The great minds behind our Lectionary have us on a wild ride: Advent, Christmas, Holy Name or Circumcision, that was two weeks ago… Then adolescent Jesus acting out in the Temple last week, though it was twelve years later in real time. In the midst of this the Wise Men, or Magi, or whatever, finally arrived on Epiphany and the twelve days of Christmas officially came to an end. And now we are at Jesus’ baptism – some twenty years have elapsed since Thursday… it’s like watching a movie with the fast forward button pressed…
About thirty years have elapsed between Christmas and now. For the average person in Jesus’ time, that was an entire lifespan. For Jesus, in fact, it is almost his entire life span. Jesus is baptized just a few years before he is Crucified.
Jesus is at the river Jordan to be baptized. It is a troubled, angsty time. The Roman Authorities, who seem to have never met an atrocity they didn’t like, have everyone on edge. This is a time that historians refer to as the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. But it is a peace that is enforced at a terrible cost – people are oppressed, controlled, and in great tension. It is a peace in the sense that there is not a major war, just a lot of little skirmishes… The Pax Romana is more like an impression of peace, not actual peace.
Among the Jews, Jesus’ people, there is, as always, talk of “Messiah”, the great military figure who will cast off the chains of Roman oppression, but that talk is ratcheted up even more now. And although we tend to think of Jesus and Messiah as one and the same, nobody is thinking this on the banks of the river Jordan. The big question on everyone’s lips – could John be Messiah?
But here is an odd little artifact. I have always assumed that John is on hand to baptize Jesus. In other Gospels he is… And yet, and yet, the Lectionary Compilers have skipped over a bit of Luke’s Gospel, a somewhat inconvenient bit… the portion where John the Baptist lands in jail has been skipped.
As a friend of mine liked to say, John’s tongue had a death wish. Herod, a paranoid, insecure tyrant, has taken up with his brother’s wife, Herodias, and John could not stay quiet. To be sure, Herod could have as many wives as he wanted and if his brother died, he would be required to take up with Herodias. But Levitical law was quite explicit in forbidding this particular arrangement. According to Leviticus, sleeping with your brother’s wife while your brother is alive is the same as sleeping with your brother.
So, John rebuked Herod. And Herod reacted as you might expect – he had John the Baptist thrown in prison. Soon enough he will have John killed… according to other sources. So, we know that John is not at the river Jordan today because we know he is in prison. Luke cannot be bothered to tell us anything about the baptizer of the day. And I think that is Luke’s way of telling us that it is not important who baptized Jesus. It’s not important who baptizes anyone. Baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit, not of the baptizer.
John has been abundantly clear that he is not Messiah… He tells us that he is not even worthy to untie the thong of the sandal of Messiah. John, and presumably the Baptist of the day, baptizes with just plain old water. Messiah will baptize with Holy Spirt and Fire… Well – we’re disappointed that John is not Messiah, but this fire and spirit business sounds good. Our hopes are delayed, not dashed.
John makes ominous statements about winnowing forks and threshing floors and wheat and chaff and unquenchable fire… For people primed for apocalypse, this is very exciting. Then John is taken off to prison and, in Luke’s Gospel, never heard from again.
Then there is Jesus – being baptized just like everyone else. Jesus does not seem to have had much of a desire for the limelight. Jesus will spend much of the rest of his life trying to deflect attention. Perhaps just now, at the time of baptism, he is hoping to get through this with no fuss and furor… no drama…
As is so often the case, God seems to have other plans. Just when Jesus may be thinking he can escape unnoticed, the heavens open, a dove descends, and a voice thunders out “you are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased” … a scene after the heart of Cecil B. DeMille. So much for stealth… It’s also worth noting that some translations render “well pleased” as “fulfilled.” Indeed, it is an important part of our tradition that Jesus represents the fulfilling of scripture. Now the fulfillment begins.
