Jesus’ Baptism

One of Us

Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.



A Matter of Identity

Matthew 3:13-17

Who are you?

I just asked you about your identity. You can answer the question in lots of ways. For example, I might answer by saying my name is “Chuck,” or if the setting is very formal, “Charles William Griffin III.” I also might identify myself by one of the many roles I fill: father, husband or pastor, for example.

But what about your ultimate identity? Is there something about your identity that is unchanging and eternal?

Certainly, it was an unchanging, eternal identity that Jesus established by submitting to baptism. After Jesus underwent this ritual, a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those words were all about identity. To the Jewish audience surrounding Jesus, the words brought to mind two passages of Scripture, Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. The psalm’s  “Son” reference was understood by Jews to be a reference to the promised Messiah; the expression of God’s pleasure in Isaiah was tied to the figure known as the “suffering servant” of prophecy.

So, in his baptism, Jesus gained a public identity as the suffering Christ, the one who would restore humanity to our Creator.

Jesus’ baptism also was an act of solidarity with humanity. Being both fully God and fully human, Jesus was sinless, like Adam and Eve before the fall. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths—Jesus’ baptism was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

And because of Jesus’ work, our own baptisms establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. Like Jesus, we are pleasing to God when we symbolically claim the identity God offers us. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into the kingdom of heaven.

All we’re left to do in this world is live out who we are.

It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather as children of God, remember who we are, and behave accordingly. We remain individuals, of course—I remain recognizable as Chuck, Child of God, while each of you remain recognizable as David or Margaret or Whoever, Child of God—but we find joyous unity as inheritors of perfect healing, peace, love and joy.

The word for such a gathering of God’s children is “church,” by the way. I know, church is seldom as ideal as I’ve just described it. Too often, we let our temporal identities get in the way. But the potential in any gathering of God’s children still amazes me.

Occasionally in such a setting, something truly mysterious happens. Sometimes, we’re allowed to represent God to each other in ways where our individual differences vanish, and there is nothing left visible but God’s Spirit at work.

Let me share a story, an example that might help.

In a previous appointment, I had a parishioner I’ll call Scott. He had a well-deserved reputation for knowing his Bible, and had served for decades as a deeply respected Sunday school teacher. Early on, we enjoyed each other’s company, having lively, friendly discussions about sermons and Bible lessons.

Scott’s demeanor changed suddenly. He stopped talking to me and became angry, focusing his wrath on me in particular when he spoke to others. It soon got back to me that Scott was telling people my sermons made no sense, that I was preaching subjects not in the Bible, that I might even be dangerous. He stopped attending church; his wife told me that because of the way Scott felt, I had best not visit him.

It became quite the talk of the congregation, of course. What had Pastor Chuck done to Scott? I for one was simply perplexed, worriedly second-guessing everything I had said or done in recent months.

The answer became clear in less than a year. Scott had developed a form of dementia, declining very quickly. Throughout his decline, this terrible disease caused him to lash out in fits of anger.

Toward the end, I did go to visit him in the hospital. By this time, he was usually groggy and disoriented. At some point during the visit, someone in the room said my name.

Scott roused slightly, furrowed his face and said, “Chuck Griffin? I hate Chuck Griffin.” I was sitting on the edge of his bed facing him. His wife, a polite and gentle woman, heard what he had muttered and looked as if she wanted to melt into the floor.

Scott then opened his eyes and looked me right in the face, studying me for a moment. His face relaxed, resuming a familiar cheeriness I had missed. He looked at my shirt, which had on it an embroidered Methodist cross. He then took my hand and asked me a question: “But you’ll be my pastor, right?”

The two of us sat there for just a moment, his disease stripping away both our identities, leaving us clinging only to our titles, “Children of God.” It was good—it was pure. Nothing remained between us but God’s grace.

“Of course I’ll be your pastor,” I replied. And we prayed.

We do not want to lose our individual identities through disease to have such a moment. But God’s Spirit can push aside differences, real or imagined. When we let God work, our unity as brothers and sisters in the family of God comes to the front, and we gain a glimpse of heaven.