In the span of just 24 hours, the Western church has gone from the gift-bearing, star-guided magi bowing down to worship the newborn King to the heavens breaking open, the Spirit descending, and Jesus’ identity disclosed as he comes up out of the Jordan’s baptizing waters.

I don’t know if you have noticed this before, but Mark’s gospel doesn’t say a single word about magi or mangers. Neither does Mark give us angels or shepherds or a trek to Bethlehem, where the holy birth takes place.

Mark’s gospel, the earliest of our four, begins at what that author viewed as the beginning—the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Or, as the opening verse puts it, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That beginning comes with a small prelude. It concerns John, Jesus’ cousin, the last of God’s prophets to promise a Messiah. From his wilderness outpost, John urgently calls God’s people to a ritual using water to symbolize God’s forgiveness.

With his quirky attire and even quirkier diet, we might be surprised that John has drawn so many in his direction. He is, after all, standing on a random bank of the Jordan, not smack dab in the middle of the holy city of Jerusalem. What is it about John and his message that people of all kinds are willing to make the trek to be baptized in the river?

You have to wonder. Are people just so desperate for the Messiah to come that they would trust just about anyone and do just about anything to prepare for his God-promised arrival? Or is there something so compelling and undeniable about John that people set aside convention and took the leap? If we were there, would we go get wet, or would we stay home?

Even though there is no hint of the nativity in Mark’s opening verses, nothing like the stories we find in Matthew and Luke, Mark’s story has some things in common with the birth story we embrace and enact each December. Even if there aren’t angels and shepherds, magi or a manger, there are parallels in Mark’s telling of Jesus’ advent, his arrival.

The first is location. Whether Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes as an infant or as a grown man, he makes his appearance in humble places.

If you and I were writing the script, we might have the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Son of God, the Beloved, stage his unveiling in a royal court or high, holy setting, not in a humble stable or on a sandy shore.

Another similarity between the nativity and our story today is who’s there. Rather than being surrounded by men and women with considerable social status or institutional standing, unlikely characters and the hoi polloi gather around.

Whether Jesus comes as a baby or as a man, he makes his way unconventionally. This isn’t a one-off; from beginning to end and beyond, Jesus’ path will be different than the norm.

Maybe because Jesus has already won me over, I don’t mind at all that his appearance on the scene, either as a newborn infant or as a grown man, falls outside the bounds of convention. Nor do I find it problematic that the road Jesus walks never quite conforms to anyone’s expectations. In fact, if I’m being honest, I rather prefer it this way because I believe Jesus is just like Abba God, the one whose ways are not our ways.

Thinking about our lesson this morning, notice that even before Mark puts a word in our Messiah’s mouth, he signals that he will be different than we might expect. Jesus comes out to the Jordan to be baptized; he steps up to be forgiven of his sins. But what sins? Isn’t Jesus without sin?

Why is Jesus asking to be baptized? Is Jesus at the Jordan simply because he knows what will happen there? Is he privy to details of God’s impending blessing, aware that the heavens will part and the Spirit will descend upon him like a dove, all of which will signal that he is our Savior?

Is Jesus on the beach asking to be baptized by John because he knows something no one else knows? Or is Jesus there for a reason he himself may not fully understand?

I vote for the latter. If Jesus shares our common lot, then why wouldn’t what is true for us be true for him as well? We feel our way forward with God but cannot know exactly what will come next. Why would it be any different for Jesus?

Even before Mark gives Jesus a single line to speak, already Jesus is teaching us about trusting God’s leading, even when it is not entirely clear where that leading will carry us. Sure, we may have some hunches, but we don’t have foreknowledge or guarantees. All we know is that what we are about to do aligns with our deepest sense of God’s desire for us.

Is this not the essence of faith? Of trusting that our next step is indeed the right one?

Jesus asked to be baptized, although he didn’t need to be. One without sin, Jesus could have easily gone out to the Jordan to watch people prepare to receive him. He could have been an interested observer, not an eager participant.

A different sort of Jesus could have stood on the shore and looked on, praying for each soul as they waded out into the moving water. He would have been touched by what he saw but not in any way inspired to slosh his way out to John to be dipped down into the current himself.

“That’s for them. I don’t need this; after all, I’ve committed no sins,” this other Jesus might have thought to himself.

Theologically speaking, did Jesus really need to be baptized? Let’s leave that lofty question to others and simply say, “Need or not, Jesus indeed asked to be baptized.”

But why? In a minute, I will remind us all of something the Apostle Paul wrote, but first, I want to tell you about my week.

On Monday, active and retired clergy were asked to complete online paperwork related to maintaining their ministerial standing. Because I serve on the conference committee that supports and oversees these 300 and some ministers, I knew this day was coming. And because I was part of the team that settled on the specific requirements for maintaining clergy standing, I had a hunch that not everyone would be thrilled to learn what our educational expectations are these days. And I was right.

Even before I received my own email asking me to report on my ministerial training last year, I started getting messages from active and retired clergy both. “I shouldn’t have to take X because of Y. Can Z substitute for X or would you give me an exemption?”

None of the conference’s training expectations are unreasonable or difficult to satisfy. Even still, there were those ministers who, for one reason or another, felt that they were special enough, different enough, that they should be awarded a pass.

The uber-rich do this sort of thing with regard to taxes. And drivers do this all the time when they get pulled over. “I’m special. I should be exempt,” we say when we’re convinced that we should not be asked to do what is regularly asked of others.

Jesus could have shown up at the Jordan, gone over to John, patted him on the back, and said, “Good work, man,” and just left it at that. Instead, Jesus said, “Where’s the end of the line? I want to be baptized along with everyone else.” And he was.

In his letter to the church in Philippi, writing from prison in Rome, the Apostle Paul reminded his readers that “although Jesus was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself… humbled himself… and became obedient, obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2: 6-8, slightly edited.)

Jesus didn’t go over to John and say, “Good job prepping people to receive me.” Jesus said, “I’m getting in the water, too.” And he did.

Mark tells us what happened next. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the Jordan, the heavens opened, and the Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus. That’s when a voice from on high said “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

Maybe this moment is enough for you. It’s enough for most Christians.

But to my mind, it’s what happens before the baptism, before the Spirit’s descent, before the divine announcement that touches and teaches me. Jesus wanted to dive into the Jordan. He wanted to enter fully into the lives we live. It’s not what comes after the baptism that compels me so much as what comes before the heavenly display and the holy words.

As the saying goes, “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

If Jesus is my Messiah, if he is my savior, it’s because even before he knows who he is and whose, he has already made it clear that he is all in. That he’s not going to look for some kind out, some kind of exemption, some kind of hall pass along the line.

Because Jesus hiked up his robe and waded out into the water to join all those other men, women, and children because he chose to do something he might not have needed to, because he welcomed the opportunity to be with everyone else in their experience, even before his identity is announced, Jesus signals what we can expect from him.

Even before we know—even before he knows, even—that he is God’s beloved son, Jesus reveals that we can count on him to be as human and vulnerable as we are. He shows us he wants to wade out not just into the Jordan but into life’s river, to be with us in the current and the changes it brings.

Even before his inaugural moment, Jesus shows us who he is. I don’t know about you, but I would swim out to him any day and every day.