I set a record this week. No, it wasn’t a speed record for skiing or for the highest freestyle jump. I set a record for the number of results I got when searched for something on the Internet. Usually when I look up some general topic, I get millions of results. But this week, when I searched for information about support groups in the U.S., I got over three billion listings for groups who meet in person or connect online—3,170,000,000 to be exact. There are organized support groups for everyone from anxiety sufferers to Zzzquil users. And that doesn’t even include the unofficial networks of friends and acquaintances who form when a need arises.
If you’ve ever gone through a difficult time, you know the value and comfort offered by someone who’s gone through the same thing. When my mom was in nursing care for her Alzheimer’s Disease, all of us who had loved ones in that unit became a support group for each other. We understood the grief and loss, the anger and frustration. We understood why, sometimes, you just had to laugh at the weird things our loved ones would do. We understood why, when our loved one passed away, we felt as much relief as sadness, since we knew what it felt like to have been grieving for a long time, some of us for years. No one on the outside understands your feelings like someone on the inside.
Our passage today tells of an event in Jesus’ life that demonstrates how he is willing to join us on the inside of our lives. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism, and it’s a sign of how he is willing to stand with us rather than apart from us.
Our Bible offers us precious little information about Jesus as a child and young adult—years he would have spent learning the Torah and singing the psalms, playing with his younger siblings, and working alongside Joseph as a carpenter. We hear practically nothing about Jesus until he appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John, some thirty years after Jesus’ birth.
John’s preaching had been drawing crowds to the Jordan from all around Judea. His message was exactly what had been prophesied about him—that he would call people to get ready for the coming of the Messiah. He was calling them to prepare a path for the Lord by recognizing and confessing their past sins and committing themselves to a new way of thinking and doing—a way based on integrity and heart-felt faithfulness to God. Their baptism was the marker that they had committed themselves to this new, straightened path in anticipation of God’s kingdom coming near.
And then, Jesus shows up, asking John to baptize him. If you’re wondering why Jesus would do this, you’re in very good company. The Church has struggled with how to explain it since its very beginning. Why would the sinless Son of God ask to receive a baptism of repentance like all those other ordinary sinners? Did Jesus think he was a sinner in need of John’s baptism of repentance? Did he not understand who he was until after his baptism, when the dove descended and God spoke? The story of Jesus’ baptism made the early Christian communities very uncomfortable, because they were afraid it could be argued that Jesus wasn’t born the Son of God but became the Messiah only after the Spirit descended.
Part of the problem is that we don’t know when or how much or even if Jesus knew about his identity as the Son of God and his mission to redeem the world. John and Mark don’t offer any stories about Jesus’ early years. Matthew records nothing after the first year or two. Luke tells how Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised and took him to the temple to be presented, and how they lost him for three days during a trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve, but that’s it.
So, we don’t know how much he understood of his divine mission as he was growing up. We don’t know how, or even if, being the Son of God affected him as he grew from child to man. We’re left with the same question that John had: why should Jesus ask to be baptized by John, when by John’s own confession, John should have been the one being baptized by Jesus?
All we have to go on is Jesus’ explanation that it was “proper in this way to fulfill all righteousness,” and that doesn’t even help us much. There’s not much scholarly consensus about what Jesus meant by that.
But, here’s what makes sense to me. In asking to be baptized, Jesus was making a conscious commitment to his role and his mission as the Son of God. And, in the act of being baptized, he was making a conscious commitment to stand with the people he came to save.
When God calls us, God always gives us a choice about whether or not to accept that call. Even though Jesus was born the Son of God, he was also a fully human being and, like each of us, he had a choice about whether or not he would accept his mission. We see that in the story of how he was tempted in the desert—how he could have chosen fame and power and wealth over God’s will for his life. And, there were other points where he could have turned away from the path that would eventually take him to the cross. But each time, he chose God’s will. He chose his mission. He chose us.
When Jesus waded into the muddy currents of the Jordan, he made a commitment to all the people who were in that river with him. He would be his people’s Messiah, but not the one the Jewish people were expecting—a king of military might, imposing his will from afar. He would be Emmanuel, God with Us. He would travel the paths they had made straight, right into their hearts and souls. And he would do it by living right in the midst of all their joy, all their struggle, and all their sin.
