A lot has happened since we last gathered for worship. There has been nonstop breaking news from Iran to Buckingham Palace. My beloved 49ers hosted, and won, their first playoff game in their new stadium. And, we’ve went through 30 years of Biblical history.
That last part is an interesting detail about how each of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life are put together. Two of the gospels – Matthew and Luke – give some details about Jesus’ birth and early life, while the other two – Mark and John – do not discuss his birth and go right into the descriptions of Jesus’ life. Since we celebrated Epiphany Sunday, and gave a little attention to the Magi of Matthew 2, we’ve traversed the majority of Jesus’ life. In fact, only Luke gives us any details about what took place after Jesus was, roughly, the age of 2.
Why is that? The gospels are written in a historical biographical form that was prevalent in the 1st Century AD. That form of writing focused on only including substantial details from the main subject’s life that would give an understanding of who this person was. This often included a focus on the person’s death and final moments. We see that in each of the gospels, which place most of its emphasis on Jesus’ final week before his death and resurrection. Counter this to our focus, today, which would be to include every aspect of an individual’s life from birth through death based upon a common theme.
One aspect of Jesus’ life that all four gospels mention or allude to is his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. It is one of the most significant moments of his early ministry and launches Jesus’ into the public portion of his earthly ministry. You cannot understand Jesus’ ministry without taking a deep look at why he was baptized.
The scene begins with Jesus traveling from Nazareth in Galilee to Judea and the Judean Wilderness. If Jesus followed the traditions and practices of the time, he would have taken on some of his earthly father’s, Joseph, business as a carpenter. He would have been taught the Scriptures as a young boy and, at age 30, would have been eligible to enter the priesthood. This is why we believe Jesus was 30 when he began his earthly ministry.
At this point, Jesus meets up with John the Baptist, his cousin, who was proclaiming a message of repentance throughout Judea. There is a belief that John was part of a community that practiced baptism as a way of ritually cleansing oneself of their sin from the day and, also, as a way to initiate new believers into the Jewish faith. This community also challenged the practices of the Pharisees and religious leaders.
John gathered large crowds to hear his message of repentance. It was a message he proclaimed not to Gentiles, alone, but also to Jews. He said all people needed to turn and focus their lives upon God. This message led many to believe and hope that John was the Messiah. Yet, John was quick to point out that he was not the messiah and there was one greater than him still to come.
Perhaps John had this on his mind as Jesus approached him for baptism. There are two sites commonly referenced as the location of this scene. The first is known as Yardenit. It is a location that is damned on the Jordan River. The site was created by the Israeli government to give pilgrims an access to the waters following the Six Day War of 1967. We do not believe this was the site of Jesus’ baptism. The historic site of Jesus’ baptism is called Qasar al-Yahud, which was closed to pilgrims until 2011 following the Six Day War. Land mines have been cleared, as recently as last month, to provide better access to the site. What is unique about this site is that it is close to Jericho, which is where Jesus went to after his baptism to go to the Mount of Temptation for 40 days.
As Jesus approached the water, you could imagine John thinking he needs to stop him. In fact, Matthew describes John as being hesitant, astonished even, that Jesus would enter into the water to be baptized. He thought it should be the other way around. Up to this point, it is only John who has any idea of Jesus’ true identity. There is nothing about Jesus that would give people a glimpse to see what was coming and who he is. He is, to them, a carpenter’s son who has, perhaps, been convicted by John’s teaching.
Maybe that is how we interact with Jesus’ baptism narrative. Like John, we might be confused by why Jesus would go to the water to be baptized. We know who he is. Jesus is the perfect Son of God. He is the Messiah. He has no need of repentance and, yet, he is at the Jordan to be baptized. He is there to, in his words, to fulfill all righteousness.
What does Jesus mean by this? There is no Scriptural text that suggest the Messiah needs to be baptized before he could begin living into the promises of the Christ. So, in this case, fulfillment does not mean fulfillment of a prophetic word about the Messiah. The nature of fulfillment, in this sense and in connection with the larger work of Matthew, is about the nature of God’s will. Jesus has come to the Jordan River to fulfill God’s will for his life.
