(Sermon preached January 22nd)
When you look at sermons preached on the baptism of Jesus – and I certainly include my own in this – the pressing question seems to be “why did Jesus get baptised?”.
And I don’t want to understate the importance of that question, especially in the light of John’s words, that his baptism was for repentance. For it has always been the confession and claim of the Christian faith that one thing Jesus did not need to do was to repent, that he, uniquely, had no sins to confess; something John seems to recognise – ‘I need to be baptised by you, not the other way around!’.
And to my mind the most satisfying answers to the question of Jesus’ baptism lie around the idea of identification; that though Jesus had no need of baptism for repentance, his mission, his calling, the very nature of the incarnation was that he would so closely identify with us, with humanity, that what we needed, he chose. Our baptismal liturgy includes the words “In his own baptism in the Jordan by John, Jesus identified with humanity in all its brokenness and sin”. And so, surely, he did.
Yet there is another story of identity happening at Jesus’ baptism as well – the voice from heaven (or perhaps the dove, pick your gospel for details) declaring “this is my Son, the Beloved”. At the same time as Jesus identifies with us, God identified him as God’s child, God’s beloved. Not, I’d suggest, as a contrast to him being one of us – on the contrary, I rather think that it is as one of us that God names Jesus God’s beloved child. It is as Jesus is baptised – like one of us – that God names him God’s son, beloved.
But today I’d like to go somewhere a little different with this baptism story, and ponder, for a while, what John was expecting, as the one who came to prepare the way, what he was thinking when Jesus came to be baptised.
For which we need to rewind a little before the start of today’s story, and read what John said about the one who was to come.
John – the last and the greatest of the prophets, as Jesus himself will later name him – the one who came to prepare for the messiah – had this to say to the religious elite who came to him for baptism:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
John’s baptism, in his own words, his own understanding of his calling, was a baptism of repentance. Which is to say – of change. Of change of life, of change of attitude, of change of actions. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” he demands.
John speaks into a world in which he can see wrong. He can see the neglect of the poor by the rich, the abuse of the weak by the powerful, and worst of all, the use of religion to justify these things. He calls on all to repent; but those in religious power, both of synagogue and temple (for those were two quite distinct religious powers in the day of Jesus), the Pharisees and Sadducees, are singled out for criticism.
And his language is full of judgement. “I baptise with water, for repentance … he will baptise with fire … his winnowing-fork (a tool used to separate grain, for use, from chaff, to be burned) is in his hand”.
This is what John preached that he was preparing the way for. His call to repentance had a definite edge of “or else” about it. “The Messiah is coming. He will judge. Turn or burn.”
And then Jesus comes to him, and John’s immediate reaction is “you should be baptising me”. As if to say “now you are here, it’s your turn. I’ve prepared the way, with a baptism offering repentance – now it’s your turn. Now it’s time for the judgement. I baptised with water, now it’s time for the fire.”
And how could he not think like that, brought up as he surely was on the Old Testament prophets? If, as seems likely, John was heavily influenced by, or even part of, the Essene sect (communities of Jews who separated themselves from the masses, in the wilderness, in search of holiness – we know them best as the keeper, in Qumran, of the dead sea scrolls), then it makes more sense still; for the Essene strongly emphasised those aspects of the Old Testament that spoke of the judgement of God on a people who have turned away from the purity of true worship of the God of Israel.
And it’s an expectation we see coming back, over and again, through the gospels – James and John asking Jesus “shall we call down fire and burn them up” – or the disciples after the resurrection asking “is it now that you will restore the kingdom” – or all the times when people expect the Messiah to bring political freedom, with the overthrow – judgement – of the Romans.
But Jesus refuses John’s expectations; he refuses to baptise John. Indeed, it is one of the oddities of the gospels that we never seem to hear discussed that Jesus never baptised anyone. He refuses the play the part in the story that John has written for him – and instead, asks John to baptise him.
Even here, right at the start of his public ministry, Jesus has already begun to subvert the stories that have been told of the Messiah in the centuries of waiting. He has already begun to change what it means to be the anointed one.
To identify himself, not with the righteous – even though he is – but with those who have come for baptism, those who came with confession, for repentance.
And claiming that identity – as one baptised, not one baptising, as one who stands amongst the repentant, not one who stands as judge, as one amongst us, not one looking down from above – and as he claims that identity, Jesus hears God’s voice: “This is my child, my beloved”.
There can surely be no doubt that if Jesus had chosen instead to bring judgement, he would have been just – he would have be right, beyond reproach. But in the first act of his public ministry he makes it clear that judging others, even judging rightly, is not his priority. Standing with them is.
I hear these words as a challenge – a rebuke – for I love to be right. I love to make good, sound, judgements about the decisions other people make – even if I normally keep my thoughts to myself. There is a great feeling in being able to see where someone else has gone wrong, and knowing that you would not have made that same mistake.
Against this attitude, Jesus’ baptism stands as a declaration: instead of standing over you to judge you, I came to be with you.
It’s almost as if the words of the angels at the birth – Emmanuel, God with us – meant just what they said.
And I wonder what it means for us. That the very first act of Jesus’ public ministry wasn’t teaching, wasn’t telling people about God, wasn’t helping or healing, certainly wasn’t setting others straight, or pointing out their sins.
But the very first act of Jesus’ mission – declared at his birth and enacted in his baptism – was to stand with those outside.
We’re very good, in the modern Church, at gathering together, caring for each other, learning, loving. And those are good things.
And we’re also very good, it seems, at public condemnation; at pointing the finger at those who fail to meet what we see as God’s standards. Which probably isn’t such a good thing.
But are we good at simply being with others? Identifying with those outside our doors – not as a helper, not as the solution, but simply as another human sharing the same needs, hopes, dreams and disappointments? Even when they aren’t like us?
As we move into a new year, and, in many ways, a new political era, I wonder if we – all of us – might make things a whole better if we could be a little faster to identify with others, as Jesus did, and a little slower to judge, and John wanted.