I am not a fan of John the Baptist. Everything that we read about John the Baptist makes me think of him as Jesus’s annoying cousin. The kind of annoying person I want to avoid, the one we have at the dinner table, trying to steer the conversation clear away from anything remotely political; fearing that at any moment our relative will go on a rant about immigrants coming into this country and threatening our culture, or the government wasting millions on foreign aid, or women with their feminist agendas wanting it all, and those lazy poor people who need to pull themselves and stop expecting handouts.
Well, John the Baptist comes around once a year ranting and raving, shouting at us to Repent, and Prepare, you brood of vipers! No wonder we are all very quick to move on to Christmas so we can ignore John and gaze adoringly at the baby Jesus, whose beauty makes us forget that Herod is looming in the background.
But no sooner is the baby born, then in the wink of an eye Jesus is a grown man, and his dear cousin John is at it again, going on and on, threatening us by suggesting that Jesus is going to rain down on us bringing the Holy Spirit to baptize us with fire. The way that John tells it, we are doomed to burn in that unquenchable fire, if we don’t do what John tells us to do. Repent! Repent! The Lord is coming.
I seriously considered avoiding the Baptism of Jesus. What can we possibly learn from this story that is of any value to us, here and now, in this place and time?
A professor of Old Testament studies taught us a very important principle when reading scriptures. Look out for the missing verses.
The powers that be, who select the verses that are commonly read in church on a Sunday morning, selected for the commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus, Luke chapter 3 verses 15 to 17, and verses 21 to 22. What about verses 18 to 20? Why didn’t we read these verses? What’s in these verses that caused the folks who decided what we should read in church this morning should not include those versus?
The so-called “experts” perhaps believed that by including the missing verse we might become confused and our common memory of this story might be challenged.
The missing verses are: “But Herod the ruler, whom John rebuked because of his wickedness, including his relationship with his sister-in-law, Herodias—committed another crime by throwing John into prison.”
Herod throws John the Baptist into prison. If John was thrown into prison when Jesus went down to the Jordan to be baptized, who baptized Jesus?
As Martin Luther would say, “What does this mean?” As Marcus Borg would say, “Why did the author tell the story the way they told it? What is the author trying to say to us?”
The truth is that we will never know what Luke intended. We can only guess.
I can’t help wondering if the gospel story-teller might feel about Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist the way we feel about our annoying relatives. Is Luke trying to distance Jesus from the teachings of John? John proclaimed that the Messiah will baptize with fire. Is Jesus trying to distance himself from John? After all it was John who said “I will not baptise you.”
With John in prison, Luke tells us that Jesus goes down to the Jordan for a different kind of baptism. Not a baptism for the repentance of sin, but a baptism in which God claims Jesus as his beloved son, in whom God is well pleased. Can this be the same God that John the Baptist was shouting about? Or is Luke trying to paint a picture of Jesus’ new way of understanding the Creator?
What if John the Baptist was wrong? What if the image portrayed in this story opens us to a new way of understanding divinity? What if the ONE who created us longs to embrace us with arms wide open. “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: ‘You are my Beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.’” I wonder, is this text about baptism or intimacy. The intimacy portrayed in this story defies what would have been, for the story-teller and the story-teller’s community, the accepted understanding of the nature of the Divine.
This new revelation about the nature of God is quite an epiphany. The God depicted in this story is radically intimate. The relationship is one of intimacy. You can almost hear the Creator of all declare, lovingly, “That’s my boy/my child! He brings me such pleasure.”
For generations our ancestors personified MYSTERY in ways that perhaps John the Baptist would have recognized as a “good father stern, strict, quick to punish, demanding, judgmental and fairly unapproachable”.
So, why did Luke tell the story of Jesus’ baptism the way in which he told it? Could it be that the storyteller is trying to warn us that Jesus is about to reveal a whole different image of the MYSTERY that was called “Father”? Could it be that the storyteller is preparing us for Jesus’ revelation of his Abba, a whole different way of personifying the MYSTERY that will challenge all the images that have gone before?
So, how do we tell the story?
Unable to name or define the MYSTERY we often resort to metaphors to carry us beyond words. Baptism is a ritual expression; a metaphor of what is. Ordinary water is extra-ordinary. We were knit together in the water of our mother’s womb, our very being contains water, without water we cannot exist. Water nourishes us, refreshes us, enlivens us. Water is the stuff of life! Baptism doesn’t bring anything special, but rather, opens us to what is. The waters of baptism open us to that which is beyond us, to the sacred.
In baptism we are reminded that we are holy, special, we are reminded of our sacredness. Baptism is a beautiful welcoming moment in which the full potential of LOVE is glimpsed. All that hope, all that potential, the very possibility that all the challenges that Jesus lived his life to teach us about, all the challenges to the way we are, come to us in the waters of baptism. In the waters of baptism, we see beyond the drops of water to the very stuff that nourishes, grounds and sustains us in this life, and we also see the possibilities of what life might become if we love one another. When the waters of baptism touch the head of a child, they are anointed with possibility, the possibility of love, the possibility of peace, the possibility of joy, and yes, the possibility of pain.
In the words of a biblical scholar:
“As the words of the MYSTERY that is LOVE, echo through the generations and descend like a dove : Know that you are beloved. With you the great MYSTERY is well pleased. The MYSTERY that is LOVE, embraces you with a LOVE beyond words. Let the waters of LOVE flow in, with, through, and beyond you. Now and forever.”
There’s a story about Martin Luther I read recently. It is said that every morning, Luther would splash water on his face three times, while speaking the words that were said at his baptism: “In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. The feeling of the cold cleansing water reminded Luther of who he was. The water was a visible means of Luther’s identity as a child of God. There have been so many times in my life when I have splashed water on my face and repeated the words said at my baptism. I do so to remember who I am and whose I am. The water reminds me of the humanity I share with others. The water reminds me that I am compelled by the LOVE that I call God, to be LOVE with whom I share this life. The water reminds me of my call to be LOVE in the world.
We are a community of baptized and not yet baptized, striving to follow the path that Jesus taught his followers to walk; a way of being in the world that puts us in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized, a way of being in the world that works for peace through justice, rejecting violence, revenge, and hatred, a way of being in the world that strives to embody the LOVE that we call God.
We humans tend to need visible signs. Signs to remind us of who we are. Signs to remind us to look beyond ourselves. Signs to guide us so that we might be LOVE in the world. Signs to help us feel like the beloved creatures in whom our God who is LOVE, is well pleased.
Wear your baptism, so that in you the LOVE that is God may become visible in the world. Let the water remind you that you are LOVE. Let the water refresh your efforts to be LOVE. Let the water nourish you to be LOVE in the world.
Surely, we can learn to tell our stories, to enact our rituals and to be LOVE to one another in ways that transcend religions, cultures, and old hatreds?
I would like to introduce you to the Hindu word Namaste. Namaste is a greeting which means that the God in me recognizes the God in you. Jewish people say Shalom, and Muslims say Salaam Alaikum. The God in me, sees the God in you.
What work do we need to do in our world and in our lives so that the sacred in each one is recognised? Namaste, Peace, Shalom, Salaam Alaikum, the God in me recognizes the God in you. Namaste. What new ways of being in the world need to evolve so that all may know and the intimacy in which we hear our Creator’s LOVE, “That’s my child. That one right there brings me such pleasure. On that child, my favour rests!”
Listening for the Voice of God – Dr. Marcus J Borg
Rev. Dawn Hutchings – progressivechristianity.org