So we are only one month past Christmas but in the story we are following thirty years have gone by and Jesus is finally about to begin his ministry.
Although as usual Jesus does not do this in the ways that would have been expected. The first thing he does once he has left his family is he goes into the wilderness in search of his cousin John, who goes before him. John, who had traded the comforts and corruptions of the city for the desert. Even though John’s father had been at the centre of the religious establishment as a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John chose the margins of society, both literally and figuratively, to preach his message of “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And surprisingly, the crowds responded, the story says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” went out to meet John at the Jordan River.
Following on from Toby I found myself preaching on this in the prison last week. I told them it was John’s job to prepare the way for Jesus but that he did that not by going to the city and churches but by going out bush where he ate bush foods and bush honey.
It seemed like an idea they could relate to.
And while we are told exactly who was the Roman Emperor, Governor, King and priests we are also told that the word of God did not come to any of them, the word of God came to John out there in the wildness, in the wild, untamed and untouched place.
This resonates with what we were talking about at Christmas and Advent, that when God breaks into history through the Incarnation, it was not the rich and powerful who discerned it, it was not the Emperor nor the governor who discerned it rather it was it was Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. It is these ordinary ones, these poor and humble ones, sometimes scorned ones who are present when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.
There are many things going on at the top right now, that are deeply concerning to me. Decisions are made by those in power and I find it very hard to discern God and God’s will in much of it. But when I choose not to look so much at what is going on at the top, but rather what is going on in the community, in the lives of ordinary people I see God everywhere.
Like yesterday, as a very small but diverse bunch of people gathered on the lawns, to talk about healing, to talk about coming together and listening to each other. Very little was organised, nothing unfolded as I was expecting and no one there holds a lot of power but everyone was invited to speak and a lot of people did and I think perhaps the word of God came.
Also, like last week in the prison. Again, we were a small group, we sang some songs, we read the bible, we prayed. We shared John’s message of repentance and forgiveness and like those who flocked to John 2,000 years ago this extremely counter cultural message seemed to be something those who were listening were hungering for.
And so returning to today’s story Jesus also goes out to the wilderness to meet John and in another unexpected act Jesus asks to be baptised by him.
This is of course an explicit role reversal and this act has raised questions ever since it happened 2000 years ago. Why did Jesus submit to baptism “for the forgiveness of sin” by John? Did he need to repent of his own sins like those John called a “brood of vipers?”
Again this story has me thinking about the Christmas story, when we celebrate the mystery we call – Incarnation, that is that God came and dwelt among us as Brian Zahnd puts it, “in radical solidarity, in the full participation of all that it means to be us.”
And so it would make sense that Jesus’ first public act is a declaration of solidarity. Of radical and humble joining. Jesus steps into the common and inescapable experience of living in a broken, sin-soaked world. And so the question at stake is not about Jesus’s personal “sinfulness.” The question is about what it means to declare genuine and costly solidarity with our neighbors in a world that is structurally, wholly, and jointly “living in sin.” Our financial, political and commercial systems are set up to divide us, to benefit some but exclude others. And we can’t belong well to each other if we’re busy erecting walls between “our” piety and “their” sinfulness. We are in this together. We are in all of this together, Jesus declares.
This is why in the Uniting Church baptism takes place within the worship of a community of faith.
And Jesus decides to do this in the Jordan River with its rich and sacred history. The Jordan where once upon a time Jesus’s ancestors, entered the land of Canaan. The Jordan where the prophet Elijah ended his prophetic ministry, and his successor Elisha inaugurated his. Again, over Christmas we were talking about the ways that the gospel writers root the story of Jesus birth in the history of the people. And here it is again. Jesus steps into the whole Story of God’s work on earth, and allows that story to resonate, deepen, and find completion.
In baptism we too enter this story. Of course the one been baptized but also all of us who participate in the community of faith that gathers with this one.
In the baptism service we are all invited to say the creed. While, this is not something we do often here. Some of you who like the traditional liturgies will be looking forward to it. But some of you I know really struggle with the notion of creeds, particularly this one, I get it. While sometimes it deeply moves me, sometimes it leaves me cold. None the less I say it most days as part of my morning liturgy. And I say it not because what is written in it is what is most important to me personally about following Jesus. I say it not because I feel 100% certain about every word of it all the time. Rather I say it because it roots me in the tradition and the story of the church. I say it because I think this story matters, because it leads me to be the kind of person I want to be. I say it as an expression of my trust, my faith and my hope in God.
And when Jesus was baptized a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
Ultimately it seems to me that the confessions we will make today pale in comparison to the declaration that God makes to Jesus, the declaration that God makes to E and to all of us, “you are my children, whom I love with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus was baptized in a wild place.
If we want to follow him in our own baptisms, we, too, need to listen to voices crying out in the desert. We, too, need to leave the “cities” that make up our comfort zones. We, too, need to allow a good but wild God to disrupt us.
I guess I don’t really need to say that to those of us who live here.
Most of us have done that. We live in a pretty wild place too. But I know for some of us coming back to this wild place has been hard. Trust in the fact that God is the God of the wild places. This is where his word comes.