Washing up for God
I was a teenager
and I was riding with my mother from Raleigh
where we lived
down to Wendell to see my grandparents.
As we drove along old Hwy 64
my mother pointed to a river that ran near the highway.
“Right over there--right at that spot in the river--
that’s where I was baptized.”
She had never pointed that out before
and she never pointed it out again.
I was too young or too into my own adolescence
to be all that interested that day
or to ask any questions.
I regret that now.
Because I can’t remember the place on the river,
the place where my mother was baptized
and I wish I could.
But what really matters
is that my mother remembered the place.
She knew the where of her baptism
because it mattered to her.
The place of Jesus’ baptism
obviously was important to the writers of the four gospels.
Matthew, Mark and Luke
all explicitly describe Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River.
The gospel of John doesn’t describe the baptism
but refers to it implicitly.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ.
Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.
Remember, we are in the season of Epiphany
and Epiphany is chock full of events
that shine light upon Jesus’ divinity.
This is no ordinary fellow the scripture keeps telling us.
No ordinary fellow.
So why then did Jesus need to be baptized?
Scholars and ordinary folks have wrestled and theorized
about this question
First a little background information:
The word baptism comes from the Greek word
which means “washing.”
Washing rituals were important.
Not only to the ancient Hebrews
but to many other ancient religions.
The washing of vessels used for food,
the washing of hands before eating,
the ritual washing by women at the end of their monthly cycle.
We read about these washing rituals in scripture
as well as other historical writings.
These washings were not for the purpose of getting physically clean--
they were for the purpose of getting spiritually clean--
preparing body, mind, spirit and all things surrounding
to receive God’s presence, to welcome God’s action.
One of these ritual washings
was used for someone who wanted to convert to Judaism.
At the time when Jesus lived,
there were several different sectarian Jewish communities.
The Pharisees and the Sadduces were essentially city dwellers.
They followed the tradition which said
if your mother is Jewish, you are Jewish.
Thus, no ritual washing, no baptism,
was needed for your conversion.
But another one of these groups was the Essenes.
They lived in the desert.
We best know the Essenes as those who authored and saved
what we call the “Dead Sea scrolls”
Some Essenes believed that everyone
needed a ritual washing,
even those who were, by tradition, already Jews.
They felt that the washing, the baptism,
was symbolic of their conversion and purification.
Archaelogical digs at the Essene community near the Dead Sea
have found large pool-shaped depressions
where these ritual baths, these baptisms,
So you see,
not everyone was baptized in a river.
Some believe that John the Baptist
was a member of the Essene community.
Scripture and other writings do not confirm this
nor do they deny this.
But certainly John lived an ascetic lifestyle like the Essenes
and he lived in the desert.
It is very possible that John was a member
of this early Christian community
which called for the baptism of all converts,
for everyone, even those who were born in Judaism.
And this leads us back to the question:
Why did Jesus need baptizing at all?
his mother was Jewish.
He was not an Essene--
he grew up in Nazareth in Galilee,
not in the Dead Sea area.
Plus if Jesus was the Son of God,
if Jesus was completely without sin
which is what we hear repeatedly throughout the New Testament writing,
why did Jesus need to be baptized?
There are a lot of theories from a diverse variety of scholars--
here are just a few:
THEORY # 1:
Jesus and John plotted together to do this
to get attention
for Jesus’ ministry.
Hmmmm...I don’t think I am going to buy this theory.
It sounds a little too much like a 21st century PR campaign
and it just doesn’t ring true to me.
THEORY # 2:
Jesus got baptized to please his mother.
This was suggested in an ancient text
(the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews)
but it wasn’t even accepted by the early church
and isn’t likely to hold water (no pun intended)
THEORY # 3:
Jesus submitted to baptism
as a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection---
Now this theory makes more theological sense--
you go under the water (death),
and you are raised back up again (resurrection).
This is some of the theology behind full immersion baptism--
but we have no proof that Jesus’ baptism was full immersion.
We believe that was the early tradition
but already by the 3rd century baptism was primarily by pouring
or even just sprinkling with water
as part of the washing ritual.
The oldest icons of this baptism event
show Jesus standing in the Jordan River,
the water barely up to his mid-calf
and John is pouring water over his head.
He is not being “dunked.”
THEORY # 4:
Jesus came to represent all of sinful humanity
and his baptism represented the washing away of all sins.
Again, there is theological soundness to this theory,
but the problem with this theory is
John was not primarily baptizing for repentance,
the TURNING AWAY from sin--
yes, that was part of it,
BUT John’s was much more a TURNING TOWARD--
turning toward the coming kingdom of God.
John the Baptizer’s mission was to prepare the way
for the Messiah to come,
not to just cleanse humanity
but to get them ready to receive.
So why did Jesus go to be baptized?
Perhaps for much of the same reason
we bring a baby to be baptized
or we go to be baptized ourselves.
Baptism makes us part of a community--
a community of people who love God
and believe that God loves them.
A community of people
who commit to trying their hardest
to love one another, too.
A community of people
who desires justice and peace
and respects the dignity
of every human being.
we are given new birth
by water and the Holy Spirit.
And so was Jesus.
He was given new birth
because his baptism marks the beginning
of his public ministry.
God promised John
the Messiah was coming
and God gave John some ways to identify Him.
John looked at Jesus
and what he saw was God’s promise fulfilled.
Jesus chose to be baptized
as a confirmation, fulfillment of what God had promised.
Jesus did not go to the Temple to be baptized.
Jesus went to his crazy cousin, this radical preacher John.
Jesus went to the river.
The river Jordan.
The waters of the Jordan River,
just like the waters of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus
represent all that is chaotic, all that can pull us under and drown us.
But chaos does not win.
The Hebrew people make it through the Red Sea
and escape the chaos of oppression.
Joshua leads the Israelites over the Jordan River,
out of the chaos of the wilderness
into the promised land.
Both the names Jesus and Joshua
come from the Hebrew “y’shua”
which means “God saves.”
Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River
shows us once more
that God is with us.
Sometimes the river rages,
threatening to overflow the banks.
Sometimes the river moseys along gently, peacefully.
Just like our lives,
the river is constantly moving, always changing.
But one thing never changes:
The love God has for each one of us.
A love so deep, so immense, so full of light
that it can never be washed away.