This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/8/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Acts 10:34-43 & Matthew 3:13-17. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
When I think about the story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, I often think of it in terms of Jesus’ humility. The fact that the Messiah, God’s chosen one – one who we know is without sin and has no need of repentance – that he would submit himself to John’s baptism. That the one who brings the new order would submit himself to the forms of the old order shows a great yieldedness on the part of Jesus. Perhaps he didn’t need the baptism of John, but he wanted to honor John’s ministry and demonstrate that his own ministry would be a fulfillment of John’s.
But this morning, I’m looking at this story in a slightly different way. What if at least a part of the story here is John’s humility? What if Jesus’ desire to be baptized came as a great shock to John, producing a resistance in John that he had to overcome?
It says that John objected when Jesus came to be baptized. When Jesus presented himself for baptism, this clearly didn’t line up with how John thought things were going to go. John had probably assumed that the Messiah would have no need of his ministry, or perhaps that Jesus would fulfill it by baptizing John. John baptizes the people in preparation for the Messiah, then the Messiah comes and baptizes John. The king would have arrived, and the long-awaited king-people hierarchy would be established.
Instead, the Messiah turns out to be John’s cousin, Jesus. And Jesus is a man that, as we’re about to find out, likes to flip the script. We’ll learn that Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. He associates with the lowly. He touches the unclean, breaking the pattern of unclean-makes-clean-unclean, transforming it into clean-makes-unclean-clean. Jesus would touch and speak to people who were outside of the circle – Samaritans, the demon-possessed, the poor, the blind, the very young, and women. Jesus, we discover, is a Messiah who looks very different from the kingship model that Israel had been prepared to expect.
And so in this context, I think it might be fair to say that when he came out to visit John beyond the Jordan, Jesus was being a weirdo. Here he comes, the Messiah of God, the king of Israel, come to set his people free. This is the ruler promised to lead Israel into the kingdom of God – and he wants to repent?
I’m using my imagination here, but when I read this passage, John has got to be dismayed. “Repentance, Jesus? Cleansing, for you?” This was a solemn ritual. Kind of a downer, honestly. Normally, kings were anointed with oil and acclaimed as king. They’d be clothed in finery and set upon a throne. There would be parades and feasts and celebration. And Jesus wanted to… Come down to the riverside and ask for God’s forgiveness?
This didn’t fit the story. This didn’t fit anyone’s imagination of what the Messiah would be like.
And so this morning I’m thinking about John’s humility. Because it had to be humbling to be the one to baptize Jesus. It had to be sobering to stand beside Jesus in the water as the Spirit came down in the form of a dove. It had to make John feel small. It must have put things in perspective to discover that the savior-king of Israel is a man who submits himself to others rather than placing himself above.
And in this strange situation, we see that John had wisdom, and courage. We’ve got plenty of stories in the Bible of servants of God who just didn’t get it, who weren’t ready to listen to the strange ways that God wanted to act in the world, and ended up needing to learn a lesson or two. I’m thinking of Jonah, who had to get swallowed by a giant fish and spit back upon the land. Or John’s own father, Zechariah, who as high priest saw a vision of the angel and was told that his aged wife would conceive. He couldn’t believe it, and he lost the ability to speak for the duration of the pregnancy. I’m thinking of Paul, who was struck blind after his vision of Jesus, calling him to repentance and a ministry of life rather than death.
Unlike those men, John clearly got it. He didn’t have to be told twice, and he certainly wasn’t struck speechless or blinded. But he was definitely surprised, and he had to change his expectations on the spot.
I’ve experienced this a lot in my own life. There have been many times, both long ago and very recently, where things have simply not gone the way I wanted them to, or on the time scale that I had hoped. Things turned out differently, and it made me really upset. Most of the time, I’m much more like Jonah or Zechariah or Paul; I need a big push from God to realize that my expectations – well, quite frankly, they aren’t really relevant. God is surprising – baffling, even – and it’s a losing strategy when I try to box God in, when I start predicting (demanding!) how life ought to be.
So in times when God shows up in my life in ways that I just don’t much care for, I’m trying to remember John’s courage and humility, his responsiveness to what God is unexpectedly doing. When life, or circumstances, or whatever it may be, disrupt my carefully laid plans, and I’m getting very upset about it, I’m trying to open my ears to the voice of Jesus, who might just be saying to me in that moment: “Let is be so now… to fulfill all righteousness.”