John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “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.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
My sermon from the Baptism of Jesus (January 11, 2015) on Mark 1:4-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
It seems every year, around August, an article or facebook post about the university I attended catches my eye. And it’s always the same article and it’s always about the same thing: the swim test. My university is one of the few remaining schools that require you to pass a swim test to graduate. 3 laps in an olympic sized swimming pool – that’s all it takes – and then you’re able to graduate.
This requirement seems simple enough. But I rarely meet anyone who likes it. I remember as a freshman during orientation week, which is the usual time when you take the test, and I remember hanging out in pool house, and I was just one of hundreds of freshmen hanging out in their swimsuits, shyly just kinda milling about because no one knew anyone else – and we were all lined up, waiting for our turn. And then someone called our name – recorded our attempt to complete the test on a clipboard – and we’d jump in. I don’t remember if we all did it one at a time – or if a group of us jumped in like we were in our own Olympic race – but I do remember standing at the edge of the water, looking in. I remember the sounds – the talking – splashing – the looking around – and I remember feeling of nervousness about what would happen if I didn’t make it. Maybe I stayed out too late the night before or maybe the fact that I hadn’t swam a lap in years would actually show. I remember standing at the edge of that pool and wondering why – why was I – why was this huge freshman class – going through all of this to just swim 3 laps.
The funny thing was that when anyone asked why we had a swim test in the first place – no one really knew the answer. I remember being one of those kids who asked that “why” question. Rumors traced it back to a student who, years before, drowned in one of the nearby lakes. Others said it’s a legacy of the military training students use to undergo when the university first started. Or maybe its just because the university hoped that when we left school, we’d at least have one practicable skill under our belt. Whoever you asked – the answer always changed. No one knew why we had to get into the water and swim 3 laps. That’s a mystery. So as I stood there on the edge of the pool and my turn came – all I could do was just jump in.
And our story today about Jesus’s baptism – that’s a mystery too.
Today’s gospel reading is the continuation of the reading we heard just one month ago on the second Sunday of Advent. There we heard these opening words about John – this wildman in the desert – who is bringing people out into the wilderness, into the place where God met Moses and David and the prophets. And John is inviting people to meet God there too. And that’s when Jesus comes into the picture. There’s no birth story, no description of his teenage years, no – in the gospel according to Mark – the beginning of Jesus’s ministry is when he heads out into the desert, like everyone else, and meets John in the wilderness.
And it’s there that Jesus is baptized.
So why does Jesus get wet?
This is one of those, what you might call, “gotcha” questions for pastors – the kind of question confirmation students like to ask their pastors and watch them….well, fumble it. It even happened to a colleague of mine recently. He shared at our weekly Lutheran pastors’ bible study on Tuesday that, about a month ago, a confirmand asked him this question. And he answered it – but the question had been gnawing at him because he didn’t feel he answered it right. He felt he gave an answer – a true answer – an answer that a famous theologian might agree with – but, after, as he thought about what he said, his words felt hollow. He felt that he wasn’t able to answer the question of Jesus’s baptism fully enough.
And that’s because this question of Jesus’s baptism is a really, really hard question. There’s no real easy way to get through it. Even if we point to the difference between what John is doing and what Jesus does – even if we talk about the addition of the Holy Spirit into the equation – or point to the private moment, for Mark at least, when God calls Jesus his beloved Son in such a way that no one else hears it – even if we try to take apart the actions and dissect it, we’re still left with the fact that Jesus was baptized. God’s Son – the guy who is about to teach about the Kingdom of God and heal the sick – this guy who is about to reconcile the world through the Cross – this Jesus, somehow, needed to be baptized.
The question of why is all over this.
And I’ll admit that I don’t have all the answers. There’s a lot of nuance here that I don’t get and that I don’t see. The “I don’t knows” about this text from Mark outnumber the “what I knows” and if my Confirmands at class tonight ask me about it – there’s a good chance I’m gonna fumble it too.
But there’s something about this text that’s very tangible – very real – and it’s something we can relate too. And it has to do with what Jesus did. In Mark’s telling of the story, we don’t have any idea of what was going through Jesus’s head. We don’t know what he was looking at, what he noticed, or what he saw. But we do know what we did. Because when he stood on the edge of the Jordan – he walked in. He saw John, went to him, and Jesus felt the water over him.
I don’t know the answer to why Jesus needed to be baptized – but I do feel like I know why I – why we – need Jesus to be baptized. We need him to stand at that water’s edge. We need him to walk to where John was. We need him to jump in the waters – to feel it over his head – to experience what we experience. We need Jesus to experience that mystery because it’s in his actions – in his jumping in – Jesus extends an invitation to us to jump in with him.
Because baptism isn’t just an end in itself – even though it can sometimes feel like that. Even for those of us who were baptized as infants and who have no recollection that such an event happened – for the ones who brought us to the baptismal font, it sure felt like there was an end. I mean, there were meetings with the pastor, phone calls to family to arrange a date and a time. There were cakes to order, lunch reservations to make, and white outfits to buy. And then there was just those silent, and not so silent prayers, that everyone actually showed up on time. The baptism was an event – and once it was over, once all the planning was done, and the water poured, and everyone went home – we’re glad it’s over.
But the mystery of baptism is more than that. And that might be why we don’t hear about Jesus’s birth or back story or teenage years in the gospel according to Mark. Instead – baptism happens first. Before Jesus’s healing begins – before his words of knowledge come out – before he starts showing those around him what true human living looks like – before all of that – comes baptism. Before the Supper and the Betrayal by Judas and the Trial in front of Pilate – there’s just Jesus, jumping into the waters of the Jordan. He’s jumping into where his life will take him. He’s jumping into living a life that loves God and loves everyone he meets. He’s jumping into a ministry that is going to lead him to the Cross. And he’s jumping into a life that is going to be resurrected – a life that is given for us and to us and is with us – no matter where life takes us.
I don’t know if Jesus needed to get into that water but I do know we need him to get in that water so that we can witness that baptism isn’t an end – it isn’t just a requirement we need for graduation – but that baptism is a beginning. It’s a beginning of walking with Jesus because Jesus – this Son of God – this miracle worker – he’s more than just our Lord and Savior. He’s also our neighbor – our brother – he’s one of us, waiting at the edge of those waters that will be poured over him.
Jesus’s baptism is an invitation for us to jump into those waters too – to see where God will take us – to see just how God will use us to love, to care, and to be part of God’s work in resurrecting this entire world. The waters have been entered. The waters have been churned up. With Jesus’s presence – these waters have been changed. And we’re invited to just see where he might take us.