You've probably heard of me. I'm the one who makes a guest appearance, a sort of supporting actor role, in some of the gospels. Even before I was born, Jesus was causing a stir in my life and so, as I became increasingly convinced by God that the Messiah was on his way, I went out into the desert to preach. In those days, that was a pretty radical thing to do. No attendance at temple or ordinary job for me; no following in the footsteps of my father to become a priest but rather a life as a voice in the wilderness crying 'Prepare the way of the Lord.' And people were listening, they were coming in their hordes to hear me preach and baptize them. It wasn't easy, mind, this radical lifestyle; there were always run-ins with various people and, as you may know, a grisly end to life for me. But, anyway, enough of me, back to the story of the day.
So here I was, preaching repentance and changing people's lives and suddenly my cousin comes along. Now, I've always had a suspicion that he was special and God's beloved. In fact, I thought he was the one that I've been pointing people towards and preaching about. There was a murmuring in the crowd and I looked up and saw Jesus coming towards me. So I stopped baptizing for a minute to greet him but he came straight down through the crowd and asked me to baptize him; I mean really, he asks me to baptize him. How could I do such a thing? How could I, John the Baptizer, be expected to baptize the Messiah?
Firstly I had to ask Jesus, did he need to be baptized? For what purpose did I baptize him? As the Son of God, surely he was sinless? It's a question which has vexed many Biblical scholars over the years and numerous people have written about it. There's some who think Jesus' baptism was all to do with us; that, by being baptized, Jesus was saying, I'm the same as them, I need God's forgiveness or, through being baptized, he showed that he was at one with the sinful nature of humans. But I'm not really sure about that. I like to think it was more about Jesus' relationship with God. His baptism was a marker on the journey of God saying, I am for you; a point where Jesus and God showed us what it means to be like him.
Secondly, and more to the point, who am I to baptize him? I mean, I said to him 'Surely I need to be baptized by you and yet you come to me?' I was only the messenger and not the actual Christ. I suppose that's something that we all think sometimes 'Who am I?' Am I worthy to be loved so much by God? Is it possible that I might be the one that God needs at this time? And probably, you, like me, may have tried to shy away from it. Surely God can't mean that he'll use me with all my faults and failings, you try eating locusts and honey for every meal. You've got to admit I'm a bit different from your average Jew in Jesus' time and did you see how old my parents were! It can be a common problem for people, not ready to accept that they are created as amazing people with creativity and beauty. Perhaps, in coming to be baptized by me, Jesus was saying it's not about whether you're qualified or important in your community but it's about being able to say Yes when God calls and taking your place in God's plan.
Jesus' reply? Well it was simply 'let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.' He didn't really even acknowledge my excuse or concern but rather said, this is what I need you to do for me now.
Now, I'm still not sure what he meant in that statement. How his baptism could be the way to 'fulfil all righteousness?' Was I cleansing him of his sin? Was it a way of saying that his baptism was the start of a new justice in the world? Was he saying that I needed to baptize him so that God could continue to move?
So I did it, I baptized him just like I'd baptized everyone else, one dunk in a very muddy River Jordan. And then something very strange happened. A dove came down and a voice from Heaven was heard but I'll let someone else tell you that story…
So where were we? Ah yes, I think John left us with the dove coming down and the voice from Heaven saying 'you are my beloved in whom I am well pleased' He missed out the bit about how Jesus came through the crowd and got to the front to be baptized. I was a little bit annoyed at first, we'd been waiting for hours to be baptized and here's this guy coming but the crowds seemed to recognise him and part for him and I joined in. We made some space so he could get to the front.
We'd heard of John's preaching for a while and decided that we should go out and hear him for ourselves. Find out what all the fuss was about.
Somebody said that we might not like what we heard. For, in listening to John's voice, what we'd actually do was face the facts about ourselves and our communities. We'd listened, for a change, to the voices which were crying out from injustice and pain; the people who struggled to face another day or who didn't know where their next meal was coming from. And those facts hurt a bit, I suppose they do for you as well; hearing what's actually going on in the world and not just what people want you to hear. Really listening to the voices which are crying out in pain and injustice. Even when we're doing our best, feeling that there will always be pain in this world that we can't do anything about. That, however hard you try to protect yourself or others, things happen that you can't plan for.
