was maybe five or six when I was baptized. I was old enough to remember the experience. I remember standing at the front of my family’s Methodist church, with my two younger brothers; one was just a toddler, the other was still an infant. I remember my parents and grandparents standing around me, as well as my aunt and uncle. And I remember the large scallop shell that our church used at all the baptisms.
I was not old enough to have any idea what was going on. I knew that something important was happening. I knew that my family was happy. And I was clueless as to what any of it meant.
What I didn’t know as a child was that there are a variety of meanings that people associate with baptism, many of which I have encountered in my ministry at some point or another.
In my office I have encountered parents for whom baptism is a social and familial obligation and who schedule an appointment after being hounded by well-intentioned grandparents, friends, aunts, and uncles. In the neonatal intensive care unit, I have encountered concerned nurses and terrified parents desperate to do all they can for a child for whom all else has already been done. I have met parents eager to baptize their child into the faith that has meant so much to them in their own lives. And I have met adults joyful to take this step in their own journey of faith.
Each of them approaches baptism from a different place. To each of these people, baptism holds a slightly different meaning, a slightly different significance. If a group of people can be all over the spectrum when it comes to their understanding of baptism, then it should come as no surprise that we have a hard time understanding Jesus’ baptism.
But take some consolation, because even John the Baptist wasn’t quite sure what to make of Jesus’ request that day at Jordan River. As Jesus approached, John cried out in surprise, “How am I to baptize you? It should be you who baptizes me!”
The trouble John was having, indeed the same trouble we have with this story, was that he was trying to understand Jesus’ baptism in the same terms that he understood his own baptism. But when we do that, it doesn’t make sense. Jesus wasn’t seeking baptism because his family expected it. Jesus wasn’t seeking baptism to wash away his sins or to ensure his eternal salvation. And Jesus wasn’t seeking baptism to mark a step in his faith journey.
It’s so very human of us to try and make the story about ourselves, to try and understand and frame the story through the experiences of our own lives. But when we do, this story just doesn’t make sense. The best we can imagine was that Jesus was acting out a pantomime, an example to his followers of what he wanted us to do.
But this story isn’t about us, it is about God. And the baptism with which Jesus is baptized is not the same as the baptism with which you and I are baptized. They do not mean the same thing.
First, as Jesus stepped into the banks of the Jordan, he was choosing to accept his role in God’s plan for salvation. In his baptism, Jesus submits himself to God’s will and to God’s work. In his baptism, Jesus takes on the stance of humility. It is the same humility he will display as he prays in the garden the night before he is to be crucified. In Jesus’ baptism, we are offered a glimpse of the divine relationship of the Trinity.
Second, Jesus’ baptism means that God has kept the promise. As he emerges from the river, the heavens open up, and the voice of God proclaims, “This is my son, my beloved.” It is so much more than a claim of relationship; it is a claim of messiahship. For over five hundred years, the people of Israel had waited for God’s promised savior, a messiah to come of the line of David. It had been more than five centuries since a Davidic king had ruled over Israel. In that time, the kingdom had been broken and concurred multiple times. The people had been taken into exile, twice, living as slaves in foreign and distant lands. Even after returning, the promised land of God’s people had been occupied by successive empires. In their own land, in their own homes, they had no voice. They had no power. But God had promised them a savior. God had promised them salvation. So, God’s people waited. God’s people watched. They hoped.
I find it hard to wrap my mind around how long of a time five hundred years really is. After all, our own country is only just over two centuries old. Here in New England, there are some towns and some churches that stretch closer to three centuries in age. But to put it into perspective, five hundred years ago, Martin Luther was preparing to nail a certain document to a church door in Wittenberg. Five hundred years ago, King Henry VIII was still happily married to his first wife. No thought of divorce had yet crossed his mind.
But for more than five hundred years, the people waited for God to fulfill the promise and to save God’s people. Just as a dove, so long ago, brought news to Noah and his wife that the terrible flood was over, that the waters of the sea were retreating, and that their salvation was at hand, so to a dove descended from heaven as God proclaimed, “This is it!” For Jesus’ baptism is a sign to God’s people that this is the messiah. This is the one for whom we have waited. This is the one we must watch, the one to whom we must pay attention. For in the life, the work, and the teachings of Jesus, the vision for the Kingdom of God, the vision for salvation, is revealed to all people.
Finally, Jesus’ baptism orients us as the church in the world and in the work we are given to do. It is an orientation of which we need constant reminders, because we are only human. We are only human, and we try to make church about ourselves. We make church about our own needs, our own desires, our own fears, and our own insecurities. We forget and think that the church is about us and that the work of the church is to serve us. We put our time and effort into keeping the church running, planning church budgets, serving on church committees, training new leaders, and evangelizing to new members, all so that the church will continue to be there. All so that the church will continue to serve our needs. All because we constantly forget and think that the church is about us.
But the church is not about us. In Jesus’ baptism, we are reminded that the church is about God. In Jesus’ baptism, we are reoriented so that we are no longer facing inward. We are turned around so that together we face out into the world and toward God. In Jesus’ baptism, we are called as the body of Christ to follow where Christ’s own body went, embracing the path God has given us to walk together, and learning the humility to submit ourselves to God’s will and the work that God has given us to do.
This is something much bigger than any one person. This is something that can only be accomplished by the church, by the faithful people of all ages—the people who have run the race before us, the people who run the race with us, and the people who will run the race after us.
My friends, the church is not about us. And the church can still be a comfort to the afflicted. It can still be a healing balm to those who ache and suffer. It can still be a sanctuary from the trials and tribulations of the world around us and our own lives. It can still be all those things when we remember that we who are the church are about God. We can be all those things when we embrace, together, the role God has for us in the promised salvation, the promised salvation still unfolding before us. We can be all those things when we are humble enough to become the vision of God’s Kingdom for the whole world.