Baptism of the Lord, Year C
9 January 2022
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
You may have seen the cartoon of Moses as a boy, sitting in the bathtub, parting the waters, much to the frustration of his mother who is trying to bathe him.
The cartoon turns Moses into someone in possession of supernatural powers, which is the way we like to think about things, and people, which is why we like superheroes. But the truth is that Moses is not vested with magic or supernatural powers. Whatever Moses did, Moses did on God’s command and for God’s purposes. And so, little Moses not only did not part the water in the bathtub, he could not have had he wanted to.
However, as Pharaoh’s army is in pursuit of Israel, a nation of slaves escaping from Egypt, and as Israel comes up to the Red (Reed) Sea and despairs as it is sandwiched between water on one side and Pharaoh’s army on the other, the Lord instructs Moses to stretch out his hand over the sea, and the Lord makes the waters part for Israel to walk on dry foot through the sea. (Exodus 14)
When after the wilderness sojourn Israel finally crosses the Jordan to enter the promised land, and all the people walk behind the arc of the covenant, which contains the two tablets of the commandments and represents God’s presence with the people, the waters part and the priests who carry the arc and all the people walk through the Jordan dry-shod, soon to arrive at Jericho. (Joshua 3)
And as Elisha is to succeed Elijah in the office of the Lord’s prophet, and just before Elijah is taken up to heaven, Elijah rolls up his mantle, strikes the Jordan, and the two walk to the other side on dry ground. (2 Kings 2)
Luke tells us that people were filled with expectation, and were wondering whether John the Baptizer was the Messiah. John denied that claim, and says to the people that one more powerful is coming, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Luke does not tell us whether this raised even greater expectations among the people but I would think that it did.
And now Jesus comes to the Jordan, and is baptized with the crowds. No special mention is made of Jesus, except that when all is done, the Holy Spirit descends on him and a voice from heaven declares him God’s beloved. I have always wondered whether everyone was able to see and hear that, or if it was something that Luke just knew.
Jesus is baptized in the Jordan. Twice has the Jordan been parted for God’s beloved, for God’s people to enter the promised land, and for Elijah and Elisha to cross dry-shod, not to mention the parting of the sea on the people’s escape from Egypt.
That Jesus submits to John’s baptism of repentance alone is noteworthy and it is Matthew who reports John’s resistance, and John saying to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Of course, the Gospels report Jesus’ baptism to make clear Jesus’ mission from the start: To enter into our world, to assume our nature and our lot, to bear the sin of the world. And so the sinless One is baptized with a baptism of repentance.
Former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in his little book “Being Christian”, tells us that early icons of the baptism of Jesus show Jesus standing in the river Jordan, and in the waters of the river you can see ancient gods and river monsters swimming around him. Thus these icons show us that Jesus’s baptism is God’s immersion into the life of the world, with all of its suffering and chaos in tow.
And so the waters do not part for Jesus as he comes to the Jordan, not only because it would be difficult to get wet if they did, but because the whole reason for God to come among us is to take on our nature in order to redeem it. And what God does not assume, God cannot heal.
Much later in the Gospel of Luke as Jesus is crucified Jesus is mocked. The people watch but their leaders scoff at him and say, He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one! (23:35)
We know that Jesus does not save himself but chooses to save the world instead. Jesus dies at human hands, Jesus dies in solidarity with the world.
Jesus’ death is a mystery. Neither the Bible nor the church give us one single binding definition of how the death of Jesus accomplishes our salvation. I tend to think that in his sinless death Jesus unmasked human violence and freed us to a life of peace and sacrifice, and the ability to bless those who curse us, all qualities that become more important as our world becomes more divided.
But what scripture and tradition are clear about is that it is through Jesus’ death that God has worked our salvation. And so on Christmas we celebrated God in the flesh. In Jesus’ baptism we see that God came to dwell among sinners. In his crucifixion and resurrection we see that God’s salvation is found where we would not expect it. God’s ways are not our ways.
That has implications for our own lives. If God’s grace is sufficient for us, and God’s power is made perfect in weakness,1 then we do not need miracles, material blessings, or power to find ourselves in God’s care.
Our lives may contain suffering and failures but suffering and failures are not blocks to having lived a life with God. That we can life a life with God even amidst of suffering and failures is possible because our lives can be located in the story of our salvation in Jesus.2
And then it turns out that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; that God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; that God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1)
May we for whom the waters do not part but who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection boast in the Lord.
1 2 Corinthians 12:9
2 see Stanley Hauerwas, The Good Life – If Liberalism Failed to Deliver it, What Can?