Where it all begins
Sunday, January 7, 2018
Trinity United Church of Christ, Deerfield
Kent M. Organ, Interim Pastor
Text: Isaiah 42:1-9; Mark 1:4-11
“In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” According to Mark, it is this incident that constitutes the beginning of the good news. It’s the beginning of his Gospel. There, in the muck and mud of the Jordan River, is where it all begins: the miracle of grace, the manifestation of God’s love, the ministry of reconciliation through Jesus Christ our Lord. It all begins with John’s baptism of Jesus.
It’s not only Mark who says so. Each of the Gospels makes the Jordan River the place where it all begins. True, in the other Gospels there are preceding events. But all four agree that the baptism of Jesus is the moment when he begins to fulfill his destiny.
We are naturally curious about the earlier years. We wonder about the influence of Joseph and Mary. What did Jesus learn from them about their faith tradition? What was his experience of God as a child, as a teenager? How did he arrive at his sense of vocation? Aside from one story – about the 12-year old’s visit to the Temple – we know next to nothing about any of this. These were the silent years. Fred Craddock says, “You don’t hear roots growing. They had to be silent years.”
All we know is that, one day, Jesus put down his woodworking tools, took leave of his family and his hometown, and went out into the wilderness where John was preaching “a baptism of repentance.” There, Jesus joined all the others who were responding to John’s preaching. Along with them, he also waded into the river and was baptized.
The question is, why? We ask, because John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. What was Jesus doing in that crowd? What did he have to repent of?
That he was there – in the Jordan, undergoing baptism – is something even the most skeptical participant in the Jesus Seminar does not dispute. The reason being that no believer would have made up this story. The Savior of the world submitting to a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is a little embarrassing. And the Gospel writers are nervous in telling about it. According to Matthew, John the Baptist was reluctant, saying he needed to be baptized by Jesus. He went through with it, Matthew says, only because Jesus insisted. Luke makes as little of the event as possible. The Fourth Gospel is so defensive about Jesus’ sinlessness that it doesn’t explicitly say that he was baptized. It just says that John saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but neglects to mention that Jesus was standing waist-deep in the Jordan River when it happened. Mark seems the least embarrassed, but even he has John proclaim of Jesus, “…I am not worthy to… untie the thong of his sandals.”
So, what are we to make of Jesus’ baptism? In spite of their discomfort about it, why do all four Gospels insist that Jesus’ baptism is where it all begins?
Here’s what I think. Jesus went out to where John was baptizing because the time had come for him to respond to God’s claim on his life. John was baptizing at the Jordan – the very river boundary which, when the children of Egypt came out of the wilderness, they crossed to enter the Promised Land. Many Israelites, during this time, were seeking a renewal of their peoplehood. What did it mean to serve God together in this world? Where had they failed? What was required of them now? Galvanized by the witness of John, the people returned to the place of their beginnings in a new land: to the Jordan. It was like going back to Ellis Island to start over, at least to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty to remember what our peoplehood is all about. Friends, a pastoral interim can be something like this, as we’re seeing. It is an opportunity to step back and remember: Who are we? Why are we here? What is it that God wants us to be, and do? Getting in touch with our Christian identity, and our unique calling.
So, of course, Jesus went there – to be baptized – identifying with all who recognized the need to start over again on a more faithful path as servants of God in this world.
* * * *
The Baptism of Christ, observed today in churches around the world, witnesses to Jesus’ solidarity with and compassion for all of us who come on a Sunday morning, just as our ancestors went to the Jordan River. They went, and we come, with a multitude of aspirations and anxieties, with our failures – individual and corporate – in what we have done and not done. The Baptism of Jesus was then and is now the sign that Christ saves us not by shouting instructions from the safety of the shore, but is down in the mud with us, joining us in the sorrow of repentance and the joy of a new beginning.
What would have constituted sin for Jesus would have been for him not to have been baptized – to turn away from his destiny, to refuse to be Emmanuel, “God with us.” But he didn’t refuse. He didn’t separate himself from us with our questions, our failures of will and of nerve, our failures to do the good we know. He went down to the Jordan and joined us. His baptism is a luminous sign that he is truly one of us. Which is why Mark calls it “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
What was not obvious then, but is now is how his baptism marked the beginning in another sense. It launched him on a ministry that would take him from the Jordan to the poor, to lepers, to the tables of social outcasts, public sinners, to the weak and powerless, to those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and finally – on Calvary – to a convicted criminal at the place of his execution, His baptism, in other words, is the beginning of a journey that will lead Jesus to the cross where, as Paul declares, “For our sakes [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin,” and where, as the Philippian hymn says, “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.”
* * * *
The account of Jesus’ baptism belongs to the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means “manifestation,” “disclosure.” What Jesus’ baptism discloses is who he is – the beloved Son – and what he does, as the beloved Son: he becomes one with us. In the end, his identification with us and his commitment to us will take him to the cross. But it begins at the Jordan. From that act of solidarity, it was almost inevitable that the time would come when, as Paul puts it, God would prove God’s love for us in that while we were sinners Christ would die for us.
Baptism is where it all begins – not only for Jesus, but also for you and me. That is to say, our journey of faith begins at the baptismal font. It is there that we first know the grace of God in Christ. It is there we are first shown that our lives are not our own. “In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God.” Like Jesus at the Jordan, at the font we are given our identity: “See what love God has for us,” we are told, “that we should be called children of God, and so we are.” At the baptismal font we not only learn who we are, we learn what we are to do – we are given our vocation. “By water and the Holy Spirit… we are joined to Christ’s ministry of love, justice and peace.”
For us too, baptism is where it all begins. It’s where God first says to us, “You belong to me; you are loved by me. Stop worrying about whether that is true or not, and start learning to follow the way my Son shows you. Stop fretting about who you are – you are my beloved! Get on with the life I have called you to live, and with the work I have given you to do.”
Each year, on this Sunday, we at Trinity are encouraged to renew our baptism vows. Why so often? Why – every year? Because it is easy to forget to whom we belong. Are we primarily Democrats, or Republicans? White Sox fans, or Cubs fans? Caucasians, or members of the human race? Americans, or citizens of the world? Here, today, we remember – and attest – that fundamentally, we belong to God, the God we know in and through Jesus the Christ. Which tells us important things about those other belongings of ours.
Baptism is where it all begins. For Jesus, it’s at the Jordan River. There he begins to fulfill his destiny as Emmanuel, God with us. For us, it is at the font. That is where we re-begin our life-long journey as God’s own.
- With thanks to Gene Bay, John Burkhart and Barbara Brown Taylor
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