Jump In, Beloved
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13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
One summer we were vacationing in South Carolina with some friends, and on the day we arrived at the place were staying, we got our keys and began unloading the cars to move into the condominium we had rented. As the grown ups were lugging bags and suitcases, we somehow lost track of our friends’ youngest son who was around 5 or 6 years old at the time. We realized he was missing when were heard shouts and whistles coming from the nearby swimming pool. Turns out that he was so excited to go swimming that he ran to the pool, climbed up the ladder of the slide, and without bothering to take off his clothes, slid head first into the water. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to swim. Fortunately, there was a lifeguard nearby to immediately scoop him out of the water. The crazy thing is that by the time his parents got to him, he was laughing like a hyena. The fact that he nearly drowned did not penetrate his sheer joy of going down that water slide.
That’s the thing about kids, isn’t it? For a five year old brain, it made perfect sense to head straight for the pool. The sun was hot. The water was cool and inviting. And that big slide looked really fun and totally awesome. He didn’t think about what would happen after he hit the water. It never occurred to him to be afraid. He just went for it.
We are surrounded by water in our mother’s wombs and we are born out of water into the world. Our bodies are mostly made of water. Water is essential in keeping us alive. We see water’s negative potential when there is too much of it in floods and too little of it in droughts. Water can make us nervous when a pipe bursts during a deep freeze or when a kid who can’t swim gets a little too close to the edge of the pool. We experience water’s creative power when we bite into a juicy ripe tomato or take a long hot shower or drink a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day. And water runs like babbling brook through Scripture as well, from the very beginning when God summons life itself out of the deep, separating the safety and protection of dry land from the chaos and wildness of water.
Today, the author of Matthew directs us to the water’s edge, the shoreline of the River Jordon and plants us among a crowd of people who have been drawn there by the fiery preaching and teaching of John the Baptist. John is not on the shore but standing waist-deep in the swirling river. And we remember those who were there to keep an eye on the Baptizer– the Pharisees and the Sadducees. For now, the religious leaders are content to sit and watch from their dry perch above the chaotic scene in the muddy Jordon River below. What is happening in the water below them seems careless and dangerous. The rag tag people being baptized by John look like a bunch of ornery kids who haven’t had proper swimming lessons yet and are behaving recklessly.
And yet that is where Jesus shows up for his first public appearance as an adult in the gospel of Matthew. And Jesus’ first public act of his ministry is to present himself for baptism to his cousin John. I can imagine the two of them in the water together, surrounded by a teaming crowd of people bobbing in the river. I have always imagined that scene must have looked a lot like the wave pool at Sandcastle on a really hot summer day. Too crowded. Too loud. Not too clean. A silly human soup packed with all kinds of people.
From their perch above the river, the whole scene must look like one unholy mess to the Pharisees and Sadducees. And from a distance, Jesus looks like just one more guy out in the water with John. John, however, is close enough to Jesus to know who he is and immediately John recognizes that there is something entirely wrong in him baptizing Jesus. But Jesus says, “let it be so now,” because Jesus recognizes John’s authority to baptize Jesus as part of God’s plan. And John is nothing if not obedient to God. So there in the midst of many, Jesus is baptized in the river by his cousin John.
And ever since, Christians have struggled with the question – why did Jesus need to be baptized at all? Since we typically connect baptism to forgiveness of sin, why does the sinless Son of God need to be baptized? How does John baptizing Jesus fulfill all righteousness if Jesus is already righteous?
Although we think of baptism as simply a mechanism for forgiveness of sins, all of the gospel writers agree that baptism means something much more. The words of Jesus’ baptismal blessing in all four gospels are exactly the same. Baptism announces God’s favor and establishes Jesus’ identity. Here in Matthew’s account, the voice from heaven announces that Jesus is God’s Son, the One with whom God is well pleased. And if we look at this scene closely, baptism becomes less about forgiveness and more about preparing Jesus for his mission and ministry. Just like us, the fully human Jesus needed to put on his baptismal identity as God’s beloved so he could go out and do the hard work of being Jesus. Jesus will need to hold on to that identity when he goes out in the wilderness and experiences the real human thirst, the real human hunger, and the real human temptation to sell himself short and be something less than God intends Jesus to be.
Last week, Jenn talked about John’s beautiful nativity story and what it says about who we are, and that John’s nativity story is actually the story of our birth with Jesus. And Jesus blazes a path for us today to the shores of the Jordan River and the waters of baptism. It is a path we follow all of our lives, a path that ends at the cross and resurrection. Like Jesus, our lives are filled with the temptation to be something other than the person God created us to be. We need to hold on to our true identity of being God’s beloved. We too are God’s beloved children, with whom God is well pleased. We are created in God’s image made with water, light and love. Jesus’ birth is our birth. Jesus’ baptism is our baptism. Jesus’ life is our life. And Jesus’ death and resurrection is our death and our resurrection.
My former teacher, Craig Barnes says this: “After we baptize a child, everyone is smiling. They don’t realize that we just killed off that child. We’ve taken a new life and ended that life so a better one can be lived. In baptism, we’ve said, ‘Lord, make this child dead to everything else but you.’ The beaming parents’ dream for this damp, unknowing baby might be law school, but if your dream, Lord, is for this child to be a social worker—then, Lord, let nothing stop that from happening. Kill off anything in this child’s future that is going to prevent them from being exactly who you created them to be. Preempt any family scripting, social conditioning, limitation, agenda, or outcome that stands in the way of this, your child from being anything—anyone—but yours alone.
Today we will ordain and install new church officers for the coming year. As part of that service, we will remember and affirm the baptismal vows that were made on our behalf by our families when we were children, or vows we made ourselves as adults. We do this to remind one another who we are, to whom we belong and to affirm that we each have a mission to fulfill that is particular for each of us and is God’s particular intention for us.
Each time we remember our baptism and affirm those vows, we risk participating again in God’s re-creation of us. We take the risk of jumping headfirst, down into the depths, to the chaos, to the place of where it’s hard to breathe sometimes, to an experience that feels an awful lot like death because it is death of everything that isn’t God in us. It is, in fat, the beginning of new life.
We can follow Jesus into those chaotic, murky depths and realize that he has gone before us, and the pattern of his going under the water and rising, like the pattern of his death and resurrection, gives us courage to reclaim the meaning of baptism for our lives. To claim that we are enough for God, just as we are. That the Holy Spirit dwells in us always, whispering to us and encouraging us. That God desires to do wonderful things for and through us. Just as we are.
We need to hear that. We need to believe it. We need to wrap our identity as God’s beloved children around us like a warm winter coat against a polar vortex world that tells us relentlessly we are not young enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, healthy enough, skinny enough, big enough or strong enough. God has declared in our baptism that we are enough, that God accepts us. We are God’s beloved people and God is well-pleased with us.
Today, I invite you to come forward to be anointed and hear these words: “You are God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use you to change the world.” Please repeat after me:
I am God’s child.
Deserving of love and respect.
And God will use me to change the world.
You are God’s beloved. With you, God is well-pleased. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Craig Barnes, Festival of Homiletics, 2010.