We’re here at the Jordan River, a bit north and east of Jericho, to witness a strange event. People have been flocking here from Jerusalem, a bit more than 20 miles to the West-Southwest. Others have traveled much farther to be baptized by a wild-looking prophet, one John, called the Baptizer, who’s come out of the southern desert. When asked if he is the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, John has be repeating, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” His message is that the Messiah, long awaited, is coming…and in fact, may already be among us. “Repent! Repent!” Is his message, lest the wrath of God fall upon those who refuse to turn from evil ways.
John’s actions remind this reporter of the words of the great prophet, second Isaiah, spoken over 600 years ago. “A voice cries out, prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight the paths; fill in the valleys and make low the mountains; the rugged land make smooth. Shout from the mountain tops, the glad tidings, for here comes the Lord God, mighty ruler, who will shepherd his people and care tenderly for them all.
However, I don’t know how well John’s warnings are being received. It looks like the poor—the shepherds, fishermen, and simple farmers believe John’s message, for they greatly outnumber the rich and powerful members of our community. They—the important ones, seem to be unmoved, watching others wade into the Jordan River where the prophet is immersing people one at a time as evidence of their repentance for past sins. If that weren’t enough, a few of the Scribes and the Pharisees stepped up to the river’s edge as if they might also want to be baptized, but the Baptizer scolded them, calling them vipers and asking who warned them to flee the coming wrath of God. They were speechless, before stepping back, but not silently—warning John that he could face severe punishment for his impudence. But it is clear to this reporter, anyway, that the people are on the prophet’s side and would move to protect him if the authorities tried to arrest him.
And where, we ask, is Jesus at this time? Right in the midst of it all, quietly awaiting a turn to be baptized by John, his cousin. Jesus may even, some speculate, have been for a time traveling with John as a disciple. But today all that will change. Knowing that Jesus is without sin, we are moved to ask, “Why are you asking John to baptize you, Jesus? What is it you want us to understand?” John tries to dissuade you from being baptized: “It is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me?” John says, but you reply, “Leave it like this for the time being; it is fitting that we should in this way, do all that righteousness demands.” “What”, we ask, “do you mean about the demands of righteousness. We don’t understand, Jesus.”
But Henry Nowen, in his book Jesus: A Gospel, explains: here we see how clearly Jesus chooses the way of humility, entering the Jordan River like everyone else, but emerging from the chilly waters like no one else does. For Jesus’ baptism is not only of water, but of fire—the fire of the Holy Spirit. The dove, a visible sign of God’s presence, appears, and a voice is heard from heaven, “You are my beloved Son on whom my favor rests.” Affirmation of his divine nature. Affirmation of his human calling to sacrifice himself for our sins. Affirmation of his mission to overcome evil by re-establishing our relationship with God. Nouwen again: This is the core moment of Jesus’ public life…his baptism in the Jordan River, when he hears the Father’s words. Jesus is reminded in a deeply profound way of who he is. So, even when everyone else rejects him, as they will, Jesus knows that the Father, his Father and ours, will never abandon him.
So today is an opportunity to celebrate our own baptisms as well, for God has gifted us with grace and His unconditional love. Our baptisms have forever changed us—who we are, and what we are called to do. We ARE the beloved sons and daughters of our Creator; we enjoy an unbreakable relationship with our God, through Jesus and the workings of the Holy Spirit. Once baptized, once grace-gifted, always baptized. The indelible mark on our very souls testifies to the permanence of this relationship. God’s chosen people—forever more!