Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Baptism of Our Lord 1/10

          What was Jesus doing all those years, we wonder?  After the Christmas stories and a few others related to Jesus’ infancy, the only event any of the gospel writers included from what is sometimes called “the lost years” of Jesus was twelve year old Jesus in the temple and only Luke mentions that.  Other than that, nothing; nothing about him as a youth, nothing about him as a young adult, so you can’t help but wonder what he was doing, what he was thinking as he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”  All we can do is speculate, because the Bible doesn’t tell us anything until Jesus emerges from obscurity at around age 30 seeking to be baptized by John the Baptist.

          All the gospels have stories about John the Baptist; in church during the middle weeks of Advent, he always kind of crashes our pre-Christmas festivities like an obnoxious relative you wish had refused the invitation to Christmas dinner.  He comes across as a nutty street corner preacher, dressed in funny clothes, eating bugs, telling the people they’re a brood of vipers while calling them to repent with threats of chaff being burned with unquenchable fire; not a real appealing character in other words.  John the Baptist is out there, close to the edge, yet this is who Jesus comes to seeking baptism.

          What is the significance of that?  I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think we want to underestimate the connection between Jesus and John because all the gospels make the connection in one way or another.  It’s pretty clear though that John the Baptist was not part of the mainline religious establishment, he wasn’t working from the inside.  With twelve year old Jesus in the temple we did have Jesus honoring the religious establishment, the tradition in which he was raised, but here we have him moving toward the boundaries of that tradition associating with someone quite radical, someone seen as possibly being possessed by a demon, someone who is definitely anti-establishment.  John the Baptist challenged the religious and political authorities, yet it was with a troublemaker like John that Jesus began his public ministry.

          Again, I don’t think we should underestimate this connection, but still I’m not quite sure how to interpret it.  It’s tempting to cite the link to John as further evidence of the radical nature of Jesus and his ministry and there is something to that.  Jesus’ ministry was radical and like John he consistently challenged accepted beliefs and practices calling for a repentance that was more than feeling sorry about your failings and making the proper sacrifices but instead was about really changing the way you live.

          On the other hand, despite his connections to Jesus and despite the fact that John had a pretty large following, the gospel writers and Jesus make it pretty clear that those who thought John the Baptist was the answer or had the answer were wrong.  John’s take on the Messiah was wrong.  Later on in Luke, when John’s in prison and sends messengers to ask Jesus if he is the one or are they waiting for someone else, Jesus says, “Tell him the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear and good news is preached to the poor.”  That’s not exactly John’s fire and brimstone image of the Messiah clearing the threshing floor, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff.

          Even so, this is where Jesus started.  He didn’t begin by hobnobbing with the elite, he began on the edges and he pretty much stayed there, representing an alternative voice all of which may be a reminder to us, a reminder that to be authentic the church has to maintain a bit of that edgy alternative-ness and not get too cozy with those in power.  The challenge is to move toward the teachings of Jesus rather than toward conforming with a society that says that the teachings of Jesus sound good but you can’t really live that way.  On a day when we are thinking about baptism, you could say that baptism is our entry into the alternative that Jesus represents.      

Today though we celebrate the baptism of Jesus which is a little bit different and one of the questions that is always raised about his baptism is why?  Why was Jesus baptized?  If baptism is about forgiveness of sins as we say it is and Jesus is without sin, what was the point?  Some interpreters do come back to the Jesus/John the Baptist connection and see Jesus as a follower of John, at the beginning anyway, kind of signing on to his agenda as he is baptized.  In broad terms there may be some truth to that but I think the distinction made between Jesus and John by all the gospel writers is too strong to go too far with that.  Apart from starting Jesus on the edge rather than in the mainstream the point the gospels make is more about the contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist, not the connection so that is not likely to be the most significant thing going on here.

As we understand baptism, Jesus did not have to be baptized.  His baptism had more to do with us or as Luke puts it, it has to do with “all the people.”  “Now when all the people were baptized…” is how Luke introduces the verses about Jesus’ baptism.  The connection that is emphasized isn’t with John the Baptist, it’s with “all the people.”  Jesus was without sin, but he walked into the waters of baptism to be with the sins and faults and weaknesses of all the people.  He walked into the water to identify with and stand beside all the people, people like you and me. 

Jesus didn’t have to be baptized but he chose to be baptized in an action that put him shoulder to shoulder with the kinds of people that the religious and political authorities didn’t think were worth much.  So you could say that Jesus’ baptism wasn’t about the forgiveness of his sins, but it was about the forgiveness of the sins of “all the people,” people like us who Jesus wouldn’t turn  his back on…and this is when the voice from heaven announced, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  It was with these people, under these circumstances that Jesus began his public ministry and it was here that the voice of the Father affirmed Jesus’ identity.

Jesus’ baptism is different from ours in that it was not for forgiveness of sins but in terms of affirming our identity it is very similar in that in baptism we are called children of God.  When each of us was baptized we were called by name, identified as a child of God.  For us that is as awesome a declaration as the one that came from heaven when Jesus was baptized.  It’s the reason that Jesus waded into the waters of the Jordan.  The water of his baptism mixes with the water of our baptism; our identity is entwined with his and we are made part of his story.  It’s a story that isn’t all sweetness and light though.  It’s a story that includes death; but it also includes resurrection telling us that Jesus’ future is our future which is a central piece of our faith and certainly is a great source of comfort.

Our baptism connected to Jesus’ baptism does have to do with the future, our future with God which we could call the end of the story.  That’s important, but that’s not all.  In the meantime, the story baptism connects us to also includes following Jesus up and out of the water today and everyday.  The story includes living out our baptism every day because in baptism we do sign on to follow Jesus.  When you really think about that and consider the alternative that Jesus represents, following him is rather daunting.  We like the future dimension of baptism and the hope that represents, but to really follow Jesus in the present, following which includes that repentance that really represents change, that’s tougher.  How many of us really want to sign on for that?

But that’s where another similarity between Jesus’ baptism and ours comes in.  The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he was baptized; we too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in baptism.  So as we follow Jesus, we are not alone; the Holy Spirit empowers us enabling us to witness and to serve in ways that we might not have thought possible.  Sometimes we’re aware of that presence in our lives, sometimes we aren’t, but it’s always there.  It doesn’t mean we follow perfectly, but since Jesus’ baptism, ordinary people have followed and done remarkable things.  We are just part of the most recent group of Spirit empowered people joined to Jesus in baptism, people capable of remarkable things.

Don’t forget that.  Touch the water in the font once in awhile and remind yourself of what that water means.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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