And That's Not All He Does
At that time Jesus arrived from Galilee and came to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. But John tried to make him change his mind. "I ought to be baptized by you," John said, "and yet you have come to me."
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so for now. For in this way we will do all that God requires." So John agreed.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he came up out of the water. Then heaven was opened to him, and he saw the spirit of God coming down like a dove and lighting on him. Then a voice said from heaven, "This is my own dear son, with whom I am well pleased." Matthew 3:13-17.
Everybody I know who has been to the Jordan River reports disappointment. "It's very narrow. ...Nowhere as big as I imagined ... very shallow. ...not very clean ... often very muddy."
For some reason, when I think of the baptism of Jesus, I get hung up on the thought that the water has to be very muddy.
Hear me out.
Before baptism was the Christian rite, it was a Jewish rite of initiation, whereby converts from the pagan world were cleansed of all their impurities before they were allowed to undergo the surgical rite in circumcision.
It was a Jewish rite for gentiles. But, when John-the Baptist came along he was offering it to his Hebrew brethren. John was in effect saying, "You have strayed so far from the teachings of Moses that you are like the unclean (goyim) gentiles. This must have resonated with something in their life and spirit, because hundreds even thousands of John's countrymen were packing their sleeping bags and hiking out to the river valley to get fight with God and have all their sins washed away.
When you add to this the fact that it was not uncommon for Semitic country folk to be bathed only three times in their lives ... at birth ... at their marriage ... and in preparation for burial. What a muddy stream that Jordan River must have been when Jesus arrived and stood before his cousin John the Baptist!
A discussion follows. Jesus wants to be baptized. John doesn't think it's a very good idea. If anybody is to be baptized, John wanted Jesus to baptize him. "I ought to be baptized by you.
If the muddy water contained, symbolically, the sins of Jesus' contemporaries, he immersed himself in them.
The great thinkers of the Christian Church, both Catholic and Reformed agree that in Jesus God identified himself fully with the human condition.
"For us and our salvation, he came down from heaven, was incarnated by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man"...a human being. Thus states one of the ancient creeds of the Christian community.
"He became what we are, in order that we might become what he is," were the words of the early church leader, Irenaeus.
Jesus plunges into the mess of human life.
Early in my ministry I visited the prison cell of a man who had murdered his wife. We'll call him Ben. He had come home unexpectedly and found his wife in bed with another man. In a rage he choked her to death.
In his cell he was filled with remorse and grief.
He expressed the desire to attend his wife's funeral. Neither the sheriff nor his father-in-law thought that it was a very good idea.
I offered to come to the prison on the day of the funeral and conduct a memorial Eucharist. He wanted this very much.
Two days later the guard checked me over and examined my communion kit with the great curiosity, grunting as he handled the miniature chalice, paten, and cross. I still don't know whether he was looking for contraband or just curious, We improvised an altar on the edge of the bed. Some of the old prayers rang out with new meaning,
"We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness ... The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable. Have mercy
"This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received that Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners. "
"We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table ... grant that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and our souls washed with his most precious blood.
When Ben raised his hands to receive the Holy Communion, I hesitated for a moment.
Those hands were the murder weapons. It takes less than a second to pull a trigger or plunge a knife, but he had taken three to five minutes of sustained anger and rage to press those hands against his wife's throat to take her life. Now those same hands were reaching out. How the gospel of Jesus Christ became real to me at that moment! I placed the communion bread in those soiled hands. "The body of Christ the bread of heaven."
Jesus plunges into the mess of human life, but he doesn't stop there. He comes up out of the water and according to John's account of the baptism invites us to follow him.
He becomes what we are, in order that we might become what he is.
He accepts us where we are. But, He loves us too much to leave us in the muddy water.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
A woman told me that she wanted to be a Christian, but that her life was a complete mess. Her house was a mess. Her garage was a mess, and above all, her personal relationships were all in a mess. She promised herself that as soon as she got her act cleaned up she was going to become a Christian.
What she was doing was committing the ancient heresy of thinking that God would only love her if she were perfect ... had a clean house ... a tidy garage ... neat and polite children etc. etc. etc.
But, that's not the way it is at all. And someone was kind enough to tell her that God loves us unconditionally ... he embraces us where we are ... in a junky house ... in dirty water. But he loves us too much to leave us there.
My friend invited the Lord into her messy life and then discovered that things began to change ... not overnight ... not everything at once ... but her life got better. Things became more manageable.
Another friend, another story.
This friend, a trained psychologist has a healing ministry and a prayer ministry, that is sometimes referred to as a gift of inner healing. When working with a patient, she very gently helps her patient or client go back to a moment of great pain ... to visualize or recreate the incident of hurt or failure ... the loss of a loved one ... an occasion of abuse.
Then the patient is guided to invite the Lord into that situation ... to imagine him standing there embracing the abused child ... receiving the lost friend ... cleansing an old wound with his tears.
Patients recall their experiences with words like: "Freedom, Liberation, Deliverance."
Christ enters fully into our experience ... embraces us where we are, but loved us too much to leave us behind. He welcomes what we are, in order that we might become what he is.
Jesus wades into the muddy water of our world and looks at life through our eyes, BUT THAT'S NOT ALL BE DOES. He then leads us out of the water where we can see reality from a new perspective ... from the perspective of and through the eyes of Jesus.
He became what we are, in order that we might become what he is.
We thank you Father for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Rev. Robert Libby
THE PROTESTANT HOUR
The Rev. Bob Libby is Rector of St. Christopher's-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Key Biscayne, Florida. He is the author of The Forgiveness Book (Cowely, 1992), a collection of short stories and reflections on the theme of forgiveness.