Scriptures for today are here.
Why was Jesus baptized, and what does his baptism mean for us as baptized people? One of the all time great baptism scenes in movies shows us one particular theology and idea about what baptism means: O Brother, Where Art Thou. The three escaped convicts, led by George Clooney, are walking through the woods when suddenly mysterious figures, adressed in white, begin to appear. They are singing a classic gospel song and walking down to the river. The convict Delmer says, “Appears to be some kind of a congregation.” They watch as one after another of the white-robed owiokw walks into the river and gets dunked by the pastor. Delmar gets inspired. He goes running down into the water, pushes his way to the front, and in his dirty brown clothes, gets dunked. As he comes up out of the water, he shouts out, “Well, that’s it, boys, I been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.” George Clooney says, “Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry!” Delmar says, “The preacher said all my sins been washed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.” George Clooney says, “I thought you said you was innocent of those charges.” Delmar says, “Well, I was lying and the preacher said that that sin’s been washed away too! Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now. Come on in, boys, the water is fine.”
This classic scene, comical as it is, shows us one understanding of baptism: it’s the washing away of sins, our assurance of forgiveness and heaven everlasting. And if you read about John the Baptist, it seems pretty clear that he agrees that that’s what baptism is all about. Matthew tells us that John appeared in the wilderness, preaching one important message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. He knows that God is doing something new; he seems to echo the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament reading today: See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare. In preparation for the newly arriving kingdom of heaven that he knows is near, he cautions everyone to repent and be cleansed of their sins, adapting a Jewish cleansing ritual that is used for many different purposes.
His message is tremendously popular, and people flock to him from all the towns – but when he sees Pharisees and Saduccees among them – that is, powerful people aligned with the Temple, he shouts out, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Even now the ax 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.” He has no respect for the Temple and its monopoly on the whole mechanism of forgiveness – animal sacrifices that allow a person to be forgiven and restored. We’re not sure why he has no respect for the Temple and thinks people associated with it are snakes – especially because his own father is a priest – but he presents the people with a new, more direct way to be forgiven – simply come to the Jordan River, confess their sins, and be cleansed and forgiven and restored to new life.
The problem happens when in the midst of all the people lined up for baptism, John sees his cousin Jesus. Now apparently John knows perfectly well that Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven of his sins – either he’s known Jesus’ identity since birth, since Luke tells us they were cousins, or he simply recognizes who Jesus is the second he looks into his face. A baptism for forgiveness doesn’t apply to Jesus – so why does he do it? Jesus says it is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness” – fulfill being a favorite word of Matthew’s – in Matthew’s view, Jesus has fulfilled the law and the prophets, he is the culmination of everything that has come before in Israel. And we see how he fulfills all righteousness as he comes up out of the water, sees the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove, and hears an affirmation of his identity: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus was always God’s Beloved only-begotten Son – this isn’t the moment when he becomes the Son of God. Yet it seems that growing up as a human, he might not always have known it – Jesus had to learn gradually who he was, by prayer and studying Scripture and worshiping in the ways of the Jewish people – and that this moment of baptism may be the crowning moment of a lifetime of learning – the moment when he truly hears and understands his identity. And it’s a crucial moment. Because Matthew tells us this is the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. If he lived a quiet life as a carpenter in Nazareth before, his baptism changes everything. Beginning with what happens directly afterwards: the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to have that sense of identity tested and tempted, as the devil says to him: IF you are the Son of God, command these stones become bread. And it’s a question he will face also at his trial, as the high priest questions whether he believes he is the Son of God, and he refuses to answer. And again on the cross, as passers-by taunt him, saying, if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. And it is only at his death that the centurion in charge of his execution finally recognizes the truth Jesus had known ever since this moment when he emerges from the waters of the Jordan River: Truly this man was God’s Son.
This sense of identity and belovedness as God’s Son is crucial to everything Jesus does throughout his ministry. It is the basis for his ministry as Messiah. And so for Jesus, his baptism is not about forgiveness of sins and cleansing for new life: instead, it’s about identity, affirmation, belovedness, commissioning for ministry.
So back to the question I started with: why was Jesus baptized, and what does that mean for us as baptized people? For us, baptism is about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God – but it’s about much more than that too. For us, baptism is our adoption into the family of Christ – our recognition that God loves us so deeply and so completely that God will never let us go. Delmar and the boys in O Brother Where Art Thou might have believed that baptism was primarily about forgiveness of sins, and been comforted by that. But for many of us, baptism can, should bring a profound sense of comfort in our own belovedness, our own adoption, our own identity as children of God. It’s said that Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, in his darkest days of rejection by the church, used to go around saying, “I am baptized.” – reminding himself that no matter what went wrong, he would always be beloved.
For us, we may not be imprisoned in castle, at risk of being burned at the stake for heresy. Yet we live in a world that constantly calls our identity as God’s Beloved into question in profound ways. From the first time we were picked last for the Dodgeball team in PE, to the first time we were bullied on the school bus, to the first time we struggled through Math class, to the time we didn’t have a date for Homecoming, to every time our parents reflected imperfectly God’s love for us: we hear the message in our society that we are not good enough, not worthy of being beloved. In Anne Lamott’s book, Operating Instructions, she tells how her friend, Father Tom, lists the 5 rules of our society:
- #1. You must not have anything wrong with you or different about you.
- #2. If you do have something wrong or different about you, just get over it as soon as possible.
- #3. If you can’t get over it, you must pretend that you have.
- #4. If you can’t pretend, you shouldn’t show up at all.
- #5. If you are going to show up, if you insist on it, at least have the decency to feel ashamed of yourself.
We internalize these messages, we begin to feel that we are not worthy, we think maybe we would be worthy if we were a little bit better, a little bit smarter, fit in a little bit better to the expectations of people around us, and our own expectations of ourselves. We have setbacks in life and assume it’s God telling us we’ve messed up. Sometimes this personal feeling of unworthiness turns into attacks on others – I might be unworthy, but look at that guy over there who is so much more awful. We make ourselves feel better by making others feel worse.
When the fact is, none of that is necessary. We are Beloved. Our God has said so. There is no question about it. We are worthy because we are Beloved. No exceptions. As Richard Rohr says in his book, The Immortal Diamond: “Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. Our name has always been Beloved.” We have always been beloved, and our baptism, like Jesus’ is an affirmation of that fact. Nothing can ever change our belovedness; as Paul says in his letter to the Romans: Nothing can ever separate us from love of God. We are God’s children.
And so for us, as for Jesus, baptism is our assurance that God loves us, recognizes us as God’s children, and nothing – no sin, no error, no unworthiness – can ever change that fact. And for us, as for Jesus, our baptism is also a commissioning for ministry. Resting in the assurance of our belovedness, we can then move through this world, sharing that belovedness with others. In our families, in our workplaces, in our schools, we can recognize that we are beloved – and so is everyone else we meet. The person we meet might be different from us, but they are God’s beloved too. And when, in our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and “respect the dignity of every human being,” we are recognizing their belovedness, and sharing our own belovedness with them – the belovedness we were assured of in our baptism. As Delmar says – Come on in, boys, the water’s fine.