Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Baptism of Jesus
Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, the revelation of Jesus to the nations, the Gentiles, represented by the magi who journeyed to Bethlehem following a star. This morning we have another theophany, a revelation of God, as we celebrate Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river.
Reading this story, we instantly notice that something strange is happening; something just as strange as the Jewish Messiah being greeted at his birth by Gentiles from the East. The ‘Baptism of Jesus’ raises the question: why would Jesus be baptised? Today’s reading begins by telling us that John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people from Jerusalem and all Judea came to John and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Then Jesus himself comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan, expressly to be baptised by him. But Jesus had no need of repentance. Sin is most basically a turning away from God, and Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God. So, why, since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins, does Jesus seek baptism? What is it that we are celebrating today?
I like to refer to this particular Sunday in the liturgical year as ‘Solidarity Sunday’ because I think that is what is happening here. Today is all about the Incarnation, the amazing, unique, divine intervention in history that we just celebrated at Christmas. In the Incarnation, God became human, in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity. In his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, begins his public ministry by acting out that solidarity.
Jesus’ baptism is symbolic of everything that will happen to him through that ministry. It is an example of the obedience, humility and sacrifice that will shape the course of Jesus’ life and death. John says of Jesus that, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.’ And yet Jesus, like all those others from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside, comes to enter the water and be baptised by John. At the time being baptised by someone else was a highly unusual procedure. Ritual baths and immersions were common enough, but to allow someone else to immerse you added a whole new level of submission and obedience. It was so unusual that John was specifically known as ‘the baptiser’ because of it. By being baptised by John in the Jordan, Jesus demonstrates for the first time his absolute obedience to God; the obedience that will continue until his death on the cross.
In response to Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn and the barriers between God and humanity are withdrawn. This is an end-time image; it comes from a plea in Isaiah: ‘O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!’ (Isaiah 63:19) This is exactly what has happened; in Jesus, God has entered the world in a new way, creating a new communion between heaven and earth that will never end. At the very end of the gospel according to Mark, at the end of Jesus’ life, there will be another tearing. The curtain of the temple will be torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38) In Jesus, every barrier that separates God from humanity has been torn apart.
The Spirit now descends upon Jesus and the voice from heaven says: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’. In the Hebrew Scriptures the term ‘beloved son’ was used of Abraham’s son Isaac, and Abraham was asked to sacrifice his beloved son as a sign of his loyalty to God. (Genesis 22:2) There is here a subtle hint of Jesus’ destiny; Abraham’s beloved son was saved from sacrifice; God’s own beloved son will not be. But these words of recognition and blessing are not just for Jesus as he begins his public life. They are also for every one of us. If Jesus was baptised in solidarity with humanity, then we are baptised in solidarity with him. The Apostle Paul wrote that, ‘As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ’. In baptism everything that was Jesus’ becomes ours, too, including the status of being God’s beloved children. Just as God says to Jesus at his baptism, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,’ so God said to us at our baptisms, ‘You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased’.
Just in case we bask in this, though, in case we simply rejoice at being united with Jesus in his baptism, the lectionary joins Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism with two extremely intimidating readings from the Hebrew Scriptures. Today’s readings all emphasise the power of the voice of God: it creates; it destroys; it ‘causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare’; it tells Jesus (and Mark’s readers) who he is. God’s voice initiates creation, and it initiates the new creation that Jesus’ baptism brings. Mark does not want us to miss that connection, so Mark’s story is full of creation imagery; of The Beginning when a formless void covered with water and darkness was swept by ‘a wind from God’.
Any time we read of water in the Scriptures we need to remember that the Bible was written not by coastal-dwelling Australians for whom water is a plaything and a gift, but by a people whose vision of heaven was a place in which ‘the sea was no more’. (Revelation 21:1) The sea for the people of Israel was chaos, danger, and death; it was the darkness that existed before God spoke and creation began. When Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan, he is entering into all that watery chaos and foreshadowing where his obedience is leading, to his death. Yes, Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved; yes, we who are baptized into Christ and have clothed ourselves with Christ, are also God’s beloved children. But baptism is also death, a descent into the darkness that existed before time began. Baptism should be as terrifying as the voice of God is terrifying. The heavenly beings might give glory to the Lord who is enthroned over the flood; might rejoice that ‘the voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters’. We are only human, and find it hard to praise God for chaos, danger, and death.
And yet, and yet, the terrifyingly powerful God who flashes forth flames of fire and whose voice shakes the wilderness is also the God who said, ‘“Let there be light”; and there was light.’ God’s voice makes Lebanon skip like a calf and God’s voice brings light to dangerous darkness, and creates everything that exists. God speaks, and there is Day and there is Night. Most commentators agree that this version of the creation story was written when Israel was in Exile, trying to understand where God might be when the people of God had been ripped from their country and their Temple, wondering how they could sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. It was amid Exile that they looked to the sky and found a sign of God bringing order out of chaos in the division of Day from Night. When everything else around them was strange, the Exiles could see God’s providence each morning when the night’s darkness gave way to the day’s light.
It took me longer than usual to prepare this Reflection, because I kept stopping my writing to find out what was happening in the USA. It was hard to focus on Bible passages from thousands of years’ ago when wondering whether an attempted political coup was going to succeed in Washington. And yet it is those same Bible passages that tell us that ultimately God is charge of the cosmos; that God creates light out of chaos and darkness and death; that in Jesus that light has entered our world in a new way; and the darkness will never overcome it. So I want to end this Reflection with hope that comes from the same country, and as a result of the same election, as the worrying attempted coup.
I recently found out that when in 1939 the world premiere of the film Gone with the Wind was held at the whites’ only Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, guests were later entertained at the nearby Georgian Terrace Hotel by an all-Black choir from Ebenezer Baptist Church which included a ten-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. I am still a little stunned by that; ten-year-old Martin Luther King Jr was a member of the choir from his father’s church that dressed up as slaves to entertain people who had just attended a whites’ only theatre. Sixteen years’ later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white woman in a Montgomery bus, and the next day a group of Black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association and elected Martin Luther King Jr as their president.
This week the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where Martin Luther King Sr was Pastor, where Martin Luther King Jr grew up and often preached, Rev. Raphael Warnock, was elected to the United States Senate, representing Georgia. He is the first Black American Senator from Georgia. As Martin Luther King Jr said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
Every community and nation, from the biblical people of Israel to twenty-first-century Australia, contains within it both people who want justice and people who want unfairness; people who seek to welcome others and people who seek to exclude them; people motivated by love and people motivated by hate. Every single country contains both. This week the USA has shown that in ways that the rest of the world cannot ignore. As Australians watching, we need to celebrate those striving for justice and condemn those fighting to overturn a democratic election. And we need to ensure that in our own country, we do the same; that as part of the Australian community we are on the side of love and justice. Because that is the side of God.
‘God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.’ ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.’ (Isaiah 9:2) ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5) When the people of Israel lived in Exile, they looked to the light that dawned daily as a sign of hope. That hope is still ours today, no matter what else may be happening around us. Hold on to that hope. Amen.