Unlike the presence of the Wise men or the other hair-splitting details surrounding the birth of Jesus, Christians can agree on one thing: Jesus had a baptismal experience. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell the story of Jesus going to down the Jordan River to encounter his cousin John. In fact, that’s where each book really begins because they share this singular point in common. But, there’s always a “but.” There are notable differences in the way each of the four gospel writers tells the story of Jesus’ baptism. Luke’s account is different from the others. The pieces are there, the words you know, but Luke puts them together like Picasso. When you step back and see what he’s created, it doesn’t look like the Baptism you were expecting to encounter. Oh, it’s a baptism alright, but something happened on the way to the water.
Why are we baptized? That seems like a simple question. Since we’re Methodist, it ought to be an even easier question to answer. When you were a baby, your parents (and extended) family took you to church, presented you to the preacher, a few pronouncements were said over your bald head, water was produced and poured over the head mentioned above, and you were baptized. If you’re like me, you have no memory of the event because it occurred when you were less than one year old. For example, I was nine months old, and the minister’s name was Earl Black. I know this is because my parents saved the bulletin.
Other churches do Baptisms differently. Some Baptist churches have baptistery’s that resemble small swimming pools built into the chancel area of their churches. Other churches won’t baptize infants. Some dunk in swimming pools or the nearest body of open water. However, I haven’t answered the question. I’m only talking about the mechanics of Baptism. The engineering of the moment: getting dressed, finding the right clothes, bring the family to the front pew, filling up the font, and handing the baby to the preacher doesn’t answer the “why” question.
Why are we baptized? Do we need to be baptized? Is baptism some magic formula? As a preacher, I’m not waving a magic wand to make original sin disappear. That’s not what this is about. Baptism is a rite of initiation. That’s a big word that means less in today’s world because people don’t join things the way they did in years past. It’s a step Christians take to join the church formally. Whether we’re nine months old and someone makes the decision on our behalf, or we’re 19, and we decide “this is a group of people I want to join.” Baptism is a public pronouncement. In front of our friends and family, we acknowledge our desire and willingness to merge our story with God’s story. The water, a symbol of creation and life, is a reminder of how God permeates how lives and promises.
Just before Thanksgiving, an American missionary named John Chau was killed on a small island in the southern Indian Ocean. His tragic death highlighted some of the efforts that missionary groups make to evangelize unreached peoples. In an article published at the time, I wrote about his journals, notes which revealed theology expressing concern for the salvation for the islanders he hoped to meet. If they could not be reached with the gospel and baptized, they would face eternal damnation. This is what John Chau believed. This belief cost John his life. John’s worldview had no space for God’s grace operating beyond his narrowly defined theology. I believe Christ died for these islanders, whether they were baptized or if they’d never received communion. Grace isn’t conditional. That’s the problem with our world, too many people believe grace is hit and miss, applied only to those brought up to our Christian standards. We take God out of the equation. So do we need to be baptized? No. Are we condemned to hell if we’re not sprinkled, dunked, or poured with water? No. Baptism is something we’ve made more human than divine. Baptism is meaningful, but ultimately God grace can override the promises we keep or decide to ignore. The liturgical formalities of our baptisms bear little resemblance to the encounter of Jesus and John by the Jordan. What does happen when Jesus meets John in Luke’s gospel?
John was always in his element. Preaching by the banks of the Jordan, calling for people to be ritually cleansed in the water, and sharing a prophetic message; this was John’s good news. John was probably never happier than he was at the time in his life. However, there was one glitch. People were confused. John was doing all the things, saying all the right words which they expected the Messiah to say. Their question was this, “Was John the Messiah?”
This is why Luke says it was a period of high expectation. I want you to imagine the expectations placed on two different people. John is well versed in the subtle art of meeting people’s expectations. Jesus is not so much and not yet. As we approach the time when Jesus is about to be revealed, the moment when expectations get higher; who do you think it is harder to be? Is it tougher to be the actual Messiah or someone everyone expects to be the Messiah? I vote for the latter. John is in between a rock and a hard place. He has to move all of his expectations on to Jesus whether Jesus is ready or not.
Here’s a common question in all of the Baptismal stories: How will the crowd know when their expectations are met? They want John to tell them how to identify the Messiah? John gives them what has become, by now, the standard answer, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and unquenchable fire.” Again, that bears no resemblance to any baptismal service I’ve conducted. But John is John. He is over the top with the self-effacing rhetoric, “I’m not worthy, and I’m not worthy.” He makes the transition from something harmless, cleansing, and purifying to something destructive; “Fire.” Instead of giving new birth through the water and the spirit, as our Baptismal service says, John makes it sound like Jesus’ baptism will be destructive.
It’s then John talks about the separating of the wheat from the chaff and burning the husks in a fire that cannot be put out. Very quickly, we’ve gone from enthusiasm to fire and destruction and all because people wanted to know how to spot Jesus.
Then it all goes horribly wrong. John gets arrested. John, preaching against Herod and his wife, is thrown into Jail. And it would appear from the text, just after Jesus was baptized. What a mess!
What was John doing? John was making plans on behalf of Jesus. He’s telling people what he wants Jesus to do. The problem is Jesus never says any of this stuff. Other people try to put these fiery words into his mouth, but it never works. Jesus never has and will never say such nonsense. John places expectations on Jesus that Jesus never wanted.
It’s amazing how quickly the Baptism becomes an afterthought. (In fact, Luke has John in jail before he mentions Jesus’ baptism occurring. Kind of, “Oh yeah, that happened!”) We pick up our story in Luke 3:20, “added to them all by shutting up John in prison. 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.”
John’s has been jailed, and his public ministry is over. Jesus was baptized and is praying. Luke doesn’t tell us when or where he was praying. Jesus isn’t immediately coming up out of the water, and the dove isn’t descending from heaven. This is a different kind of baptismal story. This could be a day, week, hour, or month later. Jesus has been baptized, John is in jail, and at some point afterward, Jesus is praying. Baptism brought him to prayer. Scripture doesn’t say anything about onlookers, crowds, or water. This moment, where God confirms that Jesus is the beloved son, seems incredibly private. This story is about a personal encounter between Jesus and God.
This is what I learn from the story of Jesus’ baptism in Luke’s Gospel: It all comes down to being acknowledged. We are part of something bigger than John’s expectations. The script is not yet written. No matter what the expectations are, one can expect to be loved, just as you are, by the God who calls us by name.
Richard Lowell Bryant