1 Epiphany — 13 January 2008
St. John’s, Keokuk —10:00
Isa 42:1-9 Ps 29 Acts 10:34-43 Matt 3:13-17
John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
When I was a child in Sunday School, I had a hard time figuring out the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist: John’s baptism was a sign of repentance and forgiveness; why then did Jesus, the sinless one, have to be baptized by him? Why did Jesus have to be baptized at all? In the King James words I heard as a child, Jesus tells John, “Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness,” and when I was twelve years old I know that didn’t help me very much!
Here’s ol’ John Baptist ranting and raving, preaching hellfire and damnation, really laying it on the folks about their sin (which does seem to be the kind of thing John did), calling on those who repent to Come On Down to the river; and he’s baptizing away, and he looks up to see who’s next, and there’s his cousin Jesus. “Uh … hi. I … um … I wasn’t expecting to see you here … I mean … I didn’t know you were here today. Um … this is the line for people being baptized, you know, like, for repentance, like, sinners, you know … Um, wouldn’t it be better for you to baptize me?!”
Well. Why does Jesus, who presumably does not need to submit to a baptism of repentance, accept (and indeed insist on accepting) John’s baptism? As we see what Jesus was up to here, we may also gain some insight on what our own Christian baptism is about, and how that affects the way we live our lives.
Later on in his ministry, Jesus would ask his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup which I must drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I must be baptized?” The cup he must drink is the cup which he prayed might pass away from him on that last night in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest—the cup of his impending death. Jesus saw that also as his baptism. He understood his baptism as his conscious commitment to the way of the cross. He accepted John’s baptism not because he needed repentance, but as a way of identifying himself with us, of declaring his complete solidarity with our sinful humanity, and taking onto his own shoulders our burden of sin and death. As St Paul would later put it, “he who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” At Christmas we have celebrated the coming of Immanuel, God-with-us. In his baptism, Jesus explicitly declares himself “with-us”—he accepts identification with our condition; he who is innocent pleads “guilty.” Jesus’ baptism is his declaration of his unity with us, just as our baptism is the means of our unification with him.
There are two side-tracks we often wander off onto. One of these is the refusal to identify with the world. We sometimes hold ourselves aloof, especially in our “spiritual” lives. We make of our “religion” something apart from “real life,” and our Christian faith becomes simply one compartment among the many compartments into which we organize our lives. But if we hold Jesus to be Lord only of our religiousness, and not of our whole lives—our work, our play, our family relationships, friendships, values, economics, politics, and everything else—then we aren’t accepting Jesus as Lord at all, and instead of Christian faith we have simply a quaint, nostalgic, perhaps beautiful but in the end meaningless religiosity. In his baptism Jesus identified himself with the whole of our human lives.
The other side-track of course is to identify with the world too much—to accept the world’s values and methods as adequate and sufficient. We convince ourselves that being nice and respectable by the world’s standards is all the Gospel really requires of us, that holiness is attained simply by being politically correct. And we forget that a Christian is always somewhat at odds with the world. We are in the world; we are for the world; but we do not finally belong to this world. The Word of God is not the world’s word. But neither is the Word of God only a religious murmur spoken in a corner of a Sunday morning. The Word of God is spoken to the whole world, and in judgment upon the whole world, and in re-creation of the whole world.
And so there is a tension—in Christ we share his solidarity with the world. No part of human life is beyond his Lordship. Nothing in the world is outside our concern. As Jesus is “Immanu-El,” “God with us,” so we as Christ’s Body must “be with” one another in our brokenness, sharing the hurt and the sorrow of all our brothers and sisters. But on the other hand as Christians we are in the world as those who do not ultimately belong to the world. The Gospel which claims us sends us into the world not to be swallowed up by the world but to transform the world. Jesus in his baptism plunged himself into our human condition, not becoming just like us in our sin, but raising us out of our sin into his love, redeeming us and renewing us. So we now, who are baptized into Christ, do share his baptism, and his cup; we do not succumb to the world, but we take the world upon ourselves—as empowered by Christ’s Holy Spirit in graceful and healing love—and in Christ we bear our broken world up to the throne of heaven.
(To page 292)
Dear People of God: In Holy Baptism we follow the pattern of our Lord Jesus Christ. As he came up from the water he was anointed by the Spirit of God and designated as God's Son, so we also are anointed by that same Spirit; we are reborn and adopted as sons and daughters with whom God is well pleased. Let us now renew our own baptismal covenant.
 Mark 10:38.
 2 Cor. 5:21.
© 2008 William Moorhead