In Luke’s gospel there’s none of that stuff about John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair, or breaking into beehives for his breakfast, or eating locusts for lunch. That’s not Luke’s style. For Luke, John the Baptist isn’t some bugged-out cartoonish hermit. He’s no joke, and his message is deadly serious. Luke says that John’s message was simple: Get yourselves right with God by being immersed in the Jordan for the forgiveness of your sins.
And when the crowds of sinners, tax collectors, and Roman soldiers showed up seeking forgiveness, John wasn’t easy on them. He called them a brood of vipers. He told them that God didn’t need them, that God could raise up new children from stones. He told them that the tree that bears no fruit is cut down and used to feed the fire. He said there is wheat and there is chaff and wheat goes to the barn and chaff goes to the flames. And he demanded that they change their ways: you must care for those in need, you must stop all abuses of your power.
And then he baptized them. And you know what? I don’t think he was gentle about it. I think he held those trembling bodies down under the water well past the point of comfort. The water of the Jordan was more than just a symbol to John. I imagine he felt the transforming power of God for the forgiveness of sins troubling the water that flowed around his waist day after day. And while God can act in a single atom of time, it takes a little longer sometimes for the human heart to respond, right? So, John, he held those bureaucrats and bullies and selfish meanies down under the water and gave them all the time he could to think about how to be a better person than a person made from a stone, to think about how to drive their roots down, how to drink deep, how to offer God seasons and seasons of good fruit. This wasn’t a happy splash on an innocent infant at the baptismal font. John’s baptism was a thrashing of body and soul.
And for anybody to walk all the way out to the Jordan in the middle of nowhere, to allow themselves to be talked to like that, to put themselves into the hands of a wildman like that? Boy, they must have really messed up. We’re talking rock bottom.
You’ve heard me tell this story before when John the Baptist has come up, right? And one of the difficulties with being the pastor to bunch of smarty pantses who are actually listening is that you all come up with questions—questions like this (inquiring minds want to know): if Jesus was the Son of God and without sin, then why would he subject himself to being baptized by John in the Jordan?
Well, we could look at what the Gospel of Matthew says. The way Matthew tells it, when Jesus shows up at the Jordan, John protests, “Me baptize you? YOU should baptize me!” So Jesus explains why John should do the watery deed. He says (and I quote), “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” And that—whatever that means—somehow convinces John to dunk Jesus. If you ask me, it sounds like Matthew may have also been a little stumped on the question of why Jesus was baptized.
Here’s one for all the art history majors: maybe Jesus did it for all those wonderful paintings. Go to any fine art museum and you’re likely to find at least one painting of Jesus coming up out of the waters of baptism. John is beside him. And the heavens are torn open and light and thunder and angels fill the sky. And a dove is divebombing down straight to the crown of Jesus’ wet and haloed head. So, maybe Jesus was in the water just because he knew it would make a nice backdrop for God calling out from heaven, “This is my child, the beloved. With him I am well pleased!”
But the thing is, as we just read, here in Luke’s gospel, Luke doesn’t even depict the famous scene of Jesus actually in the water. He just mentions that Jesus got baptized with the rest of schmoes down at the river one day. And then Luke bumps God’s big reveal about Jesus’ messianic identity with the dove and the voice and all that until after Jesus had toweled off and gone to find himself a dry place to pray.
It’s like Luke is saying, God’s announcement and Jesus’ baptism aren’t as closely connected as rumored. And, so, then, why did Jesus get in line with all those sinners that day, if he was sinless, and didn’t need the baptism to become the Messiah?
One reason that’s been put forward frequently is that Jesus must have been doing it because he wanted to act like a normal human even though he was really better than everybody, which reminds me of the premise of a lot of sci-fi sitcoms where an alien trapped in a human body or an android teenager is just trying to fit in on planet earth. Some of the gnostic sects in the early centuries of the Christian movement taught that Jesus was a Spirit and he didn’t need to eat, and that when the scriptures depict Jesus eating, he was just doing it to fit in. But we’ve largely rejected that spiritualization of the person of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t pretending to be with us. He was really here with us—fully human, in the flesh.
Maybe he wasn’t trying to fit in, maybe Jesus wanted to set a good example for the rest of us. Which reminds me of the many parents I’ve met who start coming to church and tell me that they’re coming so their kids have a place to think about spirituality and morality and God. And I always ask, “What about you, do you need a place like that too or is it just them?” Which usually results in a laugh and a good conversation.
Maybe Jesus only got baptized or prayed or did anything else that you wouldn’t expect God to have to do, to set a good example for us kids. But my experience of Jesus is that he isn’t floating through his life, aloof. There are moments when he stands up in front in of the blackboard and clears his throat and begins to teach. But there are also moments where it feels like he’s gone home for the day—he’s seeks a secluded spot, he goes for a sail, he takes a nap, he sits around the fire with his friends and enjoys a fish.
