We read about that day in the desert only a few weeks ago, in Advent, as we prepared our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. John gave Jesus a big build-up: “When I baptize you, it is to get you going on the right way, to turn you away from your death-dealing habits and on your way to the One who will clean you up properly and do away with your wretchedness once and for all. He is the Real Deal!”
This is how I imagine it. Jesus arrived while John was busy in the river, blended in with the other sorry souls, and waited for John to recognize him when it was his turn. “Hold on!” John exclaims, then leans in so that only Jesus can hear. “You don’t belong in this line. Let’s start a new line so you can get to work! And may I be the first to humble myself under your cleansing hand.”
Or something like that. We often scratch our heads over the fact that Jesus submitted to a rite that signified a turning away from sin. He did not sin, so why did he get in line?
I think that question puzzles us if we consider God’s work in baptism, and the saving mission of Jesus, to be only about settling accounts. From sin to no sin—that is the point, right? Now God can let us into heaven.
The incarnation was about so much more than erasing marks for being naughty. The psalmist (in Psalm 29) describes God as the One who “thunders over the mighty waters” and “makes Lebanon skip like a calf.” God is not preoccupied with the business of bookkeeping. Rather, God is the One before whom all cry, “Glory!” Jesus is the agent of God’s scheme to “give strength to [the LORD’s] people…to bless his people with peace.”
Jesus got into the river with humans, experienced the sensation of water washing over him, sensed the humility of those around him, the joy of those who felt release from their burden of shame. As he made his way out of the water, he saw heaven opened, and the Spirit dove gliding down the rays of God’s glory from the heavens to his own body. He heard that mysteriously powerful, familiar voice blessing him with the peace and strength and love he would need in order to move forward into ministry. He would need the memory of that moment as he made his way among the people he had come to bless.
Did he have to go through that river in order to see and hear the presence of God-with-him? Could he have had that epiphany while walking in the streets of Nazareth? I wonder what he meant when he said that he had to be baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus’ baptism had to be more than a necessary step to be checked off his list as he went about the business of obtaining righteousness for us. As he proceeded to teach and heal, he demonstrated that living in God’s reign is about so much more than getting a clean slate. His righteousness involves meekness, poverty, agonizing forgiveness, generosity, compassion.
Jesus couldn’t get his point across by removing himself from the messy and mundane life of humanity. Instead, he did it by getting into the mix, being born in a cow stall, stepping into the muddy river, touching lepers, hanging out with prostitutes and shepherds. Toward the end of his ministry (Matthew 25:31-46), we find him teaching that real holiness is found in soup kitchens, by hospital beds, in prison visitation lounges.
In my efforts to follow Jesus in this way, I had a frightening, humbling experience. It happened five years ago in Mali (where I will also be as you read this, God willing). I had finished a week of visiting our Luke Society partner Indielou as well as my friend Bibi, who runs an orphanage in the capital city of Bamako.
On the day of my departure, I arrived at the airport too late for my flight to Senegal. I scrambled to purchase a ticket on the next plane an hour later. It was a harrowing experience to negotiate the situation in French when I was feeling anxious. Finally, I was cleared to approach the gate area, but I had one more barrier to cross. A tall man in camouflage holding an automatic weapon scowled at this flustered American woman as I struggled with heavy luggage on my own. He quizzed me on my reason for visiting his country.
This man had no business making me struggle with an explanation and making me feel small, but I had to get past him nevertheless. By the time I made it to the gate, I was shaken and emotionally exhausted.
The most significant part of that experience was after I finally boarded a plane and settled in for the short flight west. As I gazed out the window at the clouds, I realized that, even if I had gotten into real trouble—even if I faced real danger in the process—I was willing to do it again. It would not deter me from going back. That was a very freeing moment. It was a spiritual experience that was very grounded in my heart, mind, and body. I knew that God would not forsake me, but the Lord would give me the courage and ability to get through whatever I would be called to do in the future, frightening or otherwise. It felt like a threshold I had crossed, a kind of baptism. I could not have reached that conviction without those fearsome moments at the airport.
Make no mistake: my initial motives for going to western Africa were not purely altruistic; one of my failings is the desire to be the hero. But it only takes a few hours in a developing country to realize that the challenges are enormous, complex, and deeply embedded in the culture. Heroics won’t help anybody—least of all, the erstwhile hero.
Neither was Jesus a hero, at least not of the popular variety. The needs he came to see up close and to experience alongside us were not the type a hero could address with a flourish and be on his way. He had to walk with us, feel the desperation of our condition, endure the brutality of the only solution. He had to go through the baptism of humanity to get him to the baptism of suffering, and then to see with unmistakable clarity the cross that would take us beyond it all.
It is one of the many paradoxes of suffering as a servant: it has the potential to make you stronger and more determined to keep going. Perhaps my epiphany on a flight to Senegal was not unlike Jesus’ view from the river after he went through the water with everyone else. The glory of God, the reassurance that he was on the right track, the clouds parting to give him the clarity and courage he would need to face what lay ahead, these were granted to him as he launched his mission in a muddy river among ordinary people.