In the beginning, Genesis tells us that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters at creation. In Exodus, the waters become a site of liberation, as God parts the Red Sea and the Israelites escape from slavery in Egypt. In Psalm 23, the psalmist writes that God leads her beside quiet streams of still waters. In the book of Amos, the prophet calls for God’s justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Later on in Christ’s ministry, he will turn water into wine. He will walk on water. He will proclaim that he is LIVING water--that whoever drinks from the water that he gives will never go thirsty again; that the water he gives will become a spring welling up to eternal life.
Throughout the Scripture, we find that water is a place of divine encounter, and our text this morning is no different. This morning, we find ourselves invited once again to come down to the water, this time to the shores of the Jordan River--for another divine encounter.
Today, we meet John the Baptist, who is humbly resisting as Jesus approaches HIM to be baptized. “John would’ve prevented him” if days. Because John had JUST gotten finished saying to the people, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Why would Jesus, the one whom John is not even worthy to untie his sandals, the one whose way he was preparing for, be coming to JOHN to be baptized? Why was he standing in line with the ordinary sinners, those seeking to be baptized, in response to John’s proclamation to repent and prepare for the coming kingdom of God. Jesus WAS the kingdom of God they were preparing for.
So Jesus didn’t “need” to be baptized as in to be cleansed from sin. He didn’t have sin to confess or any need of repentance. I’m not going to pretend to know why exactly it is that Jesus felt the need to be baptized by John. But it seems that in that moment, Jesus feels it is the right thing to do. It is right and befitting and appropriate—that the Son of God be baptized by John. Just as it was right that he be born of a young, unmarried peasant woman. Just as it was right that he might come to live among us, taking on our humanness, becoming one of us, showing us a new way to live and be in the world. This baptism narrative seems to be just one more example of God loving us enough to draw near to us, to be with us, to come alongside of us, and to refuse to leave us alone. It’s just another example of God’s loving solidarity with us.
So John reluctantly agrees to baptize him, and as he is baptized, the heavens open, the Spirit comes down like a dove, and God says, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The sky is torn apart. The boundary between earth and heaven is opened, As if to remind us yet again, that God is not far off and uninvolved. No—God is here, involved in THIS world, showing up in earthy, tactile things like in river water and in a bird--intimately present in our midst. The Holy Spirit in the dove--is once again hovering over the waters, as in the creation account in Genesis--God is once again demonstrating a desire to be near to us, to be with us. This is a God who comes low, who hovers over water to meet us there.
“This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” BELOVED is what the voice of heaven proclaims is Jesus’ identity, as he comes up from out of the waters. BELOVED is who Christ is, before he can even begin his public ministry. BELOVED is his identity that permeates and defines his life, and sets the trajectory for his teaching and his ministry--as the beloved one, he reminds others that they too, are beloved, children of God, worthy of redeeming and healing and including and reconciling.
And this naming as beloved, it belongs to us too. As Christians, we have these rituals like baptism and communion (which we’ll partake in later this morning) that remind us that we belong to Christ--that we participate in Christ and in Christ’s body and Christ’s work in the world. We got caught up in Christ. Caught up in the current of Christ’s love and belonging and belovedness, caught up in Christ’s mission to embody love in the world.
In baptism, we plunge beneath the waters and come up again, symbolizing that we are joined with Christ in his death and his resurrection. So Jesus approaches John and he enters into the waters of baptism, he participates in us so that we are enabled to participate in him.
And in communion, we eat Christ’s body, and drink Christ’s blood--so that we can participate in him--as we consume Christ, we are consumed by him, and his identity becomes our own. In these sacraments, Christ claims us as his own, and invites us to participate in his life and in his mission. These sacraments are places where the ordinary things like water and like bread and wine remind us of God’s love and our own belovedness. In them, we are claimed by a love that is stronger and wider and deeper and sweeter and truer than we could ever even imagine.
In the baptism of Christ, we find a God who is raising each of us into a new life--a life of belovedness and belonging--to God, to God’s body. And I find this to be deeply good news for times like these. Especially because if you keep reading ahead, the passage directly following this baptism scene is the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. God has declared him as God’s beloved son, and the first place he ends up in is the wilderness. And this place of wilderness seems all too familiar.
As we face this year ahead, I wonder if you find yourself in a place of wilderness too. It’s a new year, but honestly, for me, a lot of things seem the same as they’ve always been. Sure, there are new decisions that need to be carefully made. There are new potential war threats that we must faithfully respond to. There are new fires that desperately and quickly need to be put out.
But there’s also a lot of the same old things. The same voices of shame that speak loudly at night, or maybe in broad daylight--that tell you that you are not good enough or strong enough or whatever enough; there are old habits that we know are self-destructive, or destructive to other people, that seem too difficult to let go of; there are people who don’t do their jobs and people get hurt or killed as a result; people who are supposed to love and care for you, that have decided for whatever reason that they can’t or won’t treat you like a full human being.
But I think this passage empowers us and challenges us to face these wildernesses courageously; not because the world is not a scary, heavy place; not because we’ve been promised we will never get hurt; not because there won’t be difficult things ahead.
But because this baptism belongs to you, too. You belong to God, the God whose love will never let you go. You are safe in the loving embrace of God. You are called the beloved, in whom God is well pleased--in whom God delights. And you are a part of Christ’s body, meaning you are not alone.
So come to these waters of baptism today. Be caught up in the current of this water, knowing that yes there will be death, but new life WILL come. These are waters of repentance--which means some things must die, we will have to loosen our grip on some of the things that we are clinging too tightly to. After all, just before this passage, John had just finished calling some of the religious authorities a “brood of vipers”--they were warned that they needed to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” These baptisal waters are costly--they call us to repent of our death-dealing ways. In these waters, some things will have to die, but only so that new, abundant, life can emerge.
So come and let these waters of baptism, of belonging, of belovedness-- find you as you prepare to face your wilderness ahead. Amen.