Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Baptism of Jesus
January 10, 2021
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
People in groups can be bad news. They get each other stirred up, gain false courage from the sense of collective righteousness. As we saw with horrifying clarity this past Wednesday, when encouraged by a charismatic leader, a group of devoted followers can become a destructive mob, endangering the basic order of society. The sight of a horde running through the corridors of the US Capitol building, and of Senators and Members of Congress cowering for safety, sent a shiver of disbelief and of fear far beyond the borders of the nation in which it took place. For people of faith, the link to certain Christian groups is doubly disturbing. In the days since, as photographs and videoclips have brought some of the details into sharper focus – the white supremacism, the tepid police response, the nihilism – our sense of dismay has only deepened.
This group-gone-wild phenomenon is the kind of thing that frightened King Herod and the Roman authorities when people began to gather in large numbers at the River Jordan to hear the preaching of a rabble-rouser. It wasn’t the political class or the well-to-do who gathered around John the Baptist looking for validation and inspiration – the scripture tells us that it was everyone, ‘from all over the Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem.‘ In a couple of the other Gospels, we hear that Pharisees and priests came by to have a look too, just to check it out – and John denounced them. Promised the people that an even greater leader was about to arise. Was he fomenting insurrection? We don’t think so, but we never find out. Within a few weeks of this scene at the Jordan, John is arrested and executed.
This was the volatile setting in which Jesus began his ministry. It wasn’t a Sunday school picnic at the riverside. Not a tender moment between cousins, or an expression of personal piety, but a public gesture in a politicized setting. Jesus was stepping into the responsibility of a leader, taking on the crowd, with all its ragamuffin instability. He was plunging in.
He won’t have done this on the spur of the moment. It’s a long walk from Galilee. He was thirty years old, not a youngster. Until now he had lived his life in obscurity, looking around him at an oppressed people in need of liberation and of healing. Had had time to learn and to consider and to pray. To ask himself what his own role might be. Perhaps he was as perplexed and disheartened by what he saw around him as we are. As overwhelmed by the need, as daunted by the malignance. But he plunged in anyway.
Jesus will have known by heart the psalm that Tom read. Will have relished, as we do, the reassuring words that promise understanding and companionship along the path we walk wherever it takes us. Like us, he will have remembered that God’s thoughts are numberless, more unfathomable than the sands of the ocean. And with that faith, perhaps he also had an inkling of the dangers and compromises and potential for being misinterpreted that a ministry like his would encounter. It seems that he did know that he himself would face opposition and even death, but that didn’t deter him. Even so, we don’t know whether he had any sense of the ambiguity of his legacy. If Jesus had known that day at the Jordan what terrible things Christians would do in his name over the centuries, would he have opted out? By stepping forward for baptism that day, Jesus was committing himself to a life that would be lived not only in service to God, but in service to God’s people. With all the risks that go along with that.
Stepping into the water of faith will always include those risks. As Jesus plunges in, he hears the sound of a voice above the rushing water – Beloved child, it says, well pleased. He looks up and sees a dove. He carries that voice and that vision with him through the hurley-burley, and into his quiet moments. They sustain him when the crowd is with him and when it turns against him. He remembers them at the cross. In this season of Epiphany, we share that vision and that voice, in the quiet and in the crowd. And for this we give God thanks.