In 1996 I relocated from Sunny San Diego to the North Coast of California. I traded an occasional rainy day for occasional bright, bright, sunshiny day (or so folks are prone to think with regard to weather in the Pacific Northwest). But after six years in San Diego, life in the Northwest was alien.
I remember standing on Moon Beach, wearing Khaki Dockers and a Big, Baggy Black Sweater in July, and watching this creature emerge from the surf, hands, head and feet covered with a thick wet suit to keep warm, and I wondered out loud, “what’s that?” “It’s a surfer!” Jennifer said. And I wanted to know how anyone could surf with so much between them and the water.
I remember standing under the boughs of an ancient redwood, holding the hand of our not quite two year old child and feeling just as tiny as I stared up into the lofty green branches and wondered at the size of these literal giants whose tops were, more often than not, shrouded in the seemingly ever-present mists of the North Coast.
The frequent rains of the North Coast and Northwest serve a purpose—just like the occasional rain does here on the South Coast—as much as some would complain about the rain, it is a necessary thing—water is life.
Water is from the beginning of Creation. Of all the things brought forth, water is simply there. “In the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
God does not say, “Let there be water.” There is just water.
Maybe it’s because water is life.
Water is there from the beginning of Creation and, at the end of what we know of this Creation, when all things are made new, John’s vision in Revelation is of a “River of the water of life, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the city…And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” (Rev. 22:1,17)
Water is there as Creation is birthed. Water is there as Creation is remade in the Flood. Water is there as Israel moves from slavery to freedom and as they move from living as wanderers to living in the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. Jesus is born from the waters of the womb, and today, we hear that Jesus comes to Jordan to partake in the Baptism that John offers.
It may seem an odd thing that Jesus, the One the Author of Hebrews says, “in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15) would come to John for a Baptism since so many of those at the Jordan were confessing their sins as they were baptized.
[Mikvah & John’s Baptism]
Before we get to what Jesus was doing in going to John to get baptized, maybe we should look for some understanding about what John was doing. Immersion in water, for ritual cleansing, was not anything new to the people flocking to the Jordan. The concept — if not the actual term “Mikvah” — had been used for centuries before John. The Midrash even relates that “after being banished from Eden, Adam sat in a river that flowed from the garden…[as] an integral part of his repentance process, of his attempt to return to his original perfection.” (chabad.org)
Even outside of Midrash, we see this use of immersion and cleansing: before the revelation at Sinai the people of God were commanded to immerse themselves in preparation for coming face to face with God; Aaron and his sons induction into the priesthood was marked by immersion; during the Temple periods the priests as well as each person who wished entry into the Temple had to immerse; and on Yom Kippur, the only day of the year when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the entry was the culmination of an ascending order of services, each of which was preceded by immersion in the Mikvah.
chabad.org says, “In many ways, Mikvah is the threshold separating the unholy from the holy [the Hebrew word “Kodesh — most often translated as Holy — is that which is set apart from the rest for a unique purpose, for consecration.] But [Mikvah] is even more. Simply put, immersion in the Mikvah signals a change in status…its unparalleled function lies in its power of transformation, its ability to effect metamorphosis.”
This is what John was doing at the Jordan. John was calling people to transformation. John was calling people back to their state of being set apart, unique. His message is clear: “Repent—change—because the Kingdom of Heaven in near!” John was making a threshold so that the people of God could once again meet God face to face.
[Jesus’ Baptism & Becoming the Beloved]
So then, what is Jesus doing there? Why would Emmanuel—God with Us—need to participate in ritual cleansing to get ready? From what does he need to repent?
We are in good company with regard to our confusion. John wants to know the same thing, so much so that he tries to refuse and says, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” John knows that Jesus is the one he has been preparing the way for. John knows that the roles should be reversed.
But Jesus says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Daniel’s paraphrase is this: “John calm down; I have this. Let it happen because I have to be obedient to God’s will.” Even though John was using immersion as a way of helping people get ready to see God face to face—Jesus knows that immersion is the way to get ready for the work of God, too.
The people of God were commissioned beginning with Abraham. “I will bless you and you will be a blessing.” Later the prophet Isaiah says, “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” And again, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The people of God are called to live in a way that is set apart so that the world will see a people who are wholly (w-h-o-l-l-y) devoted to God and want to be devoted, too.