But John's teaching taught us something. It taught us a new way of living, a chance to repent from the things we'd done wrong and start afresh with God and with our neighbours. Being baptized gave me a sense of being wiped clean. I was no longer just an ordinary person, but someone who had heard God's words of love and said, yes, show me how to live.
And then, we watched Jesus' baptism story. At first, John rejected the idea that he should do the baptism but Jesus simply told John that he was worthy enough to baptise him. That gave us hope. Maybe we could be good enough for God as well, maybe God could use us in weird and wonderful ways; maybe, in being baptised by John, our lives could change. Of course, they didn't completely. In hindsight, while there was a new sense of purpose and being, there were still the day to day running of life; Jobs continued to need done, difficulties continued to come up; but there was a sense that we were different, that God was now by our side; supporting us through the difficult times.
And then, when the dove came down, we knew we had seen something special. God had met is in a special way. Jesus' baptism was one of God's many ways of saying, I am for you. It was a marker of God saying you are my beloved, in you I am well pleased. If we'd only known it was the beginning of something and where Jesus' ministry would end, perhaps we would have tried to do something to stop it. But, then again, perhaps not; I mean Jesus was interesting but I'm not sure I wanted to get messed up in all his radical thinking and life-changing plans…
And so it begins, the next stage on my journey. I was ready for it, 30 was quite old for someone like me in Palestine in the 1st century. You probably don't know much about my growing up but nobody felt it was important to tell you about it compared to the last 3 years of my life.
How did it make me feel? This sense that I should go and be baptized? Well, nervous for a start, I knew God's plan for me but I wasn't sure I wanted to carry it out.
In you I am well pleased.
What did those words mean? I hadn't even done very much yet but at the beginning God was saying, in you I am well pleased. It certainly made me feel good, to realise that even before I had started on my ministry, God was well pleased in me. Even when things seemed difficult or hard, he was well pleased in me. And, in saying that to me, God said it to everyone. That even when the road is tough or we don't know the next step of the journey, God is pleased in his creation. We may find ourselves far away from God, but abundant grace can bring us back to God. It did make me think though, what could I do to make God more pleased? How could I change so that others might see that God is pleased with them as well? Or indeed see that God loves them through my actions.
My baptism was also one of the many things that Matthew used to show that my life was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Right from the beginning, when Matthew concentrated on my family tree, he was keen to stress that I was the one who the world had been waiting for and, in being baptised, Matthew saw me as being the one who Isaiah speaks of as having the Spirit of the Lord resting on him; the one who God's soul delights in.
One of the things my baptism really said though is that my ministry and my life was radical. I came with a mission, to change the world, as Isaiah said,
'to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, to establish justice on the earth.'
Now this mission has been used for good and bad, some have taken it to mean establishing justice for one group over injustice for others or freeing those who agree with us and being blinded to the pain of others but I, God's servant as Isaiah described, see it rather as a challenge to a world which is often harsh and painful; a world where greed and jealousy are heard more loudly than love and peace. What would the world look like if people took up my message to open eyes that are blind? How would the world change if my radical life of sacrifice, love and justice was at the core of communities and people around the world? It's difficult to see how it might work but it certainly gives me pause for thought.
My baptism started the beginning of my ministry, from this point on I was no longer just a carpenter hidden from view in Nazareth but rather a preacher; a leader; a challenge to the hierarchy of priests and kings. I had taken my rightful place in the community and stepped out into a world which I was unsure of. My baptism was the start of something new being created in me and in the world.
The whole idea of baptism has been changed and altered over the years, some see it as an infant thing, others as an adult thing and some have had major disagreements and arguments about it. There's many ways to see it but perhaps you should consider it as a marker on the journey, the moment at which each person hears the words 'You are my beloved, in you I am well pleased.' Words which say, no matter what you have done, I am for you.
Listening to my story can remind you of when you followed in my footsteps and got baptized yourself; or encourage you to do so if you haven't already. But I should let you know, it might be a bumpy ride. I'm not promising it'll be easy but I'll be with you every step of the way.
copyright 2011 © Stewart Graham
unauthorised use or reproduction prohibited
new page 13 February 2011