This is the First Sunday after Epiphany, which means that the story is about the baptism of Jesus. This is the second of the three epiphanies that border this liturgical season. We begin on Epiphany with the wise men who saw the star. They were given an epiphany, a revelation about who this child really was – not the son of a poor girl and her husband who couldn’t find a room in the inn, but the savior of the world.
The first Sunday of the season and the last Sunday after Epiphany contain two revelations that also identify Jesus as God’s Son. We begin with the baptism and then we end with the transfiguration, that misty mountaintop experience.
What is interesting about Luke’s depiction of the event is that the baptism hardly figures in at all. The verses we skip serve to usher John the Baptist off the stage in favor of Jesus, who now begins his ministry. But after John’s bluster, the next thing we know is that the baptism had already taken place. We missed it. Ain’t that always the way? We come for the show, and by the time we got our seats, it had already happened. “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized . . .” Darn it!
You’d think that if Luke had a clue about the centuries of struggle the church has had about the detail of baptism, he might have spent a little more time with it. We don’t know if Jesus was immersed or sprinkled. We don’t know which liturgy John prefers, or if the vows that Jesus made were the same as the ones we make or not. We don’t know if John was properly credentialed or if Jesus followed the rules. We don’t know who signed the certificate. We need to know these things, don’t we?
Luke doesn’t seem to think so. “Jesus had also been baptized . . .” That’s the sum total of the description here. If Luke is saying that the methodology isn’t what is important, then what is? Why is Jesus even there in the first place? That’s the question that has puzzled biblical scholars since the beginnings of the church. John was preaching a baptism of repentance. But we know that Jesus was without sin. So, why would he need to be there? What’s going on here?
The other interesting thing is that the next verses in Luke’s third chapter are the genealogy of Jesus. Since the Gospel writers never do anything for the heck of it, we have to ask why is the list of Jesus’ earthly family tree following the story of his being claimed by his heavenly father?
Here is the leap I’m asking you to make with me this weekend: Jesus went to John to be baptized because he was entering into this messy world that we live in. All of us are born into a world not of our making – a world we can barely understand at the best of times, a world we cannot explain at the worst of times, a world that needs repentance, which is a corporate need as much as an individual one. Jesus strode into the river to be buried up to the neck in the sin of the world, and then to rise to the Spirit. He didn’t approve of the brokenness of this world, but he embraced it; he made it his, and he carried it with him, like a chip on the shoulder, like a pack on his back; he carried it all the way to the cross.
And what did he say, when he embraced all that is wrong in this life, all that is less than divine, less than holy? What words did he use to give meaning and understanding and explanation? He didn’t say a thing. Like us, he was silent. Did he want to speak? Or was the weight of the burden he accepted so heavy that even he was struck dumb? Like us, he was silent. So that he would know what we experience when we have no words to say in the face of death or worse.
There were words spoken in that moment, though. Words that echo in the silence of our moments even to this day. They weren’t his words or ours or any human words. They were God’s words, and they said simply, “I love you.” They were words of affirmation, not for deeds done or not done, but for being—just for being. "I love you" – words to hear in the midst of darkness, words to cling to in the midst of doubt. In the maelstrom of living and of dying, we hear and then—by grace—speak these words; they are all we have: “I love you.”