The first person in line that day was an old woman named Rachel. When she came up from the water, the first thing she felt was relief. She had been waiting a long time to see the Baptizer, and she was glad she had been able to make it to him before she became too frail to make the journey out into the wilderness. After Rachel was Benjamin. When Benjamin came up out of the water, the he felt relieved, too, but that was mostly because he couldn’t swim, and even with the John’s enormous, hairy paw of a hand under his head, he didn’t like to be submerged for any longer than necessary.
After Benjamin was a little woman named Anna. The first thing she thought when she came up from the water, God help her, was that she might have left the fire burning too hot in her oven. Surely her sister would notice if the fire spit an ember out onto the floor, she thought, and then chastised herself for having such a mundane thought at such a profound moment, but God help her, there she was. Anna was followed by Jeremiah, who came up out of the water worried about what the Pharisees might say to him later but certain that there was no place else he’d rather be.
Jesus followed Jeremiah, and when Jesus came up out of the water he was filled with an overwhelming longing to be still and know God, a deep desire to pray. James followed Jesus, a little boy who had only come down to the water’s edge because his mother was in line too but who found himself grinning like a goof when he came up out of the water for a reason he couldn’t quite explain. And Rebecca followed James, and Peter followed Rebecca, and on and on down the line until the crowds had fallen away and the desert had grown dusky and quiet.
Rachel left feeling peaceful; Benjamin feeling wet but brave. Anna left quickly and felt slightly silly but mostly grateful when she saw that her house was still standing. Jeremiah left with a heart full of questions and hope. Jesus left and went to pray, and in his prayer he felt the weight of the Holy Spirit press down on his shoulder like a warm hand, heard the voice of his Father speak low into his ear, “You are my Son, marked as my own forever, and I am so pleased with you.” James skipped over to his mother and held her hand all the way home, and Rebecca and Peter and all the rest went back to their lives a little changed, or a lot changed, or not sure if they had been changed, and they continued to work and play and love and weep and rejoice and wait for the one who would come to baptize them with the Holy Spirit like fire.
And that, my friends, is the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Luke. It is a quiet, private, undramatic thing. Here Jesus is baptized as just one of a crowd, when all the rest of the people were baptized. Here there is no conversation between Jesus and John about the suitability of the baptism; in fact, here there is no mention of John at all. And here, when the words come down from a hole in the heavens, there is no indication at all that anyone else hears them. Jesus is praying after his baptism, ostensibly alone, when the Spirit descends, and God speaks only to him – You are my Son – not to the crowds – This is my Son. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ baptism doesn’t really stand out much. It is a moment mostly between him and his Father.
All of which raises an interesting question. Why did Jesus bother? If his baptism wasn’t about pointing him out to the crowds who were filled with expectation, why bother? If his baptism wasn’t about confirming to John that this was the meet and right thing to do, then why bother? If John himself had only verses before been downplaying his own baptismal prowess – I’m really only baptizing with water, but soon someone will come with all the fire of the Holy Spirit – then why bother? And finally, if John’s baptism was an opportunity for people to confess their sins, then why in the world did the one who was without sin bother with baptism?
Luke doesn’t answer this question. It could be that Jesus’ baptism was about a kind of solidarity, a holy being-with, which showed that he was living fully as one of the people baptized on either side of him. It could be that his baptism was about marking the beginning of his ministry with a ritual that offered not just cleansing but also a sense of new beginning. Or it could be that his baptism was about cracking him open to begin taking on all of the sins that were sloshing around in that murky water so that he could carry them to the cross and wash them clean again. Why did Jesus bother with baptism? It could be any of these things, or it could be for some reason known only deep within the heart of God.
But the question of why Jesus bothered with baptism leads us to another question, one that is slightly hidden in shadow. And that question is this – why do we bother with baptism? Why bother with baptism? What is the point of this particular ritual – what does it do, exactly? Does it really do anything to us, to the Church, to the world? If we can come here and worship, if we can go into the world loving our neighbors as ourselves, if we can serve and pray and even in some places receive Communion, then what is the point of an ancient cleansing ritual? After all, we aren’t so obsessed with original sin these days, right? We know the pattern of our brokenness – we screw up, we fall down, we repent, we make it right, we step out again in faith. I don’t have to be baptized to make that pattern work for me. Most of us can’t even remember our baptisms, so how can something that we know to be true about ourselves only because we can see the grainy old photographs of us dressed in a tiny white gown really matter in our day to day lives, when we’re choosing a career, or starting a family, or writing a pledge card, or caring for an aging parent? Why bother with baptism, with doing it, first, or with thinking much about it after it’s been done?
Why bother with baptism? Because we need baptism to bother us. We need our baptisms to bother us, to trouble us, stir us up in the best possible way. We need our baptisms to change us, to refuse to let us be the same people we were before. We need our baptisms to transform us from people who love and serve and pray and worship out of the goodness of our hearts to people who are bound to love and serve and pray and worship by a God who has locked us in tight with love. We need our baptisms to bother us, daily, to pray, to recognize and repent for the sin in our lives, to fill the dark places of this world with the light of the Gospel, to respond to people in need, to right injustices in our world. Our baptisms should bother us, daily, because in our baptisms you and I promised that we would do all of those things, and we asked God to help us. And God took us seriously. God is helping us, will continue to help us, whether we ask for it or not. In our baptisms we have opened ourselves up to let God work on us, to bother us and make us over into the people God created us to be, to trouble us out of complacency, to challenge us and support us, to redeem us and save us, to raise us up to a completely new life – one where the decision to be Christ-like is no longer a choice among many but the only choice that resonates with every water-logged cell in our bodies.
Maybe this is why Jesus bothered with baptism. Not just so that Rebecca and Benjamin and Anna and Jacob would know who he was, not just so that his cousin would know who he was, but so we would. So that we could know this moment, when God looked down upon his only Son and couldn’t help but say, I love you, my dearest one. Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet, and still God poured so much love out over him that it spilled over into twelve disciples, and the sick and the little children, into the cross and the empty tomb and into the waters of fonts here, there, and everywhere, transforming our baptisms into baptisms of water and fire, of initiation and transformation, of death and life.
Remember your baptism. Reclaim the truth and promise of your baptismal promises, with God’s help. Let the power of the Holy Spirit moving over you and marking you as Christ’s own forever lead you straight up the axis of our faith, from the font to the table. And if you aren’t baptized yet, begin your walk to the font today. And when you are baptized, and when all of the people have been baptized, follow the path from the font to the altar, week after week, day after day, and leave this place feeling peaceful, and wet but brave, and really very grateful, and with a heart full of questions and hope. Leave this place feeling loved and cherished, beloved and chosen, and filled to the brim with giddy joy. Wonderfully, beautifully baptized and bothered.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
10 January 2016, The Baptism of our Lord
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia