of the Father. But insofar as he stands in our place, he hears them for us too. Put otherwise, insofar as we are in him, these words are meant for us too, and so we hear them as: “We are God’s beloved children; with us God is well pleased.”
Finally, we see in our lesson that the Spirit comes to Jesus in the form of a dove. The dove of course is the symbol of peace. On Christmas day we heard the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men with whom God is pleased.” Mark uses the same language here. Jesus is the new man with whom God is pleased. He is the man on whom God’s peace descends. But again, he is not this man for himself alone. He is this man for all men and women, as we have already mentioned.
In times of turmoil, of which the lamentable events last Wednesday at the nation’s capitol building have given us the latest evidence, we perhaps feel especially the need to hear a word of peace. Last spring, I visited a friend in Portage. We talked about our personal goals. He told us at this stage in his life his only goal is peace of mind. When God grants us repentance, when God blots out the record of our past misdeeds, so that they are no longer a burden weighing us down, when God confirms us in our identity as his beloved children, we have peace of mind. Regardless of what is happening in our nation, in our government, in our world, we don’t have to forfeit this peace. It is an enduring peace. It is a peace that surpasses all understanding, as we affirm in our liturgy on each Sunday. It is a peace that will guard our hearts and minds until the day when the new creation, revealed in Jesus Christ, will be accomplished in all. Amen.