Gracious God, give us a sense of your presence as we seek you. Grant us gratitude as we remember your goodness, penitence as we remember our sins, and joy as we remember your love. Enable us to lift up our hearts in humble prayer and fervent praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Story of Your Baptism
What is the story of your baptism? If you were a baby, were you told any stories? Did you cry? If you were an adult, what led to that moment? If you haven’t been baptised, have you ever considered it?
I was baptised on a cold and windy August day when I was nine years old. I belonged to a church that practiced something called “believer’s baptism”, where we waited until we were old enough to express our own faith before we were baptised. At nine years old my faith was very simple and unsophisticated – I knew very little of the theology of baptism, or the different ways that churches approached it: but I knew that Jesus loved me, and I loved him back, and that I wanted to make a public declaration and commitment of that love.
And so on that windy August day the church gathered on the shores of Lake Manitoba as those words were spoken over me which have been said over thousands upon thousands of people across the world and down through the ages:
“I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Just One of the Crowd?
Today we are told the story of Jesus’ baptism – the baptism that paved the way for all who would seek to follow him from that moment on.
The people were filled with expectation, Luke tells us – a prophet had appeared in the wilderness – a more compelling prophet than had been seen for a very long time, and his words were racing through the crowd like wildfire, and excitement filled the air. People were jostling to get close to him, to join him in the river Jordan, to hear how they could change, how they could prepare for the coming kingdom of God – a kingdom that he proclaimed was near. They even wondered if John himself might be the Messiah – he was a powerful, exciting person, and he had a ring of authority that couldn’t be denied, and it felt like anything was possible.
But despite any temptations to hold on to that power, John knew his purpose, and it wasn’t to claim to be someone he was not. He knew that he couldn’t hold a candle to the one who was almost there. And so he was quick to point them away from himself – “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to even untie the thong of his sandals.” I am not even worthy to be this man’s slave. And he – he will bring a baptism that is far more profound than this symbolic washing that I am doing. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
You have to wonder what the crowd made of that – this already excited, eager crowd, now on the lookout for someone who would come with winnowing fork in hand, burning the chaff and clearing the threshing floor. For a people long oppressed and ready for a retributive Messiah to come and sweep away their enemies, this must have seemed like not just good news but fantastic news. Finally, after so long, after so much oppression and suffering, the chaff would be gotten rid of, and they would be a pure, free people once again.
The anticipation could be felt in the air.
But then when Jesus does come, it’s almost unnoticed. Look at how Luke phrases it: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized, and was praying”… Somewhere in the midst of this excited, energetic crowd, Jesus arrives, and just joins in with the crowd in the river being baptised.
Physically, he probably didn’t stand out in the slightest. Isaiah tells us that when Jesus came “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” John seemed like a far more likely candidate for Messiah than Jesus, at first, this man who just joined in with the crowds wanting to be baptised.
Only… he wasn’t just like the rest of the crowd, and although in Luke’s account John the Baptiser doesn’t seem to notice, in the gospel of Matthew John spots Jesus a mile away and protests vigorously at the thought of baptising him: “What are you doing here? You don’t need to be baptised! You should be baptising me!”
John knew, better than anyone there, who this unassuming man who looked just like the rest of the crowd actually was: the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the one who was there to take away the sins of the world. John knew that Jesus was no sinner in need of repentance, but the only one in the entire world, in fact, for whom repentance was entirely unnecessary.
Jesus’ Divine Yes
So what was Jesus doing there in the river that day?
There’s a gap of eighteen years since Jesus was a boy in the temple, teaching the teachers. Between the ages of twelve and thirty is silence, and we are left to wonder what went on, to imagine his life as a teenager and a young adult, to imagine him in the carpenter’s shop with Joseph, helping out with his younger siblings. In our lectionary cycle it’s a mere week between the visit of the Magi when Jesus was an infant and this story, but years have passed, and finally, at this moment as he steps into the river Jordan, Jesus knows it’s time to take up the ministry that he has come for. And so his entry into the water is no washing away of sins, no symbolic sign of repentance like the rest of the crowd, but a symbolic taking on of sins – Jesus joins broken, sinful humanity as they wade into the water.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, puts it in this powerful, astonishing way: “God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) By stepping into the water, Jesus was saying, “I’m here with you. I’m not staying distant from the mess that you have made. Your problem is now my problem too.” Stepping into the water was Jesus’ divine, physical act saying yes to the mission for which he had come, to ransom humanity from its sinfulness, and to make us clean forever.
The Trinity’s Divine Yes
But here’s the thing. This wasn’t just Jesus’ mission. I think as Christians we are sometimes tempted to separate the motives of the three persons of the Trinity, to say it was Jesus’ plan to rescue us from the wrath of God the Father, as if they were opposed to each other. But to say this is to misunderstand the unity of the Trinity, of the divine Love within the Trinity and the divine love for us: God came down, in the person of Jesus, to take the weight of sin and death upon himself for us. And we see this holy unity, this divine yes on the part of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as the dove comes down and the voice echoes across the water, “You are my beloved Son – with you I am well pleased.” They are in this together – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, saying “It is our mission to rescue humanity from its own sin and shame and sadness. We will do this thing.”
Our Yes in Response
Each of the people with Jesus in the water that day knew why they were there. They had messed up – they knew they weren’t perfect, that they sinned, that they needed some way to be made clean and whole again. They sought that in John the Baptist’s message and advice, and joined him in the river. Their presence there was their own ‘yes’, their own hunger to be made righteous. And God came down to give them a deeper cleansing than they could ever find in the river on their own.
And that cleansing is what’s available to us, in our own baptisms, in our own taking on of Christ’s righteousness as he takes on our sinfulness. I asked you to think back to your baptism at the beginning of this sermon. Whether it’s something you can remember or not, that moment, in which you were baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, was a response to the grace of God already present – free for the taking, free for the washing. And far from being a one-time thing, to be done and forgotten again, each day as Christians we are called to live in the exciting reality that we are made new, washed clean, free to live in this world without guilt or fear, bathed in the love of the Holy Trinity.
One of the beautiful things of the grace of God is that it’s so physical – given to us in tangible reminders of God’s love. We are surrounded with everyday things – things that can commonly be found in the kitchen of every home – bread. Wine. Oil. And water. As you go into this week, I invite you to pay attention to water. Remember the waters of your baptism as you shower, or as you wash your hands, or as you drink. Remember the waters as they washed over Jesus that day in the river Jordan, as he accepted the weight and the consequence of joining humanity in the water. Pour out your love and praise to our gracious God for his incredible gift, for his courage and love.
And then share it. Join our Alpha course starting in two days, and dig deeper into the mysteries of our faith. Invite a friend or a colleague who may be weighed down with burdens and looking for help, or maybe not knowing where to look for help. There may be someone close to you who is hungry for washing and just needs to be pointed in the direction of the river. Share the free gift of life that we have been so graciously given.
For lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.