Thinking about Jesus at the Jordan reminds me that one of the many beautiful things about water is that it receives us exactly as we are. Water never insists that we be different before it embraces us.
As with water, so with God.
On our own, we may imagine that something about us is not quite right. Others may have tried to convince us that we’re not enough of this or too darn much of that. Our culture may have wanted us to believe we are not the right gender or sexual identity, not the correct color or level of schooling or economic success but the God who has created us and come to us in Jesus wants us to trust that like water, we are received without qualification or condition.
Rather than acting as a kind of divine correction fluid, the waters of baptism speak to God’s desire to have us know ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons.
Over the years, I have known plenty of people who have a hard time with this sense of God. Their God is the white-gloved God, the God who runs his hands over every surface of our messy lives and finds us in some way unacceptable. Or their God is the impatient, condescending school teacher God, the God who looks down on us and says, “Why can’t you get this right? Why didn’t you learn this lesson the first time?” Or theirs is the accountant God, the God who is forever doing the math, a God who is only too happy to insist that we are a day late and a dollar short.
Would that those afflicted by these painfully inadequate versions of God could feel the welcoming waters of baptism, true baptism, wash over them, freeing them to experience the God who only and always meets us with open arms, the God who says to every single one us the very same thing God says to Jesus at the Jordan “This is my child, chosen and marked by my love, the delight of my life.”
God says this not because of anything we have done but because we each belong to God.
I don’t know about you, but I love the story of Jesus going to the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin, John. Jesus had been John’s disciple, at least that’s what scholars tell us. And yet by the time Jesus comes to be baptized, it is more than clear to John that Jesus’ light shines brighter, that his spiritual stature is greater, and that it’s for these reasons that the tables should be turned. John believes that it’s Jesus who should be doing the honors, not him.
I love John’s humbling clarity about Jesus. I also am moved by Jesus’ humility. Because given Jesus’ unique nature as God’s own, given that he had no earthly need to be baptized, Jesus could easily have stood on the Jordan’s banks and looked on as men and women waded out to John for their sacred moment in the river.
Jesus could have set himself apart from everyone else. But that’s not what Jesus did. Because that’s not who he was.
When Jesus the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of the opening verses in John’s gospel when Jesus became flesh and moved into the neighborhood, he came with an unwavering commitment to enter into the very same lives you and I live.
When Jesus joined our human ranks, he asked for no special exemptions, no hall passes, and no “get out of jail free” cards. He came ready to go “all in” on the sometimes complicated, often confounding business of being human.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the church in Philippi, when Jesus came into this world, he “emptied himself, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
Jesus’ desire to wade into life’s waters with the rest of us is one reason among many that we want to follow him. Because Jesus entered the fray fully and freely. Because he looked at us, members of the human family, and with every fiber of his being, said to God, “I’ll have what they’re having.”
It takes a lot to be as special as Jesus was, and yet also this humble, this willing to hike up his robe, go out into the river, get muddy and wet, and be baptized by someone whose light didn’t shine quite as brightly as his own.
Contrast Jesus’ actions with those who, when given a chance, insist the rules that apply to everyone else simply don’t apply to them.
More than once, I have stumbled across news reports of police chiefs who, when pulled over for a traffic violation, have presented their badges and asked the officers standing before them, “You do know who I am, don’t you?”
Think about those in the one percent, people of profound wealth, who see no good reason why they should be asked to support our nation with their tax dollars like you and I do.
Even clergy are sometimes tempted to set themselves apart.
The other day I was involved in a conversation concerning requirements ministers in the Rocky Mountain Conference must meet in order to have standing, that is, in order to be duly recognized clergy in our region.
Yes, the clergy in this group said, we agree that every pastor worth his or her salt needs to have continuing education on an annual basis. Yes, they said, we agree that clergy needs to participate in at least one wider church meeting per year. Yes, they said, we agree every authorized minister needs to receive ongoing training related to maintaining healthy professional boundaries.
But training related to racism—hold it just one minute. Some of us offer that training in our own churches. Why should we have to take a class on a subject we have already mastered?
Maybe because not even scholars specializing in the history of racism know everything there is to know about how that history is still affecting—and infecting—us.
Maybe because the call to reflect on and account for our own subtle and not-so-subtle biases never end. Maybe because a class of newbies to this work would surely benefit from having a colleague in their midst who has already started to come to terms with their own internalized racism, someone who can encourage everyone else to take up the humbling journey of self-examination and repentance, a journey that starts in earnest the day the class ends.
Jesus didn’t wade out to John and say, “Hey cousin, you’re doing some really good work. I’ll take it from here.”
Neither did Jesus think so highly of himself that he resisted doing what everyone else was that day at the Jordan because he genuinely had nothing to repent.
No, Jesus willingly entered the same waters that everyone else was wading into. And defying the human propensity to place people in hierarchies of importance, Jesus insisted his cousin do the honors.
When Jesus did this, something remarkable happened. Or maybe it’s better to say that because Jesus did this, something remarkable was revealed.
Because Jesus waded out because he bowed before his cousin John when Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and a heavenly voice announced and affirmed Jesus’ belovedness.
Belovedness that wasn’t conferred so much as it was revealed, exposed, made plain. Belovedness that Jesus would then devote the rest of his life to announcing and affirming in every person whose path crossed his. Ours included.
Will you pray with me?
Gracious God, like the watery current that caresses and carries us, we are held and helped by your love, by the truth that we were born blessings, and by the reality that you call us by name before we even know we have one. We love you for loving us.
Grant us the courage and capacity to enter life’s waters just as consistently as Jesus did. Release us from the temptation to set ourselves apart in any way so that, like Jesus, we might move through life seeing the belovedness of each of your children, especially when they themselves cannot yet see this.
We pray all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Preached for Community Spirit Church (UCC) in Montrose, Colorado