As you know, I do a fair amount of reading before I start preparing my sermon in earnest, as I should! This week, I’m reading through commentaries--- that is, research and comments by other theologians like us. Note, I say like us. That’s because everyone who has any concept of God whatsoever, is a theologian.
So, I am reading through commentaries from various theologians. It is obvious there is a sticking point for many of them. It regards Jesus’ baptism: They want to know, “Why did Jesus submit to being baptized?! Jesus is the Son of Man, as he referred to himself—he is God’s chosen one, the Messiah. Why would he come to the Jordan River to be cleansed of his sins?” That’s what some of them are wondering. Now here I will admit that Jesus’ baptism really never bothered me, personally, but maybe you find it a sticking point, too. You are in good company.
So, I thought I would start off today’s discussion by talking about what I hope is not too dreary a topic—baptisms in 1st century BC Judaism. Right away, you may be shifting in your pew, wondering if you can take a nap until the hymn. You have concluded already that I have dug up a seminary thesis paper to read to you--but no. I promise, I haven’t. Let me give you the topic title one more time: Baptisms in 1st Century BC Judaism. Hello! Doesn’t that sound wrong to you? I hope you are thinking, “Wait a minute, Jewish people don’t baptize.”
You would be right, of course. But the Jews DID have a tradition/a practice, in first Century BC –which has been carried down to the present day. It is eerily similar to what we Christians call baptism. In the Jewish tradition, it is called a mikvah. A mikvah is a purification rite and it involves water. In fact, looking through some pics on different websites this week, I learned that ancient synagogues and even some modern day synagogues, are fitted with mikvah pools. These look for all the world like the Baptist pools, or baptistries used in Baptist Churches. Isn’t that something?
The Jewish practice comes right out of scripture. When we read our Old Testament, we find out that way back in early Judaism, Jewish priests engaged in ritual baths. They did that before entering the Holy of Holies at the temple. They did that to ceremonially, at least, wash off their sins before stepping into God’s chamber and standing in God’s presence.
But in the first Century, BC, that’s 200 years before Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River, the practice began to be more widespread. So, ordinary men and women, as opposed to just priests, began engaging in mikvahs. A man might do that, say, after he made love to his wife. A woman might do that after childbirth.
As all things religious, there were certain rules concerning your mikvah. You had to use the right kind of water—river water is good, pond water is bad. --The Jews also had rules concering the size of the synagogue pool or tub. I thought this was weird, it has nothing at all to do with this sermon, but I just had to share it. The tub or pool, had to be big enough to hold 144 eggs!
Can you imagine? On a Friday night, you would be sitting in your synagogue pew with your worship bulletin (ok, I’m not sure those synagogues actually had pews, and I know for certain they didn’t have bulletins—so just humor me here). You read: Our synagogue breaks ground for its new mikvah in a week! Please remember to bring your eggs to worship next Friday night!
And then that next Friday night everyone is standing around the new mikvah, as a priest counts: “143, 144, we made it!”
What happened to those 144 eggs after? Was there a community egg fry? Maybe they all got together and played a round of that ancient word game, you know, Scramble?
I also found out this week that the present-day ritual practice of Jewish immersion, or again, mikvah, is used in Conversion Ceremonies. That is, when a Gentile decides to adopt the Jewish faith, he or she is dunked, immersed. Voila, out with the old faith and in with the new! Hey, who’s stealing what traditions from whom here?
All to say, John the Baptist didn’t invent baptism. The practice, if not the word, already existed in Judaism. He was just adopting it for his own purpose--which was to purify and ready souls for the in-breaking of God’s kingdom.
But all that background information still doesn’t answer the question that stymies some theologians anyway—They want to know: Why would Jesus need to be purified by submitting to a baptism or a mikvah, or whatever it is you call it? Wasn’t his soul already pure?
