Come on in, Jesus thinks the water is fine.
I have heard the following in conversation, have you?
I would rather my kids not make visits to the convalescent hospital, said the concerned mother. It’s just too depressing there for small children.
Turn the channel, said another, I don’t think I should have to be exposed to starving children.
Let’s walk down another street, he said to his friend, There’s always too many beggars on this one.
Oh look who it is; let’s go out the back door; she always wants to take up your time telling you all her troubles.
Well, that’s one way to deal with the suffering in the world. Just pretend it doesn’t exist. Just hide it away and hope it doesn’t rear its ugly head, at least not while we’re around.
John the Baptist dealt with it differently. John called the suffering people out into the open. He called the downtrodden, lonely, demoralized people out into the light and asked them to make one more crossing through the Jordan. And one after another, hundreds in fact, came to symbolize a new beginning at the hands of a preacher almost as scary as the poverty and oppression in which they found themselves.
But there is One who is standing back, watching all those people wading into the waters of promise. He wants more than anything to identify with them. He wants to be one with their suffering and one with their hope. He doesn’t turn the channel or take an alternate route of avoidance. He waits until everyone has washed in the Jordan, and then he makes his approach. He steps into the muddy water and submits to the same baptism as the people he came to save. The very first act of God’s Messiah is to show his determination to stand knee deep in the turbulent and chaotic waters of humanity.
Have you ever found yourself wondering why the Christ of God would submit to a baptism of repentance? If that act has ever seemed strange to you, you aren’t alone. Many have asked that question throughout the ages. Not everybody through history has been comfortable with the notion. The Gospel of Matthew, the appointed Gospel this week, gives a full account of Jesus’ Baptism.
Have you ever compared Matthew’s account with Luke’s? St. Luke seems a little embarrassed by the whole thing; he barely mentions that Jesus was baptized, and he tries to skim over the actual baptism itself in order to get as quickly as possible to God’s affirmation of Jesus as God’s Son. Listen to how Luke describes it:
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.
Did you catch how Luke just slipped Jesus’ baptism in there? If Luke had understood the Baptism of our Lord as Jesus’ first sermon on the unconditional love of God, as his first acted out parable, he would have described it in the detail with which he describes the birth of Jesus. He would have understood that the waters of the Jordan River are to the celebration of the Baptism of our Lord as the manger is to celebration of Christmas. Both of them receive the Christ that intersects with our lives.
By now, just about everyone has heard the story of little Robby. He was the 11-year-old-boy who battled cancer. Of course, he lost all of his hair as a result of his chemotherapy treatments. When it was time to return to school, Robby and his parents agonized over what to do about his baldness. At 11, especially these days, one is very self-conscious. But Robby had nothing to worry about because when he arrived at school he discovered that instead of taunting him, most of his friends had shaved their heads too. Ever since that story was made public, it has become quite common to see parents, siblings and schoolmates shaving their heads to show their solidarity with a young cancer patient.
We’ve come to learn that if you hide pain, it only hurts all the more.
Our baptismal calling as Christians is to become healers by sharing in the hurt we are trying to heal, by acknowledging that our baptism like the Baptism of our Lord, is an immersion into the human condition. In this way we become godly; in this way we become Christ-like.
Some years ago, our then Presiding Bishop wrote the following in her column in Episcopal Life:
I taught a World Religions course in a secular university for several years, she wrote.
The course required students to attend several worship services in traditions outside their own (if they had one). They had to find the house of worship, join in as much as was possible and reasonable, and later write a paper on their experiences. The students often told about their surprise when they were welcomed as human beings and their chagrin when they felt they only were being received as potential converts.
When we greet someone new who comes through the doors of our church, I think it’s important that our first approach be to step into the same water in which they are already knee deep; to identify with them as who they are, and not just what we think they can become.
That is my rationale behind the personal welcome I used on the website of the church in which I served:
It doesn’t matter who you are or what your status in life, you have a place here, and you are welcome here! Everybody will be received with open arms and considered Holy before our gracious God.
It has been said ministry happens when a person’s great joys meet the deep hungers of the world.
You can’t meet the deep hungers of the world, if you avoid the sick and suffering, if you go down another aisle or pick another street as those who make their journey in need.
Perhaps this closing illustration will best attest to the meaning of the Baptism of our Lord:
Leo Buscaglia once talked about a contest he was asked to judge. The purpose of the contest was to find the most caring child. The winner was a little boy whose next door neighbor was an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. Upon seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard and climbed onto his lap. When his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy said, Nothing, I just helped him cry.
Jesus’ initial act in ministry was to step into the water with God’s people; to join with them in Baptism. As people ordained into the ministry of God by virtue of our baptisms, this should be our initial act in ministry as well, one person at a time.
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