The people Jesus stood with in the Jordan weren’t so different from us. Like us, they wanted to live faithfully. Like us, they wanted to do what was right, but they’d also made mistakes along the way. They’d gotten off track. There were times when they made bad choices and made commitments to the wrong things. Sometimes they were even guilty of hypocrisy like the Pharisees and Sadducees who were making Matthew’s community miserable. But they heard John’s call to a new way of life—a call to turn to a different way of being in preparation for the coming of the one who would bring God’s kingdom near.
Jesus didn’t need a baptism of repentance, but he knew that his people did. Jesus chose to share not just the waters of the Jordan but our very lives. He chose to stand with us and walk with us through all the messiness of our lives. He’s not aloof from us, standing on the bank, watching and judging as we dog-paddle like crazy through our lives. There in the Jordan, Jesus stood with his people in their need, just as he stands with us in ours today.
Mahatma Gandhi understood the importance of walking with people through their struggles. Gandhi was living in a small South African village that had many Indian immigrants. The people there respected him and would often come to him for help and advice. One day, a widow came with her teenage son. Her son refused her request that he eat a healthy diet instead of one loaded with sugar. She knew her son respected Gandhi, so she brought him to Gandhi and asked, “Will you tell my son to stop eating sugar?”
Gandhi was silent for a moment and then said, “Bring him back to me next week.” A week later, the woman brought the boy back to Gandhi and asked, “Now will you please tell my son to stop eating sugar?” But Gandhi said, “I’m sorry. Would you bring him back in another week?” Again, the woman brought her son to Gandhi. This time, Gandhi explained to the boy why he needed to stop eating sugar. Afterwards, the woman took Gandhi aside and thanked him. Then she asked him, “Why did you wait three weeks to tell my son to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi replied, “Because I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for me to give up sugar.”
God came to us in the human form of Jesus, to experience all that we experience. We know that we can trust Jesus, because he walks alongside us when we are fearful or confused. He offers us strength and comfort as someone who knows the human conditions that make us feel weak and sad. Jesus offers us the guidance of his own Spirit, because he knows our lives demand more wisdom than we can muster on our own. When he asked John to baptize him, he demonstrated his willingness to stand with us.
We, too, are baptized. Our baptism has many layers of meaning. The most important layer is that it is a sign of God’s grace and the work God has done for us and in us. But one of the other layers is that, in baptism, we make a commitment to the world and the work that God began in Jesus. We commit ourselves to stand with all whom Jesus loves. We accept God’s call to be part of the mission to bring God’s kingdom to its fullest expression. We commit ourselves to the righteousness that Jesus spoke of in his words to John.
The Greek word for righteousness that Matthew chose means living a life of integrity. It means thinking, feeling, and acting correctly. It means embracing justice and giving every person his or her rightful due. That means we stand in unity with others as Jesus stands in unity with us.
This unity can take many forms. It may take the form of loving relationships—with a child who needs an adult they can count on, or someone who literally needs a shoulder to cry on. It can take the form of material assistance—like bags of food, and warm hats and mittens, or a clean and comfortable place to change a baby’s diaper.
But it also has to include standing with those who are the most powerless in this world as Jesus did. These are people we may never encounter in person: the immigrant child at the border, the addicted and the mentally ill who don’t have access to treatment, those who lack adequate health care, those who flee war in their own countries and become prisoners of poverty in refugee camps.
We stand in unity with others when we use all the means at our disposal to ensure that those who have the power to shape our world know what God’s kingdom of righteousness looks like. God’s kingdom is a community—a community of people who care for each other and the world we live in. It’s a community where each person’s gifts are valued and celebrated. It’s a community where justice prevails—where everyone and everything is aligned with God’s principles. It’s a community where we stand with each other as Jesus stands with us.
Jesus didn’t need John’s baptism to become the Messiah. he was that from the very beginning. But, he used it as an opportunity to consciously commit himself to the work he was created to do and the people he came to save. Just as our baptism is a visible sign of our intention to live in covenant with our Lord, Jesus’ baptism was a visible sign that he lives in covenant with us, standing in unity with us and calling us to unity with others. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young