The public revelation of the Messiah begins with a baptism. Jesus steps into the water of the River Jordan and everything changes.
In the gospel stories, there is little mention of Jesus’ childhood. It was probably quite normal. He was fully human, so he was probably a regular kid. Measles, potty training, etc. We skip most of that in the gospels. In the eyes of the people who witnessed his baptism, Jesus was just another Jewish man accepting baptism from John for purification from sins.
Renowned preacher Fred Craddock notes that for us, the two most important words in this passage are “Jesus also.” It is very surprising to us, who know his identity, that Jesus also seeks baptism. If there is any truth to the gospel story of his remaining for three days in the Temple with the priests after his parents left Jerusalem, Jesus must have felt the pull of his vocation for a while. A twelve year old Jesus called the Temple his Father’s house. Jesus has an idea of what his relationship to God actually is, and this baptism is an expression of astonishing humility. In Jesus, the divine son of God stands alongside us, joining us in a rite of repentance and renewal. This is a powerful reminder that arrogance has no place in Christian life.
Today’s gospel describes Jesus’ experience after his baptism. Jesus sees a dove descending on him – the Holy Spirit in a physical form. (The Spirit is not an abstraction in this gospel). And Jesus hears the voice of God telling him You are my Beloved – with you I am well pleased. Unlike the GMatthew, there is no indication that anyone else hears this – the words are directed to Jesus. He hears them during prayer.
Suddenly he sees everything in a new light.
What Jesus knows, sees, and hears changes everything. Driven by the knowledge that is confirmed by his baptism, his public ministry begins. Jesus wields the winnowing fork described by John, but perhaps not in the way we were taught. A winnowing fork is used by the farmer to save the good grain. Each grain of wheat has a husk, and even today farmers use the wind to separate the husk from the grains they want to preserve. The ministry of the Christ is to save us from the husks of greed, selfishness, pride, which hold us back from life of generosity, fairness, respect. This is a winnowing of love, not destruction.
What would change in our lives if we had such a dramatic and wonderful understanding of who we are by our baptism? What would happen if we remembered that God reached out to us as beloved children to pull us out of the husks that hinder us from bearing good fruit, and the Holy Spirit descended on us to empower and strengthen the best parts of us?
As deeply loved heirs, we can know that we are beloved – irrevocably, without exception, for ever – and we are able to do great and wonderful things in the name of the God, who has adopted us through the pouring of water.
All this language of love, adoption, and power is not metaphorical. It is very real. Sacraments are real and effective actions that bring the power of God into our human lives. Baptism changes us. It is not just a cultural rite of passage or a relic of ancient times. It is a moment when we allow ourselves to be marked as part of God’s Communion of Saints in a very particular way. We are made part of the Body of Christ. All humans are beloved of God – it is neither logical nor possible for the Almighty to disdain any human – and many of us can foresee eternity holding space for all people, without requiring a particular religious inclination. At the same time, people who follow Jesus Christ are different creatures, called to live a baptism-driven life. We live public lives that reflect that priority. We follow the light of Christ.
God does not look at us and see the husks that surround us. God looks at humans and sees the good grain. God looks at Christians and sees the light of Christ, which we put on in our baptism.
Baptism is a lot more than just a little water poured over the head. I hope that people can see that in our actions.
As we muddle our way through a most difficult time, it is important to remember who we really are and which star we follow.