This is the situation: a foreign people have moved into the land. They dress differently than you. They eat differently than you, and so they even smell differently than you. Some of the countrymen have taken it on themselves to oppose these foreigners, sometimes violently. And there is violence, back and forth, an unstable situation, with untold amounts of human suffering and misery. Now, given this week, this could be Paris, but in fact, it was also the same situation in first century Palestine. Only, of course, those foreigners were the ones in power, and some of the countrymen, the Jews, were complicit in the occupation, leading, of course, to more violence. The baptism of Jesus is situated in this situation, and it speaks to this situation and to human life, complicated with its politics, its ethics, and its symbols. Speaking of, let’s talk first about water here.
Water is a strange thing. It is both curative and destructive. We use it to wash ourselves, our food, our belongings. It cleanses and restores, as when you drink deeply of fresh, clear water on a hot, summer afternoon (and yes, those do exist). When scientists look for signs of life elsewhere in the universe, they look for water, because water is thought to be the source of life. But it is also immensely destructive, beating down rocks over the course of millennia, or rising in a moment to claim thousands of lives, as it did just over ten years ago in the Boxing Day Tsunami. Water really does all these things, but it also a symbol of these things. It is a symbol of life or an imminent threat, as an oasis in the desert or the darkening of the seas.
For first-century Judaism, water was also a symbol, as well as baptism with water. It recalled a foundational moment in the history of God’s covenant with the people of Israel: the parting of the Red Sea. Through the Exodus, God manifested himself to the tribes of Israel, by leading them by night and by day visibly, by giving them the Law, by providing for them food and water. What baptism signified in the first-century was a return to this time, this period in Israel’s history, to the beginning of the covenant, to living in the presence of God. This symbol did not remain in an ideological sphere, but was truly a part of life, at the center of life, where politics, society, and religion touch: the human heart. To be baptised in the first-century, in the Jordan (associated with healing, with the end of wandering and entering the promise land), was to declare yourself as a part of the covenant anew, to be a new kind of Israel, one which followed God and relied on God to provide, not the Temple system (with all its unjust taxes and costs) or the Romans or any other form of human power or violence. By being baptised, this is what Jesus was declaring his ministry to be about as well, a non-violence, a reliance upon the leading and guiding of God.
In this time of Epiphany, we experience and celebrate the different ways Jesus is made manifest in our world as the incarnate Son of God. Last week, Heather talked about his manifestation to the Gentiles, the three Kings and the right worship of Jesus. Today, we are looking at his manifestation in “human life.” How did Jesus appear in the fullness of human life? Our passage poses the answer: by being baptised. In this real and symbolic act, Jesus is declaring that he is a part of society, a society with a history, with a politics, with symbols, with power-issues and struggles — just like the societies and cities we live in today. Jesus is not the preeminent individual, apart from that in which he is born. No, he carries with him the history of Israel. And in being baptised, Jesus is making a statement about the fullness of the human life he has lived up until that point and is going to live as he ministers. But he is also making a statement about the politics of his day and about the way we should all live our human lives. Let’s work through the passage to understand what Jesus was doing and is saying to us today.
Verse 4: John the Baptist is the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord. He is doing this by leaving the system of temple worship. He is returning to the wilderness, to the place where God led the people of Israel in power and in unexpected ways. He calls others to come and to join him in seeking God anew and restoring the covenant, from which many have fallen away. The covenant is about loving and following God.
Verse 5: His message is persuasive, because it touches people deeply in their cultural psyche, as well as being one of truth. John has an impact, because he speaks boldly, and even is called the greatest born of women by Jesus: the greatest prophet, the voice calling in the wilderness, calling the people back to their God.
Verse 6: John is also persuasive, because he lives differently. He does not participate in the same system as other religious leaders of the times. Much like the breath of fresh air that Pope Francis is felt to be, John would have invoked an immediate reaction: this guy is different.
Verse 7: John also knows this place: he is not the one to come, the one who will truly lead Israel back to the path of righteousness, of justice. The Messiah is coming, and it is not John; he is merely proclaiming a return to the covenant, so that God can be followed.
Verse 8: We work with the symbols we have. John acts within human life, using the symbolic history of Israel to evoke a return to the Red Sea, to the exodus, as people are baptised to return to the covenant. The Messiah will act within but also on human life: he will bring people back to God in a new way: by bringing God to them.
