Readings from the Scriptures (CEB) Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
15 The people were filled with expectation, and everyone wondered whether John might be the Christ. 16 John replied to them all, “I baptize you with water, but the one who is more powerful than me is coming. I’m not worthy to loosen the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 The shovel he uses to sift the wheat from the husks is in his hands. He will clean out his threshing area and bring the wheat into his barn. But he will burn the husks with a fire that can’t be put out.” 21 When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”
You and I share this life
Every year, right after the reflection of the Magi’s journey, the journey of the star, and Christmas is neatly tucked away back in boxes and upon return counters, we come upon a tradition almost as fixed as the Christmas story itself: the story of Jesus’ baptism. We retread this old ground for new insights, as we reflect on the New Year and the commitment and journey of Jesus. We hear the words, “You are my (Child), whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness,” and strain to believe that God is talking about us, too.
But this year, while there is power in the end of the story, I think I’ve overlooked so much of the beginning. As many believe the stories of Christmas to be constructions around Jesus’ historical birth, interestingly (or interesting to ministers maybe) the gospels all manage to agree on the fact that Jesus was baptized – each Gospel writer telling the story their own way. There’s less and more with each interpretation, but coupled with the agreement on the importance of the story, the writers agreed that John was just as important as Jesus. John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, was thought to be the Messiah because of his own ministry. He offered people a chance at renewal. He offered them a restart. He offered them hope.
John had established his ministry in the countryside in the temple of his choosing. He followed the priesthood of his father, and the faithfulness of his mother, to care for people along the edge of the Jordan. When I re-affirmed my beliefs and baptism in 2017 in my trip to Israel, the waterway was themepark-y, line ups, cash registers, and of course, a gift shop. It didn’t feel particularly holy: it was messy. But afterwards I realized, it didn’t diminish it for me – in fact – it reminded me that it was always messy.
The Jordan was the place of baptizing, washing, but also drinking, bathing, entertainment, household chores. The Jordan was a messy place full of mud and muck. It was a place of the people. And so it makes only sense that that was the place of holiness too. The place where people’s lives were real, where gossip and gospel was shared, where dramas played out, the place where God came to rest on people’s heads and whisper into their ears, or shout over the roar of the people
To this very real place Jesus comes. But I’ve always wondered why? Why now especially? This might be his intentional entrance in the world, choosing that very day to seek out John, to seek out God, but why now? I might be living proof that men mature much (much) later in life, and so maybe Jesus reached his maturity around thirty when he was baptized…but there’s something powerful about Jesus choosing this moment over all others. Jesus choosing John over all others. Jesus choosing us, when for 29 years he chose something else.
And that’s the power of the untold beginning of the story, that Jesus spent his time doing all sorts of other things. I’m sure his mother told him all about the angels, and the Egypts and the difficulties surrounding his birth, but that was her story, not his. The story was thrust upon him and he couldn’t see his place in it. Instead, because his father Joseph had likely died, he stayed close to his mother, being the first born, he helped raise the family, he provided and cared for, and didn’t have a chance to choose something else.
But we do. We could choose to meet in person right now, knowing how difficult it is to stay apart, how the mental health crises of loneliness and despair is weighing on all of us – but as I said at our Executive meeting this week – there’s no right answer – there’s no good choice. We stay open and we might be part of the collapse of our health system, we stay closed and we might be a part of the collapse of our individual wellbeing. There’s no right answer – just like Jesus before he came to the water’s edge. We can debate why or even why now, but for him, it mattered. For him, it felt like the right choice. For us, the same.
For at the water’s edge Jesus chooses the messiness, the people who share gossip and gospel, Jesus chooses to be a part of the world, in order that he might hear, and help others hear that that we are and always be, beloved. No matter how muddied our waters become. No matter how separated we become from God. No matter the sunny days and lonely times that we will face. It’s the same promises echoed in James Taylor’s Fire and Rain
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
Won’t you look down on me, Jesus
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way…
We are confronted with this same choice on the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. To choose the messiness of life, to pray for Jesus’ help to make a stand, to make it through another day. It is the more difficult choice – but we are not alone, for John Wesley, leader of Methodism, and parent of our United Church
adapted this prayer from the Puritan tradition … It informed his theology and preaching. He expected the people called “Methodists” to pray this prayer at the beginning of each new year as a way of remembering and renewing their baptismal covenant. The prayer describes the life of a participant with Christ in his mission. [We choose again and again to be a part of this life and all its messiness. We choose again and again the way of Jesus.] The Covenant Prayer describes missional life devoted to following Jesus and serving as Christ’s representative in the world he loves and is working to redeem. It tells us that being a Christian is more a way of life than a system of beliefs. It is more about what we love than what we say we believe. You become what you love.
And so we offer Wesley’s prayer as a commitment to our choice of faith, choosing to walk this difficult path in this difficult time. (These words are more modern than Wesley’s original text, but there’s a link in the service if you would like the original). I invite you to pray with me:
[My life is]
no longer just my own,
but you and I share this life, O God.
Make sure I’m doing what you’d have me do,
and if I’m in the wrong spot, put me where you need me to be.
Make sure I keep busy, the harder the work, the better.
Let me work for you, or at least, call me when you need me,
Make me important if it helps you, or take me down a peg.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I promise not to hold anything back, but to give it all to you,
freely and willingly.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, revealed to us in one form as
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.
You are mine, and I am yours.
What an amazing thought.
May it be so.
And the promise I make here, may it ring true for all eternity.
 Written by Steve Manskar. Excerpted from www.umcdiscipleship.org