Celebrity Sightings: “In Those Days”
First Baptist Richmond, January 14, 2024
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
As I’ve been thinking about this series called “Celebrity Sightings” I’ve been asking people if they have ever seen any actual celebrities. I asked my daughter Catherine about it at breakfast one morning and she said yes. She said she had once seen David Beckham, the famous soccer player. “Where was that?” I asked, and she said, “At a DC United Game in Washington.” And then we had to talk about whether it really counts as a celebrity sighting if you have to pay to see the celebrity. Like, can you drop into casual conversation that you once saw Taylor Swift if it was at a concert and you had to pay $500 for the tickets? Catherine thought some more and then she said, “Oh, yeah. That actress, what’s-her-name, handed me my award at the Kennedy Center.” “Which actress?” “Um, she was in Forrest Gump.” “Sally Field?” “Yes. Sally Field.”
And maybe it’s just because Catherine was always being honored in those days, but I hadn’t remembered that she was once handed an award at the Kennedy Center by two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, which means that their hands may have actually touched, and that takes celebrity sighting to a whole new level. I’m thinking about today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, chapter 1, where John the Baptist (who was a celebrity in his own right) baptizes Jesus (who is, arguably, the most famous person who has ever lived).
As someone who has done a few baptisms I can tell you that it is one of the most intimate acts of ministry, because you’re not just talking to people at the comfortable distance between pulpit and pew, and you’re not just pronouncing them husband and wife from three feet away. When you baptize you put your hands on people. We often rehearse in my study before the baptism itself (I like to have two or three people present because, as I said, it’s intimate, and I want to make sure that everything we do is above reproach). I ask the candidate to stand with me so I can demonstrate the special grip I learned in seminary, where I reach out with my left hand and take hold of the candidate’s right wrist, so they can pinch their nose before going under the water. And then I take the candidate’s other hand and lock it onto my left wrist. I almost always joke with them by saying, “That’s the safety in case I forget to bring you back up again.” But then I hold my right hand over their heads and repeat the words I learned in seminary: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, and upon your profession of faith in him, I baptize you into the family of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And then I put my right hand on their back to support them in the water, and lift my left hand so they can pinch their nose, and sometimes I whisper, “Bend your knees,” which makes their baptism so much easier for me.
We rehearse all that in the study but in the baptistery we actually do it. I dip them down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and as soon as they are completely submerged I lift them up again. I get to see the expression on their faces when they go down into the water and when they come back up. I get to hear them draw their first breath afterward and watch them wipe the water from their eyes. John the Baptist got that close to Jesus, close enough to touch, and as I said last week, encounters with Jesus can change people. I believe that
one changed John, but I don’t have a lot of evidence.
All we really know about John the Baptist comes from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and from the works of Josephus, the Jewish historian. Let’s begin with Luke, who tells us how John got his start in life. Luke says it happened when his father, Zechariah, was offering incense in the temple. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth [even though she’s way too old for it] will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”i
There was, already, among God’s people an expectation that someone would prepare the way of the Messiah. It was written in the Book of the Prophet Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”ii In the very next chapter the Lord says: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” So, when Elizabeth got the news that she was going to have a baby, and when she heard that it would be his calling to make ready for the Lord a people prepared, she must have gotten very excited. And when her cousin Mary came to see her, and Elizabeth’s baby leapt inside the womb, it must have been Elizabeth’s pleasure to tell Mary, “He’s jumping for joy!
He knows he’s just met the Messiah, the one whose way he is destined to prepare!”
