Last spring I had the opportunity to stand beside the Jordan River and talk about Jesus’ baptism to the Christians and Jews from Birmingham with whom I went to Israel. I had been to the Jordan before, but I’d never had the opportunity to stand there, to touch the water, to read aloud the story of Jesus’ baptism, and to reflect on its meaning.
The baptism of Jesus is a story that we tend to skip over lightly, but for the early church the baptism of Jesus summed up the whole mystery of salvation.
First, the baptism of Jesus helps us understand the forgiveness of sins.
The baptism of Jesus is a difficult story. If John the baptizer is proclaiming a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” then why is Jesus being baptized? Surely, he was sinless, so Jesus could not have been going to the Jordan to receive forgiveness. So the fathers and mothers of the early church reasoned that Jesus was baptized not in order that HE might be forgiven, but so that WE might be forgiven. One early Christian writer said that Christ imparted his sinlessness to the water so that we might receive it when we are baptized.
Second, Jesus’ baptism begins to heal the damage done by sin.
In Romans 8, Paul tells us that “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Genesis 1 tells us that the Spirit hovered over chaos and was the agent by which God imparted order, so the Spirit descends on Jesus in his baptism and once again brings order out of disorder. Through the Spirit, God turns chaos into creation.
Third, the baptism of Jesus is a decisive event in God’s war against evil.
Have you ever noticed that at the beginning of the baptismal service, we ask the person being baptized or the parents and godparents of the child being baptized to renounce evil three times. What’s that about?
The ancient world and the ancient church had a much more vivid sense of evil than we do. They saw the presence of demons and evil spirits everywhere. And evil spirits were especially associated with water. When Jesus exorcises the Gadarene demoniac, he sends the evil spirits into the sea of Galilee because water is their natural dwelling place.
The writers of the OT had a love/hate relationship with water. On the one hand, it is necessary for life, but on the other hand, water is destructive. You can sail your boat on it, but you can also drown in it. Water cannot be contained forever. Unlike stone and metal, you cannot impart a form to it.
So in baptism, Jesus was declaring his power over darkness and evil. He went down into the water just as on the cross he went down into death. And in both cases, he met and defeated evil.
Finally, Jesus’ baptism is the moment when his identity is established and revealed to the world.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that when Jesus was baptized, a heavenly voice said, “This is my Son, my beloved…”
Only Luke tells us that the angels revealed Jesus’ identity to the shepherds. Only Matthew says that the magi knew who Jesus was. But they all agree that the baptism of Jesus is the declaration to the whole world of Jesus’ identity.
But what does this have to do with us?
We are sinful people who live in a sinful world. Let’s change the word “sin” to “broken.” We are broken people and we long for wholeness. The baptism of Jesus tells us that we can find wholeness, that Jesus imparted a power to the water of baptism to heal us and make us whole. The gift is there for the taking.
The baptism of Jesus tells us that the gift of wholeness is not just for us; it is for the whole of creation. Now, that’s good news. We live in a time when the created order is staggering under the weight of the damage we have inflicted. The baptism of Jesus reminds us that God loves the WORLD, the cosmos, the created order, not just puny little human beings, and that God will be our partner in healing and restoring the created world.
And above all, Jesus’ baptism tells us who we are.
We live in a world that tries to define us. Every TV commercial, every newspaper or magazine ad, every “pop up” on the internet tells us that if we eat this, wear that, or buy the other thing we will be happy, young, good looking, and sexy. In other words, they tell us that we are deficient, that we lack some essential ingredient of happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. We live in a world that defines us as a cog in an economic machine.
But Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are God’s beloved children, that we are God’s daughters and sons. Jesus’ baptism reminds us of God’s original blessing on the world: “And God saw all that had been made and behold it was very good indeed.” Did you hear that? God declared creation to be good, not perfect. And that’s what we are: God’s beloved daughters and son… good but not perfect.