January 13, 2013 – Epiphany 1 The First Baptism
To listen to this sermon, click here: The First Baptism
The Hebrew way of thinking about time, which is what we meet in the Bible, wasn’t about a linear progression the way that we tend to view time: this happened, and then this, and then this. It was a much more organic way of thinking, and it fit in with the way the natural world works. A field doesn’t get harvested because the harvest date is set as September 23rd; it gets harvested when the grains are full and ripe. And a baby isn’t born because the due date has arrived – I think we’ve all experienced that difficult truth – a baby comes when she is good and ready. Things happen, according to Jewish thought, because the time is right. That’s why there are so many Biblical expressions like “in the fullness of time” Things happen because the season has arrived, the time is ripe.
And so, when John went out into the wilderness and began to preach and thousands of people poured out from the cities and villages to hear his preaching and repent and be baptized, it wasn’t because someone had scheduled it. Nowhere was it written “mark your calendars for the revival meeting January 13th, in the wilderness: guest speaker John the Baptist.” Instead, at that time the people of Israel began to feel a sense of expectation and a sense of need. It was a combination of factors: the oppression of the Roman forces, the longing for the Messiah, the heavy burden of the Law, the weariness of poverty, and four centuries without a prophet. When John began to preach in the wilderness it touched something in people’s hearts that was ripe for harvest. People were ready to hear God’s call. To us John’s preaching sounds pretty scary and pretty negative, all about sin and repentance and judgment. But people were ripe for it, and they flocked to John in multitudes, asking him “What shall we do?” and being washed clean in the waters of the Jordan River.
500 years earlier the prophet Malachi had prophesied about the coming of John: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” It was in the fullness of time, when Israel found itself embattled and weary, that God sent his prophet John to prepare them for the coming of the One that would open the way for them to come home.
The hearts of God’s people were ripe for repentance, and John’s baptism was all about renouncing sin. But it was also about coming back to God as his chosen people – not just to go back and do better at following a set of laws and regulations, but to begin to live according to God’s own heart. We would say they were ready to begin to live according to the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. It was the season for the people of God to hear him once again, and that is why they poured out to John in the wilderness. We can certainly understand in our own lives that desire for a new beginning with God. But if that is the purpose of baptism, we might ask why Jesus came out to John to be baptized? John himself was flustered by that idea; Matthew tells us that he even tried to stop him, but Jesus insisted. It was the right thing to do and the right time to do it, Jesus told him: “This is how we will fulfill all righteousness.”
When Jesus came down to the water’s edge, something altogether new and different was about to happen. Baptism itself was like a seed that was about to blossom and bear fruit. Jesus submitted himself to the waters of John’s baptism so that in him the water of baptism would become the entry into a new life. Jesus didn’t get baptized so that he could mingle more effectively; he wasn’t just trying to act like “one of the guys” and fit in. His baptism was the blossoming of long-awaited promise. Ever since mankind had given himself into slavery to sin when he rebelled against God in the very beginning of creation, God had promised to send someone to rescue us. For centuries God’s people had waited for the promised One who would lead them out of slavery like a shepherd leads his flock to safe pasture. The moment of Jesus’s baptism was the sign that the time had come for the fulfillment of that promise.
John had announced to the crowds that someone was coming, soon, with a new and different baptism – “a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire”, and when he saw Jesus he knew the One had come, although even he didn’t understand completely yet. Jesus’ baptism was something altogether new, not just theologically, but so new that every person standing there that day could see it and hear it. Luke says that when Jesus had been baptized and was praying the heavens were opened. He doesn’t describe what that must have looked like – the clouds parting and the sun suddenly streaming down, or the blue of the sky torn open to reveal the blackness of space – I can imagine it in many different ways, but it was a dramatic sign that something was happening that had never happened before.
And then Luke says that the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus in bodily form, a form that everyone could see, and the closest people could come to describing it was that it looked like a white bird, a dove, coming down out of the heavens. Remember that Luke wasn’t there himself, but he was a careful scholar, who wrote his gospel after interviewing countless eyewitnesses who were actually there and he wrote down what they had seen and heard and felt. And finally, the crowds heard a voice that seemed to come down right of the sky. And the voice said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” Well. There had never been a baptism like that before. But there would be many, many more baptisms like it, because Jesus had come to guide his people back to their God, to lead us home like a shepherd brings his lambs into safe pastures.
