Revisiting Jesus' Baptism


    I preached about the baptism of Jesus last Sunday. As one person was leaving the sanctuary, she shook my hand and said, “I’ve always wondered why Jesus was baptized in the first place. Jesus didn’t have any sins to repent for and he didn’t need to have any sins forgiven.”
    It’s a very good — and popular — question. Almost every commentary written about the gospels has to address this matter, since Christianity traditionally holds that Jesus was sin-less.
    For one thing, scholars across the board agree that this event actually took place. The fact that all four gospels tell the same story lend credence to the idea that Jesus really was baptized by John. It appears to be a very important story to the followers of Jesus.
    So why was Jesus baptized?
    I’ll be honest; I think this is a misleading question. It assumes that Jesus knew he was sinless, or conscious of his status, when he was baptized. I think this story is best read as Jesus’ own call story. This is the event in Jesus’ life which jolted him into awareness of who he was, and what he was called to do.
    You may have noticed that the gospels are extremely light on details of Jesus’ life before his baptism. All we have are birth stories from Matthew and Luke, and a story about Jesus in the temple as a 12-year old (Luke 2:41-52), and those stories are all of dubious historicity.
    The truth is that nothing is really known about Jesus before he was baptized. He came down to the Jordan River that day to see and hear John the Baptist. He was moved by John’s proclamation, decided that he wanted to be part of John’s movement, and went down into the water with everybody else to be baptized.
    But when he came up out of the water, something happened. He saw into heaven, he saw the Spirit of God descending and entering him, and he heard God’s voice saying to him, “You are my Son, my beloved; in you, I am well pleased.”   
    What happened in the Jordan River was the defining event of Jesus’ life, up to this point. This is his coming out party, his debut, his “burning bush” moment. From this time forward, Jesus begins to live into the reality of who he is. He begins to understand more and more about his calling and his task; he starts to speak and act with authority.
    I think he didn’t fully understand his identity before the baptism; he didn’t know who he was or what he was supposed to be doing. I don’t believe this is a heretical idea; the orthodox belief is that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. To be fully human means to have knowledge which is limited to one’s own experience. Until Jesus experienced God’s call, he couldn’t have known precisely who he was.
    The more important question that this story raises is whether or not each one of us has heard God’s call upon our lives. God didn’t call only Jesus; no, the New Testament is full of stories of men and women who recognize — or not — God’s call and then act — or not — upon it.
    I believe that God has called every one of us — man, woman, and child — to a life full of meaning, fulfillment, and grace. Each life has its own unique bent; some, like myself, are called to ordained ministry, others are sent into the corporate work place, while others are called to the teaching, healthcare, or law enforcement professions, just to give a few examples.
    Yes, your life has its own special divine calling. You are the only one who can follow it. You are the one chosen by God to fulfill God's own particular mission.
     It's a high calling. But you are equipped for it. And so am I.

The Longest Week

If you haven’t noticed, the Scriptures chosen for Lent’s sermons are all drawn from the last couple of days of Jesus’ life. On the first Sunday of Lent, I spoke about the Last Supper, and last Sunday, I preached on Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slumbered. This week, the Scripture covers the moment of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:39-46).

I think it’s important to spend as much time as possible on the passion (which means “suffering”) and crucifixion of Jesus, because the bulk of the gospels are consumed with these events. In fact, a New Testament scholar once described a gospel as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction.” 

The point is that the passion and crucifixion of Jesus deserve a good deal of our time and attention. Lent is the perfect time to do that. In fact, it was designed to force us into a time of reflection upon these events and determine what they mean to our faith.

It means a number of different things to me, but in this space I simply want to highlight the vital and significant fact that Jesus suffered.

If the incarnation is true, if Jesus really was God incarnate, then it is highly significant that he suffered. Traditional Christian orthodoxy holds that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human.” If this is correct, then it means that, whatever divine characteristics he might have had, he was also very much flesh and blood. He didn’t get a break from the pain, from the shame and embarrassment, from the horror of what unfolded around him. He didn’t know everything that was going to happen to him; the prayer in the garden reveals that he was afraid and anxious. 

The reason that this is important to me is because it means that Jesus and I are connected by human suffering. Neither of us are exempt from the world’s worst. I feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus in this matter. And not only me, but all of those who suffer, all of the world’s people who feel alone or hopeless or afraid.

Taking the doctrine of incarnation one step further, this means that God understands my suffering. When I experience fear, I can trust that God empathizes with that emotion. When I experience pain, I know that God has been in pain. 

And this means that the God we worship is not an impersonal, abstract, or vague notion. It means that God has entered the human situation and chosen to be on our side. God is with us, not against us.

Everybody hurts in a different way, but the story of Jesus’ passion ties all our suffering together. Lent teaches us that our suffering is not meaningless or vain, but that it will be turned into glorious victory on Easter Sunday.