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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. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
I wonder what the first baptism is that you remember. For some of us, that might be our own baptism. For many, because they were baptized when still a baby, it will be the baptism of another. What stands out in your memory? What did that baptism mean to you?
I do remember my own baptism. I was five years old and my two younger brothers and I were baptized together. I don’t remember a lot, but certain things stand out. The clip-on tie that I had to wear, which I hated. My aunt and uncle coming to church with us—they were our godparents. The bowl of water with the seashell my church used for baptisms. That’s about it, I was five after all. I knew something important was happening, but I did not understand what.
That would change as I grew older, of course. I began to understand that my baptism made me a part of something. Growing up, I never doubted that I belonged to my church community, indeed it was my second family. With time, that understanding gre3w beyond the bounds of my home church, and I understood that I was a part of the body of Christ. In communities I did not yet know, I understood that I nonetheless belonged.
There were other things about baptism that I learned with time. In Sunday school and confirmation, I was taught about baptism and the forgiveness of sin. I learned about baptism and salvation. Much later, as I prepared for ordination, I understood that my baptism is what empowered me to do ministry, that all I would come to do in ordained ministry was by virtue of baptism.
All these things, yes, and more, are reflected in the facets of Jesus’ baptism. And it is important for us to remember that as he stepped into the waters of the Jordan River, as of yet, there were no theologians to extrapolate and dissect baptismal theology. As John the Baptist lifted him out of the waters, the church did not yet exist, original sin had not yet been written down as an idea, and salvation was still being worked.
As the heavens opened up above them and God’s voice thundered out, “this is my son with whom I am well pleased,” something more fundamental was taking place. To understand what it is, we must first remember that the baptism of Jesus is always only half of the story. Though we do not read it today, we must always keep in mind that when Jesus emerges again from the river, the Spirit immediately drives him into the wilderness, where Jesus will remain for forty days while being tempted by the devil.
This is not to say that Jesus’ baptism was some sort of preparation for temptation. First, baptism doesn’t suddenly make us impervious to temptation, nor does it make us infallible—a quick survey of our own lives and indeed the breadth of human history will put that idea to bed. Second, to say that Jesus’ baptism was merely preparation for the temptation in the wilderness is to focus our attention too narrowly and miss the connection between his baptism and the rest of his ministry.
No, Jesus’ baptism was not a preparation for his temptations. It was a foundation, the foundation on which he would stand during his time in the wilderness as he stood face-to-face with the devil. His knowledge of God’s claim on him as God’s own son was the foundation that anchored Jesus and let him stand against the offers of food and power that the devil dangled in front of him.
It didn’t end when his time in the wilderness came to a close. Jesus’ baptism continued to be the foundation upon which his ministry was built. When he called the disciples, when he grew frustrated by their inability to get what he was teaching them, when he was welcomed into communities by those who hungered for the good news and when he was chased out of communities by those who had hardened their hearts against him, it was from the foundation of his baptism.
Jesus’ encounter with the Baptist in the Jordan would remain a foundation for him even in the vents of the crucifixion, even as he had doubts about the path he was on. Even as he cried out to God to remove this cup from him. Even then he found strength in the assurance that he was God’s own son. Even then he knew that this was enough, this foundation was sufficient.
We have had a couple thousand years to think, argue, and theologize about what baptism means, what it represents. And at its core, it remains this: a foundation. It is the cornerstone upon which we build our faith and our identities as Christians. It is the home base from which we are sent out to do God’s work in the world. It is the foundation on which we construct our entire lives.
But we are not Jesus, my friends, and even with such a sure foundation, we sometimes give in to temptation. Sometimes our faith stumbles, falters, and even comes crashing down. Sometimes the lives we build for ourselves fall apart and crumble around us. Our baptism doesn’t stop that. It can’t stop that. But the foundation laid in baptism does not fail. When everything else falls down around us, when everything else fails, this foundation does not. And when everything around you feels uncertain and unknown, this is the one thing of which you can be certain: you are a child of God. God has claimed you as God’s own, and this is enough.
For this is what it means to be a foundation. Our baptism is that which we return to time and again in our lives. And at last, when all the artifices of this life fade away, it will be the one thing that remains. And we will rest, secure in the knowledge that it is enough, that God is always enough.