Not a safe or harmless baptism

GOSPEL: Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

It wasn’t that long ago that it felt like we were painstakingly waiting for Messiah. Counting down each week of Advent, lighting one more candle until we reached Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. And then for 12 days we lingered at the manger. We heard the familiar stories from Luke [In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…] and from John [In the beginning was the word].

Yet, hear we are today, and it is like 30 years has gone by in the blink of an eye. That little baby we were watching and waiting for is now a grown man. (There is probably a parenting metaphor there). A grown man travelling the countryside, coming to the River Jordan to be baptized in front of expectant crowds.

And with that vanishing 30 years, we flip another page on the seasons of the church year. The waiting and watching of Advent led us to Christmas. Christmas then made way for Epiphany and the season after. A portion of the church year that always begins with the Baptism of Jesus.

Yet, the story of Messiah makes a bigger shift than just the change of seasons. Our focus shifts from waiting for Messiah’s coming to now watching how Jesus of Nazareth is revealed as God’s chosen one, sent to save. Advent and Christmas tell us the story of incarnation, of God’s coming in flesh. Epiphany to Transfiguration tell us of Christ being revealed as the divine Son of God.

So after having just been gathering around the manger, only a few days ago, we find ourselves back on the banks of the Jordan river with John the Baptist (as we were in Advent). But John is not preaching today, rather putting on a show out in the wilderness. A show that riles up the religious establishment just the same.

It is here that Jesus enters the scene. He asks John to Baptize him, yet John doesn’t like that idea. He would rather be baptized himself by Jesus. But Jesus insists.

So John dunks Jesus into the waters of the river Jordan, and when Jesus comes up and out of the waters, the heavens open up and the spirit descends on Jesus. The voice of God thunders over the crowds, so that the whole world could hear. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.”

(Pause)

When I was in high school and university, I played the cello in the orchestra in musical production called Love According to John, an annual Easter tradition in Edmonton. Over its 30-year-history, the musical had grown big enough to take over the main concert hall in town with four sold-out performances every Holy Week.

The opening scene shows John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the River Jordan as Jesus joins a line-up of people waiting to be baptized. When it comes to Jesus’ turn, lightning and thunder erupt from the stage. The stage lights flash and thunder booms from the sound system. A prop dove on strings then lowers down into the scene. A voice echoes from heaven, “This is my son, the Beloved…”

Now, Love According to John is mostly based on the Gospel of John, but the writers also filled in the gaps with the other Gospels, and with a lot of creative liberty. For example, John’s Gospel doesn’t actually include Jesus’ baptism. Regardless… for some reason, the musical’s writers decided to embellish the moment and give some lines to extras. Lines that are not in the bible.

The crowd of extras reacts to the voice from heaven by saying, “It was thunder!” “No, it was a voice like thunder!”

Sitting down in the orchestra pit, it always struck me that quibbling about the voice from heaven missed the point – the guy who had just been identified as the Son of God, and on whom the spirit of God descended was standing right there!

And yet, like in the gospels, the moment comes and goes. No one seems to be truly affected by the thundering voice and everyone more or less keeps treating Jesus the same as before.

Despite my objection to the embellished lines… I think there might actually be an unintentional yet truthful commentary about human beings in that scene, even though it was certainly not what the writers planned.

There is something about hearing the voice of God and then arguing over what was actually heard, that is so human. You would think that in the cacophony of voices in our world that claim to be the truth, that God’s voice would cut right through them all. But the problem isn’t the multitude of voices…. it is us, the hearers. We cannot help but spin the message, to hear what we want to hear, to miss the point.

The hermit preacher out in the wilderness is a spectacle to behold, but mostly harmless. The Christmas carols and pageants that give us warm and nostalgic feelings are easily put back in the box for when we are ready to haul them out again. We like a good show, but we also like being in control of the story.

Yet, a voice from heaven… that’s not safe and harmless. The voice of God, telling us, showing us the Messiah right in front of our eyes… well, that is downright terrifying. It’s no wonder that 2000 years later, even people putting on a musical about this moment want to get hung up on what the sound from the heavens actually was. That is a way to hold onto control, to be the ones defining the message and writing the story.

Yet, this is not what the Baptism of Jesus is about.

John the Baptist knows it, the crowds know it and we know it.

Because when we slow down for a moment, we can feel in our bones that God has just changed the game. The cute cuddly Messiah of the manger is not the mostly harmless incarnate God we hoped for.

As God the Father opens the heavens, as the spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and as Christ the Son of God comes up and out of the water… God pulls back the curtain on creation, and reveals the One who has been there since the beginning of all things.

Just as the spirit hovered over the waters of creation while God set the world into motion by speaking the words, “Let there be light…,” The spirit that hovers over the waters of the Jordan, and the voice that speaks into that world sets into motion a new creation, a new creation born in the One who first comes up and out of the waters.

There is a new creation coming into being in Christ Jesus, and that is a scary and terrifying thing for us. Because it reminds us that we are not in control of this world like we thought we were, we are not authors of our story. The voice from heaven that announces this new creation isn’t a harmless prophet preaching out in the wilderness, nor a voice that can be hauled out once a year for a special holiday and then packed away again.

This voice that proclaims Jesus as the Father’s beloved son and ushers into our a world a new creation is the same voice heard in the waters of this font, and same voice that speaks in this bread and wine.

Just as the voice named Jesus the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who was sent to save all creation… this voice names and claims us too. Names and claims us in our baptism, and each day afterwards. The voice re-creates us anew in the waters, names us as daughters and sons – beloved children of God.

And that is scary. Terrifying.

We are not control of our new names. We are not the ones who choose how God feels about us. We do not get to choose what kind of new creations we will be. We are not the authors of our story.

And yet, this new creation revealed in the waters of Baptism, this Son of God in whose image we are created, this Messiah we have been waiting for… this is the One who writes for us a new story. Who changes our fate of sin and death, to God’s new story of mercy, grace and new life.

It might be in our nature to do everything we can do to ignore that voice from heaven, to argue about whether it might be thunder or a voice like thunder… missing what God is really up to. Yet God puts Messiah, the Son of God, right front of us. Right in front of us in the Holy Words, Holy Baths and Holy Meals that we share here, week after week.

And in those things, God re-writes our story. God makes us new creations. God proclaims that in this baptized One who first died and rose again, we too are named and claimed by God. And God’s voice thunders over us bringing us from death to life. God names us Children of God – Beloved and Pleasing to the One who makes all things new.

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