The Baptism of the Lord
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I didn’t have time to introduce it last week; I was too busy talking about Gnosticism and Zoroastrianism and that took up most of the sermon; but last week was the first week in a series that will take us all the way through the Season of Epiphany. It’s called “The Truth about God,” and I started by talking about truth in general, about how hard it is to come by these days and how sometimes we still don’t know what to believe. So, how can you be sure that the truth I’m going to share with you over these next few weeks is, actually, the truth about God? Well, because I’m going to be talking to you about Jesus, who once referred to himself as “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” If we can’t get the Truth about God from him, we probably can’t get it from anybody.
Last week I was reminded of a sermon I preached here on December 26, 2010—the First Sunday of Christmas.[i] It was a sermon about the Incarnation, but in the introduction I talked about how we get to the truth about God. I said: “As far as theological concepts go, incarnation isn’t as hard to grasp as the Trinity—the idea of one God in three persons—but it still isn’t easy. One of the best treatments of the subject is in a book called God Was in Christ, written by Donald M. Baillie back in 1948 and still a classic. Baillie writes, ‘It is astonishing how many people assume that they know what the word “God” means. But it is still more astonishing that even when we profess Christian belief and set out to try to understand the mystery of God becoming man we are apt to start with some conception of God, picked up we know not where, an idol of the cave or of the market-place, which is different from the Christian conception, and then to attempt the impossible task of understanding how such a God could incarnate in Jesus.’ That is, instead of looking at God through the clear and well-focused lens of Christ we turn the telescope around, and look at Christ through our clouded, preconceived notions of God. For example, if you begin with a God who is a kindly old grandfather, perhaps a bit senile, you will arrive at one understanding of Jesus, but if you begin with a God who is a stern and unforgiving judge you will arrive at another.
“I find this especially interesting in light of a book called America’s Four Gods, written by two professors at Baylor University. According to Paul Froese (pronounced ‘phrase’) and Christopher Bader, the way Americans view God falls into four categories. Using the results from a 2008 survey, the authors demonstrate that about 28 percent of Americans believe in an ‘authoritative God.’ ‘Someone who has an authoritative God believes in a God who is very judgmental and very engaged in the world at the same time,’ said Bader, adding that they also tend to be evangelical and male. For 22 percent of Americans, mostly evangelical women, the Almighty is characterized as a ‘benevolent God’ who is thoroughly involved in their lives but is loving, not stern. ‘It’s definitely a personal relationship, like a friendship, like a companionship,’ said one. ‘Just in case somebody’s not there for you, he’s always there.’ Others believe in a ‘critical God’ who is removed from daily events but will render judgment in the afterlife. Bader said, ‘We find a strong tendency for people who are at lower levels of income and education to believe in the “critical God.”’ The fourth and final way that those surveyed view God is a ‘distant God’ who set the universe in motion, but then disengaged.[ii]
“Can you see how your understanding of God would affect your ideas about the Incarnation? If you thought of God as authoritative and judgmental, what kind of flesh would that God take on? If you thought of God as loving and benevolent, what human form would that God assume? What about a God who is critical? Or a God who is distant and disengaged? This is just the kind of problem Donald Baillie points out: that if we begin with our ideas about God and then imagine what sort of human form those ideas would take, we end up with a distorted understanding of the Incarnation. Baillie writes, ‘It is only as Christians that we can hope to understand the Incarnation.’ That is, instead of starting with some vague, unformed notion of God and putting flesh on it, we need to begin with Jesus, and let him show us what God is really like. But we don’t always do that. David H. C. Read, the legendary pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, said, ‘We still find in our congregations many who struggle to fit the figure of Jesus into the image of God that they already possess. They seldom seem to wonder where it came from. Many sermons still seem to be based on the assumption that we all know what we mean by God and the Christian, particularly the preacher, has to demonstrate how the figure of Jesus can be shown to match this image.’[iii]
So, when we talk about the Word becoming flesh (as I was in that sermon), it makes a difference which word we start with. Some people seem to think of Jesus as the incarnation of the word truth. Others think of him as the incarnation of love. Some seem to think of him as the incarnation of justice while others think of him as the incarnation of mercy. What we need to do, instead of looking at a word, is to look at the Word—the capital “W” Word-made-flesh—and derive our understanding of God from him. The author of John’s Gospel says as much. In chapter 1, verse 18, he writes, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known.” And that’s what Epiphany is all about: it’s about making God known. It’s that season of the year when the light around Jesus begins to get brighter and brighter, when we begin to see him more and more for who he really is. But this year let us agree that the more we see Jesus for who he really is, the more we see God for who God really is, that is, the more we learn “the truth about God.” So, in the weeks ahead we might need to ask:
- What kind of God would turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee? (next Sunday’s Gospel lesson).
