You can imagine John’s shock.
John was at his usual spot, baptizing people in the Jordan River.
There was a line of people, all waiting their turn to be baptized by this wild and wooly man, who preached a cleansing of the soul in that brown water, a purification and removal of sin, but who also preached the coming of one who would baptize with something more than water. John was a fiery preacher – no meek man who talked of a warm and gentle conversion. No, he talked – and he talked a lot – about whether folks were prepared for the judgment to come, and how important it was to change their lives. If you’ve ever seen pictures of old-time revival preachers with their altar calls, yelling at people to turn over their lives to God, baptizing people by full immersion in a pool or a river or by the sea, then you’ve got an idea of what being with John was like. He smelled funky, he yelled loudly, and he was not about comforting you into religious conversion: he was about shaking you into it.
And now he was standing knee-deep in the Jordan with that line of those who wished to be baptized waiting their turn, and someone walked up to him who stopped him cold.
Can you imagine his voice, barely above a whisper, no shouting now, saying to this man standing before him, “This is crazy. I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you. You want to be baptized by me?”
The people in line were restless, wondering what was going on. No longer was there a rhythm to what was happening. Before, one would wade into the water, John would pray with them, they would submerse themselves and surface again, coughing and smiling and transformed, then they would wade onto the sand and sit there for a moment, shocked by the feeling this ritual bath aroused. Over and over it had been like that, and now the in and out, the submersion and emergence, it had stopped short.
A man was standing with John, and now John, who had looked utterly fearless and confident just a moment before, looked shaken, confused. They were talking quietly. The new man said, “It is important. We need to do this. Do it now.”
Why was John reluctant? Why was the man insistent, even though it was clear that John did not want to do it?
Why would Jesus, the son of God, insist on being baptized?
That was John’s question, and it is our question as well. Why would Jesus want or need to be baptized? Baptism is about the washing away of one’s sins, about being in a state of purity, of righteousness. Wasn’t Jesus the only one without sin? In fact, wasn’t Jesus the one who came to redeem us from our sins, to cleanse us by his death?
John knew this, and he knew the reason why he was baptizing all those other people, and he knew that it made no sense, given his understanding of who and what Jesus was, that Jesus be baptized. His words to Jesus, “You should baptize me, not the other way around,” is a perfectly logical response to the situation.
And yet Jesus insisted. It was important to do it, he said. For righteousness’ sake, he said. It was the right thing to do, even though John thought it made no sense at all.
So John did this thing that made no sense, this baptism of the perfect and incorruptible Son of God, because sometimes God asks people to do things that make no sense, like carrying a child conceived of the Holy Spirit, or marrying the woman carrying that child, or taking everyone in the family to Egypt because of a dream.
But perhaps in a strange way it did make sense. You see, there are times the son of God needs to stand in solidarity with humankind. The son of God needs to remind humankind that he may also be known as the son of Man. That being a part of our broken and human world, being God made incarnate and living as a human means Jesus needs to participate fully in human life…and if humankind needs to be washed in a ritual cleansing, so too must Jesus. Does he need to cleansed of sin? Of course not. But he knows he needs to be recognized by all who do need that cleansing by participating in the rite.
Jesus' participation in a human ritual is a way of identifying with those he loved so much.
This has a particular poignancy today, on this day when our brothers and sisters in southern Sudan are voting on the referendum for independence from the north. I’ve written of this referendum, this vote for freedom after generations of oppression and terrorist acts, of the theft of natural resources, of genocide in Darfur, of Janjuweed militia attacking innocents, in our newsletter. You’ve read about it in news reports. It is a moment of hope in a place where hope has been in short supply for a long time.
Now there is an opportunity for this to change. It requires that the people of southern Sudan go and vote. They are stepping into the water of their own Jordan River for transformation of their nation and their lives.
What does this have to do with us? John said to Jesus, “This makes no sense. You don’t need to do this.” Some might say to us “This is about the Sudanese people, it’s not about us as Americans. It makes no sense to care about this – it will not affect us.”
It is true that it is not about us. It is true that it is about the people of southern Sudan. But it is also true that we are connected to that place and those people, by virtue of our love and friendship with Timon and Mary and Joseph and Alice and Clement and Scovia and Evans and their families and friends. And it is true that we are connected by virtue of our shared belief in the risen Christ. And it is true that we are connected by virtue of our shared humanity, created and beloved by God.
So we are doing an illogical thing today. We are all invited to identify so much with our Sudanese brothers and sisters that we participate in this election with them by our prayers. Even though we do not "need" to vote, as Jesus did not "need" to be baptized, we stand in solidarity with them by prayer and love, as Jesus stood in solidarity with humankind by participating in baptism. It is, after all, the righteous, if an illogical, thing to do. And God calls us to do righteous and illogical things all the time, doesn't God?
So on this day when we remember the very illogical but exquisitely beautiful request of Jesus for baptism by John, let us pray:
Spirit of the living God, you hovered over the waters of our baptism and you filled us
with the vision of a just world, the promise of its unfolding, and the grace to help bring it to fullness. Today we stand in a world that is broken by violence even as it longs for peace. We stand with the people of Sudan as they seek to bring lasting stability to their region. We extend our prayer for them in their referendum for independence. Most beloved Son of God, you asked John to baptize you as a sign of the salvation that God would accomplish through you. And you gave us your Holy Spirit in baptism to carry on the work of making a way for your reign. Help us to trust the power of this first sacrament. Remove the barriers to discipleship. Make us into peacebuilders in your broken world. We ask this through Christ our Lord.