Jesus’ Baptism & Presidential Inaugurations
With no planning, relatively little training, and an out of the way desert location, Jesus begins his conquest of earth as the ruler of the kingdom of heaven by taking a bath in a muddy river. And by doing so he shows us what kind of King he is and will be for us. This is what we see in Matthew 3 as John the Baptist inaugurates Jesus as King.
Americans inaugurate Presidents every four years with a ceremony, a parade, and parties. We spend almost eighteen months deciding who to choose, and we vote again in four years. With most of the world’s eyes fixed on an upcoming presidential inaugural, our tendency is to speculate about what the next four years will look like or to try to prepare ourselves for the days ahead. But this January, pastors can remind the church how our King began his ministry on earth and show the church why we need to follow Jesus in the days to come.
Jesus’ Baptism is a Very Different Inauguration
Our King and God’s people follow a different route. Born to a virgin named Mary and a surprised earthly father named Joseph, Jesus spends his early years as a refugee traveling to Egypt out of the grasp of the local monarch Herod. After safely settling in Galilee, Jesus walks to a place familiar to Old Testament readers: the border between the wilderness and the Promised Land. As the new Joshua, Jesus looks across the river to a people needing to be conquered by the power of sacrificial love. Some had placed their hopes in religious leaders with ties to the ruling Romans (Sadducees). Others had retreated to caves thinking the world was coming to an end (Essenes). Others were meeting in synagogues hoping to reform the corrupt establishment (Pharisees). Still others were organizing in hopes of a violent coup (Zealots). Many of these very people had also come to be baptized because they too thought they needed to change.
Surrendering his power and pride, Jesus places his life into the hands of his relative John. When John challenges Jesus, explaining that Jesus needs to baptize John, Jesus turns the ceremony into a collaboration. He replies, “It’s proper for us to do this in this way.” In other words, Jesus saw this ceremony as something we do together to show that he is ready for the kingdom of heaven mission. He also shows us what kind of mission it will be. A voice and the Spirit confirm what Jesus already knows. He is God’s Son, blessed by his Father. In Matthew 3, Jesus’ baptism inaugurates four things the church needs to remember today.
1) Baptism marks the new territory of the kingdom of heaven.
Just as Joshua marked the crossing of the Israelites into the Promised Land with an Ebenezer monument, Jesus marks his journey with baptism. Whenever we participate or watch this ceremony, we are watching someone symbolically crossing over into a new world. They have a new King, loyalties, friendships, and community. From here on, the only thing that matters is surrender to Jesus as Lord.
2) Baptism invites us to join a messy community.
Jesus gets into muddy water surrounded by sinful people. He identifies with the least of these—the poor, the oppressed, the infirmed—and identifies with the people who have religious, political, and military power. All of them had come to the water, and all were in need of his revolutionary message. Jesus gives us permission to stay connected to all kinds of sinners, both the “down and out” and the “up and out.” He says to his relative and local preacher/mentor John, “let’s do this together.” There are no loners in the kingdom of heaven. If Jesus is going into the water, he’s taking people with him.
3) Baptism drowns the way we thought things were going to be.
Baptism is the first of many ways that Jesus leaves behind the way it could have been. Jesus enters the waters of baptism with so many people’s hopes on his shoulders. His act of baptism rejects all the other ways we could have conquered people or gotten into heaven and starts the slow march of love across the world. He already defies expectations by being sent by way of a virgin. Persian magi arrive at his house with gifts. He spends time in Egypt before returning to Galilee. Whatever we think about Jesus, things will not go the way we planned; and his way will not go the route we thought it should be. If we plan at all, we should plan for change, surprise, adventure, and a lot of faith-ful moments. When we plan, we should plan for plenty of on the job training, adjusting to new circumstances, surprising moments, and a lot of grace, mercy, and joy.
4) In Jesus’ Baptism, God speaks after the heavens tear apart.
In the midst of the surprising, messy moments, the heavens rip open. If Jesus’ life was not enough to remind us of God’s divine intervention into a chaotic world, God speaks again in the baptismal ceremony. God blesses his Son. The Spirit descends. What appears to be a moment of cosmic confusion is actually a time of blessing and confirmation. Jesus is on the right track. We can trust him.
January 2017 marks another new beginning for pastors, churches, and Northern Seminary. But the way forward with Jesus always involves a reminder back to the way our King began his ministry. For those of us looking to reassure the church that we can trust our King, we only have to gaze toward the place where pastors baptize the church. There are plenty of people here with us as the church that we never expected to be here—and many more to come. Jesus is focused less on a plan for them to come and more on a willingness to die to ourselves along the way. Leaders in God’s kingdom of heaven mission cling loosely to their preferences. Listen for God’s voice and the Spirit’s presence in the chaos. Dip your toes into muddy cold water, and prepare for things not to go the way we planned. But Jesus does something for us that we never expected. He drags us into the water with him and says, “Let’s do this together.”