That fulfillment comes in the nature of Jesus’ being identified as the Messiah and living out that identification. This is one of three major identification narratives in the gospels, beyond the crucifixion and resurrection, that give voice to Jesus as the Messiah. The first is his birth where Matthew and Luke that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem. Another was the transfiguration when Jesus’ full glory shone before his disciples. The other is this moment where Jesus is identified as God’s Son.
In coming to the waters of baptism, Jesus is beginning to live this identity out as the suffering servant of God. An identity that was referenced in Isaiah 42. There we see the suffering servant of God as one who would put the interests of God and the people before himself. Within the baptismal narrative, we see this identity played out in several important ways for Jesus and our own life.
For one, Jesus comes as the beloved servant of God who identifies with his people. This is a Messiah who will not sit on the lofty throne and look down upon his people. He is one who will identify with the people by being among them. He will not separate himself from sin or the pain that people carry. Instead, he will gather himself within those issues and walk among them by taking them on himself. In baptism, Jesus connects himself with the people in a servant-like manner to identify with them.
Another key identifying mark of Jesus’ baptism is that he has come to abandon the self to the desires of God. This life is not about what Jesus wants. It is all about what God desires for him. In baptism, Jesus has come to be self-abandoned to the idea that he will in control of his steps or the mission. This life is no longer about him.
It is about God. From the waters of the Jordan onward, what we see of Jesus is a deep commitment of identification in the purposes of God. His will is that of God’s will. There is no separation between the two, because there is a commitment made to go wherever God leads, even if it means that his life will be led to death on the cross for all people.
In our baptism, much like that of Jesus, we identify ourselves with the greater desires of God for our life and the world around us. We identify ourselves with the larger community of faith. In baptism, we recognize that faith is not about isolation. It is about a deep connection with God and other believers. Through baptism, we are initiated into God’s holy church and a community of a family of friends, neighbors, and strangers who become our family of strength and support.
We also deny our own ambitions and self-focused attitude. Through baptism, we make a commitment to no longer make this world and our lives be about what we want. We abandon our desire to live for the self, and make a commitment to deny ourselves to take up the mission of God. Through that, as well, we identify with the will of God. In doing so, our hands, feet, and words are no longer our own, but they are the instruments God uses to bring forth the kingdom of God in our presence. We commit ourselves to God, completely, through the waters of baptism.
We can forget that crucial aspect of identification. We tend to think of faith as this one-time commitment and that we can live as we want. That is how the world has affected our views in the church. Our commitment to God is about participating in the covenant of God, in which we identify ourselves in God’s holy love of relationship and grace. It is a daily commitment.
The daily aspect to this commitment to identifying ourselves in God’s desires is something we need to remember. That is why I love the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. It was used by John Wesley in his ministry on the Watch Night Services on New Year’s Eve, as a way to launch the early Methodists into the new year through a renewed commitment of faith. The prayer reminds us that this life is not about us, not about the rewards we may receive, but about a deep connection with our Father and one another.
In a few moments, we will renew that commitment to God and one another because it is our identity in Christ and God’s desires for us that will carry us forward. It is a life of identifying in God’s love and not living in isolation from another that will lead to deep transformation and renewal in our lives and commitment. It is abandoning our identity upon the self, our own ideas, our politics, and taking on the life of Christ that will lead us to experiencing God’s hope in the world. It is taking up the will of God that will lead us away from thinking we have this under control, to wanting to be led by God in all things.
We need that remembrance and re-connection to that identity of God’s holy love. To be reconnected with our God who will never leave or forsake. To reconnect us to God’s mercy and desires. To reconnect us with our identity to being the people of God who live as the people of God.
That is the commitment we made at our baptism. That is the commitment we took on fully at our confirmation. That is the commitment we need to be renewed in, today, as we seek to be the people of God here at Beverly Hills UMC.