Today’s reading is from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, Verses 13 to 17:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “life is a journey not a destination.” If we are to follow his logic, the sacrament of baptism is the first spiritual step on that journey. The water cleanses away our sin. The Holy Spirit reflects the birth of a new life in God. It is a moment of great jubilation, and reminds me of the words that God once gave to his prophet, Ezekiel:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
However, great starts can soon be forgotten when daily realities come into sharp focus. Just as journeys can be interrupted by bad weather, traffic jams and flat tires, so lives can be blighted by loss, dislocation or good old fashioned unfairness. Suddenly, our joyous covenant can seem very far away indeed. Suddenly, our fears and our necessities make us want to act in ways that God would not choose for us. Suddenly, it is hard to go back home again. The road, and the traveler, have become unrecognizable.
This is why I am pleased that Jesus chose to be baptized. Jesus could have agreed with John and baptized him instead. Or he could have walked on along the bank of the River Jordan, thinking instead about how life could be bent to serve his own personal needs. However, the journey taken by Jesus followed a straighter and narrower path. He chose righteousness over what was right. Instead of boasting of his preeminence, or choosing what he though might be right for him, Jesus showed deference to John. He chose to take part in a ritual of public cleansing that became so important precisely because it was so unnecessary. And, for all this, his heavenly father was well pleased.
From his birth in a stable, through an itinerant ministry that focused upon serving the poor, the vulnerable, and the unworthy, Jesus was to face condemnation and death on a cross. Jesus became someone so ordinary in being extraordinary that we might think it possible to emulate him. It is through our fleeting, imperfect attempts at emulation that we can begin to grasp the true importance of baptism.
As Walter Brueggemann has written in his book called: “The Prophetic Imagination,” Jesus was adept at dismantling the old world which culminated in his crucifixion – and, at the same time, energizing the new future promised by God, and represented by his resurrection. By not acceding to pre-existing power structures, or current social norms, Brueggemann has noted that Jesus was able to offer all of us an alternative perception of reality. Through the prism of Jesus’ teachings, we have become able to see our own history in the context of God’s will and justice.
To me, then, baptism is more than a mere rite of passage or an outward acknowledgment of spiritual growth. To me, it reflects the tension that runs through all of life itself: the death of the old and the birth of the new. In reality, as we move along our own spiritual journeys, baptism is a ritual that is repeated with each new insight. By focusing on the reality presented by Jesus, we clear away preset expectation of how life should work in our own time. In so doing, we leave ourselves intimately vulnerable to fresh inspiration from the Divine. At different points, our growth will force us at once away from what we think God wants for us and then back into the loving arms of the Divine. Fortunately, the humility shown by Jesus during his baptism has given us all the power to come home to God, no matter what we think we have become – – and no matter how long that journey might take. Amen and Amen.