This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 3:1-17 where John the Baptist is (surprise) baptizing people of every kind, including Jesus. Read the full story here.
I’m a pretty cynical, skeptical person in general. But I'm especially skeptical of any guy covered in animal pelts, snacking on bugs, and hollering, “repent! The end is near!” And the reason I'm so skeptical isn't just the weird factor, but because often those same people claim some kind of direct and exclusive connection to God - that they know some divine secret that they’re lording over others. Either that or they manipulate people with fear - they twist the message to say “repent...or else.” But I can't just write this one off because:
Something seems just a little bit different about this one, and
Jesus shows up. So that seems kinda important.
What’s different about what John is saying is that he isn’t preaching ”repent...or else.” John proclaims “the kingdom of God is near.” Perhaps the Kingdom of God is a kind of end, as it promises the world be set aright, and we are all too familiar with the ways it is currently wonky and broken. The good news that John preaches, that has attracted this large group of people to follow him and come down to the river, is a message and a world of hope and possibility and inclusion and healing. The baptism he invites people into is one of cleansing and new life. THAT’s something people want to be a part of.
Meanwhile, The Pharisees and Sadducees - the religious leaders who are certain they have it all figured out and that they’re doing it all right (or at least they know all the right things to do and are getting better and better at doing them all the time) - are watching from the sidelines, making sure John doesn’t go off script or say anything that conflicts with the rules of the church. Yet, even as they stand guard in the name of all that’s “right,” they too draw near to the water to join in this baptismal promise. It has been my experience that those who cling most to the doing things right are most in need of freedom from those heavy expectations.
John is skeptical of their intentions and he doesn’t even try to hide it. “You brood of vipers!” he hurls at them. At the heart of this baptism isn’t just a superficial ritual that gets you “in” or functions as an insurance policy for an afterlife and John wants to make sure they and everyone in earshot, gets that. This baptism is about life-giving change. Repentance doesn’t just mean being ashamed of how bad we are, it literally means to turn. It is a turn from the habits of heart and mind that lead to death, isolation, and fear. It is a turn toward a way of life that begets life - bearing fruit. It points to a fuller life that is on the way - one where we, the wheat, are no longer need of all our self-protective measures, the extra chaf we create around us. We are freed from all the extra things we do to try and be good and valuable on our own, and revealed to be something of value anyway.
This is the distinction John wants to emphasize. The distinction between the appearance of life in God, and the depth of life with God. It’s like the practice of tidying up - you can purge your things and get rid of all that clutters your space, but the real cleansing comes as we address why we accumulate, consume, cling to and hoard. Or we can do okay at staying sober, for awhile, but it’s not the same as diving into why we self-medicate, dull or distract ourselves, reaching for fuller answers about what we are trying to cover up or fill? I’m not sure if the Pharisees or Sadducees understood or were ready for that kind of baptism. I’m not sure anyone else is either. And we don’t read anything in scripture that says that disqualifies them or prevents us from experiencing it anyway.
Baptism is about being changed, not just on the outside, but entirely. And that’s not the same as being perfect. Jesus shows up and wants to be baptized too. Jesus has no need of an initiation ritual, of being made perfect, or a heavenly insurance policy. But we need Jesus to wade into the waters of life with us - to come over here with us - where its murky and swirling or stagnant. We need Jesus to transform our misplaced expectations and failed attempts at fixing everything ourselves. We need Jesus to turn us from our ways of death toward life-giving life.
Jesus enters the depths with us, and emerges to show us what it’s like when righteousness is fulfilled, when we and the whole world is set aright. It looks like the fullness of God on display- Creator, Savior, and Sustainer. It sounds like being publicly named and claimed by God as beloved - when all the fluff is washed away and what remains is still declared as valuable and beautiful in the eyes of God. It feels like being a part of a community where there’s a place for everyone - an endless fabric woven together through water - where the perfectionists and the weirdos all are welcome. It’s not just not just one moment or a single day, but an ongoing reality of being cleansed and embraced by God which defines and shapes us every day, turning us again and again and again toward life. THAT’S something that draws me in, or rather...that draws near to me. Thanks be to God. Amen.