On the Baptism of Jesus

Delivered by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson
January 8, 2016

Church of the Intercession, NYC
Text:  Luke 3:13-17


In the name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Although this Sunday is one of the four days that the church sets aside for baptism, we don’t have any candidates today.  Nevertheless, we will renew our baptismal vows in a just a few minutes, reminding us of our own baptism.  This is a reminder that we particularly need now in our very unstable and often frightening times.

There are some things you might not know about baptism.  You might not know that the Greek word for baptism (“baptizo”) was used in a Greek recipe for making pickles many years before Jesus was born.  “Baptizo” meant to dip or to immerse.  It did carry the sense of immersing something to effect a permanent change as opposed to a temporary one – this same pickle recipe uses another related word to instruct the pickler to first place the vegetable in boiling water – which would simply cook it – but then the recipe instructs the cook to “baptizo” the vegetable in vinegar, which would make transform its nature.

There are also several Hebrew words about bathing and immersion that carry different but relevant meanings, too.  The first is “mikveh,” which is a cleansing bath – you might recognize the word because “mikvehs” are still used today by the Orthodox Jewish community as purification baths.  Then there is word “rachatz” which means to “wash off filth” – the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures use this word all the time.  Then there is one more word that we will get to in a little while; I’m going to keep you in suspense for a bit.

All of those senses of transformation, purification, and removal of dirt do, of course, apply to our baptism.  But you should also know that in Jesus’ time, there were many water initiation rites for a variety of cults.  You could be “baptizoed,” for example into the cult of Isis.  The point is that what John the Baptizer was doing in the Jordan River would not have seemed particularly unusual to Jesus or his contemporaries in its ritual form.  But the object of John’s baptism was unusual, in fact it was world changing.  People were coming to John to repent, because the Kingdom of God – the arrival of Jesus the Messiah – was at hand. 

Today commemorates that arrival.  Christmas of course celebrates Jesus’ birth, but today is the celebration of the day when Jesus truly arrives. The church calls this day “The Baptism of Our Lord,” which marks the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to the world.  We all know that Jesus was baptized, but if I asked you to tell me why he was baptized, I’m not sure that any of us wouldn’t have a very good answer.  We are baptized to cleanse us from sin, to make us Christ’s own, to graft us on to the body of the faithful, the church, and to gain us entry into heaven when we die – which are all very good reasons for us to be baptized.  But Jesus had no need any of that:  he had no sin, as God, he didn’t need to be made one with God, and he certainly did not need a ticket to get into heaven. 

So what was Jesus doing when he shows up in the crowd at the Jordan? At first, even John himself doesn’t seem to know why he is there. In our gospel today, Matthew includes a short dialogue between Jesus and John that doesn’t appear in the other gospels. In it John tries to stop Jesus from being baptized, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” – meaning, “You don’t need this.”  But Jesus replies, “Let is be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” “For us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  That’s a curious phrase, and what’s “curiouser” is that almost every English translation from the days of King James Bible right up to the present renders that phrase in exactly the same way.  

Now righteousness gets a bad rap in our culture today – to say someone is “righteous” means that we are saying that they are “self-righteous”: arrogant, prideful, and generally obnoxious.  But in biblical times, being righteous meant that you followed God – remember that Abraham “believed God” when God told him that he and Sarah would have children although they were very elderly, and the Bible says “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” that he believed against all odds that this strange prophecy could come to pass.  His “righteousness” was faith, which in turn was really submission to God’s will, getting in agreement with God about God’s plan for his life, which would in turn would put into effect God’s plan for countless other lives to come in the world. 

Later in biblical history, beginning in the time of Moses, righteousness meant faithfully following the Law.  Now following the Law has gotten a bad rap, too, since it seems to imply superficial behavior instead of true faith, but Jesus was a good Jew who viewed following the Law as righteous and faithful.  The quarrels that he had with the Pharisees over, say, what exactly you could or couldn’t do on the Sabbath were about interpretation, not about the Law itself.  It was about obeying God in a community of those obeying God.

As if to prove this point, Jesus includes John in his righteousness – notice he says, “it is proper for us” – meaning him and John – “ to fulfill all righteousness.”  It is only then that John consents, and Jesus is baptized.  Was this the right decision by both Jesus and John?  We know it is because as Jesus arises out of the water, God puts on quite a show! – first the heavens split – not unlike the way the Red Sea was split – and then the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus’ head like a dove.  

Let’s pause here for a moment. I didn’t realize this until I began working on this sermon for today, but the Bible does not say that a bird lands on Jesus’ head, it says that the Spirit came down upon him in the manner of a bird and rested on him, gently, like a dove.  This wasn’t a literal bird, despite all of the art works that depict a white dove on Jesus’ head.  How do we know for sure that is wasn’t a bird?  Well, the Holy Spirit remained with Jesus throughout his life, didn’t it?  And Jesus didn’t walk around with a bird on his head. Case closed.

Back to our story.  The heavens split, the Spirit comes down, then God speaks, loudly.  A voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  It is a measure of how incredibly important Jesus’ baptism is for his mission that this is the only time in the entire Bible that all three persons of the Holy Trinity are in the same place at the same time – the ONLY time.  This is a moment of cosmic significance, not only for Jesus, but for the world.

Why?  Let’s take a look at what Jesus accomplishes by this one brief act.  He joins the liberation of the world from sin and death to the liberation familiar to all of Israel in the Exodus.  Also, both liberations involve water; both have God splitting seas in both heaven and earth that cannot under normal circumstances be parted.

But that’s just the beginning.  Jesus’ presence in the water with the Spirit is what sanctifies our water of baptism – you remember that when we fill our baptismal font, we pray “now sanctify this water by the power of the Spirit” – it is Jesus’ own baptism that makes this possible.  The early church fathers pointed to the sanctification of baptismal water as the reason for Jesus himself to be baptized – to give us, to transfer to us, this gift of the Spirit through water.

Now remember I told you that there was one other Hebrew word that relates to baptism?  That word is “nachal” and it means “to save from death by drowning.”  You know the psalm line “He drew me out of the deep waters”?   That’s this word, that’s what we’re speaking of here.  Death by drowning was a terrifying thing in biblical times.  You see it happen many times in the Bible, as when the Pharaoh’s charioteers are drowned pursuing Israel.  The fear of drowning is also mentioned many times – the storms on the sea of Galilee for example, or Peter walking on water then fearing that he will drown when he loses faith and falls in.  

Baptism carries the ultimate message of Jesus Christ, that nothing can harm us if we stay in him:  not opposition, not sickness, not even death.  All are temporary conditions for those who love God, for them that are called to his purpose.  So anything that is meant for our harm can be turned to our good – even dangerous water, stormy seas, any kind of sea, even the seas of life – cannot overcome us because the waters that threatened us have been turned around into a tool for our salvation in the waters of baptism.

This is what we must remember in these troubling times.  We are baptized.  We are marked as Christ’s own forever.  Whatever comes against us, Christ is with us, and whatever impediment or even injury comes our way, it’s only temporary.  We need not be afraid of drowning, because whatever is meant for our harm Christ has already conquered and transformed.

So when you feel fear in the coming days – and you will – for whatever the reason, remind yourself of your baptism.  Call on the one who took on our flesh, submitted his will to God’s, suffered himself to be baptized by John, and suffered on the cross all for us.   Allow yourself to feel the peace and power of the Spirit, and give thanks for the one who suffered all for our sake.  In Christ’s name we pray.