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Jesus joins the riff-raff

Posted January 9, 2021

Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

Did Jesus go to receive John the Baptist’s ‘baptism of repentance’ by private appointment?  No.  He joined the queue. He took his place among the sinners and the riff-raff. 

This creates a wonderful picture of Jesus’ humility.  But it also creates a theological problem, for according to Christian belief, clearly asserted or implied many times in the New Testament, Jesus was sinless.  How, then, could he present himself to John to receive from him his ‘baptism of repentance’? 

St Mark in today’s Gospel shows no embarrassment about the episode.  He just narrates it without any explanation or apology.  But St Matthew’s account already shows some embarrassment, for while St Matthew bases the substance of his account on that of St Mark, he introduces a little conversation between Jesus and John the Baptist, where John says: ‘I shouldn’t be baptizing you; you should be baptizing me.’  To which Jesus replies: ‘Leave it for now.  It’s appropriate that you baptize me, so as to fulfil all righteousness.’  A rather obscure reply, which interpreters don’t understand, and my suspicion is that St Matthew didn’t either, but at least it serves to hide his embarrassment.  A second-century apocryphal writing, the so-called Gospel of the Nazarenes, known to us through St Jerome, who quotes from it, has a rather more drastic solution to the problem: it flatly denies that Jesus was baptized by John.  According to this writing, when Jesus’ relatives said ‘Let’s go and get baptized by John’, Jesus (who knew his Christian doctrine, all right) replied: ‘What sin have I committed that I should go to be baptized by him?’  In reality, though, that only calls attention to the problem, for there is little doubt that Jesus did receive John’s baptism.  Why  on earth would St Mark have made up such an embarrassing story?  So the question remains: Why did Jesus queue up with the sinners and the riff-raff to receive a ‘baptism of repentance’?  Was he pretending?  Was he a sinner?

The New Testament writers in general would give the following answer: Although Jesus had no personal sin, he nevertheless identified himself with his people to the extent of making himself accountable for their sinfulness.  God caused Jesus to be so completely identified with our sinful condition that St Paul can make the shocking statement: ‘For our sake God made him to be sin.’

This reminds us perhaps of the mysterious figure in the Book of Isaiah, the so-called Suffering Servant, familiar to us not least because we hear about him every year in the Good Friday liturgy.  ‘He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … He poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.’  Certainly Isaiah’s description of the Servant fits perfectly the image of Jesus in the New Testament as the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, the one who ‘bore our griefs and carried our sorrows’, the one who lifted the burden of sin from me and took it upon himself.

This Feast of the Baptism of our Lord is about Jesus’ mission to enter into our humanity – to share and enhance its loveliness, certainly, but also to share its wretchedness.  That is why the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord is celebrated so close to Christmas.  It explains what Christmas is about: God’s Son becoming truly one of us, sharing our burdens, being ‘counted among transgressors’ for my sake. 

Far from being embarrassed by the fact that Jesus queues up with us sinners for this ‘baptism of repentance’, we should take great comfort from it, whatever our anguished past, whatever our woes and problems.  Jesus has taken everything of ours upon himself.  He was ‘wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’.

Many New Testament interpreters are reluctant to highlight the similarity between Isaiah’s Servant and Jesus.  Why?  Because they feel that the idea of Jesus standing in for us lets us off the hook rather too easily.  Jesus becomes our substitute.  But, then, where is our own personal involvement in the tragedy of sin and its consequences?  We seem not to be involved in the drama of our own redemption, except by feeling grateful after the event, relieved that someone else has mopped up after us. 

But there is another side to the picture.  For we too have been baptized.  We have been ‘baptized into Christ’, ‘baptized into his death’, as St Paul puts it.  If Christ has embraced us, we are called to embrace him, to be assimilated to him, to share his character, his instincts, his mission, his destiny.  As St Paul says elsewhere: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’: who emptied himself, humbled himself, became as a slave for our sake.

The baptism of our Lord is on the one hand a reassurance to us that there is nothing in our lives or in our past that Jesus is not willing to take upon himself, relieving us for ever of our burden.  On the other hand, Jesus’ baptism places a radical claim upon us, and that’s where your involvement in the drama of your own redemption lies. Today you are being urged to make the decision for Christ that perhaps you have not up to now had the courage and the generosity to make, a decision that not even Jesus can make for you.  Today you must be reconciled.  As Jesus proclaims, shortly after his baptism: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.’  Or, as St Paul puts it: ‘We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.  We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’

Fr Tom Deidun

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