Plenty of theologians think that way. I’m not one of them, though. I believe that Jesus was divine AND human, I know that is really difficult to wrap our minds around. But if Jesus was perfect, how could he truly experience what it’s like to be human? Can you truly experience being human without suffering guilt, shame, or deep regret? Without having to admit to someone, “Gee, I messed up.” Without experiencing the relief and joy that comes when a loved one says, “You hurt me, but I forgive you?” That idea suggests that Jesus just floated through our world, never setting foot to ground.
Then, too. Isn’t it our sins, our faults, our misguided attempts at life, that grow us?
It’s our failures and the overcoming of our failures, that teach us important life lessons—lessons like hope, perseverance, humility, resilience.
Your addiction is ruining your health? You learn from that. You change your lifestyle; You had a failed marriage? You do some necessary introspection. You vow to change your ways before entering marriage number two. You have anger issues, so you’ve lost a lot of friends. You get help from a therapist, maybe, so you can begin to restore those friendships; You are a sloppy bookkeeper, you get pointers from a friend, or an accountant on how to be less sloppy. Finally, finally, you prevail! In the process, you become a better human being. It’s our failures, our weaknesses, our sins that challenge us—inspire us to do better.
My own image of Jesus? He’s a joyful, little dark-skinned man who smiled a lot and loved people. My version of Jesus, is like a young Desmond Tutu, actually. If Jesus got unduly angry, as he did at the temple money changers, if he cursed someone, “Get behind me Satan!” That’s ok by me. So, like the other Jews that day at the Jordan, he submitted to be ceremonial washed of his sins. But there is more.
Our Presbyterian faith tradition recognizes that baptism is primarily about joining a faith community. It was pounded into us in seminary: baptisms are supposed to take place during a worship service so that the meaning is clear. That’s because Baptisms are primarily about community, and when does a church community gather? When it worships. Baptisms are never done in private, so says our Presbyterian book of order.
Here I must make a confession. For a few years, I served as a volunteer chaplain at Martha Jefferson. One early morning, say, 2 or 3 am, I got a call from the hospital to come immediately. I met with a heart-broken young couple. We were in a hospital room. The wife had just given birth to two premature twins. The babies had died. They lay on the mother’s stomach, swaddled together, in a baby blanket. The couple wanted me to baptize their newborns. Although I don’t know exactly what their reasoning was, I suspect they wanted to make absolutely sure that the path was clear for their babies’ entry into heaven.
This was not the time or place to explain to them what I know to be true. That their two little boys were already embraced by a loving God because just like each of us, they were and are beloved children of God.
I baptized those infants in blatant violation of the Book of Order. I would do it again.
So with all of that behind us, let us actually turn to our scripture reading for today: I’m reading from Luke, chapter three, verse 18: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying….” That’s different from the other versions we have of Jesus’ baptism—in the others, Jesus is by himself, in the water, having just been baptized when, the holy spirit descends. Here, in Luke though, he’s on the river bank.
Let’s put ourselves at the Jordan River. There’s little, joyful dark-skinned Jesus, standing with some of his friends. You see him? He has just been baptized. Jesus has cast his lot with all those other people, sinners all, who are primed for the spiritual journey of their lives. Droplets of water hang from Jesus’ tunic, his hair, his beard. So, too, from the tunics, hair and beards of the other men. There are women and children at the river bank, too. The women are squeezing water from their hair. The children are tilting their heads, trying to get the river water out of their ears.
Those folks on Jordan’s riverbank, Jesus included, have become something of a unit, a community. They share the same experience, their baptism; they share the same expectation—that something awesome is about to happen. It is then that Jesus, who has been praying earnestly, receives the holy spirit. At that moment, he becomes the group’s leader and teacher. Ultimately, of course, he will also become their savior.
We who have been baptized, then? Probably as infants, when there was absolutely nothing yet to be washed of, except a dirty diaper. We were and still are symbolically part of that community, a community of wet believers at the river bank—a community that has been going strong for 2,000 years now. Amazing, don’t you think?
Like them, we too have been primed for a spiritual journey, and Jesus, who was human and is divine, is leading us, now and always. Believe it, it is true. Amen