Isn’t part of being human satisfying the need to eat? And isn’t a part of being human satisfying some soul needs? I went to a museum and I felt God as I walked through the galleries—I couldn’t stop smiling; I heard live music in a bar with a good drink and my soul sang. If Jesus had come with me, which smile would he have worn? The professional smile of a good teacher at work? Or the smile of a rascal soaking up beauty and beer for no other reason but for the sake of being fully human, fully alive?
So, then, maybe (just to be thorough) we have to ask: was our fully human Jesus really sinless? One argument for Jesus’ sinlessness is the 800-pound gorilla argument. What does an 800-pound gorilla eat? Whatever he wants. The idea is that if Jesus is God, he can do whatever he wants, and its not a sin because he’s God. In a world of power run amuck, that one doesn’t go down too easy. Another argument is that Jesus was just that good—a perfect little angel.
But remember two weeks ago? Jesus ran away from mom and dad during Passover when he was 12-years old to teach in the Temple. They were worried sick and searched everywhere for him. Obviously, he’s not a perfect angel. And the 800-pound gorilla argument doesn’t take into account the pain that he caused Mary and Joseph by running away from them. If you or I did that, even if we didn’t intend to hurt anyone, we would hopefully realize that we had caused pain to others, and we would hopefully want to do something to repair that relationship.
I guess I could believe its possible for Jesus to have never intentionally hurt anyone. But we all know, people are complicated, relationships are hard. Relationships require forgiveness and the seeking of forgiveness. It’s a fundamental ingredient we need from one another, not because we’re going to intentionally destroy one another, but because we’re going to miscommunicate, misjudge, misunderstand.
If marriage has taught me anything, it has taught me that the words, “But that’s not the way I intended you to hear that,” are worse than worthless. They make things worse, not better. And the words, “Oh, love, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said that,” can go a long way.
Intention is important in the big picture. When we’re standing before God on Judgment Day, I think our intentions will weigh in how we’re judged. But when we’re standing before our hurting neighbors, in this world, a defense of our good intentions rarely results in reconciliation.
We must be humble. We need to love others as we love ourselves. It will give us a perspective: if sin is that which comes between us and God, between us and other people, even the best intentions cannot eliminate sin – there it is! But I didn’t intend for it to be there. Can’t I just explain it away? No, you can’t. It’s there. It snuck in. It got in between you and your neighbor, and once it’s got in that far, it gets between you and God, even between you and yourself—who you really want to be. How are you going to clean it out?
We’re coming into a time in our culture when people with privilege are being asked to confront their own privilege. And it’s hard work. It’s not my fault I have privilege. I was just woke up and there it was—I was a man. It couldn’t be helped. My skin never got any darker. I’m white. I was born this way. It can’t be helped. I didn’t mean it. It’s not my fault. What do you want me to do about it?
I think maybe what Jesus, waiting in line with all the sinners, and tax collectors, and centurions, would say to us is: I didn’t say it was your fault. You were born into a broken world of unjust privilege. Just because its not your fault doesn’t mean it’s not real. The sin has gotten itself all over you and weaseled its way in between you and your neighbors—it’s keeping you apart, it’s hurting people you don’t intend or want to hurt, and it’s coming between us. And I know it’s not who you want to be.
Look at me! I never did anything wrong, but I’m in line with everybody else, and I’m going to hand myself over to that madman in the water, and I’m going to give myself totally over to the power of God in that water, and I’m going to thrash and revel in the release of forgiveness. Don’t you understand? This water isn’t a punishment! It’s a gift! And I want to feel it. And then I’m going to dry off, find a place to pray, and get to work fixing what I can fix.
That’s what repentance is about, I think. It’s about doing the work with God to separate the wheat and chaff inside of you. The wheat plant contains the seeds, the grain, and then all the stuff that’s not the grain, the chaff. It’s all one plant. And the farmer uses a winnowing fork to separate the wheat grain (which is food) from the wheat chaff (which is transformed by fire into smoke and released).
And every life is like this. Every single one of us has things we want to overcome, let go of, and every single one of us has gifts we want to draw out of the husk. Even Jesus when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion, he was separating the grain and the chaff, he was finding his resolve and letting go his fear. Repentance is not about feeling bad for how much chaff there is, it’s about finding the energy to burn through it, to find our fruit, and to rededicate ourselves to a life freed from anything that comes between us our neighbors, between us and who God is calling us to be.
Beloved, are you ready to join Jesus? Are you ready to get in line?