Verse 9: Such a specific person. Jesus, that guy from Nazareth, the one in Galilee, the one where nothing good can come from. Yeah, him. He came to be baptised. He journeyed to the Jordan to see John, to hear John, to be baptised. Jesus was baptised to that he agreed with the return to and the proclamation of a new Israel, a new people of God, having undergone a new exodus, a new Red Sea, a new baptism. These are the people of God: the ones who love and follow God, not the ones obsessed with correct forms of worship in the Temple. Why else would you be in the wilderness (where the Exodus took the Israelites) and not in Jerusalem?
Verse 10: But unlike other baptisms, this one inaugurates a coming kingdom, a return of something new, a new covenant is beginning and going to be fulfilled. God has come among humanity to live our human life, to die as one of us: Godforsaken, scorned, and alone. The heavens are torn open (like the tearing of the curtain of the Temple), that is, God is being revealed, and Jesus is anointed.
Verse 11: Jesus is anointed by the Spirit, as well as commissioned by the voice from heaven, “You are my son; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is identified as on a divine mission, identified with the divine, as the Son, just like Israel was, just like Isaac.
After that verse by verse jaunt, let us regroup thematically. Some incredible things are said of and about Jesus in these verses. That he was baptised and that he was anointed by the Spirit of God (see Luke 4:16-21 for the full impact of that). In religious language, it sort of makes sense: Jesus was being anointed for his ministry, having proclaimed his purpose to reconstitute the people of God through a renewed covenant, of which he (as God) would be a part; he would be Emmanuel — God with us, not merely in the cloud or in the fire of the journey, but in the dust and in clay and in pain and hunger of it. In this, Jesus shares our human life, our humanity, our materiality. He shares our suffering. But there is another element in all of this that bears on Jesus being manifested in human life: for this whole scene is also a political statement.
Human life is not lived alone, but in the polis, the community, the city. Jesus does not live alone either, but he resides in community and his actions impact that community. Jesus is not apolitical, but he preaches and participates in an eschatological-political action. In being baptised by John, he is saying, “Return to the wilderness, return to following God, the God who is Other, who is cloud and fire and voice, not hemmed in by your sacrifices and temple cult, by your liturgies and your incense.” All these things are not wholly bad, but if they destroy the movement of God among the people, if they oppress the people, they must be eschewed. So, a new covenant must be proposed, and Jesus is doing this by criticizing the Temple, and the political system contained therein. He is supporting a new understanding of following God, of living life: everyone can come to God, everyone can live in a new society, the Kingdom of God. Though he does not live individually, the individual is sort of born with Jesus, or the person, valued intrinsically. Boris Pasternak says it better, “Rome was a flea market of borrowed gods and conquered peoples, a bargain basement on two floors, earth and heaven, a mass of filth convoluted in a triple knot as in an intestinal obstruction. Dacians, Herulians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Hyperboreans, heavy wheels without spokes, eyes sunk in fat, sodomy, double chins, illiterate emperors, fish fed on the flesh of learned slaves. There were more people in the world than there have ever been since, all crammed into the passages of the Coliseum, and all wretched. And then, into this tasteless heap of gold and marble, He came, light and clothed in an aura, emphatically human, deliberately provincial, Galilean, and at that moment gods and nations ceased to be and man came into being – man the carpenter, man the plowman, man the shepherd with his flock of sheep at sunset, man who does not sound in the least proud, man thankfully celebrated in all the cradle songs of mothers and in all the picture galleries the world over.” Against the power and the oppression of Rome and the religiosity and rites of Jerusalem, Jesus went to the wilderness to meet with God, to proclaim that the Kingdom has come; a kingdom that is one of peace, not of war, one of justice, not of oppression, one of hope, not of fear, one of persons, not of castes nor of nationalities and ethnicities.
Today, Jesus is a strange thing. Both curative and destructive. We’ve molded God into symbols, again and again. Ones that are used to break chains and open doors, and ones that shut people down and up. Ones that lead to violence and destruction and ones that lead to peace and reconciliation. We’ve taken the emphatically human message of Jesus, even how he was manifested in human life, and we’ve at times turned that into death and hate. We’ve sought power and revengeance and not a spirit of serving in the name of Jesus, and he rebels at this, critiquing us as much as he did the Pharisees and the entire unjust Temple system of the first-century. In a world filled with suffering and with injustice, may we return to the message of Jesus, to the message of the incarnation: God is with us, in every way human and in every way God. Jesus dwelt among us, and God breathed our human air, drank our water, died our death. God did this to bring life, love, and the restoration of all creation. May we this new year and with all our lives seek out God. May we go to the wilderness to see how God moves unexpectedly and follow him whenever he leads. May we go to our own Jordans to recommit ourselves to the covenant God has with us, one of grace and of love. May we live into the Kingdom and may the Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, which has been torn open for us and for all. Amen.