Jesus' Baptism: A Holy Mystery

This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on Sunday January 7. The Bible texts for the day were Gen. 1:1-4 and Mark 1:4-12.

Once upon a time. In the beginning. There was heaven and unformed earth and darkness and water. And the spirit of God swept over the face of the water.

Water. It’s a pretty miraculous substance. In the Bible, water comes before life. Before light, before plants, before animals, before us.

Water. We need it to live. It’s a part of every single cell in our bodies. But we take it for granted because we’re lucky enough to live in a time and place in history where we can just turn on the taps...and voila...water, warmed or cooled to whatever temperature we want. It’s so easy to forget we’re not really in charge of this thing called water.

Water. Every time there’s a flood...or a drought...or a sneaker wave hits the shore...we’re reminded we can’t control it.

Not so for most of history. Not so in Jesus’ time. They knew better than to take water for granted.

In our church year, this Sunday is called “the Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. Baptism is all about water.

Baptism in our time probably seems like a strange ritual. You dribble a little water on someone’s head, and what, they’re magically changed? Into what? A good person? Hmm.

So what was Jesus doing that day that he went down to the river to be baptized by John?

The Bible says that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is very strange. That Jesus - who is said to be without sin - would go to be baptized to be forgiven of his sins. But not only that...

John’s out baptizing people before Jesus shows up. That means baptism comes before Jesus. Which means baptism comes before Christianity.

Hmm. A mystery. Why would people - including Jesus - go down to the river to be dunked in the water.

It turns out the people have always used water as a way to prepare to encounter the sacred. Well before Jesus, people in the ancient Mediterranean world (people we would call pagans because they’re not Christians or Jews) used water as a way to get rid of whatever they believed was making them spiritually dirty so that they could come clean to worship and come closer to whatever god or gods they believed in.

Jewish people, around the time of Jesus, would also immerse themselves in water on a regular basis to rid themselves of the impurities of life, so they could be pure and seek to do the will of God. The best water to get spiritually clean in was “living water” - a river, spring, lake or sea - because this water came directly from God.

So John the Baptist - a Jewish person - was getting down in some living water. John was an apocalyptic preacher. Like the guys on the street corners announcing the end is near and people need to repent. He was washing people in God’s water to get them clean before God showed up to smite them all.

Who shows up while John is baptizing? Jesus. He comes to John to get baptized, fully immersed in the water.

He goes down under the water, and comes up again, and the heavens tear open and a dove comes down. We usually imagine the dove sort of dropping down gently and softly landing on Jesus head. I don’t know, though. The heavens tear open. That’s not gentle. And birds. They tend to dive bomb, yeah?

The sky rips a part and a bird comes at Jesus out of nowhere. And then a voice, out of the sky, booms: You are my son. The beloved. With you I am well pleased.

This moment in Mark is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After this, the Holy Spirit drives him out into the wilderness for some temptations and trials (another clue that the Holy Spirit dove is not so gentle - if it’s going to chase Jesus so he heads out to the desert).

So, Jesus is baptized in very dramatic fashion. Way more exciting than a little dribble on the head.

Even though our baptism is not quite as dramatic we do it because Jesus was our Immanuel. Our God with us. Jesus got down and dirty with the people and then went fully under water for his baptism.

In the Presbyterian Church, we have two sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or communion). We have only two sacraments because these are two things Jesus absolutely did.

The details of these two events are disputed - did everybody see the dove and hear the voice, or was it just Jesus. Was the Last Supper a Passover meal or just a regular one - but he absolutely went under water to be baptized. And he ate a meal with his disciples where he broke bread and poured wine.

All of this “explanation” doesn’t really explain what baptism is though. We put water on people because...people have always done it….and Jesus did it. And we’re Christians, so we like to do things Jesus did.

Why did Jesus go to the water?

It’s a holy mystery.

Jesus went to the water because…

Once upon a time, in the beginning, God’s spirit hovered over the water. Once upon a time, God flooded the earth because people were wicked. Once upon a time, God parted the waters for people to find freedom.

Once upon a time, Jesus went down to the river for a baptism of repentance, and God saw that it was good.

As Christians, we are still called to baptism today. We get baptized because Jesus got baptized...

And we get baptized because water is good, water is life, water is from God. Water is community, we all are equally dependent on water. Baptism is a sign and seal from God that we are included in God’s covenant of grace, and adopted into God’s family.

That’s good news for us. Baptism is a sign and seal of the hope we have as part of God’s family, and because we trust in God’s grace. The waters of the world are turbulent. You all know. Grace is steady, always available. We need only to reach out for it. Thanks be to God.


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