I’ve recently begun watching the TV show Psych – and by “recently begun,” I mean that my husband and I have watched about a season and a half in the last month. If you are unfamiliar with this wonderful work of art, the show is based around Shawn Spencer – the son of a retired police officer who was trained by dear old dad to continue in the family business. Dad teaches him to be observant and to be able to piece together small details to learn something about a situation. The adult Shawn has no interest in being a cop, but begins calling the police hotline and solving crimes based on the brief reports in the evening news. As it turns out, Shawn is too successful, and the police become suspicious, assuming the only way he could know so much about the crimes is if he helped mastermind them. So in order to avoid being arrested, Shawn lies to the cops and says he is psychic. Shawn ends up starting his own psychic detective agency and begins officially assisting the police with their cases. I bring this up because Shawn often finds himself examining cases that are assumed to be open-and-shut. He looks at what seems obvious and sees something out of the ordinary that leads to the truth.
The day Jesus is baptized seems like a run-of-the-mill day in the Savior’s life. Jesus asks John to baptize him; the Spirit of God descends and announces “this is my Son. I’m proud of him.” Jesus is doing something spiritual, and God wows the crowd. Case closed. Roll the credits.
But maybe we need to rewind just a little. In the first 12 verses of Matthew, chapter 3, we are introduced to John the Baptist. He’s kinda a strange dude – wears camel’s hair, eats locusts. It’s easy to picture him as a character from the Flintstones, carrying a large club. He sticks out – even back in the first century. But there’s apparently something believeable about him, because people follow him – not just to see what he does next and post funny videos on YouTube – but because they believe that this strangely-dressed man with the unpleasant diet brings a message from God.
The writer of Matthew tells us that the people of Jerusalem and ALL Judea and the entire region along the Jordan were going out to him to be baptized. Matthew is exaggerating to let us know that there is a LARGE crowd hanging out by the river. And lots of them are getting baptized and confessing their sins. John even tells us that is his purpose – “I baptize you with water for repentance.” People come, confess their sins and are baptized to show their repentance.
Then John alerts us that there is another to come, one who is so great that John isn’t even worthy to carry his sandals. And what do you know, there he is! Jesus shows up, as if on cue, and asks John to baptize him. But wait. Didn’t John just tell us that his baptism is for repentance of sins? And isn’t Jesus sinless? That’s what we believe, right? Jesus never sinned. And John baptized as a sign of repentance. If you are confused, you are in good company – the writer of Matthew tells us John didn’t get it, either. He argues with Jesus, saying “I can’t do this! You should baptize me.” Matthew wants to make it clear that he knows that John has nothing to offer Jesus. But do you notice we really don’t get an answer? Jesus simply responds – go ahead, this is the way it is supposed to happen.
It’s kinda unsatisfying, isn’t it? Those in the early church certainly thought so. They came up with another document called the Gospel of the Hebrews. This book describes a scene at Jesus’s house. Mary and Jesus’s brothers want to go be baptized by John. Jesus responds “In what way have I sinned that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless perhaps, what I have just said is a sin of ignorance.” That quote alone probably shows why the Gospel of the Hebews did not make it into our Bible, but it also shows us that the early Christians were searching for answers. So they decide that maybe Jesus was baptized to please his mother. After all, honoring one’s parents is a good biblical command. And the truth is, we really aren’t any closer to an answer. David May, my New Testament professor at Central Seminary, is a fantastic guy. He is a scholar, but more than that, he is a man of faith. However, he had a mischievous smirk on his face when he asked the class I was in “why was Jesus baptized?” And like any good, mischievous professor, he never gave us an answer, but left us to ponder.
Beyond that question is another — what happened while Jesus was baptized? This past year, I was the deacon assigned to assist women on the morning of their baptism. It was my job to find robes that were the right size, pin weights to the bottom so that the robe would not float, have towels ready to help the women dry off and simply to be there as they waited. I found that the largest part of that job was helping people with their nerves. Women and girls who had no fear of water and no fear of crowds became incredibly nervous before being baptized. Having experienced the same nervousness at my own baptism, I can say that it seems silly. The person being baptized doesn’t have to do any of the work. In my tradition, they are dunked and the whole thing is over. But saying that nervousness is silly does not make the jitters go away. I can pretty much guarantee if I’d told any of those women that as they were coming up from the water, the sky was going to open and a dove would land on them the whole thing would have been cancelled. They would not have gone through with it.
This may be another of those spots to examine, because when we read this, don’t we picture the clouds parting, revealing a bright blue sky – a nice picturesque scene with a dove flying down? It’s a really nice image, but it isn’t what the text describes. Matthew says the heavens were opened – a watered-down version of what Mark describes in his telling. Mark says that the heavens were torn apart – think sci-fi movie image. This was huge – especially when we remember that the science of the first century was not nearly as advanced as ours. If you remember back to your science classes, the belief at the time was that the world was flat. God was believed to be in the heavens which were located above the earth – hence the problem with the Tower of Babel being built to reach the heavens. God is “up there.” It is where references to “The Man Upstairs” come from. The prophet Isaiah prayed to God in chapters 63-64 asking God to “look down from heaven and see…” and continued “o that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence – as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil – to make your name known to your adversaries, so that nations might tremble at your presence!”
Remember those large crowds present at the Jordan River? They are good, Jewish people. They were familiar with Isaiah. They knew what the ripping open of the heavens meant – God was loose. That doesn’t quite carry the same weight today, because we talk of God being present everywhere; but you’ll remember that in the Old Testament, God’s presence was carried in the Ark of the Covenant. When the temple was built, the Holy of Holies was where God resided. If you remember back to the Exodus story, when the people received the Ten Commandments, the people asked Moses to go talk to God and report back with what God said because they were afraid and trembling. “Do not let God speak to us,” they said, “Or we will die.”
While Isaiah prayed for God to come down, the understanding was that if that would actually happen, it would be the end of the world. God speaks, everyone dies. So we can imagine what everyone was thinking when the voice came down from heaven. Is anyone wanting to be baptized now?
Do you wonder how the gospel writer could just move on from that? The next verse is “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Perhaps by that point, the crowds thought they had seen it all – and yet this baptism was just the beginning of Jesus’s ministry.
This isn’t what we expect, is it? Beginning with a seemingly needless baptism, tucked into a rather terrifying appearance of God. But isn’t that just it? Can we find any part of Jesus’s story that happens as predicted? The most important child ever born (my apologies to all the mothers here!) is birthed in a barn. His first visitors are shepherds. The church season we are in now is epiphany – which celebrates the coming of the magi – gentiles are the first to recognize the King of the Jews. The people of the day expected the Messiah to be a political leader who would get rid of the Romans and become a king, like David. But instead, Jesus is put to death by those he was supposed to overcome. When he died, it was expected that he would stay that way – even those closest to him were shocked when he rose from the grave. Perhaps today’s text is a reminder that we can’t control God. God is loose in the world. We don’t get to decide where God will go or what God will do – and isn’t that scary?
Jesus’s baptism is the start of something new – and everyone present that day knew it. We know it as the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, the starting point of the God who is with and among us – who is loose in the world. We celebrate our own baptism as the beginning of a new life following the Christ. I’m going to close today by playing a song by singer/songwriter Kyle Matthews called “Been Through the Water.” As you listen, I hope you’ll begin to ponder the meaning of your own baptism – not just the church doctrine, but what the experience has truly meant in your life.
Read more from Jennifer at her blog.