Today we really get to begin the 40 Sundays with Jesus journey that I have been talking about. The story of Jesus being baptized is a great starting place, because it is seen as the launch of his public life. He joined the crowds of people who came to the bank of the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preach his fiery sermons.
Jesus was Jewish. The fact he went to hear John preach suggests that he was making an effort to be a faithful Jew.
As I studied the story this week, it stood out powerfully that “After all the people were baptized, Jesus was baptized.”
He was not the only person baptized that day. Jesus was part of a large crowd, all of whom were baptized. They were not baptized into the Christian church, because that did not actually exist yet. They were Jews being called to a life of faithfulness, and offered a way to have a fresh start.
Jesus was about thirty at the time of his baptism. He had lived a lot of years since being a newborn in a manger, and from that time when he was twelve, and hung out in the Jerusalem temple, talking about God with the teachers of religion.
What did he do for those 18 years, from that time in the temple, to this moment in the Jordan River?
It is intriguing, and challenging to think of Jesus as needing or wanting a fresh start. That makes him seem a lot more human than he is sometimes described. There is a hint here that like all of us, Jesus, and all the other people gathered at the river that day needed to be reminded of who God had created them to be.
Think for a moment about your own life. Where were you at age thirty? What were you doing? Were you ready for a washing clean, a fresh start? Did you have a clear sense of who you were, and what God wanted you to be? Do you have that now?
John the Baptist was a kind of wild man of the desert, a prophet in the Old Testament tradition. He was not afraid to point out when people’s lives had gone off the straight and narrow path. That could be a very unpopular thing to do. Herod, the Roman appointed ruler, had John put in jail for publicly criticizing him.
The scene in which Jesus is baptized, and the heavens open, and the Holy Spirit comes down upon him is often described as the moment Jesus graduates from a quiet life, in obscurity, to a very public life, of preaching and teaching.
I heard a story this week about a young man who had led a kind of wild life. He had a lot of money, and many grown up toys. He did not have to work, and had more free time than many people. He was also very lonely, and at times, drank too much.
He was also a person with a deep spiritual hunger and curiosity. He was looking for more in life, and that led him to walk into a church one Sunday. It was a non-denominational congregation led by a husband and wife team of co-pastors. They had this small, struggling congregation in Mississauga, and they were also involved in mission work in an especially poor area in North West Haiti.
The congregation met in a building that used to be a United Church, and had a very small congregation, made up mostly of seniors. When the co-pastors saw a man in his late twenties walk in, they were thrilled. One of them actually said out loud, “Thank God, someone to help.’
It turned out the young man stuck around, and began to help. Before long he was teaching Bible study, and helping with the sound system at the church, and going to Haiti on mission trips. Something in him responded to being needed to help, and he blossomed. He found himself.
That is an important and powerful thing, to discover who you are meant to be, who you are in God’s eyes, and to find your purpose in life.
This congregation practiced baptism by full immersion, and the old church building they were renting does not have running water, never mind a baptismal tank. The young man invited the congregation to use the pool at his condo for a baptismal service.
Have you ever seen that kind of baptism? The person walks in, or is standing in water that may be above their waist. The baptizer is in there with them, and the baptism is not just a sprinkling on the top of the head with a few drops the way we often do it.
The candidate for baptism is literally dunked under. In some traditions they are pushed in backwards, and totally submerged in the water. They are not held down, but they go all the way in, so that they are completely under water.
As a person who does not even like to put my head in the water when I swim, I would find this style of baptism a bit terrifying. My mind might know I was going to be all right, but I would be anxious.
If you are able, and willing, try an experiment with me. I am going to use my watch to time us for 20 seconds as we hold our breath.
That’s not very long, and it is probably longer than you’d have to hold your breath to be baptized. But it is about long enough to remind us how it feels to not breathe.
I prefer to breathe. My body resists holding my breath. It instinctively knows what it needs.
But you would have to hold your breath if you were being baptized by John in the Jordan River. You might also close your eyes, in case the water wasn’t clean. A lot of other people may have been dipped in that part of the river.
The experience, and the symbolism would be powerful. A total rinsing off of the dust and dirt, and messiness of life up to that point, and a rising up out of the water, with a commitment to live a new kind of life. Terror, and then relief, and perhaps joy, as you rose up out of the water.
That is what happened to Jesus, in the Jordan River. The story tells us that after Jesus was baptized, the heavens opened, the dove of the Holy Spirit came down, and a voice said to him, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”
Another translation says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
One of the ways the Christian church has understood baptism is as a moment to participate in the mysteries of Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection.
The person totally submerged for baptism is for a moment, cut off from life around them.
They are like an unborn child, in those few seconds, except without the umbilical cord to provide all they need for life.
There is at once a hint of death, or the risk of it, and the reminder of what it is like for each of us, before we leave the safety of the womb, and enter the world. The water is at the same time, a womb, and a reminder of the tomb in which Jesus was laid, after he was killed on the cross.
Then the person rises up out of the water breathless, and is able again to breathe, and it suggests coming back to life, or being born.
There is a lot of powerful symbolism there, that we may only catch a glimpse of in the way we tend to do baptisms.
I heard the story of this young man’s baptism from his father, who is not a regular church goer, but who attended the service held at the condo pool, when his son was being baptized. When his son had been baptized, and was getting out of the pool, he slipped on the wet deck, and almost broke his leg.
The father said his son was sore for a few days, but not seriously hurt. That little story, of falling on the wet deck is a reminder that this business of baptism, of life, and death, and new life, is risky.
Life itself is risky. You never know what’s going to happen. Did Jesus know what would happen in his life, after he submitted to John’s baptism?
The father told me this story of his son’s baptism, while we were standing together at the reception after his son’s funeral. The baptism he described happened about 7 years ago. The young man died tragically just after New Year’s, and I helped with his funeral this week.
There was of course a great deal of sadness over this young man’s death. But in the midst of this, I also heard that the happiest, most fulfilling part of his short life began when he joined that little church, was baptized, and grew into a new understanding of his purpose. He found his identity as a beloved child of God, when he began to live a life that was about serving God, by helping others.
It is so good that he found that little church, and found out who he was meant to be, while he could do something about it.
This morning we have the opportunity in the service to re-affirm the vows of baptism, and to remember again who we are, in God’s eyes. We are, each of us, beloved children of God. Amen