The Jumping Off Point
New Revised Standard Updated Version
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 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. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Tom Wright begins his discussion on this passage with this scenario:
Imagine that we are going to a huge concert hall, packed to the doors with eager and excited music lovers. We all have our programs in hand, waiting for the thunderous music to begin. We know what it ought to sound like. This will be music for a battle, for a victory, thunder and lightning and explosions of wonderful noise. The concert master comes on stage and declares in ringing tones that the famous musician has arrived. He gets us all on our feet to welcome with an ovation the man who is going to fulfill all our expectations.
As we stand there eagerly, a small figure comes on the stage. He doesn’t look at all like what we expected. He is carrying not a conductor’s baton to bring the orchestra to life, but a small flute. As we watch, shocked into silence, he plays, gently and softly, a tune quite different to that we had imagined. As we listen, we start to hear familiar themes played in a new way. The music is haunting and fragile, winging its way into our imaginations and hopes, transforming them. And, as it reaches its close, as though at a signal, the orchestra responds with a new version of the music we had expected all along.
Imagine John as the concert master whipping us up into excitement at the one who is going to appear. He’s coming! He’s more powerful than me! He’ll give you God’s wind and fire not the water I am offering. He will make everything clean, getting rid of the bad and keeping the good. We jump to our feet in excitement, expecting this great leader to sweep onto the scene with a crescendo of music and blazing lights, transforming everything with a single wave of his hand.
Instead, we get Jesus. Unnoticed walking through the crowd to stand humbly before John. Jesus steps gingerly into the water, asking John to baptize him. Jesus who seems to be identifying himself, not with a God who bursts onto the scene, but with the people who are standing in the crowd needing to repent.
John is horrified. Somehow, he seems to know Jesus was the one he was waiting for but wonders why he would be coming to him for baptism. This is not the one John expected at all. There isn’t wind and fire announcing his arrival. No spectacle at all. How can this man be for whom everyone has been waiting. Yet he is.
We often ask, “Why is that Jesus needed to be baptized?” He was sinless so the idea of being baptized for repentance, as John was doing for others, wasn’t necessary for Jesus. So why did Jesus come to John? I doubt it was to disrupt what John was doing or embarrass him. Jesus went to John to affirm and confirm his identity. To himself in a way, but also to the crowd. To affirm that he was the One. God had called him to do the work he was about to embark on. And to proclaim that he was the Son of God and also the Son of Man.
Jesus was God’s anointed. He was The One everyone was waiting for even they didn’t know what The One would look or be like.
Jesus’ baptism provides several signals that identify him with God’s kingdom. The image of God’s kingdom is generally one of blazing glory, God on the throne and people worshiping God for eternity. Jesus, however, signals the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. The kingdom John anticipates and announces, and that Jesus will soon proclaim, inviting others to become a part of.
We see in Jesus, as he comes to be baptized, one who submits himself to God’s plan and purpose for him. One who fully identifies himself with those who come to John seeking deliverance. In a way, Jesus baptism is preparation for the suffering to come.
Think about your own baptism if you remember it or imagine in your mind’s eye what it might have been like, possibly from watching other baptisms. For those of us who were baptized as infant, unless we have been told a lot about the event, we have to imagine what it was like. Being brought forward by our parents, possibly in special clothes or a christening gown that has been passed down from one generation to another. You are handed gently to the pastor who says a few words about the meaning of baptism and then sprinkles the water on your head. Then you are introduced to the congregation, possibly walked up and down the aisle while the people sing “Jesus Loves Me.” Every head turns and smiles at you, the infant who is now officially a member of God’s family. The child is then handed back to the parents. Later, family and friends have a big party to celebrate – of course as an infant you wouldn’t know anyway!
Consider what is memorable about your baptism as you imagine that scene. Is it the water? Is it the words? Is it the greeting you receive from everyone who was there? What is the significance of your baptism now as you look back on the event, either as the scene you have imagined or as you remembered being baptized? What difference has being baptized made in your life?
Our baptisms signify our commitment to Jesus’ story – his ways and his fate as our own. We are baptized into Christ and as a member of God’s family. It is not a requirement for acceptance into God’s family. It is, as we believe in the Reformed Tradition, a sign and a seal of what God is already doing in the life of the person being baptized. The significance comes not from what we do but from what God is doing.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ baptism is one of the early parts of his story. Prior to this is the angel’s visit to Joseph in a dream with the message about Jesus’ birth and the visit of the wisemen. This is the first time we encounter Jesus as an adult. Matthew’s focus is on righteousness that is a result of repentance. He focuses on the restoration that comes from going to God to ask for forgiveness, admitting that you need and want to change. And he focuses on relationships that are made whole.
