Blending with the Crowd

Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

I think one of the more brilliant inventions of the past couple of decades is the fast forward button on a TV remote.  It allows me to skip gory scenes of movies but even more importantly, when combined with a DVR, a video recorder, it means you pretty much never have to watch a commercial again.  I’ve gotten out of the habit of watching live TV.  If I watch TV, it’s mostly movies that I record so I can watch them when I have time plus it means I don’t have to watch any commercials.  I’m so spoiled that when I do watch unrecorded TV, a live sporting event, for example, I feel genuinely put upon that I can’t just fast forward through the commercials.

This morning’s scripture passage in Luke feels as though we’ve all taken advantage of the fast forward button.  The past few weeks we read about Jesus as an infant and child and then suddenly, today, Jesus is all grown up.  In first century Palestine, a thirty-year-old isn’t even a young man.  The fully-grown, middle-aged Jesus comes out to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptizer.

In the verses preceding today’s passage, Luke describes John and his ministry.  Luke doesn’t mention the camel hair shirt or the diet of locusts and honey but you might be pleased that we fast-forwarded through what Luke tells us John says.  John calls the crowd a brood of vipers,[1] and warns that even now the ax is ready: every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.[2]  It’s what some people call a turn-or-burn sermon.

But fast forward once again: Before Jesus even gets to the riverbank, Luke describes how John was arrested and thrown in prison because he infuriated King Herod.[3]  That’s in the verses we skip this morning, verses 19 and 20.  These verses don’t mean we’re supposed to be wondering, “Well, who baptized Jesus, then?” Luke tells the story out of order so that when Jesus finally appears at verse 21, the camera stays focused on him.  It will not swing back to look at John the Baptizer ever again, because after all, John has already affirmed that he is not the messiah.[4]

So with the camera off John, we get a very short description of Jesus’ baptism.  “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized …” – that’s it.  Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptized as one of the crowd.  People have long argued about why Jesus needed to be baptized.  Why was Jesus, the messiah, baptized by John, not the messiah?  Did Jesus need to repent of his own sins?  Even the early church must have asked this question because in Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptizer tries to deter Jesus: “Why do you come to me?  I need to be baptized by you!”  And then a hundred years later Jesus’ baptism by John still made some Christians uneasy, as evidenced by another book that didn’t make it into the canon, that was not included into our official Bible, called the Gospel of the Hebrews.[5]  In this book, Jesus denies any need to repent, and gets baptized to make his mother happy.[6]  Can’t you just picture that?  Mary, wagging a finger at her adult son, saying, “Now Jesus, you know it’s your job to be a good role model for these people.  What could it hurt?  Go on, go get baptized!”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is clearly the Son of God even before he’s born, so he doesn’t need the baptism to tell him that, and neither do we.  So I think it tells us something else.  That phrase, “Now, when all the people were baptized…” gives us our first clue.

Robert Coles tells a story about the first time he met Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic social worker.   When Coles was a medical student at Harvard, he volunteered to work with the Catholic Worker, a movement grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person.  Coles was a Harvard graduate.  He was in medical school, studying to be a psychiatrist.  In our society, that’s about as high status as you can get.  He knew that, and he was proud of it.  He was also proud that, with all these credentials, he was volunteering to help the poor.

When Coles arrived on the premises of the Catholic Worker, he asked to see Dorothy Day.  I guess he figured he might as well go right to the top.  He was told that she was in the kitchen.  He went into the kitchen, and saw her sitting at a table, talking to someone.  He had enough medical training to recognize that the man with whom she was speaking was an addict.  He was disheveled.  He was obviously a homeless street person.  Dorothy Day was sitting with him, listening intently to what he had to say.  She didn’t notice Coles come into the room.  Coles stood near the door and waited for her to finish.  When she had finished the conversation she stood up.  That’s when she noticed Coles.  She asked, “Do you want to speak with one of us?”

