Many of you are studying The Way: Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus, this Lenten season. I thought I would include in today's post a few words about a picture of the Jordan River near where Jesus was baptized so you've got a sense of the scene, answer a question that's come up several times from readers this week, and the daily reading for Wednesday from the devotional companion, The Way: 40 Days of Reflections.
First, the picture of the Jordan. Most people who visit the Holy Land and remember their baptisms do so near the Sea of Galilee some 60 miles north of where Jesus was likely baptized. The Jordan looks quite different there. This photo was taken on the Jordan, near Jericho. Here the Jordan is less than 20 feet across. It is about 4 feet deep and reeds line the river on either side. If would have been near here that the Israelites crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land under Joshua. This is just a few miles from where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea.
Some who've been watching the video we filmed in the Holy Land that goes with The Way have asked about the baptisms you see on the film. You wondered if we re-baptize people or if these were people who had never been baptized. In the United Methodist Church we don't re-baptize. Baptism is seen as a covenant God makes with us and we with God; even if we fall away, God remains faithful. It would be like two people who are married and one leaves for a time. When the two are reconciled they are not remarried since the marriage remained in force. But they might choose to renew their wedding vows.
When we travel to the Holy Land we give people who have never been baptized the opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan (two of those in the film were being baptized for the first time). We also give those who have been baptized a chance to renew their baptism in the Jordan. We carefully explain that this is not a re-baptism. We then ask if it is their intention to renew the covenant made at the time of their baptism, expressing their acceptance of God's grace and love, and pledging anew to follow Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. We then renew our baptism in one of three ways: Some choose to take off their shoes and just stand on the shore. We take water from the Jordan and make the sign of the cross on their forehead and pray for them. Some wade in but don't wish to go all the way under and, again, we make the sign of the cross on their forehead and pray. Others are excited to be completely immersed in which case we say, "We now renew the covenant made in your baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." In the video you can see that we then held their hands as they immersed themselves.
At the northern baptismal site, near the Sea of Galilee, we actually hold those renewing their baptism and dip them into the water. But the site to the south, in the video, has no way to do this. You are standing about 4 feet into the water and the river bottom is muddy and slippery. I had to hold onto the railing with one arm so as not to slip. So the best I could do was to hold their hand as they dipped themselves. The experience is a profound one as Christians join with Jesus in the location where he was baptized by John while remembering their own baptisms.
What follows is today's reading from the daily devotional version of The Way and it speaks to Jesus' own baptism. Blessings!
THE BAPTISM OF JESUS
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And 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. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
Jesus was intentional about beginning his public ministry by coming to his cousin, John, to be baptized. This was a kind of ordination and unveiling for Jesus.
But why would Jesus be baptized? Why would he need a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?" This is a question Christians have wrestled with since the first Gospels were written. Matthew raises the question for us by citing John's words to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?" (Matthew 3:14).
In choosing to be baptized, Jesus was identifying fully with humanity. He stood publicly with those who felt alienated from God and in need of grace. He waded into the water with the broken, the guilty, and those who felt far from God. This was a foreshadowing of what he would do in his ministry, when he befriended sinners and tax collectors, and ultimately when he died on the cross.
I’m reminded of Joan Osborne’s 1995 song, "One of Us," that famously asked, “What if God was one of us/Just a slob like one of us.” When Jesus stepped in to the Jordan River to be baptized, he was "just a slob like one of us." He was showing himself to be the “Son of Man,” a phrase that appears eighty-one times in the Gospels to describe Jesus.
But even as he showed himself to be the Son of Man, the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and he heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). He was not only the Son of Man. He was the beloved Son of God.
Jesus was called "Beloved" by the Father. The Greek word is agapetos and it is a term of great affection. I think of the love I have for my daughters and my wife, who are beloved to me. The apostles came to use the word as a way of addressing their fellow Christians. Again and again in the letters of the New Testament the apostles address Christians as “Beloved.” Who are they beloved by? They, and we, are beloved by God.
We believe that in our baptism God claims us as his beloved children, just as he did with Jesus, his only begotten Son. When we remember our baptisms we remember our identity, and we remember that God has a deep affection for all of us. We are God's beloved children.
As you reflect upon Jesus’ baptism, remember his humility in choosing to identify with broken and sinful people. Remember the Father's claim, in his baptism, that Jesus was his beloved son. But pause for a moment to remember your own baptism. Remember that God has claimed you as his beloved child.
Jesus, thank you for identifying with our human brokenness—that we might identify with your divine sonship. Help me to believe that I really am one of the Father’s beloved. Amen.