But did they ever meet outside the womb before his baptism? Did Jesus and John get to know each other at family reunions through the years? Did they stand side by side in the buffet line and fill their plates? If you ask John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, he will tell you that they didn’t. In chapter 1, verse 31, John the Baptist claims, “I myself did not know [the Son of God]; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”iii
Josephus wouldn’t go that far, but speaking as a historian he described John as, “A good man, who…commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” And he confirmed the testimony of the Gospels by saying, “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words.” Josephus goes on from there to talk about John’s execution by King Herod, but he doesn’t say anything about his association with Jesus, or how he might have been changed by his encounter at the river.iv
Matthew’s Gospel implies that Jesus and John did know each other. When Jesus comes to be baptized John says, “I should be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It sounds as if he recognizes him, doesn’t it? And Jesus’ response suggests that he does, that they may have known each other for years. He says, “Let it be so now, for it is necessary in this way for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
But in Mark’s Gospel there is no indication that Jesus and John were previously acquainted. Mark only says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” We don’t know how they greeted each other. We don’t know what John may have said to Jesus before he was baptized. But we do know that afterward the sky was ripped open and the Spirit came fluttering down and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Did John hear it? I believe that he did. He was standing right there! And even before he heard it I believe that he knew it. A few verses before the baptism he says, “The One who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” And then this—this baptism when the Holy Spirit itself descends upon Jesus, filling him up and empowering him to do all those things that would come after. It would have been unforgettable. I can almost hear John talking about it in the days that followed, telling the others who came for baptism, “He was right here. The Messiah! The one I’ve been telling you about. He came to me asking for baptism and I took hold of him with these two hands. I dipped him down under the water and brought him back up again and when I did the sky opened up and the Spirit came down and the voice of God said, “You are my Son.”
Apart from all the other things we might say about that moment I want us to pause and imagine what it would be like to actually touch Jesus. There’s that woman in chapter 5 of this Gospel who didn’t dare do that, who thought to herself, “If only I touch the hem of his garment I will be healed.”v That’s what she did, and she was, and Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” He felt
the healing power going out of him to this woman who had merely touched the hem of his garment. What would she have felt if she had taken his hand? What did John feel when he took hold of Jesus to baptize him? What would you or I feel, if we not only saw him from a distance, but looked into his eyes, felt his breath on our faces, his hands on our shoulders?
I think about that leper at the end of Mark 1 who says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Mark says, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ And immediately the leprosy left him.”vi Apparently Jesus didn’t have to touch him. There are other places in the Gospels where he simply says the word and people are healed.vii But in this case he did. He chose to. He chose to touch an untouchable who probably hadn’t been touched by anyone in years. Do you think that former leper ever forgot that moment? Do you think he was ever the same? Do you think the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment was ever the same? Do you think John the Baptist was ever the same?
At the beginning of this series I said, “We’re going to focus on the Gospel lessons for Epiphany and zoom in on those moments where people have an actual encounter with Jesus, because here’s what I believe: 1) I believe that the people who had such encounters were changed forever by the experience; 2) I believe that it is still possible to have encounters with the living Lord; And 3) I believe that if we do, we will be changed forever.” But how do we do that, and in light of today’s sermon, how do we get close enough to Jesus to touch him?
As I was writing this sermon I was reminded of a story about Saint Francis of Assisi, which I was able to find on the Internet, retold by a woman named Erin Vinacco who said that when Francis was first awakening to the spiritual life and
trying to separate himself from his former life of luxury, he started going to the caves near Assisi to meditate and pray. One day, while he was on his horse, he saw a leper in the distance. “At that time leprosy was just terrifying,” Vinacco said. “Everybody was afraid of it, even Francis. He was on his horse, and he saw this leper in the distance, and he was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get out of here.’ So, you know, he kicks his horse but suddenly the horse starts going towards the leper. So, his mind is saying one thing, ‘I’m afraid. I need to get out of here.’ But his heart is drawing him forward, and his body, right? It’s drawing him forward towards this leper. And when he gets there he jumps off [his horse] but even as he’s approaching I mean, the sight, the smell, everything is just…I won’t go into the details. It’s quite graphic. But you can imagine it was not a pleasant experience. It’s not something you want to ride towards, particularly. But something compelled him and as he gets there he jumps off the horse and he offers this person all the money that he had and he’s ready to take off again and something in him compels him to take the person’s hand and kiss—kiss their hand—and he’s just flooded with such bliss, with a happiness that he’s never known. It’s beyond all reason, beyond all explanation.”viii
Jesus once said, “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you to me.” He might say that when Francis kissed that leper’s hand, he was kissing his hand. And Francis might say that whoever’s hand it was,
He was never the same.
—Jim Somerville © 2024