Immersion, if it was only to call people to regret how they have been living, would not be what God really meant for it. Immersion is meant to be a way to call people back to being set apart so that the nations might see and follow, too.
So Jesus tells John, basically, “I am about to do God’s work in the world; let me do this so that the people will remember.” But the intent behind that word remember is that as we remember we are moved to do likewise.
“Too many people seem to think that the baptism of the infant or the young adult or the adult is the culminating activity of faith, and then we’re ‘done.’ Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism tells us the opposite.”
But something else happens, too. In the fulfilling of righteousness Jesus brings this practice of immersion to completion—not completion like to its conclusion—but to the fullness of meaning.
As Jesus emerges from the waters, the heavens open, there is the voice, and there is the Spirit’s descent like a dove.
“The Word of God was present from the beginning and created the world. What the word created was good. In Matthew, the Spirit of God once again hovers over the waters and once again the word of God speaks…and in Jesus we catch a glimpse of what it means to be fully human, and in baptism we are offered the possibility of embracing our humanity [in a manner like Jesus].”
Jesus lived every moment of every day in the reality that he is God’s Beloved. The same word of God that spoke over creation, speaks over Jesus, “This is my Beloved.” Some point out that this affirmation, because the voice says ‘this is’ not ‘you are,’ is more for John and those gathered at the Jordan, is a declaration more than it is an affirmation, but to be publicly recognized is also internally affirming. “You like me! You really like me!”
In an article called “The Science of ‘You Like Me! You Really Like Me!’” Matthew Lieberman writes:
Perhaps the most dramatic positive sign that we can get from another person — short of a marriage proposal — is to read something that person has written to express their deep affection for us. In a recent study, researchers asked participants’ friends, family members and significant others to compose two letters: one that contained unemotional statements of fact (“You have brown hair”) and one that expressed their positive emotional feelings for the participant (“You are the only person who has ever cared for me more than for yourself”).
Subjects would then lie in an MRI scanner while reading these letters written about them by several of the people they cared about the most. Our intuitive theories suggest there is something radically different about the kind of pleasure that comes from people saying nice things about us and the pleasure that comes from eating a scoop of our favorite ice cream. The former is intangible, both literally and figuratively, while the latter floods our senses. Although there are surely differences between physical and verbal sweets, this study suggested that the brain’s reward system seems to treat these experiences more similarly than we might expect. Being the object of such touching statements activates the ventral striatum in the same way that the other basic rewards in life — like ice cream — do.
Rabbi Samuel Karff says that it is important to pause and count our blessings, “Because…the human [temptation is] to pray only prayers of asking for something at those times when we are aware of the pain and the unfulfilled yearnings in our life. We can only begin to accept the all of life, and affirm that life is worth its price, if we lift to consciousness all the good in our lives.”
He is providing commentary to a morning prayer that says, “My God, the soul you have given me is pure. You created it. You shaped it. You breathed it into me and you protect it within me. For as long as my soul is within me, I offer thanks to you.”
We could add to that prayer, “You called my soul Beloved.”
Nadia Bolz Weber: “You know the one thing I love most about the Baptism of our Lord text is not just that God the Father says “This is my son, the beloved with whom I am well pleased”, but that God says this – before Jesus had really done anything. Think about that. God did not say “this is my son in whom I am well pleased because he has proved to me that he deserves it, he has quiet time with me each morning and always reads his Torah and because boy can he heal a leper.” Nope. As far as we know Jesus hadn’t even done anything yet and he was called beloved. The one in whom the Father was well pleased.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2014/01/sermon-on-baptism-belovedness-and-how-god-is-like-a-duped-teacher/)
If the act of Christian Baptism is “less an act of negation than it is an affirmation of being incorporated into Christ”…If baptism as an archetypal act demonstrates the ancient metamorphosis of the Mikvah where people enter water as one thing (slaves or wanderers) and emerge as something different, something (someone) set apart and holy…If baptism follows in the ancient biblical tradition that suggests that waters are also places of renewal, hospitality, and spiritual vision, where human beings see God and receive God’s blessing…
Then Beloved of God, hear this, take it to heart, and live every day from it: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” These words are for you (and for me) as we remember our journey to the waters of life, “This is my Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”