Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why was Jesus baptized?

A sermon on Mark 1: 4-11

To listen to audio version:

Today the Episcopal Church celebrates “the Baptism of our Lord,” which also happens to be the focus of today’s Gospel reading from Mark. Here’s the question I’d like to frame today’s sermon – why? Why was Jesus Christ baptized?

Because frankly it’s a problem; baptism is for people who identify with sinners. According to Mark, John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism is for sinners and according to the Bible that’s not what Jesus was. According to John, he’s not worthy to touch Jesus’ sandals. Baptism is about entering God’s life, but Jesus is God. Baptism’s about being cleansed from sin, but Jesus knew no sin. And so again, why was Jesus baptized? And what, if anything, does his baptism mean for our own?

Now, a little background; Today’s Gospel records the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. The past few years he’s lived quietly as a carpenter. It’s today, for the first time, that Jesus goes public as Israel’s Messiah and this baptism is Jesus’ manifesto.

“If elected president, what’s the first thing you’ll do?” If you’ve been watching the presidential debates you’ll notice how often that question’s asked. Because the question’s more of a symbol than anything; what will your presidency be about? What are you going to do on day number one? And so what today’s Gospel actually looks back on is Jesus’ first day in office where a public, symbolic statement is made about what His government or His Kingdom will be about. And Jesus’ statement was a symbolic one. He chose to be baptized.

Now, to help us understand what’s happening I’d like to tell you the story of a guy named father Damian, a young Belgian priest that lived in the late 19th century with a ministry to lepers. In the 1860’s the Hawaiian legislature passed the “Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy,” which resulted in about 8,000 people being banished to a leper colony. And so Father Damian, though not a leper himself, left the comfort of where he was and made his home among the lepers. And for the next twenty or so years Father Damien served these sick, banished, forgotten people. He embraced them. He loved them. He got close. And on a Sunday morning in 1885 Fr. Damien opened his sermon not with the customary “Brethren” but with two simple words: we lepers. “In other words, I’m not here to stand above you. But I’m here to stand with you in your disease.”

When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, where the scum of humanity went to repent, Jesus Christ made a similar statement. We sinners. This is the statement Jesus made on his first day in office – that as God’s Messiah he would identify fully with sinful humanity. You see, unlike our baptism, which fully identifies us with God; Jesus’ baptism unveiled God’s quest to fully identify with man. In other words, I think Jesus knew what he was put on earth to do, and as Oswald Chambers once put it, “at His baptism [Jesus] visibly and distinctly and historically took upon Him His vocation.” Now what this all means is that the point of Jesus’ ministry was not to set a good example – as if a role model were all we needed; nor did Jesus come to teach us how to love, as if the world had never heard of it. But in his baptism what Jesus actually did was preach a two word sermon. We lepers. We sinners. I am not here to stand above you. But I’m here to stand with you in your disease.”

There’s a second century theologian by the name of Iranaeus who said something that really captures what I’m getting at. “Out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is.” Or as St. Paul put it in 2nd Corinthians, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, Christ became what we are for a purpose – to make us beloved children of God like Himself.

Now, this is where our own baptismal identity comes into play. You see the words the Father spoke to Jesus – “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” – aren’t these the words each one of us longs to hear? We build our lives around hearing these words! How can I be accepted? How can I be loved? What must I do for people to be pleased with me? And the world’s answer is simple. Do something that’s pleasing. Be funny. Be smart. Get a tattoo. Make money. Be outgoing. Don’t have a bad game. Do something that makes you worthy! Stand out, be unique, make a difference, don’t be boring, do something pleasing, and only then will you be accepted and loved. Maybe. That’s the way our world orders things. Do something pleasing first. Experience love and belong second.

What our baptism does, and what Jesus’ baptism represents, is a complete reversal of that order. We say know that you’re loved and that you belong, and to the extent that you know you will live a life that’s pleasing to God.

And that’s why it is a good and fitting thing that we baptize infants. Before they do anything good we mark them as Christ’s own forever. We tell them they’re beloved sons and daughters of God and that, because they are in Christ, that God is so very pleased with them. And you know what? Sin, anxiety and fear – these are really nothing more than symptoms of us forgetting that we belong to God, that in Christ God identifies with us fully taking even our sin upon His own back. That is, after all, what the cross is all about – God making Him who knew no sin to become sin for us, so that in Him we might become the beloved of God. “Out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is.”

And so it’s a fitting thing to celebrate the baptism of Jesus. Because on His first day in office, by choosing to be baptized, what Jesus did was replace traditional religion with the Gospel. Your see religion says, “Do something well pleasing, and then maybe you’ll be acceptable.” But the Gospel says that in Christ we’re acceptable, and that to the extent that we grasp our beloved-ness we’ll please God as a byproduct. Religion is about morality and our faithfulness. The Gospel is about grace and God’s faithfulness. Religion is a wagging finder that screams, “try harder!” The Gospel is Jesus in the Jordan saying, “We lepers.”

There’s a great verse in the Book of Isaiah that says, “surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; he was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.” Now as Christians, we believe that this verse was meant to point to Jesus. But here’s the reason I share it. Going back to Father Damien, by the time he actually died Fr. Damien had contacted leprously. Could he have taken some sanitary measures to prevent that? I suppose he could. But what Father Damien felt called to do was to give these sick, banished and forgotten people something that had been lost: dignity, worth, love, belonging, and a sense that someone was “well pleased” enough with them to embrace them, to love them and to get close. But if that was to happen, metaphorically speaking, Father Damien had to stand with them in the Jordan. Out of his boundless love, Damien became what they were, lepers, so that that they might become what He is, fully human. God made Fr. Damien who knew no leprously to be a leper for them, so that in Damien’s presence they might experience a dignity, love and belonging they had never known before.

Why was Jesus baptized? Well, I suppose that all depends on how we view our selves. If all we really need is a good example or a little ego boost and we assume that’s what Jesus provides, than I don’t know. But if Jesus was right – if “those who are well have no need of a physician but only those who are sick” – if despite the myriad ways we try to convince the world that we’re all just fine what we really need is a savior – than Jesus’ baptism is nothing less than God, the ultimate Public Servant, making a statement to the world that he came to embrace us, love us, get close, and bear our disease for us, even to the point of dying on a cross.

You see baptism is for people that identity with sinners. And thank God that Jesus was someone that did.

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