Delivered 9 Jan 2011 at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Isn’t Jesus always embarrassing to us. He hangs out with a rag-tag group of fishermen, he dines with noted public sinners, lets prostitutes wash his feet, gets himself hung on a cross in a public execution. All of these things were certainly embarrassing to the first followers of Jesus and the gospels they wrote were in one sense a way of dealing with all of these potentially embarrassing facts from the life of Jesus, the savior of the world. Today’s gospel comes out of this tradition of embarrassment and explanation. Jesus went to be baptized by John. John’s baptisms were for the forgiveness of sins, for repentance. But here was a prophet and a person, in Jesus, who according to John needed no such baptism.
Nonetheless, Jesus insisted on being baptized in the waters of the Jordan alongside those who were repenting of their sins. Jesus makes for us who hold that he was sinless quite an embarrassing situation. His baptism means that either he was a sinner or we have to change our definition of sin. John the Baptist will not let us get away with such an easy fix as to redefine sin. And we still profess along with the earliest Christians that Jesus was without sin. We seem to be in a fix, a predicament.
Jesus is always teaching. One goal of teaching is to get the students, the disciples to change their paradigms. Change their way of thinking. Jesus is always teaching us something, always asking us to change our way of thinking—especially when it comes to God. Another way of saying this is: Jesus always reveals something about God and his relationship to God.
But before we get to the Good news of today’s gospel, ie. The revelation about God and Jesus’ relationship and what it means for us, we have to deal with this strange baptism of Jesus.
For ages interpreters of the bible have been perplexed by Jesus’ baptism. John’s baptism was for repentance of sins and we hold that Jesus was sinless. Even John questions Jesus’ need for baptism—he must have known of Jesus’ upstanding life—and wondered why this holy man was coming for a dip in the river Jordan. Jesus’ baptism makes us think of our own baptisms and wonder why do we do it and what happens in baptism. But these are not roads we need to go down this morning. I’m not going to wonder about your own baptism or mine and I’m only briefly going to wonder about why Jesus needed to be baptized. The question that we are going to get answered today is, who is this Jesus?
To the question of why Jesus chose to be baptized when John clearly didn’t think it necessary we can pose one or two answers. The most popular answer among scholars of the bible is that Jesus throws his lot in with us sinners. … This fits with many themes in the gospel. Isn’t Jesus constantly placing himself with the people who are most in need of healing, repentance, and salvation? Think of his placement between two criminals as he hung on the cross. Both in dire need of help. One understands who Jesus is and the other doesn’t. To the one who gets it, Jesus offers salvation. Even on the cross, Jesus is throwing himself amongst those of us who are most in need. His baptism in the same way represents a joining with us in our fight against the powers of darkness that want to take life away from us and are opposed to the love of God. So we understand in some sense why Jesus chose to do this. Jesus didn’t need to hang on the cross and the very same way he didn’t need to be baptized. But this is not a completely satisfying answer.
Jesus is always teaching—and even at his own baptism he was teaching his disciples and John the Baptist. Jesus is always revealing to us something about God and his relationship with God the father. In his baptism we learn that God is someone who wants to be with us when we are most in need of God’s presence in our lives. Jesus is neither afraid nor embarrassed to be associated with us when we are most in need.
And when are we most in need of God’s presence—It’s when we are most in need of God’s mercy. When we sin. When we turn away from God’s invitation of love. It’s a strange part of human logic that suggests we have to have all of our affairs in order before we come before the divine presence. We tend to think that God only wants us around after we have gotten all of our ducks in a row. After we have perfected ourselves and made ourselves be worthy to be in God’s presence. We think we have to do something different then we will let God into our lives—or even worse that doing something will cause God to show up on the scene of our lives. But when we sin—that is when we turn away from love by ignoring our neighbor’s need, by failing to love others and ourselves as God loves us—when we sin in this way, God, through Jesus shows up in our lives and most desperately wants to console us, help us, energize us with his spirit—so that we may more easily accept this tremendous invitation to love God and others. It’s only with God’s love that we can become perfect in the way God wants us to be—loving one another and ourselves.
This is the most important message of the gospels—we see it in the baptism and in the crucifixion—in fact we see this dynamic play out throughout all of the gospels. Jesus puts himself in the center of the action when we are in most desperate straits—not after we have become perfect in some petty human way. In fact, Jesus’ who was sinless at his baptism so overshadows the baptisms of everyone else on that day—he seems to be saying that our sin does not really matter. He’s not there on the banks of the Jordan shaking his finger at us—he’s jumping in the water himself and revealing his very special relationship with God the father. I would imagine that if you or I had shown up to be baptized by John on that day of Jesus’ own baptism we would quickly forget why we had come and be focused solely on the baptism of Jesus, where we learn just how much God wants to be with us in our need for mercy, love, and compassion. There is nothing to be embarrassed about. God loves us and is closest when we most need God.
Jeff Johnson, S.J.