- What kind of God would preach in his hometown synagogue and eventually make the congregation so angry that they wanted to throw him off a cliff?
- What kind of God would call a bunch of fishermen to be his disciples, telling them that from then on they would be catching people?
- What kind of God would say to the crowds, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”?
- What kind of God would say, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you?”
- And, circling back to today’s Gospel lesson, what kind of God would come to the Jordan River and present himself for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?
It doesn’t make sense.
It didn’t make sense to John the Baptist. In Matthew’s Gospel he says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” And Jesus replies, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Do you see those words chiseled in stone above our baptistery: “to fulfill all righteousness?” Sometimes we get confused by that, and think baptism is what we have to do to fulfill our righteousness. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.[iv]
The word we translate as “righteousness” in this passage is the Greek word dikaiosune. It may have been Paul’s favorite word, and when Paul used it, it meant something like “the right-making power of a righteous God,” that is, God’s ability to make us right with him rather than something we do to make us right with God. If you look at it this way, Jesus’ baptism may have been one part of that right-making process, a process Paul describes in Philippians 2:5-11 by saying:
Christ, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
“Do you see how the line of movement in that passage goes down and then back up again, how Christ shrugs off his glory and descends lower, lower, and lower, until he is at last in the grave, and then how God lifts him higher, higher, and higher, until every knee is bending and every tongue is confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord? If Jesus is going to fulfill all righteousness, if he is going to be the one through whom God makes us right, then it isn’t enough for him to be “like” us, he must become one of us, and I believe that’s what he was doing in his baptism. Paul says he was “born in human likeness,” he was “found in human form,” but in his baptism “he humbled himself.” He waded out into water that was still muddy with human sin; he allowed himself to be immersed in the human condition; he came up one of us because it is only as one of us that he can do any of us any good.
I remember, early in my ministry, standing on a front porch hearing confession. I had gone to visit a woman who had dropped out of church years earlier. She didn’t invite me in, but as I stood there she told me how she didn’t think God could ever forgive her. She had done a lot of bad things, she said, but the worst of those was turning her back on God after the death of her mother. I tried to comfort her. I told her we all make mistakes. I said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes myself.”
“Don’t say that!” she snapped. “Don’t tell me you’ve made mistakes. You’re a preacher, and I put preachers up on a pedestal.”
And then I wanted to tell her what she had told me: “Don’t say that!” Because I know what every preacher knows—I am only human, and as a human I share with people everywhere the human tendency to make mistakes, to sin. I’m not proud of that, but I do know this: while it might be nice to be up on a pedestal you can’t do ministry from up there. You might be able to hand down judgment or blessing but you can’t sit by someone’s hospital bed when you’re on a pedestal; you can’t hug someone who’s hurting; you can’t hear what someone confesses to you in a whispered voice. Jesus knew this, and so, when John tried to put him up on a pedestal—when he told the crowds he wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandal, and when he told Jesus that he, John, should be baptized by him—Jesus said, “Let it be, John, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words this is the way God has chosen to use his remarkable right-making power—by emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and eventually humbling himself by wading out into the waters of the Jordan. Jesus was baptized with a bunch of sinners not because he, himself, was a sinner, but because he knew you can’t do ministry from a pedestal. No one can.
Not even God.
I’m not sure John understood that. I think his head was probably still full of questions when he finally consented and dipped Jesus down under the water. But later, when Jesus was praying by himself, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased!” which makes me think that even if John didn’t get it, the Father did. He knew what it would take to make us right. It would take someone who was equal to God but not afraid to empty himself of his divinity, to come down off the pedestal, to be found in human form. It would take someone who wasn’t ashamed to humble himself, to wade out into water still muddy with human sin and be immersed in the human condition. It would take someone, in other words, who knew that what we needed was not a God who was up there, somewhere, but one who was right down here where we are. That is to say that what we needed, more than any of us even knew…
—Jim Somerville © 2021
[i] Jim Somerville, “The Word Became Flesh,” a sermon preached on December 26, 2010, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.
[ii] Information in this paragraph is from an article by Dan Harris and Enjoli Francis on the ABC News web site (“A Look at the 4 Ways Americans View God,” October 7, 2010).
[iii] David H. C. Read, “The Paradox of Incarnation” (The Living Pulpit, Vol. 3, No. 1 [January – March 1994], p. 38).
[iv] In the following paragraphs I pick up on some of the ideas presented in a sermon I preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church in 2009 and later published in a book called The Seven FIRST Words of Christ (Nurturing Faith, 2020). The sermon is “Let It Be.” If you’d like a copy of the book, I would be glad to send you one. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.