JESUS AND JOHN:
TWO EXPRESSIONS OF THE FIERY LOVE OF GOD
Homily for the Baptism of Jesus January 9, 2011
We celebrate the Baptism of Jesus today and this is where the Church calendar makes things really confusing. Jesus was just a baby a week or so ago and suddenly he’s a 30 year old adult. There may or may not have been some fanfare around his birth, with stars and magi and shepherds showing up and kings hunting him down, but he seems to have been able to live in almost total obscurity for 30 years – a bit curious. And then suddenly he presents himself at the water where John the Baptizer has been working to bring transformation to the people.
At a time of year when many of us are walking with a distinct waddle from the extensive feasting of Christmas, we get confronted by John the Baptist, with his homeless lifestyle and meagre diet. John is one of the more intriguing characters in the Bible. Son of a Temple priest (which no doubt involved considerable social status), John rejected the sophisticated life of the inner circles, the upper echelons, of a big city, and went off into the wilderness area south of Jerusalem to begin a new ministry.
We have to assume he was a young man. In my middle age, I am grateful for the comfort of microfiber and fleece sheets – I have long since done with roughing it in the bush and wilderness canoe trips. John, with his harsh, scratchy outfit and living off the land on a weird subsistence diet, has all the hall marks of a young idealist – the angry young man.
Otherwise, we don’t know a lot about John’s ministry beyond the obvious fact that he baptized people. His Baptism was a baptism for repentance, urging people to depart from their sinful ways. From the New Testament record, it appears that John confronted people, demanding that they stop being complacent about their religious and ethical life, and urging them to pay attention to justice, to confront political and religious corruption and oppression, and to become conscious of other people, and to do the right thing. John reminds us that we are accountable for the way we choose to live, and that significant change is required if we want to be right with God and make a difference for good in the world. I can think of a number of people, like terrorists, gangsters, pimps and drug dealers who could benefit from the kind of message John the Baptist proclaimed.
Many people, from alcoholics to criminals, need to know how to “get clean.” Ritual washings were fairly common in Israel and among the desert religious community called the Essenes. But the Baptism of John (and the subsequent baptism of Jesus), was not something done over and over. It was a one-time event — a dramatic turn-around moment that signified a life-changing experience and new direction in life. It was a critical, decisive moment for Jesus and his mission from that point forward seemed to be strongly shaped by it.
For whatever reasons, Jesus identified with John and made a connection between his own ministry and John’s. Afterward they parted ways – two very different men with very different missions. John’s style was more life-denying – ascetic and austere, a renunciation of the world, while the ministry of Jesus was life-embracing, characterized by a sense of abundance and celebration and enjoyment of life, to the extent that his enemies called him a drunk who hung out with undesirables (Matt. 11:16-19). In response to which Jesus had this to say:“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'” In other words, John came with a sombre approach and they didn’t respond; Jesus came with a jubilant message and they didn’t respond either.
John offered baptism as an expression of the wrath of God, yet Jesus came away from the experience with a profound sense of the love of God.* With both John and Jesus, there is a promise of the possibility of transformation and new life. John’s specific challenge was to the smug, the arrogant, the rich and powerful – those who felt they had it made. Jesus’ specific appeal was to the broken, the poor, the down-trodden — those who felt they were outside the realm of grace. Jesus truly fulfilled that prophecy of Isaiah in which God’s beloved servant is shown as someone who is powerful and yet profoundly gentle – who makes a great impact, yet without doing damage to people.
For Jesus, it was not just about repentance. John’s message was “Repent!” which signified the need for drastic change. But people might have asked “Then what?” The New Testament doesn’t really answer that because it is concerned primarily about Jesus, and not so much about John. Jesus’ message also suggested change but it went further. His message was “Repent and believe the Gospel!” For Jesus, Baptism is not just letting go of one life but embracing a new one, and believing was much more than memorizing a few scripture passages or reciting the catechism. In Christ, to believe in the Good News is to enter in to a way of life characterized by love, hope and joy, fuelled by a sense of the nearness of God.
In Graham Greene’s novel, A Burnt out Case, which is set in Africa, the main character Querry asks the Doctor of the leper hospital whether change is all that good a thing. The Doctor replies:We can’t avoid it. We are riding a great ninth evolutionary wave. Even the Christian myth is part of the wave, and perhaps, who knows, it may be the most valuable part. Suppose love were to evolve as rapidly in our brains as technical skill has done. In isolated cases it may have done, in the saints . . . in Christ . . . I have a small hope, a very small hope, that someone they call Christ was the fertile element, looking for a crack in the wall to plant its seed.”
The Baptism of Jesus proclaims that the prevailing reality of the kingdom is love. Just for a moment, try to imagine if love indeed evolved as quickly as our technology! Every six months we see incredible new products on the market, whether golf clubs or hair products or computerized devices, each one a huge step forward from the previous generation of technology. Imagine a world in which love moved forward at that kind of pace, constantly blowing us away with new expressions and forms. I too have hope (but like the Doctor in Greene’s novel, my hope is a small one) that this is what we the Church might one day begin to realize is our only purpose, and begin to practice accordingly. I believe Christ is, as Graham Greene suggested, that “fertile element, looking for a crack in the wall to plant its seed.”
Julian of Norwich, an English mystic of the 14th Century, said: “Love was God’s meaning.” As a present-day Carmelite (Ruth Burrows) says: “What we have to do is allow ourselves to be loved. To be there for Love, who is God, to love us” (from The Essence of Prayer).
Jesus, the beloved, in everything he did, made the love of God real to people. “I love, therefore I am” we might say. We are meant to come away from Baptism, we are meant to come away from church, with a profound sense of the love of God for us – to believe that God created us out of love – and for love – and that no other agenda we impose on our life is anywhere near as important. As St Paul said, without love, we are nothing.
From the beginning, Christianity has offered a completely different way of looking at life, and of living it. Jesus had strong things to say about the need to step aside from social, religious and even family obligations in order to embrace what he called the kingdom of God, that place where love of God and love of others has absolute priority.
This is a very good Sunday to think about what our own baptism means. The Baptism liturgy continues to reflect the radical transition involved in truly embracing the Christian way of life. It is meant to be a departure, and a new beginning. We convey the message that God is love, that no matter who you are, God loves you, but just as importantly, that you are now called to carry the love and light of Christ into the world.
I close with a prayer of St Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
*The question is always raised: If he was the Son of God, why would Jesus be baptized? Matthew suggests it seemed odd to John – wrong somehow – that Jesus would submit to such a ritual: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Matthew’s version of the event suggests that John already knew who Jesus was, and expected him to appear, but Mark’s version, written earlier, from which Matthew copied, gives no indication that John knew anything about Jesus. John’s version does not directly state that John baptized Jesus, but rather that the Baptist witnessed the Spirit appearing upon him, so the context of baptism is only implied. Further, in Luke 7:20, which portrays a later event, John appears to know nothing of Jesus as the Messiah or the expected one, so he asks “Are you the one who is to come, or are we looking for someone else?” An odd question, if John had encountered Jesus earlier in the way described. The later Church seemed to develop a need to downplay the role of John the Baptist, as though it might appear to confuse or threaten the unique place of Jesus in the scheme of salvation. So the later Gospel writers emphasize John standing down, and Jesus assuming the role of favoured one. The need for Jesus to be understood as perfect and sinless (and therefore not in need of such a baptism) was also a preoccupation of the Church of a later generation, and so Matthew, Luke and John all portray a bigger sense of messianic self-awareness in Jesus than does the Gospel of Mark.