Late last year I performed my first solo baptism in jail. I had participated in a previous one with my predecessor, the Rev. Don Roberts, so I knew to bring the holy water in a Tupperware container. And because in this case, the inmate's classification forbade me taking him to a private room outside the unit, we did the baptism in the inmate's cell. I asked the questions, the inmate answered and I had him bow over the combination sink/drinking fountain/toilet as I poured the water over his head. I gave him a baptismal certificate and welcomed him into the faith. He is one of the handful of inmates to whom I regularly take communion.
We all come into the church through baptism. It's common to think of baptism as uniquely Christian but in Jesus' day, baptism was a rite reserved for Gentiles converting to Judaism. It represented beginning a new life. The converts were to take new names and old sins were treated as if they had been done by another person. So when John started baptizing Jews for repentance, he must have been seen as a radical. Essentially, he was treating Jews as if they were as far from God as Gentile sinners. But the Jews of that time agreed that they needed to show radical repentance.
But the real question is why did Jesus get baptized? He was without sin so he didn't need to be reconciled with God. Even John says that Jesus should be the baptizer and John the baptizee. Jesus' reply is that it is the proper way to fulfill all righteousness; that is, to do everything a righteous person should do.
Why would a righteous person be baptized? Because a truly righteous person would realize that he is not morally perfect and that he too needs to start his life anew. But Jesus is not your average person. He is sinless. Why is he acting as if he weren't?
In Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis has a chapter entitled "The Perfect Penitent." He points out that by sinning, by opposing God's will in our lives, we are rebels against God. It isn't simply a matter of fallen people needing to be improved; we need to lay down our arms, so to speak. We need to surrender, to unlearn all our bad habits and attitudes. We need to kill that egotistical part of ourselves that says we know better than God when it comes to how to live our lives and how to act towards him and other people. Repentance is turning your life completely around. That is a very hard thing to do. “And here comes the catch,” says Lewis, “Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.”
Lewis goes on to point out that if we ask God's help to do this, to take us by the hand and walk us through the process, to give up our will, to surrender, this is only possible if God has actual experience subordinating his will to—well, his will. How could he do that?
Only if God does in fact become a human being. Lewis says, “supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because he was a man; and He could do it perfectly because he was God.”
So in his baptism we see Jesus doing perfectly for us what we cannot do. He is also showing us how to let God help us, which requires humbling oneself. Baptism is not a dignified thing to undergo, whether you are dunked completely underwater in a river or a pool or stand there and let someone pour water on your head. No one with water running down their face looks self-possessed. But that's the point. You are now God's possession. You have handed over the control of your life to him.
And Jesus' whole life is like this. What do we do after a baptism? We have a reception with cake and lots of good things to eat and drink. What does Jesus do after his baptism? He is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit to face temptation. Why? Because we get tempted. He shows us how to handle it. In the 12 step programs, they have made a neat little acronym to remind those going through the program of the 4 chief conditions in which people are most likely to succumb to the temptation to use again. That acronym is H.A.L.T. It stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. And in the wilderness, we see Jesus face all 4. He fasts for 40 days so, of course, he is hungry. His first temptation is to use his divine powers, not for God or for others, but for himself. He is certainly lonely out there in the desert. I don't imagine he sleeps well out there without a tent or bedroll and with his stomach aching for food. And I could see where those conditions would make him apt to be cranky. But Jesus shows us how to resist temptation under more extreme conditions than most of us will ever know.
Jesus starts his mission and asks people to follow him. How hard is that? Well, most of us can't get the courage to ask people to follow Jesus. Christ just does it.
He feels the backlash of his decision with those he loves the most. We are told that his mother and brothers come to fetch him at one point, thinking he must be out of his mind. His brothers tease him about going to Jerusalem for the festivals, according to John's gospel. His own town refuses to believe that this person whom they knew from childhood could be anyone special and their lack of faith in him means he can't heal them. Worse, at one point they get so angry at what he says they want to toss him off a cliff. Imagine being that rejected by your own town? If we make a stand for Jesus we might encounter the same opposition. Jesus shows us how.
Jesus gets bombarded with questions about the hot button issues of his day—taxes, ritual handwashing, what is and is not permitted on the Sabbath, what is and is not Kosher, etc. He doesn't get caught up in long debates that get bogged down in details and minutia. He stays on message. He get asked whose sins caused a man to be born blind. Jesus doesn't try to fix the blame; he fixes the problem. When a woman is caught in adultery, Jesus doesn't get into a discussion of whether or not she should be stoned in accordance with the law. He points out the absurdity of sinners condemning and executing another sinner. And in the end, instead of there being a dead woman, there is a woman who is grateful to Jesus for his mercy and alive to the new direction he has given her life.
Jesus deals with demands on his time and his energies to the point that he can't always eat in peace and he gets so exhausted he almost sleeps through a storm that threatens to sink the boat he's in. Yet he finds time to get off by himself and pray. He organizes a meal for 5000 at a time. He never says “no” to an opportunity to heal or to forgive.
Jesus faces massive opposition, so much so that it is not safe for him to proclaim the gospel. He does it anyway. He is betrayed by a friend. He is abandoned by his followers and one of his closest friends disavows knowing him. If you've ever had a time when you felt abandoned, Jesus has been there and done that. If you've never experienced that for doing the right thing, Jesus shows us how to do it.
Jesus is tried, tortured and executed, painfully, publicly and in as humiliating a way as possible. He feels abandoned even by God. Nobody in this church will ever experience this. But Jesus did—for us and in our place.
The question “What would Jesus do?” is a good one, though somewhat degraded by being turned into a meme and jewelry. We should also ask “What did Jesus do and why?” Much of it he did as an example to us and also so we can ask his help when faced with similar situations.
Lewis speaks of how, to help a child learn to write his ABCs, a teacher might put her hand around the child's hand, and write the letters so the child feels how to physically form them. Lewis speaks of God doing the same with us as we deal with things in this life and his being able to do so because he has first hand experience through Jesus. So when we are up against some challenge we can with confidence ask God to “walk us through this.”
And it's not like all we have is a book which tells us what Jesus did and which we are left to imitate on our own. Because as helpful as his example is, we have his Spirit within us to give us power and wisdom and inspiration to do what Jesus did.
One of the big promises that Jesus makes is in John 14. In verses 15-17 he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” In verse 23, Jesus says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” The Spirit is the presence of God in us. That is how what Jesus knows by experience is made available to us. Through the Spirit, we are connected to Christ and God the Father and have access to the power Jesus used to face and overcome the temptations and obstacles of life. Christ is not only beside us as we deal with them; he is in us helping us accomplish what we otherwise could not.
That is why what Jesus says in John 16:33 is so empowering: “I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have suffering. But take courage! I have conquered the world!” We have peace because if Christ has conquered the world, we can, too, because he is in us. We needn't despair when the pressure of this world weighs us down. Because, as 1 John 4:4 tells us, “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” And as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:37, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Two men stand in a river and one immerses the other. On the surface, that's all that happened that day in Judea. But beneath that surface, Jesus was being the perfect penitent, doing for us what we cannot. And he did so all through his life. And that was so that people who open their hearts to him could have access to that power, to do what we should through the one who is in us. If we truly rely on his Spirit, we can, as he did, overcome this world. Again it may not look like that on the surface, but beneath the appearances, Jesus is changing the balance, relieving the pressure, shifting the dynamics of the situation. All we have to do is trust him, and as he did that day in the Jordan, take the plunge.