Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Baptism of the Lord: If Jesus has no sin, why was he baptized?

Readings for the day:  Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Why did Jesus get baptized?

           the Son of God,
           the Word Made Flesh,
           is baptized…………
                                    by John?

John’s baptism, you will remember, is for the forgiveness of sins.  John calls for repentance and confession of sins and then he would baptize you as a sign of God’s forgiveness and to show that you are part of the coming kingdom of God.

You see the problem here? 


Jesus, whom we say had no sin, is baptized for……
                                                                   the forgiveness of sins.


Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all?

All four gospel writers talk about Jesus’ baptism.  If it shows up in all four gospels, it must be important!  Mark, whose account we heard today, places the baptism front and center!  No angels singing, or shepherds in the fields for Mark.  No dreams or wise men or a king so fearful of a tiny child that he orders the massacre of Bethlehem infants.  No baby sleeping peacefully in a manger with his mother watching over him.

Mark starts off with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”…and goes straight to a grown up Jesus on the shores of the Jordan river, beard dripping and clothing clinging to him. 

This is important stuff, Jesus’ baptism.  It’s where the good news starts, Mark tells us.  So we better take a closer look at what’s going on here.

So why DID Jesus get baptized?  If it wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins, then what was the point?

What’s going on here?

Jesus is in the crowd standing along the edge of the Jordan River.  John is passionately preaching, “Repent!  Turn from your sins!  Turn to God!” 

People are approaching John, confessing the sorry states of their lives, asking for baptism.

A woman approaches, “Do you think God will forgive me? 

A solider goes up to John, “With what I’ve done and all those times I haven’t honored God, God will still forgive” 

John listens to their confessions and their desire for forgiveness, and smiles.  “Surely God will forgive you. Now here we go, into the water.  Leave your sins behind and come up washed in God’s mercy.”

And John dunks them into the water – the muddy Jordan River.

Jesus is in this crowd.  Jesus is in the line of those going to John for baptism. 

It the last place we expect to see Jesus.  It’s unexpected that the one without sin would seek baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  It’s unexpected that one who is going to baptized with the Holy Spirit would stand there waiting to be baptized with water.  It's unexpected for the King would be in the midst of the peasants. 

And yet, where else would Jesus be?

These are the very people he came to love, to heal, to save. These are the people who are desperate for God’s love and mercy.  These are the sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus goes to the crowd, becomes ONE of the crowd, becomes one with these sinful humans, standing in the mud on the banks of the Jordan, waiting for John’s baptism.

Why did Jesus get baptized?  Because it was a way of showing how he identified with humanity.  This is indeed the beginning of good news for us – God is with us, willing to get down in the mud with us in order to lift us out of the pit.

Did John know that this one standing before him was the one John had predicted would come?  Did John know that he was baptizing the one whom he felt unworthy to untie his sandals?  Mark doesn’t tell us. 

All we know is that Jesus was baptized.

And then…

As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, not just opened – but ripped into a jagged-edged opening that cannot be closed back up or repaired.  The boundary that separates those of us on earth from God, and also keeps God at a distance from us – the heavens – the heavens are ruptured beyond repair and God is loose in the world.  It’s significant that the only other time we see this particular Greek verb used is at the end of Mark, when, at the moment of Jesus’ death, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of God in the Temple, is shredded in two. 

The heavens are ripped open and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus, like a dove - visible proof that the Spirit of God is in Jesus.

God the Father speaks.
You are my Son,
                the Beloved;
                           with you I am well pleased.”[i] 

Jesus is named and claimed as the Son of God. 

This is why Jesus was baptized.  In his baptism, Jesus’ identity is proclaimed and his mission is blest.  God is with him, God is in him, God is…him.

And God in Jesus is standing in the midst of us, just like one of us.

That’s the point.

That’s the beginning of the good news!

Baptism changed that day from John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit.  Because Jesus stood with us that day, and received the same baptism the worst sinners did, we now come to the waters of baptism to receive the baptism Jesus gives, not only finding our sins forgiven, but discovering that we are now children of God and filled with the Holy Spirit.

And with water dripping on our forheads, we hear God say those very same words to us:  Beloved Child, I am so pleased with you!

The theologian NT Wright puts it this way: 
The whole Christian gospel could be summed up in this point:  that when the living God looks at us, at every baptized and believing Christian, he says to us what he said to Jesus on that day.  He sees us, not as we are in ourselves, but as we are in Jesus Christ.”[ii] 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ started with his baptism, and God claiming him as God’s son, and God proclaiming God’s approval, and the heavens being torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove, and God, in Jesus, on the loose in our world.

It’s like that for us in our baptism as well.  God names us in the waters of baptism and claims us as child of God and tells us that we are joyously and completely loved.  The Holy Spirit enters our hearts and our lives and Jesus-God-with-us, through us, is loose in the world.

The veil is torn,
The heavens are open,
God comes down.

“You are my child.
My beloved one,
In you I am well pleased.”

[i] Mark 1:11
[ii] Mark for Everyone; N.T. Wright, Westminister John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, pg 4.


  1. Thanks for sharing this - it is encouraging to me as I edit my own sermon this morning.

  2. In the Advent Post Communion Prayers in the Book of Occasional services, the prayers say that in the Incarnation, Heaven and Earth are joined together. By reading your sermon, I can see how the Baptism of Jesus is Mark's Incarnational story - the ripping apart of Heaven and the joining together is profound imagery. Thank you for the epiphany.