There is one big question just begging to be asked… Why does Jesus need to be baptized? Jesus is already acknowledged as the son of God, so it can’t be about officially making him part of the family, the Church… and there is no “the Church” just yet anyway. We understand that Jesus is without sin, and John’s baptism was specifically for the washing away of sins… so it’s not about that…
Our theology of baptism over the millennia has become, I think, a bit twisted. There was a time when “the church” taught that an unbaptized person could not go to heaven. Unbaptized sinners of course just went to hell, but what about innocent babies who died unbaptized… surely, they couldn’t go to hell… that would be just too unjust. So, Limbo was conjured up as a less horrible alternative to hell.
Thankfully most parts of the church have abandoned this atrocious theology, yet we still have a remnant of it in the practice of infant baptism. But none of this was part of the thinking at the time of Jesus.
If the baptizer is not washing away the sins that Jesus hasn’t committed and is not assuring Jesus of a place in heaven, what is going on?
Well, I’m going to take a cowardly way out… Baptism is a sacrament… and sacraments are mysteries. We don’t know what goes on in baptism any more than we know what goes on in Eucharist. Theologians over the years have developed marvelous and intricate descriptions of how the sacraments work and what they do. Terrible fights have been fought and people have been killed… all in the name of loving God. I may not know how sacraments work, but I do know that violence and fear are not how sacraments work.
Sacraments are the work of the Holy Spirit – and I can’t really comprehend the Holy Spirit, so I can’t possibly comprehend how the Holy Spirit works. I also believe that attempts to explain or define sacred mysteries only work to diminish the mystery. To define the mystery, we must try to fit it into the bounds of human thought. We must shrink it to our size, rather than growing to its size.
Why does Jesus agree to be baptized? I believe it is his way of participating in the mystery – just as our own baptism means we participate in that mystery. Just as our own participating in the Eucharist is our own way of participating in the mystery of Eucharist, as did Jesus… What does it mean? What does it do? That is a mystery. It’s something we do in faith.
These days we tend to have great faith in science – we can explain almost everything. And whatever science can’t explain is probably nonsense, or fantasy. We have little room for mystery in our modern world. Which is too bad because in our Google-connected world where any question can be answered at any time with a simple smart phone, I think mystery is the thing we need most.
It’s true that a lot of things that were mysterious in previous times have now been explained. Physical and mental illness are not nearly so mysterious as they were – though if we think we’ve got them all figured out we better think again. The origins of life on the planet or of the universe are not as mysterious as they were – though again, our work of understanding and explaining is far from done. We are now starting to understand the mystery of how plants communicate with one another – which seems like a bit of a miracle because not many years ago the notion that plants communicated with each other at all would have been dismissed as something that only Druids or crazy people might believe.
We seem to believe that, with enough thought and attention, we can understand any mystery – perhaps not in our own lifetimes, but in the wisdom accumulated from age to age. Collectively we live with an understanding that we will eventually be able to explain everything… that everything will make rational and scientific sense. When we reach that blissful state then we will either be just like God or at least have rendered God entirely redundant.
But there is more than one type of mystery. Many, perhaps most mysteries can, eventually be explained. Thank God for that. But we’re looking at a special category of mystery – sacred mystery.
Sacred Mysteries are quite different from other types of mystery. Most mysteries want to be solved. We gather the facts and find an answer – as if life were a great big Agatha Christie book – a murder mystery. But sacred mysteries are not meant to be reduced to an answer. They are meant to be lived in.
Holy Scripture is not a big bundle of clues that we can use to decipher all the mysteries of the world. Holy Scripture is a sacred mystery of its own. It helps us to know a living God – a God who still speaks to us today… God sometimes speaks through scripture, sometimes through experience, sometimes through our dreams, sometimes through interaction with other parts of God’s creation. God speaks to each and every one of us through prayer – we sometimes have trouble listening… that is OK because God is infinitely forgiving and patient…
This story from Luke this morning is not a story about Jesus’ baptism in the same way that the story of Genesis is not a story about a garden. It’s an invitation to enter into sacred mystery – into a covenant relationship with God. I don’t suppose there is anything more important in our Christian lives than our baptismal covenant.
In a few minutes we’ll be invited to participate in Eucharist – another invitation to join Jesus in a sacred mystery. God invites us to join in these sacred mysteries for no reason other than God loves us. When we accept the invitation; we accept God’s love. But more than accepting it, we covenant to live in that love and share it with the rest of God’s creatures.