John the Baptist was right. Jesus did not have to do it. He did not have to be baptized. But he chose to.
The story of the Baptism of Jesus is found in all four gospels—though, as you might expect, one finds a rather different version in the Gospel of John, where there’s only a passing reference to it. Because all four evangelists attest to it, the odds are therefore quite high that this is a real historical event. Jesus was baptized by John in the River Jordan.
This morning, we heard Mark’s version. It’s fairly straightforward. But I would like to bring in Matthew’s account, because there one finds an interesting exchange between Jesus and John that warrants commentary….and that really does make for better sermon material. The part I’m interested in goes as follows: “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.” The rest of the story about the dove, and the voice from heaven, and the Beloved Son is the same. But the fact remains that John tried to stop Jesus being baptized, and Jesus refused. Why?
The act of baptism can mean many different things. For us, it is a sign of entry, whether as a child or an adult, into the Christian community. Others put more of an emphasis on its cleansing nature from the state of original sin. For others still, it might be seen as a simple rite of passage, one of the very few left in our highly secular and ritual-poor culture. There’s also all the rich symbolism applied to water as life-giving and purifying, something which is encountered in almost all human cultures. Baptism, it can be said, is a symbolically over-charged ritual. That’s not a bad thing, but rather marks its continued vitality and relevance.
There may have been a variety of reasons why Jesus would have chosen to be baptized by John the Baptist. At one level, it confirms an endorsement of the Baptist’s message and ministry. Jesus is legitimizing, as it were, John’s call for repentance and a change of life. Furthermore, Jesus is placing himself squarely in the Baptist’s lineage, showing that his message and that of John are fundamentally the same. There’s also an obvious rite-of-passage quality about the baptism of Jesus. It marks the transition from his private life to the beginning of his public ministry. This public ritual by John is a liminal ritual that both eases and marks a change in status for Jesus. And finally, from a more theological and liturgical perspective, the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, and the scriptural passages in which it is grounded, is part of the cycle of the epiphany of Jesus, that is, those early manifestations of his exceptional nature, his nature as the Son of God. Hence the voice from heaven.
Though I said earlier that Jesus did not really have to be baptized by John, I’m not sure that is quite true. Maybe it both is and isn’t. At one level, since Jesus was God, he did not really need to be baptized in the way we might understand it. He certainly did not need to be cleansed or purified of anything. But Jesus was also a master-handler of symbols; he understood their power and their potential impact. He knew that that is how humans make sense of their world. So why would he not choose to mark the beginning of his ministry in quite a dramatic and memorable way, humbling himself by sharing a well-established and apparently rather common ritual of his time, one that powerfully echoed his own message? Jesus certainly knew how to leave an impression, but he also knew how to fill that impression with deep and lasting meaning. So, yes, in a way, Jesus did need to be baptized.
There is an even profounder reason why this is so, and here we return to the words of Matthew’s gospel. You will recall that in response to John’s challenge, Jesus says: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” How might we interpret this sentence? We need to focus on the word “righteousness.” It is an ambivalent word, and its meaning is not quite the same for us as it was in Jesus’ day. When we think of righteousness, we often think of justification or even, in a more negative vein, of a sort of moral superiority, especially of the religious kind. In the Hebrew scriptures, it means “right conduct,” and is often ascribed to God: God keeps God’s part of the covenant, so God is righteous. In the New Testament, the word “righteousness,” which occurs quite frequently in Matthew, simply means doing the will of God. So Jesus chose to be baptized by John, despite his being divine, because that was what God wanted. Jesus chose to be righteous, because it was the right thing to do. It was proper. It was God’s will. And Jesus needed to show that in a very public way. Not only did he need to be righteous and be fulfilling God’s will. He needed to be seen to be doing it. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
There is something very interesting happening here. Jesus acknowledges a sense of obligation. Actually, Jesus gives up control over the situation. Contrary to what John may suggest about this baptism being unnecessary—something with which Jesus may, in fact, have agreed—Jesus nonetheless claims a greater truth, a greater reality, a greater requirement. It’s not about what Jesus or John might think or want. It’s all about what God requires. It’s all about this being a moment when God manifests God’s glory and pleasure. One could say that it’s all about Truth, with a definite capital T. God’s Truth.
I ask myself how often, in the expression of our faith—or even in our lives more generally—we all do things, not because we want to be righteous in meeting God’s will, but because we think our way makes more sense, is better, makes us feel good, or is simply more expeditious. We are reluctant to give up spiritual control. We all acknowledge that sometimes, in life, “…we just gotta do what we gotta do.” This really has nothing to do with how we feel. It’s not about our comfort, or our preference, or even our wanting to. Now, how often do we say the same thing about our faith? If you’re anything like me, I suspect not as often as would be necessary, or perhaps even desirable. By choosing to be baptized, Jesus simply did what he had to do, however he may have felt about it. He chose to fulfill God’s will, as he always did. He opted to let God shine in that moment.
Rather often, people assume that the measure and quality of their faith has to do with how good or positive or exhilarating their experience is. But sometimes, the experience can be dry—can appear to be non-existent, in fact—yet still be good or meaningful. Sometimes, we need to look beyond ourselves and our need for good feelings to try and glimpse what God might want. We need to do what we need to do, because it is asked it of us. We need to leave the control in God’s hands. I’ve been re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book on Christian community called Living Together. The other day, I came upon this quote: “Christian community is like the Christian’s sanctification. It is a gift of God which we cannot claim. Only God knows the real state of our fellowship, of our sanctification. What may appear weak and trifling to us may be great and glorious to God. (…) We are bound together by faith, not by experience.”
This last sentence might seem somewhat paradoxical, but it’s actually quite wise. Bonhoeffer is speaking here of a sense of deep rootedness in God’s ultimate purpose, of seeing and experiencing our faith, not on our own often limited or controlling terms, but on God’s much grander ones. In opting for God’s pleasure, for God’s way of seeing and being, as Jesus did at his baptism, we too will come to be called “beloved.” And, yes, God will let that be known to us.