Think about this for a minute as a way of understanding our own baptism. Reading of Jesus’ baptism opens the door for us to reflect on our own identity. Baptism is about proclaiming our identity as one of God’s own.
What defines who we are? Think about the questions people ask when they first meet you or what to learn more about you. Where are you from? What do you do? Tell me about your family – parents, siblings, grandparents, partners, children, etc. Do you speak more than one language? What are your, ethnicity, race, and religion? Consider as well what matters to you. These are the characteristics that form our identity. These and others say, “this is the person I have become, that I am.”
The great thing about knowing our identity is that we get in touch with the core of personhood inside of us. A core that doesn’t change even when the context around us changes. When we hold on to our identity, we aren’t shaken by what is happening around us. Even when it is tough and we feel like we are falling apart that core inside of who we are and who we are as one of God’s children remains. It is important for us to remember who we are as God’s own.
Baptism has additional meanings in our tradition. Baptism is a sign of God’s covenant, God’s promise throughout all of creation and the lives of God’s people. The image of water carries throughout. The waters of creation, of the flood of Noah that brought a cleansing to all of creation, and the parting of the Red Sea so the Hebrews could escape from Egypt. Water is the symbol of God’s deliverance and of new life.
Baptism reminds us that we are products of God ‘s grace, God’s gift to us. Baptism is God’s means of grace and the call to us to respond to that grace.
Baptism isn’t a single event. We might think of it as the jumping off point to what comes next. We don’t stop with our baptism, admiring the pictures in the photo album.
When we think about the questions that are asked at baptism, particularly those the congregation is asked we realize the commitment involved. The questions ask the congregation to promise to support the newly baptized and to encourage them as they grow as a person and in their faith. That’s a huge promise, one that recognizes that baptism is more than a single event. When we promise to encourage and guide a person as they grow in their faith, we assume that he or she will be involved in practices that generate that growth. Practices that we provide opportunities to participate in or support them in as they do those things. Baptism brings us together with one another and with Christ. It is a bond of unity with him and with the church in every time and in every place.
When one is baptized, it is a witness to the truth that God’s gift of grace calls for our grateful response. This holds true for those baptized as believers and for parents of those baptized as infants. One of the special aspects of baptizing an infant is the recognition that it witnesses to the truth that God claims people in love even before they are able to respond in faith. Afterall, what can an infant do to earn God’s love? God’s love is already present. In baptism we affirm and confirm that God’s love is part of us from the very beginning. It isn’t something that we earn or that goes away based on anything we do.
Baptism marks the beginning of our new life in Christ. The new way of life to which God calls us. A life of deep commitment, disciplined discernment, and growth in faith. This sounds pretty daunting. It is easier to look at baptism as a happy one-time event with a little child held by the font with the pastor dripping water on his or her head than to consider what comes next. It isn’t enough to have this snapshot in our mind. God expects more.
It might be more helpful to think of baptism as a type of rite of passage. For example, a graduation that move you from one place to another. Graduating from pre-school signifies you are ready to move to kindergarten. From kindergarten to what may have referred to as “real school” where your leaning expands and you grow in your knowledge. Graduating from high school is a huge event, a rite of passage that pushes you off a cliff into the real world, whether it is the real world of college where you have to structure your educational life yourself or the real world of work where you are responsible for your own well-being. Graduation from college is a bigger jumping off point.
If we consider baptism as that type of rite of passage, something that prepares us for the next step, it changes our perspective on its significance. Baptism could be considered as the launch into the world of faith. The launch into God’s world, into the life that God has for us. The life Jesus modeled for us after his baptism. We can identify in a small way with Jesus’ baptism but more so can follow what Jesus does after his baptism where he is confirmed and affirmed as God’s Son. The event that shows that the One who was promised and expected has arrived.
Baptism is the event that is our anchor as we move forward to do God’s will in the world. To be those witnesses to the saving grace that we proclaim that God has already given us as we are baptized. We might think of this as a commissioning to go out into the world just as Jesus commissions the disciples to go out at the end of Matthew’s gospel. To go to all the world to make disciples, baptize, and teach.
This is what we are called to do, what our continuing to live out our baptism is about. Today as we remember our baptism, we remember that it is in baptism that we are confirmed and affirmed as the children of God and are commissioned to go into God’s world.