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The Baptism of Jesus:
A Vision and a Voice

For Sunday January 7, 2007

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year C)
           Isaiah 43:1–7
           Psalm 29
           Acts 8:14–17
           Luke 3:15–17 (21–22)

Baptism of Jesus.
Baptism of Jesus.

           After living in total obscurity his entire life, in his late twenties Jesus left his family in Nazareth and burst onto the public scene by joining the movement of his eccentric cousin John. Some scholars have suggested that Jesus submitted himself to John as a disciple to a mentor, and that perhaps John was part of the apocalyptic Jewish sect of Essenes who opposed the temple in Jerusalem. By any measure, John the Baptizer was a prophet of radical dissent; his detractors said he had a demon (Luke 7:33).

           Whereas his father was a priest in the Jerusalem temple, John fled the comforts and corruptions of the city for the loneliness of the desert, where he dressed in animal skins and ate insects and wild honey. Living on the periphery of society, both literally and figuratively, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which is to say that he announced a message of both indictment and invitation: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" Later, Jesus used these exact words to announce his own public ministry (Mark 1:15). The Gospels record that people flocked to John.

           John's preaching in the Judean desert and baptizing in the Jordan river confounded the religious and political powers of his day—imperial Rome, which later murdered him when John rebuked Herod for sleeping with his brother's wife (Matthew 14:1–12), and the temple establishment in Jerusalem, which claimed a gate-keeper monopoly on mediating God's forgiveness to people. John castigated the religious authorities as a "brood of vipers" (in one translation, "snake bastards"). The religious experts, said Jesus, spurned John's call to baptismal repentance, and in so doing "rejected God's purpose for themselves" (Luke 7:30). Instead of cooperation, accommodation, or resignation, John challenged these religious and political powers with his anti-establishment message of "protest and renewal." By joining John the Baptizer's fringe movement, Jesus did likewise.1

Baptism of Jesus.
Baptism of Jesus.

            With some important stylistic differences, all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus's baptism by John: "When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased'" (Luke 3:21–22 = Mark 1:9–11= Matthew 3:13–17; John 1:29–34). No wonder that after this radical rupture with his family and with conventional society by identifying with the desert troublemaker, eventually Jesus's own family tried to apprehend him, and his entire home town village of Nazareth tried to kill him as a deranged crackpot (cf. Mark 3:21, Luke 4:29, John 7:5).

           Why did Jesus the greater get baptized by John the lesser? Did he need to repent of his own sins? The earliest witnesses of the baptism must have asked this question because in Matthew's Gospel John the Baptizer tried to deter Jesus: "Why do you come to me? I need to be baptized by you!" Even a hundred years later Jesus's baptism by John made some Christians uneasy, as evidenced by the non-canonical Gospel of the Hebrews (c. 80–150 AD) in which Jesus denies any need to repent, and seems to get baptized to please his mother: "The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, 'John the Baptist baptizes for the forgiveness of sins; let us go and be baptized by him.' But he said to them, '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.'” Others have suggested that Jesus set an example for us, that just as he was baptized, we too should be baptized.

Baptism of Jesus.
Baptism of Jesus.

           Jesus's baptism inaugurated his public ministry by identifying with what Luke describes as "all the people." He allied himself with the faults and failures, pains and problems, of all the broken and hurting people who had flocked to the Jordan river. By wading into the waters with them he took his place beside us and among us. Not long into his public mission the sanctimonious religious leaders derided Jesus as a "friend of gluttons and sinners." With his baptism Jesus openly and decisively declared that he stands shoulder to shoulder with me in my fears and anxieties. He intentionally takes sides with people in their neediness, and declares that God is biased in their favor: "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15–16, NIV). God's abundant mercy, Jesus declared, was was available directly and immediately to every person; it was not the private preserve doled out by the temple establishment.

Baptism of Jesus, Knislinge church, Sweden, baptismal font from 12th century.
Baptism of Jesus, Knislinge church, Sweden,
baptismal font from 12th century.

           Jesus's baptismal compassion for and solidarity with broken people was vividly confirmed by divine affirmation and empowerment. Still wet with water after his cousin had plunged him beneath the Jordan river, Jesus heard a voice and saw a vision—the declaration of God the Father that Jesus was his beloved son (a combination of two Old Testament passages: "You are my son" from Psalm 2:7, and "with you I am well pleased" from Isaiah 42:1), and the descent of God the Spirit in the form of a dove. The vision and the voice punctuated the baptismal event. They signaled the meaning, the message and the mission of Jesus as he went public after thirty years of invisibility—that by the power of the Spirit he embodied God's coming kingdom that welcomes people without exception or condition.           

For further reflection

* What do you make of John the Baptist?
Why do you think Jesus joined John's movement?
Why do you think Jesus submitted himself to John's baptism?
How do religious and political powers deny people access to God's free mercy?

[1] Cf. Marcus Borg's several treatments.

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