Year A, Baptism of Our Lord
No one likes to be wrong. Some of us handle it better than others, but no one enjoys the experience of realizing that not only were you wrong, but you were wrong publically. That makes it worse. That is where we find John the Baptist today. Now, I have never been a huge fan of John the Baptist. He calls people names. He eats locusts. He is always telling people what to do. Yet in our Gospel for today, I find myself feeling a little sorry for the guy. Why? Because in this story we just heard, we see John floundering a little. We see John struggling with a messiah that he described in a very different way. Right before Jesus’ baptism, John told the crowd: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In other words, when the Messiah comes, he is not messing around. He is not going to baptize with water. He is going to use fire and some people will burn in unquenchable fire. Everyone will know that he is the Messiah because of the power and grandeur of his mere presence. The Messiah is going to come and his presence and actions will prove that John was right about everything. It was going to be awesome…for John at least, not the people who are burning in unquenchable fire.
But that was not how it happened. Jesus stood in line with sinful people. He came to John like any ordinary person to be baptized…to be cleansed from sin…just like everyone else. John was not pleased. It is unclear how John knew that Jesus was the Messiah given his less than extraordinary entrance. Perhaps he knew because his mother, Mary’s cousin, told him about Jesus’ miraculous birth. Perhaps he sensed it because he was a prophet, chosen by God, to lead the people to the Messiah. We don’t know how he identified Jesus. We just know he did.
He did the right thing. He said no. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” It is an understandable question. This is a strange thing for the Messiah, the savior of all humanity, to do…to ask another to cleanse him. Where was his winnowing fork? Where was the fire? He was supposed to baptize others… not be baptized.
Jesus responded to this protest with these words, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Another biblical translation has Jesus telling John, “Give in for now.” It sounds to me (and I have no expertise in Biblical translation) like he is telling John to let go of his preconceived notions…maybe just for now. But this is how it had to be because this is how God wanted it to be. John consented. I am not sure that he understood why, but he obeyed because that is what you do when you follow God, you obey.
It might have been a comfort to John to know that he was not the only person who was wrong about this Messiah. Many people were skeptical. Most people did not believe at all—that Jesus, this ordinary man—could be the Messiah that they were all waiting for.
I cannot help but wonder why, why did Jesus have to do it the hard way. He could have gotten a winnowing fork out and separated the wheat from the chaff. He could have dazzled the people with his power. He could have been bigger and greater than anyone. He did none of those things. Why? Because God had tried all of those things. He had destroyed almost all of the world with a flood. He had proven himself as a great warrior. He was so great, you could not even say his name. You could not look and behold his greatness. That display of greatness did not work.
This time around, God was born of a woman like everyone else. He had a body that felt pain and agony, just like any of us. He needed food and water to live. Not only that, but he took it to the next level. He allowed himself to be associated with sinners, not just your run of the mill sinners, but with notorious sinners like prostitutes and thieves. He always encouraged them to change, but he did so with love. He was able to do this because he knew them and allowed them to know him.
That is why he stood in the line to be baptized. He knew he did not need to be cleansed of his sins. He had no sin. But Jesus also knew that by living on the earth, by taking on the human body he was associated with sinners. He did not sin but he was still one of us. Therefore, he was cleansed from this sin because he had taken it on. He carried our sins because we are far too weak to carry them ourselves.
One commentator explained it this way, “Jesus looked into the waters of death which baptism represents, he looked into the wilderness of sin and evil which we all face eventually: he looked into both places of death and sin and evil and said to us, his very human brothers and sisters, ‘Wait here: I’ll go first.’” I don’t know about you, but that is a God I can get behind. That is a God worth following, worth emulating. That is our God in the flesh. What a mighty God he is.