The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Jesus and John have known one another since they were children. Today we remember their encounter at the Jordan River, both of them now about 30 years old. Their parents have talked to one another about their boys since before they were born. John is the miracle son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were old enough to be his great grandparents; and Jesus is the miracle son of Mary who “reportedly” conceived him through an angel, not with her husband, Joseph. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are Jesus’ aunt and uncle.
Jesus and John bear both the blessing and the burden of their destinies. Their lives were prophesied to be great: John was predicted to be the Messiah’s “advance man,” the Messiah’s “forerunner,” to set the stage. Jesus was predicted to be the Messiah. How can this be?[i]
The stories about angels and the miraculous conceptions of these two cousins are undoubtedly the makings for small town gossip and, I imagine, eye-rolling derisive humor, and people’s incredulity. If Jesus and John were supposed to be these bionic boys, why did they appear so normal and unspectacular, disappointing even? What would it have been like for these two cousins to grow up in each other’s shadows, most likely to live in close proximity, never finding their voices for almost 30 years, which is approaching old age in their own day?[ii] Their lives had been shrouded with such mystery, and speculation, and derision about their identities and their destinies. Neither of them married. Neither of them was all-that-special, really, at least for men who were supposed to become so great. What did they know about each other? What did they think about each other? How did they talk to one another? We don’t know.
All we do know is that at some point John left home and headed into the wilderness. He begins living out his destiny in his own rather eccentric way. He preaches eloquently about repentance. Now he draws the crowds. He officiates in cleansing baptisms in the Jordan River for multitudes of people who come to confess their sins. John was living into his destiny, preparing the way for the Messiah. But the unimaginable happens. This one particular day Jesus appears on the riverbank, asking John to baptize him alongside all the other sinners. Jesus’ arrival did not figure into John’s choreography. I can imagine this was something of an identity crisis for John. Either Jesus, who is John’s cousin,was the Messiah, or Jesus was not the Messiah after all. In my mind’s eye I can see John lunging after Jesus, seizing Jesus by the arm and marching him out into the water, far enough so they could be alone, where John says to Jesus, almost in desperation, “This is for sinners! What in the world are you doing here!?”
John does baptize Jesus. Immediately thereafter there is the sight of a dove and the sound of a voice from the heavens saying, “This is my well-beloved son.” Jesus sees this and hears this. Do John and the others see and hear this? We cannot be sure; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John remember this differently.[iii] Our Gospel appointed for today (from Mark) does not say that John and the others experienced miraculous dove and sound of the voice from heaven, but only that Jesus saw and heard this. Jesus leaves the riverbank and journeys on his own out into the desert. John labors on, baptizing, and, I imagine, wondering what Jesus is up to.
The early reports in the Gospels tell of Jesus’ returning to Nazareth, his home town, to teach the people. They were astounded. They asked themselves, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? …Where then did this man get all this?” which is not entirely a compliment.[iv] They were not all taken in by Jesus. Quite to the contrary. The Gospel account says that many actually took offence at Jesus. He reacts saying, “Prophets are not without honor… except in their own country and in their own house.”[v] So it seems, many who were close to Jesus did dishonor him. And many who were distant to him, who knew Jesus was from Nazareth, derided him, saying “What good can come out of Nazareth?”[vi]
According to the Gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke, even at the end of John’s life (when he was imprisoned, facing execution), John might not have been altogether sure that Jesus actually was the Messiah. John summons two of his own disciples. (John still has his own disciples!) John then sends his disciples to Jesus, telling Jesus that John had sent them. They are to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answers them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”[vii] People did take offense at Jesus, even though the miracles did happen. Both John and Jesus die in ignominy: John was imprisoned then beheaded, and Jesus had a crescendo of followers, ultimately was abandoned, then crucified.
This is not nice bedtime reading. Both John and Jesus pay the ultimate price for being true to life destinies. All of us would want to be spared their type of suffering, yet we may find enormous help and hope in their life stories, in how our own life story overlaps theirs.
For so many people, perhaps you, it is so very challenging to figure out what your life is to be about. For many people, this remains a lifelong question. You may not discover your life’s meaning until old age, when you have the perspective of hindsight. Or you may have an answer in your earlier life, what your life is to be about… but then life continues to happen, for better or for worse. For reasons perhaps beyond your control you have to revise your life purpose and your sense of destiny. Along the way you might stumble or get lost:
- lost in your family of origin who never did fully understand you;
- lost in love or the absence of love;
- lost in your work, or in the absence of work, or the absence of meaningful work;
- lost because of money – not enough money, or too much money, or too much debt;
- lost because of an addiction;
- lost in shame;
- lost in the crowd;
- lost because of your children, or lost because you have no children;
- lost in a consuming illness, or lost in grief.
Jesus knew what it was to be lost. In his adulthood, when Jesus finds his voice he teaches in parables. One of the recurring themes in Jesus’ parables is about being lost. I think Jesus’ parables are autobiographical. Clearly, they connected with a lot of people; however the source of inspiration for Jesus’ parables, including Jesus’ “lost” parables, was Jesus’ own life. It took Jesus, and it took his cousin John, so many, many years to live into their destinies, when they knew what their life was to be about, and how. And I think they both had to keep revising their life script because life kept happening.
The earliest followers of Jesus were not called “Christians.” They were called “followers of the way.”[viii] Jesus even takes this name himself when he says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “I am the way.”[ix] Where did this notion of the “the way” come from? Jesus certainly would have heard this phrase in readings from the prophets. His cousin John uses this language in his own preaching. He proclaims, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” What is this way? The Greek word for “the way” literally means “a road, a journey, a path.” Jesus is “the way,” and it moves along.
Jesus’ being “the way” may give you enormous help and hope as you try to keep finding your own way in life. Life is not going to be what you thought. Your life script will keep changing. And you will probably go through seasons of life where you are overwhelmed and feel lost: having lost your bearings, lost your direction, lost your meaning, maybe lost your hope.
The good news is in Jesus’ real presence. Jesus is God Emmanuel, God with us. And his presence is real: not imaginary, not hypothetical, but real, really connected with what is means to be fully human, facing the ever-changing kinds of things we face in life. That you face in life. Really present and in a real way to you.
Pray your heart out. Wherever you are, however you are in life, Jesus quite understands. Jesus is with you all the way: his real presence really present. Really. Pour out your heart… and then keep your ears open for a revelation. We also have the witness, the presence, the companionship of his wild-haired cousin, John the baptizer, who ultimately lived and died a convinced man: yes, Jesus, his cousin, is the Messiah: John’s Messiah and ours.
[i] A riff on John 3:9.
[ii] Conjecture is that the average life span in first-century Palestine was about 35 years.
[iii] Jesus’ baptism is remembered by Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34.
[iv] Matthew 13:53-16:20.
[v] Matthew 13:54-57.
[vi] John 1:43-51.
[vii] Luke 7:18-23: “The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When the men had come to him, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”
Matthew 11:2-6: “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’”
See also Acts 19:1-7, 18-25.
[viii] See Acts 9:1-2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.
[ix] John 14:6.
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