If God had sent John and then stopped, he would have made his people aware of their sinfulness and their need for him, and he would have offered them a chance to start over, to turn from their old ways and strive to live in renewed devotion to their God. And that would have been a very gracious thing. But God didn’t choose to stand back and issue an invitation to his people. He chose to plunge in to their desperate mess and to lead them out, walking before them in the way they should go, opening the gates that were closed, sharing the hardships of the road, and bringing them, not back to life as God’s loyal servants but right into the castle to live as his friends and as royal children, adopted into the family of God to be his brothers and sisters. Jesus’ baptism was the very first step in guiding us on that journey. Because Jesus was baptized, baptism has become the gateway by which we enter the household of God. But first, Jesus went through it before us, to lead the way.
We have a family story about my oldest daughter Emily. When she was about 7 ½ months pregnant with her second child, she took her eldest daughter, Anneliese, to MacDonald’s one day for lunch. At the time this seemed like an ideal place because there was an indoor playground. So, as soon as she finished a little of her lunch, 3-year-old Anneliese took off her shoes and ran off to the playground, climbing through long plastic tunnels and across walkways and up ladders until she reached the top of the structure. And then she panicked. And she sat at the top of the ladder and she screamed bloody murder, and nothing Emily could say was any comfort, and she wouldn’t come down. She was too scared and too upset to do anything but yell. And finally Emily had to squeeze her very pregnant self through the plastic tunnels and across the walkways and up the ladders and take Anneliese by the hand, and lead her down and safely back out of the playground. In love (and admittedly desperation as well) Emily brought her little girl safely through and brought her home. And that seems to me a good picture of what Jesus chose to do. He didn’t stand on the sidelines and yell instructions and warnings to us. He went in after us, and took us by the hand, and he went through the door first, leading us gently through as a shepherd leads his lambs.
When we were baptized, whether we were infants brought to baptism by our faithful parents, or adults who chose to be baptized, ours was not the baptism of John, a call to repentance and a chance to start over. When Jesus went before us, wading into the River with John two thousand years ago, the perfect time had come for God to begin a new work in his people. The sights and sounds of that baptism were a sign – to the people who were there, and to us – of the new day that had risen. And baptism would never be the same, because it had become an instrument of God’s plan in Jesus to bring us home, a sign of our adoption as his beloved children. When you were baptized, the kingdom of heaven was opened to you just as the heavens opened for Jesus on the day of his baptism. When you were baptized, the Holy Spirit came forth from the Father to make his home with you, just as the dove descended on Jesus before all the watching crowds. And because you are following in his footsteps you know the words that the Father spoke to you in baptism, and continues to speak to you. “You are my beloved child; I am pleased with you.”
We know that these things are as true of our baptism as they were real to the crowds on the banks of the Jordan River because we know that Jesus came to be our guide, to go before us as the first of many Sons. The very reason Jesus made his way into our world was so that hand in hand with him, his people could share his journey home to the Father. As John said, God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.
What makes the story about Emily and Anneliese a particularly appropriate example is that Anneliese did not smile sweetly with relief when Emily came to lead her; she didn’t take her mother’s hand and come happily down. Instead, she kept on crying in panic, and she had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, for at least part of the way down, so that it is not so much a sweet and tender memory for Emily. What is absolutely important about the story is that Emily never let go of Anneliese’s hand. And she didn’t give up trying to get to her no matter how many tunnels she had to squeeze through, no matter how humiliating it was that there were certainly people who were watching and probably finding the whole thing rather amusing. There was never a moment when Emily thought she might just give up and leave Anneliese to work it out on her own. It was love, pure and simple, and love is not always sweet and tender – but real love is always there.
The Bible says that Jesus leads us like a shepherd leads his flock, and there are few animals more stubborn and less sensible than sheep. They panic and run off on their own sometimes, or they stop in fear and refuse to budge. Sometimes they try to nourish themselves with things that make them very sick. Sometimes they get themselves lost or tangled up. Our sheep used to roll onto their backs and get stuck, lying helpless with their legs sticking up in the air, so that they would have died if we had not come along and rolled them back over. I believe God knew what he was doing when he compared us to sheep. The good news for us is that our shepherd is always faithful. Having brought us through the first step of baptism, he will not leave us or forsake us along the way, no matter what. Having come to share our flesh with us, he will love us forever as his own flesh. And having returned in power to his Father, he and the Father make their home with us even now, today, and tomorrow, and the next day, through the Spirit he has given to be in us, because we are truly God’s beloved children with whom he is well pleased.