Coles was stunned.  Dorothy Day was famous.  This man with her was a nobody, a derelict.  “Do you want to speak with one of us?”  Coles had never seen anything like this – that Day could identify with another person so completely as to remove all distinctions between the two of them.  It cut through all of the ways we measure ourselves against each other, all the categories that society sets up to separate us from one another.  There were just two people, brother and sister, the sister concerned about the brother.  The encounter changed Coles’ life.  He said he learned more in that one moment than he did in four years at Harvard.[7]

Like Dorothy Day, Jesus was removing the distinctions between himself and “all the people.”  All the people are getting baptized.  And so Jesus is baptized as well.  Of course it wasn’t literally all the people.  You can bet King Herod wasn’t out there waiting to be dunked.  But all the people who are longing for the good news that their present situation isn’t the way life has to be, that God has something else, something better in mind – those are the people who come to be baptized.  John the Baptizer comes across as harsh but if you listen closely his turn-or-burn words are actually words of justice and hope and even comfort.  In the earlier part of this chapter, the people ask John what they need to do in order to change their situation, and he replies, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and he tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” “And what about us,” ask some soldiers, and John answers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”[8]  John is preaching a common sense justice and fairness that the people are not experiencing in their lives in the Roman Empire.  He’s preaching what we already know: Maybe you can’t turn the empire around but you can turn yourself around, which is what the word “repent” means, and eventually, if enough people turn around, that turns empire around.

It is into these waters, the waters of the longing of all the downtrodden people, that Jesus steps and begins his ministry.  Jesus’ baptism announces that the Son of God identifies with “all the people,” all the people, whether or not they’ve shown up at the Jordan.  It announces to us that he is not only among us, he is one of us.  Max Lucado puts it this way: “Jesus knows how you feel.  You’re under the gun at work?  Jesus knows how you feel.  You’ve got more to do than is humanly possible?  So did he.  People take more from you than they give?  Jesus understands.  Your teenagers won’t listen?  Your students won’t try?  Jesus knows how you feel. … You are precious to him.  When you struggle, he listens.  When you question, he hears.  He has been there.”[9]

You are precious to him.  Jesus’ baptism also announces that he is rooted in God; that he is ritually and publically re-rooted into participating with God in the ministry that John describes, bringing shalom to God’s precious people.[10]  After his baptism, Jesus hears words from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Is God pleased because Jesus decided to be baptized, or just pleased with him, generally, or both?  We don’t know but we do know these words are not unique to Jesus.  They echo this morning’s Isaiah passage: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.  … I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”[11]

So these words Jesus hears from heaven don’t set him apart.  Like his wading into the Jordan in the first place, they lump him in with the rest of us.  As the letter of First John tells us, “God has loved us so much that we are called children of God.  And we really are God’s children.”[12]  We are God’s beloveds.  If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.[13]  We are precious to God.  So precious that God became like us.  So precious that, as Frederick Buechner puts it, now “all ground is holy because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it.  If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here.  And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth, but our bodies and our earth themselves.”[14]

Jesus was baptized, and it made him part of the crowd, the crowd of broken and hurting people longing for wholeness, longing for life – this life – to be just and peaceful and safe.  Our crowd.  And – fast forward – when we are baptized, and when we reaffirm our baptism as our new members will do this morning, we join in his crowd, rooting our identities in his, as God’s beloveds, ready to turn around and then roll up our sleeves to turn the world around.

May it be so, for you and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2013

[1]  Luke 3:7.

[2]  Luke 3:9.

[3]  Luke 3:18-20.

[4]  Luke 3:15-16.

[5]  c. 80–150 AD.

[7]  Robert Coles, Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion (New York: Perseus Books, 1987).

[8]  Luke 3:10-14.

[9]  Max Lucado, In the Eye of the Storm (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012).

[11]  Isaiah 43:1b-2, 4-5, 6b-7.

[12]  1 John 3:1.

[13]  Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).

[14]  Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 52.

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