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This message is from May 25, 2003

Scripture Reading:
Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism of Jesus

All those walls have to be hiding something. And it doesn't help to have Roman spears on every street corner. The blood-soaked Romans think they own the whole world.

John the Baptist sat beneath a wide-open desert sky, chewing on his contempt. It tasted like locusts and honey.

John's world was a dark and scary place. The Roman Empire was a stone on the back of Israel. And the priests! A scornful glob of spit and grasshopper parts splattered on the dry ground. The priests were always talking, but they never said anything. Their gaping mouths were an open grave.

The sound of the river was soothing. The Baptist closed his eyes and settled into the sound of that flowing water. Here, in the desert, he felt a measure of purity that escaped him in the city. Out here, in the wide open quiet, he could feel God's presence.

On some days, John imagined the river rising from its banks. He imagined a great flood of water sweeping over Judea and then Syria and Rome, cleansing all the world. He could see the city walls crumble, the spears float away like matchsticks. The water would boil and roar, then all would be quiet.

"O God," the Baptist whispered, "how could Noah be so lucky?" There would never be another flood.

In quieter moments, under a canopy of stars, John the Baptist could hear God's consolation whispered in the river's current. "Do not be discouraged. Do not let your heart be troubled. You will see something far greater than Noah ever did."

"You have to do something," John urged.

"I will," God agreed. It was a promise that sustained him.

* * *

With his eyes still closed, John heard the sound footsteps approaching. He had visitors. Again. It still felt awkward.

John had never been very popular. He didn't smile easily. He didn't tell jokes. He had few compliments to offer. Until he moved into the desert, few people sought his company. Now people came to see him all the time.

It started months ago. John ran up to a group of strangers and shouted, "There are no picnic tables here! Do you see any picnic tables? Do you?" Dutifully, the people looked up and down the riverbank. There were no picnic tables in sight. Mutely, they shook their heads.

Hoping to preserve his solitude, John pointed a long finger at the river. With all the fervor of his conviction, he proclaimed, "This river is a sign of God's judgement. These waters will churn. The stink of Rome will be cleansed from our land. The stink of hypocrisy will be washed away. God will blot out the stain of your complacency. Every wicked thing will disappear beneath the waves. Repent, you lost sheep. Repent, for the day of judgement is at hand."

Instead of running away, the strangers began weep. They waded into the river, crying, "Yes, cleanse us! O please, wash us clean!" Caught up in the spirit of the moment, John obliged them. And as he did so, he felt a chill pass up his spine. Was this the work of God unfolding before his eyes?

Instead of rising up to destroy the wicked, a river might cleanse them. John caught a glimpse of something huge, something even more powerful than the flood primeval. God had options. Instead of killing the wicked, God could change their hearts.

Ever since that day, John had been baptizing people left and right. Instead of John the Bug-Eater or John the Kook, people started calling him John the Baptist.

* * *

Ritual cleansing was already a part of Jewish culture. In particular, someone who was born a gentile could only become a Jew after taking a ritual bath. For those on the outside, a bath brought them in. Some scholars believe that John's baptism echoed this theme. By being baptized, Jews could stand before God as a new recruit. The slate was clean.

It's hard to know for sure what baptism meant to John's followers. Maybe it meant different things to different people.

* * *

When the sound of footsteps came to a halt, John opened his eyes. Jesus was standing there in a crowd of people. All of them were waiting to be baptized.

You have to remember: John the Baptist had a passion for purity. This passion was his compass and the engine that moved him. And when it came to purity, John was always at the top. He drove the Lincoln Navigator of purity. From his lofty perch, he could look down on 3/4 ton pickups and minivans and all the lesser vehicles of righteousness that passed his way.

But when he saw Jesus, John the Baptist had to look up. For the first time in his adult life, John had to crane his neck. It sort of freaked him out.

"What are you doing here?" John asked. "You don't need a clean slate. In fact, if anything, you should baptize me."

Jesus replied, "No, I want you to baptize me. I want you to do this for the sake of what is right." John agrees. Of course he agrees -- Jesus is driving the monster truck of purity. How could John say no?

But why does Jesus want to be baptized in the first place? He's already Jewish. In fact, I think we can assume that his religious credentials are impeccable. So why does he want to get baptized? If baptism has something to do with wiping the slate clean, then why would Jesus care to pursue it?

* * *

First of all, I think we can rule out Jesus doing this for the sake of appearances. When does Jesus do anything for the sake of propriety? Time and time again, he causes trouble. He causes trouble on the Sabbath. He eats with all the wrong sort of people. He plays with children and scolds the rich.

Jesus is not the sort of person who plays to the camera. If Jesus decides to get baptized, there must be a real reason behind it. He's not like the parent who pretends to eat mashed peas in order to entice a toddler's appetite: "Mmm, num-num-num. Jesus loves to get baptized. Don't you want to get baptized?"

Jesus must get baptized for a reason.

Here's what I see in this story: I think Jesus comes to John because we human beings need one another. Even Jesus -- a spiritual giant -- needs to place himself under the ministry of someone like John in order to "fulfill all righteousness."

Look at the sequence of events. Jesus comes to John. Jesus places himself in the care of John. Think about that! John takes on the role of spiritual authority. And then the Spirit of God is revealed.

Jesus hears, "This is my Son, whom I love." This manifestation of God comes after Jesus has given himself to John. Immediately after this, Jesus goes on to phase Satan in the wilderness.

It would be so easy to miss the part that John has played. As Jesus begins his ministry, it would be so easy to begin the story with God's voice booming through the heavens. It would be so easy to begin the story with Satan and Jesus matching wits in the desert. These images reinforce the heroic status of Jesus.

But the story does not begin with Jesus in fifth gear. The story begins with Jesus under the spiritual direction of a human being who only half-understands what God is doing around him. In order to deepen spiritually, even Jesus needs the help of a human being.

* * *

As I look at my own spiritual life, I can see that my own tendency is to turn inward. I look for God in a private, inward place. When I open myself to other people, it's most often by reading their books or contemplating their works of art. The process remains a quiet, inner dialogue. More to the point, it remains almost exclusively under my control.

It's certainly not a bad thing to seek God in private, inward places. But this story helps me realize that I may be neglecting a whole different avenue through which God may speak. I wonder, who is the John the Baptist in my life? To whom do I give myself? Who helps me hear the voice of God?