13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.
16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In March of 2018, I was in a bus with sixteen new friends, driving from the Golan Heights to Jerusalem. As someone who had spent my adult life reading, studying, and then preaching the Gospels, it was a little surreal. We had spent a couple of nights at a kibbutz right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. We had been to Capernaum and to the Mount of the Beatitudes, where Jesus preached his most famous sermon.
So we’re on the road, chatting, and our guide, Chaim, gets on the microphone up front and says, okay, look out the left windows, and you’re going to get a view of the Jordan River.
I excitedly moved over to the left side and we went around a corner, and here’s what we saw [Slide]. We drove alongside the river, and the view remained pretty similar. [Slide]
I don’t know what I was expecting. I’ve seen a few Jesus movies—being a pastor and all—and the “River Jordan” is always pretty impressive.
[Slide] Here’s one artist’s recreation. It is not at all accurate. Even the wider place with the gift shop where we stopped was, well, kinda muddy and looked a lot like the marshes I used to muck around in as a kid in Savannah, Georgia.
[Slide] That didn’t stop me from getting in. Really should have worn shorts that day.
As we wound our way down the river, driving alongside it much of the way south, I realized that my mental image of the place where Jesus found his cousin John and was baptized is not particularly accurate. That, in fact, it is closer to the image held by Naaman the Aramean than by countless painters of pretty portraits of John the Baptizer and Jesus.
Remember Naaman? Second book of Kings, chapter five? General in the Aramean (Syrian) army, with leprosy. He goes to ask Elisha the prophet for help, and Elisha tells him to wash seven times in the Jordan. And Naaman says, “Ew! Have you seen that river?! We have way better rivers in Damascus!”
But he does it and he’s cured and Yay River Jordan! She may not be much to look at, but she gets the job done.
And that’s the thing about baptism. It gets the job done. Sure, Jesus could have found a more impressive place to be baptized. He could have found a more impressive way to signal that he’s about to begin his public work. We could have a more impressive initiation rite.
Even John the Baptist doesn’t think the baptism he’s offering is good enough for Jesus. According to Matthew, when Jesus came to be baptized, “14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”
Jesus stopped him right there, though. “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
This is good. And right. It gets the job done.
I’m going to tell you a little secret about religion that you might not know. You can decide whether to share it with anyone else, because it might blow their minds.
Sometimes, we religious people…we Christians in particular…sometimes…we overthink things.
Do you need a minute to sit with that?
We overthink things. Always have. The Council of Nicea—from which we got the Nicene Creed? Went from May to July of the year 325. Over two months. Hope they brough spare robes.
And that’s nothing. The council of Trent, held in the 16th Century to discuss “the Protestant heresies,” lasted eighteen years.
Eighteen years to talk about whether the Bible really says we are justified by God’s grace as a free gift and not by the works we do or the activity of the church.
Hint: it does. And in the last five hundred years, Catholics and Lutherans have come to largely the same understanding about justification thanks to lots, and lots, of ecumenical discussion.
We sometimes overthink things. And there are times when that overthinking results in clarity and needed changes. There have only been two Ecumenical Councils since the council of Trent almost five hundred years ago. The first was cut short by war, but the second, affectionately known as Vatican II, finally made good on the promise of Trent, that the people should worship and study the Bible in their own language.
Sometimes it is good to think deeply, and sometimes it is just a way of avoiding decisions and preserving power. Our United Methodist siblings are getting ready to split their church because they can’t figure out how to think their way around welcome to LGBTQ people.
In a culture in which the church has lost its place at the center, overthinking can be pretty dangerous. We lost a lot of Lutherans when we spent a decade “studying” sexuality. And we lost a bunch more when all those reams of reports and testimony didn’t say what they wanted them to say.
Jesus never commissioned a single study. When an issue presented itself, he dealt with it. Well, there was that time he was sleeping during a terrible storm, but when they woke him he dealt with it.
John wanted Jesus to step back and think about his baptism. Maybe Jesus should be doing the baptism. Maybe somewhere else. Maybe we should have a study…or a council.
Jesus looked at the water—that muddy, altogether pretty ordinary river water—and said “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
We need to do this, John. Righteousness can’t wait. Grace can’t wait. My people can’t wait.
This water is good. This simple ritual is good. Because in this water, in that river, in that font over there and in bowls of water and tanks of water and dainty shells full of water in sanctuaries across the world—in that water is the power to fulfill all righteousness.
In our baptism, we have received the opportunity [Slide + 3 clicks]
· To walk proudly in God’s righteousness
· To witness to the kingdom of God in our midst
· And to know that God’s grace has saved us and claimed us through our baptismal promises, and thus to reflect that grace to everyone we meet.
That’s what’s in that simple water. No matter where we got it—a muddy river, a pretty font, a borrowed horse trough [Slide]—don’t laugh—it happens more than you think.
It’s just water, wherever you got it. But as Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism, “it is water “comprehended in God's command and connected with God's Word.”
In that simple water is the power to live through God’s Word. To know that you are justified by God’s grace. To reflect that grace to the people in your life.
We can overthink it, like John the Baptist seems to, and like centuries of church elders have done. Or we can just let that power wash over us like water, and use it to change lives.
Someone in your life needs a little grace. Someone in your life needs a little benefit of the doubt.
You have the power. You got it in the water. If you haven’t yet been baptized, you can still connect with God’s grace and be a reflection, and I invite you right now into the power of the water.
I invite you right now to turn to page 234 in your hymnal. Together we are going to affirm our baptisms, to receive the simple water and remember its power. I invite you to think as we do this, as the water hits you—think about who in your life is hungry for a little grace, and how will you get out of your head and into your heart to give it to them.
Affirmation of Baptism.