In the weeks between Christmas and Lent, many churches observe the season of Epiphany. Epiphany means a revealing or a knowing of the meaning of something in a way which has a profound impact. When one has an epiphany, it’s more than a moment of enlightenment, it can lead to something life changing.
No surprise then, that the first story of epiphany (after the arrival of the magi which marks its beginning) is the first appearance of the adult Jesus, coming to be baptized. The story of the baptism of Jesus appears in three of the four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke each put their own spin on it, but the essential ingredients of the story are Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River followed by the Holy Spirit appearing to descend on Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice from heaven saying “this is my beloved son with whom I am pleased.”
The fourth gospel, John, has no baptism story, but includes the appearance of the Holy Spirit as a dove coming to Jesus.
That seems to be the critical part of the story – the apparent “revealing,” even – that Jesus receives the Holy Spirit and is announced as God’s son. Many scholars, like John Crossan, suggest that the idea of Jesus being baptized by John would have been scandalous and an embarrassment to early Christians. John was the announcer, the messenger calling people to repent and be baptized to prepare for Jesus, “the one who is more powerful than I” (Luke 3:16). Matthew even describes a short exchange in which John says he’s not worthy to baptize Jesus. It wouldn’t be right for the lesser John to baptize the greater Jesus. And John had his own followers who might interpret that in favour of their teacher. Most importantly, John called people to repent from sin and be baptized. If Jesus, the Son of God, is without sin, why would he need to be baptized?
I think there’s more to be revealed here.
Jesus comes to John just as everyone else does, as one of us: “now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized” writes Luke as if Jesus had just done what was expected of anyone. Jesus identifies himself with us. There is not now, and won’t be, anything that Jesus asks of us that he wouldn’t do. Perhaps, in remembering our own baptism, we should remember that we share the water with each other and with Jesus. Like Jesus, we are already worthy. Baptism acknowledges in ritual what we already know to be true: we are all children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus.
I wonder, too, if this isn’t also a moment to remember that Jesus didn’t come quietly by himself to see John and be baptized in private. He came with everyone and participated with everyone. It is best when we do these things together.
John calls everyone to repent – to turn, not just from sin, but to good – and be baptized. The baptism story leads to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry. It’s a turning point, even, from a life unrecorded (either preparing himself or so ordinary that it wasn’t worth describing) to a life of healing, teaching and loving – the fullness of his life in ministry recorded in the gospels. I don’t think the baptism itself made him holier or empowered him (the Spirit did that, perhaps), but it certainly seems to have reoriented him. Can it be the same for us?
Jesus lived into his baptism everyday and so can we. On the Sunday when we hear this story, we’ll remind people to “remember your baptism.” Not the actual moment of the event (so many are baptized as infants), but the intent of the promises made, promises meant to be lived out everyday. Of all the words we say when we baptize in our community of faith, I always hope these will be remembered: “You are a child of God and Jesusʼ friend: may you be love for all around you, always.”