January 9, 2022, Baptism 2.0, Luke 3:15-22

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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’s a much more organic way of thinking, and it fits in with the way the natural world works. A field doesn’t get harvested because the harvest date is set for 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’s 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 9th, 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 might sound pretty scary and kind of 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 might say it this way: 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 really hear him once again, and that is why they poured out to John in the wilderness. We’ve all felt that in our own lives at certain times: that urgent desire for a new beginning with God. But if that was the purpose of John’s baptism, we might ask, why did Jesus come 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 more was coming to fruition than the repentance of the people, something altogether new and different was happening. In that moment, baptism itself was like a seed that was about to blossom and grow and bear fruit. Jesus entered the waters of John’s baptism so that in him the water of baptism could become the entry into a completely new kind of life. Jesus didn’t just get baptized so that he could fit in with the crowd. It wasn’t some kind of outward show of humility. His baptism was the blossoming of long-awaited promise. Ever since mankind had rebelled against God, in the very beginning of creation, God had promised to send someone to rescue us, to make a way out. 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. And the moment of Jesus’s baptism was the sign that that time had come; the promise had been fulfilled.

The ritual of baptism wasn’t anything new in Judaism; baptism was a sign of purification for converts, or a rite of cleansing for a person who had become ritually unclean, so they could be admitted once again into Temple worship. But John had announced to the crowds that someone was coming, soon, with a new baptism – “a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire.” And when John saw Jesus he knew the One had come, although even he didn’t understand completely yet. Jesus’ baptism was something altogether new, so new that every person standing there that day could see it and hear it. When Jesus came up out of the waters, the heavens were opened. We can only imagine 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 the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus in bodily form, a form that everyone could see. 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 recorded what people 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. He had come to lead us home like a shepherd brings his lambs into safe pastures. And baptism, from that day onward, was the sign of that new relationship between God and his people.

If God had only sent John to baptize people, and nothing more, he would have made his people aware of their sinfulness and their need for him. In baptism, they would have been given 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 it wasn’t enough. God didn’t choose to stand back and issue an invitation to his people to do better. He chose to plunge in to their desperate mess and to lead them out, walking with them in the way they should go, opening the gates that were closed, sharing the hardships of the road. God’s end game was not to call his people back to life as his loyal servants. His plan was nothing less than adoption, to bring his children home. And Jesus’ baptism was the very first step. Because Jesus was baptized, baptism became the gateway by which we enter the household of God. Jesus went through baptism 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. It was Anneliese’s favorite place because there was an indoor playground. So, as soon as she finished a little bit 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. 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.

So finally Emily had to squeeze her very pregnant self through the plastic tunnels and across the walkways and up the ladders. She took Anneliese by the hand, and she led 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 pretty 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. He took us by the hand. He traveled the road with us, leading us gently through, as a shepherd leads his lambs.

What makes the story about Emily and Anneliese particularly appropriate, I think, 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. No, she kept on wailing in panic. She even had to be dragged, at least part of the way, kicking and screaming. But Emily never let go of Anneliese’s hand. She didn’t give up, 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 single 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 unfailing.

Jesus has promised us that he will never leave us. He will never forsake us. He won’t give up on us, no matter how hard the journey gets. He won’t give up on us, no matter how fearful or foolish or stubborn we might be, no matter how much we kick or scream. There is never a single moment when God thinks he might just give up on you, and leave you to work your life out on your own. Because the voice of the Father that spoke from heaven at the baptism of Jesus speaks to you as well: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”

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